The Velma Teague Library was fortunate to host Jana Bommersbach for the latest Authors @ The Teague program. Bommersbach is an award-winning journalist, and the author of the true crime book,
The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd. Now, she has a new true crime book, another one about a Phoenix murder, Bones in the Desert.
Bommersbach began the program by saying people ask her how a fun-loving, happy person like her could write about murders. She said she's fascinated by murders involving women. Her first book, The Trunk Murderess, is her beloved book, the love of her life. But, it came out in 1992, and it took her that long to find another book to write, a story that spoke to her.
Bones in the Desert is the story of Loretta
Bowersock, mother of Terri of Terri's Design and Consign. It was reported that Loretta died, then her boyfriend, Taw Benderly, said she disappeared. Loretta went missing, and then Taw killed himself, which was the final insult to the family. He left no note saying where Loretta's body was. It was an insult to everyone who loved Loretta.
This case became famous in Arizona. Terri was well-known, and anyone who knew Terri, knew her mother. People had a real sense of personal connection to them because of their TV commercials. They had a sense they knew someone who had been murdered. People felt grief for Terri, that she did not have a body to bury. There were lots of pieces of this case that upset people.
Bommersbach was in North Dakota with her own parents over Christmas when this crime happened. It was in January, after her return, that she heard Terri on TV talking about her mother missing in the desert. Jana immediately called Terri, and spent an hour talking to her on the phone. Terri was the first person Jana knew in her life who had a parent murdered. Bommersbach asked Terri if she could write about it, and what had been discovered. Terri said, oh you wouldn't believe what they had discovered.
Phoenix Magazine carried Bommersbach's first article about the crime, called "Where Is My Mother?" Thirteen months later, Loretta's body was found. Hundreds of people had searched the desert. Jana was so close to her own mother that this case disturbed her. A family doing rock hounding found Loretta's bones in the desert, and called the police, and waited. The autopsy and teeth revealed the body was Loretta's.
"He Buried My Mother By a Blue Motel" was the second story that ran in Phoenix. Psychics flocked to the story. Dozens of them were interested in helping Terri. Some were well-meaning; some helpful; some not. Terri was grasping for answers. The police said Taw was the suspect. He was dead, so they were satisfied, and walked away from the case. The police went on, and Terri was left on her own.
Psychics said they saw a lot of blue around Loretta. Bommersbach said anyone who knows the Arizona desert knows the desert "wears yellow and purple like school colors." There are different colors, but the only blue in the desert is the sky. When they finally found the body, it was near a hotel on I-8 on the road to San Diego. Jana said there must have been a sale on blue paint that year, because everything around the hotel was blue, including an old truck. Terri's brother was skeptical, saying psychics always pick a primary color. But, two police said one psychic was right on target. A New York agent liked the story, and contacted Bommersbach to see if she would develop it into a book.
Jana Bommersbach said Loretta's case was a classic case of elder abuse, and this was a way to tell the story of elder abuse. Phoenix, and Arizona, are #1 in a lot of bad things. But, they have the first and only shelter devoted to elder abuse in the nation. Doves Shelter was opened by the Area Agency on Aging. Terri operates a small shop with all profits going to Doves. When Bommersbach wrote a column about Doves, she met the local cops assigned to elder abuse. Only Phoenix and San Diego have units assigned to it. She discovered that elder abuse is very long term; it goes on for years, and it could be verbal, physical, emotional or sexual, or a combination. It can go on for years until something crashes, and the victim needs a break.
Loretta discovered the treachery of her boyfriend of eighteen years. She discovered the level of his exploitation. Loretta was professionally dressed that day, but with her shoes off, as so many people are who work at home. She tried to confront Taw and throw him out. They surmise she had a violent, angry response to his treachery because of the type of person she was. Both people are now dead who were involved. There is a thin line between abuse and murder. Taw crossed it when he put a bag around Loretta's head, and strangled her.
Jana Bommersbach's dream is that someone will read Bones in the Desert while barefoot, put on their shoes, and walk out the door. She wants them to read the book, and see there is a way out. Jana said it was a difficult book to write. She prayed for a different ending for it the entire time she wrote the book. Since then, she's heard from famous women in Phoenix who said they were in that situation, and got out. She did a recent signing with Terri, and someone bought 9 copies, saying she had sisters and friends who needed to read it.
Bommersbach said she wrote the book while she was in Brainard, Minnesota. She never spends summers in Arizona. But, two summers ago, in 2007, she found a house on a lake to rent. It was a wonderful summer. Her parents came, and celebrated her father's 85th birthday there. Her brothers both married, and honeymooned there. Jana's dad died the following spring, so she's grateful she had a magnificent summer with her family while she wrote the book. She finds it incongruous that she was writing about a family torn apart, while she had a magnificent summer with hers.
