Part III: Overcoming new and enduring challenges
Michelle Bennett remembers every detail of the day her daughter was murdered by her boyfriend. Amanda Bennett died in her home from a gunshot wound to the back of her head. After shooting Amanda, her boyfriend, Matthew Dunkleberger, a Richland Township deputy sheriff, shot himself and died about an hour later at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown. Amanda died instantly.
Michelle Bennett’s daughter would have turned 21 in eight days. All her daughter wanted was to go to the casino for her birthday. Her mother was thrilled with setting up the adventure for the two of them.
That was nearly two years ago. Michelle Bennett doesn’t smile or laugh much anymore. She spends time at her daughter’s gravesite and a memorial for families of homicide victims. She has found solace in the annual gathering of those with a similar loss in their lives.
Bennett’s daughter was at work earlier that day. She got called into her other job early. She drove to her mother’s house a few minutes away from her home in Richland Township and asked if her parents could keep the boys overnight. The answer, as always, was yes.
“She came and kissed the boys, left and went home,” her mother said.
Dunkleberger was with Amanda at their home. He was the father of Amanda’s youngest son, who was 2 at the time.
“About an hour of being home she called me and asked if I could get her dad to pick her up,” Bennett said. “I asked why. and she said, ‘Matt is drunk and he is fighting with me.’ and I said ‘OK.’ We were on the phone talking some and I said, ‘What is going on?’ and she said, ‘I’ll explain when I get there.’
“I was getting my husband to go and pick her up and in the process of doing that Matt had shot her while I was on the phone with her. I never heard it. I just thought she hung up on me.”
Her husband took off and found the couple minutes after the shooting.
“I still drive by her house,” Amanda’s mother said. ”Someone else is living there. I’d like to live there and be there. Because that was the last place she was alive.”
Pulling back from the brink
Sitting on one of the benches at the memorial in Greenhouse Park in Conemaugh Township, Bennett shivers in the wind and discusses her struggles with pain, a lack of sleep and emptiness. She speaks of the hope she feels when she watches her grandchildren playing.
The memorial and the annual gathering were organized by Tracey Cook, senior counselor and homicide intervention specialist at Victim Services.
“Tracey Cook literally saved my life,” Bennett said. She was seriously contemplating suicide when she turned to Cook.
Right after the murder-suicide, the Bennetts went to Cook at Victim Services to get help with funeral costs. Cook is victim compensation coordinator for the nonprofit.
“We went and saw her and she offered counseling, and at the time I said, ‘I’ll be OK,’” Bennett said. “I went through a really, really bad spell and I started drinking more. That was my way of coping. My husband and I weren’t getting along. He left me in December. I had finally hit rock bottom. I went on a week drinking binge to the point I didn’t know who I was. I was so sick. I said I can’t do this.”
She decided to take her own life. In her desperation, she reached out to Cook again.
Bennett and her husband got back together in April. She and her husband are raising Amanda and Matt’s son, but Amanda’s older son is with his father. Bennett is fighting for custody. She believes the boys need to be together.
Like so many who have lost loved ones to violence, Bennett said she is always combating the voice in her head asking why.
She has three sons and had Amanda. She and her daughter had “an incredible bond,” she said. “Not a day in that girl’s life that I was not with her. We had a special relationship. I hold onto that.”
In 2016-17, Pennsylvania sexual assault centers provided services to 13,068 adult victims, 7,640 child victims and 10,734 parents and partners.
A spike in homicides galvanized Cook to push for the memorial at Greenhouse Park for families of homicide victims. Conemaugh Township donated the land. The community placed benches and plaques honoring victims and planted trees in honor of those lost lives.
Every year Cook oversees an event at the memorial that brings families and supporters together to remember the victims and to share their stories.
“We are always looking at growing and making things better and offering more resources,” she said. The services provided are paid for through grants and donations.
Helping abused children and their families
The child advocacy center is a place where children and families can come to receive services when there is an allegation of serious physical or sexual abuse, according to Sara Buterbaugh, Somerset center coordinator. Victim Services supports the endeavor. The group has a victim advocate based in the center.
“Basically, we meet with the families who come there for a interview, and we explain our role and offer services,” Cook said.
The nonprofit has a trained mental health therapist ready to provide services at the center once space is made available, she said.
Before the child advocacy center was created, children faced the prospect of having to tell their story to multiple individuals in multiple places.
The center changed that by bringing the child and family, service providers and investigators together in one location, Buterbaugh said.
“They are all getting the exact same information, and we’re initiating services for the child and family at that very first visit. So we have Victim Services here to provide the advocacy and counseling and support to the family from day one of the start of the investigation,” she said.
Whenever the children and the families arrive at the center, staff members and the victim advocate meet them at the door. The clients are given a tour of the center and shown the waiting room, the observation room and the interview room.
They are shown how the cameras work in the interview room and told there will be people watching them during the interview process.
“Once we start we have a team meeting so we’re all on the same page with sharing of information and so we all understand what is going on,” Buterbaugh said.
The advocates work mainly with children between the ages of 3 and 14. Most of the kids are under the age of 10.
The young age of the children is another reason why the advocacy center is a good place, Buterbaugh said.
There are allegations being made, but that does not mean that every child has been abused.
“We may have 10 children come in here and only three children provide credible information that an actual abusive crime occurred,” she said. “We can conduct the investigations and the interviews in a manner that they can be upheld in court. They are credible, fact-finding interviews.”
The center sees between 100 and 125 children annually.
Everyone is watching
A strong and vibrant service-oriented organization can never rest on its laurels, according to Cook.
She believes that the staff of Victim Services must be involved in all areas that have the potential to affect victims of sexual and violent crimes.
One of her proudest moments was when she was in the state capital at the signing into existence of the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate in 1995, something Victim Services supported.
Individuals are exploring ways to stop the abuse before it happens.
“It is helpful to have a system to assist people when they face such extreme emotional difficulty, but it would be even better if we had a social services network which could offer help to people before things happen,” said Somerset County Public Defender’s Office Director William Carroll.
The son of a serial sexual abuser of children, the Rev. Jimmy Hinton of the Somerset Church of Christ, is researching the issue and trying to come up with solutions.