Bones in the Desert is doing extremely well. It was #21 on the list of bestselling crime books. Terri and Jana are trying to get on Oprah. Terri's been on before, as a successful businesswoman who was dyslexic. They're hoping that contact will help. Billie Jean King and Lily Tomlin both read the book. It's been well-received in Arizona. The publisher is printing another 4,000 copies. Jana said she's hoping people are buying and learning from it.
Jana was asked about her background, so she gave us her biography. She was born in Fargo, North Dakota on Dec. 5, 1945. She's a product of North Dakota, and the women's movement. She went to the University of North Dakota, and her first job after graduation was in urban Michigan, in Flint. She said she had a lot of growing up to do, and received quite an education living there. She was from a white community, where she didn't know any blacks, and hadn't lived in a city. She won her first national award while in Flint.
Bommersbach went to grad school for journalism at the University of Michigan. She was student body president, winning against a law school student. She discovered she didn't like politics, and she'd rather be a reporter reporting on politics than on the other side.
When she graduated, she had hoped to go east, and work for the Washington Post. But, it was hard to get a job, and she was offered a job at The Arizona Republic. So she drove out, and found Arizona was a weird place. She was a Democrat who had campaigned against Barry Goldwater. She met him, and came to love Goldwater. But, it was weird out here, and The Arizona Republic was a conservative paper. She asked herself what she was doing here. She finally decided they needed her her. She helped to organize a union. She finally left because she couldn't work for them anymore. She went to New Times, and worked there for twelve years, and was even owner for a while. In 1992, she wrote about Winnie Ruth Judd, and she left to write the book. She got an interview with Judd. She is proud that The Trunk Murderess was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best nonfiction that year.
Then, Bommersbach started a column for Phoenix Magazine. She's been writing that for fifteen years. She did commentary for Channel 3 for seven years at 7:15 AM, but had to get up at 4 AM, read three newspapers, and then go on at 7:15 to talk about three things that ticked her off that day. After 9/11, she was laid off at Channel 3. She still had her Phoenix Magazine job, and she did "Books and Company," for the local PBS station, Channel 8, for five or six seasons. Now, she's freelancing. She does a column for True West Magazine. Then this book, Bones in the Desertt, came along. She's still finding a way to pay the rent.
When asked if she'd ever write about the murder of Arizona Republic reporter, Don Bolles, Bommersbach said everyone expected her to write it. She got into the hospital that night with his wife, who heard Jana's voice in the hall, and insisted they let her in. Don was a good friend. But, she never covered the stories in 1976 when his car was blown up. In 1996, at New Times, she did a retrospective. They did a special report about the murder that opened up new avenues. But, the crime is so old that people have served time, and walked away. There are so many holes in the story, and Bommersbach said she doesn't know where else to look to write that book. But, the police tend to cling to a decision because they don't want to face reality. This case is always an open case. There have been twenty-five bad books about it, but she sees no reason to write about it until the case is solved.
Bommersbach was asked if Loretta was an unusual victim for this type of violence, and she said, no. Domestic violence happens all the time. That generation of women always had someone tell them what to do for their entire lives. The first time they were independent was when they were widowed. But, many of them felt it was better to have a bad man that to be alone.
She was asked if any family members suspected Loretta would be murdered, and she said no. Prior to the murder, one sister watched every episode of America's Most Wanted, thinking Taw would show up. He was nice, good-looking, a gourmet cook with a great voice. But, the family suspected he would bankrupt Loretta, not kill her.
Within hours of the death, psychics sought out Terri. Terri and her mother were estranged because of Taw, and they had just started getting together. Loretta fought with Terri over Taw. Terri had a tough time on various levels. Bommersbach said Terri was "Searching in death for a mother she'd already lost in life."
It was a pleasure to host Jana Bommersbach at the Velma Teague Library. She drew the largest crowd we have ever had for an Authors @ The Teague program. Bette Sharpe, our Programming Librarian, presented Jana with a thank you gift, the new Authors @ The Teague mug.
(Photo - Lesa Holstine, Jana Bommersbach, and Bette Sharpe - copyright Ed Sharpe, CouryGraph Productions)
Jana Bommersbach's website is www.janabommersbach.com
Bones in the Desert: The True Story of a Mother's Murder and a Daughter's Search by Jana Bommersbach, ©2008. St. Martin's True Crime, ©2008. ISBN 9780312947415 (paperback), 278p.
The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd by Jana Bommersbach, Poisoned Pen Press, published 2003, ISBN 9781590580646 (paperback), 280p.