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A Question of Guilt

When Taunja Bennett was killed in 1990, Portland, Ore., prosecutor Jim McIntyre thought he had a rock-solid case against Laverne Pavinac and John Sosnovske. Then someone started writing anonymous letters claiming credit for the murder.

September 01, 1996|BARRY SIEGEL | Barry Siegel is a Times national correspondent. His last piece for the magazine was on a U.S. Forest Service ranger who was the target of a bombing in a dispute over land rights

Jim McIntyre winced, for he'd heard this song before. We've received some reports, his boss, the Multnomah County district attorney, was murmuring on his voice mail. Reports about two anonymous letters. The courthouse got one, the Oregonian another. Whoever wrote them is claiming credit for several murders. Whoever wrote them says he killed Taunja Bennett.

McIntyre stared out his office window at a steady rain. From where he sat, he could see the radiant bronze statue of a woman, perched gracefully on a terrace by the Portland City Hall. Holding a trident, she stood bent over, with one hand cupped. Portlandia, they called this symbol of the town. To McIntyre, it looked as if she were playing craps. He'd always wanted to hang big fake dice from her hand.

McIntyre was not in a good mood. Down the street, on this dreary morning in early May 1994, his divorce trial had just started. He'd been avoiding that event for two years, ever since the separation. It was as ugly as ugly could be, every detail bitterly contested. He'd probably get what he most wanted, custody of their three young children. In exchange, she'd get everything else.

Before him, a jumble of letters and documents spilled across his desk. At home, the disarray looked even worse. He already had the kids much of the time. At 39, he folded laundry and washed dishes most nights now, rather than join colleagues for drinks in downtown Portland. He wrote checks to orthodontists, rather than fix his busted fishing boat motor.

Same old bull, McIntyre thought. That's what his boss Mike Schrunk's message was about. He knew nothing about these anonymous letters, but he knew all he wanted about the Taunja Bennett murder. He'd been lead prosecutor on that case; he'd put two people in prison for killing that young woman. In January 1991, a jury had convicted Laverne Pavlinac of felony homicide; two months later, her boyfriend, John Sosnovske, had pleaded no contest to the same charge. Both were serving life sentences.

At the trial, McIntyre had gone up against Wendell Birkland, one of Oregon's top criminal defense attorneys. There'd been lots of press attention, all sorts of bizarre elements. Most of all Laverne Pavlinac's confession. First to the cops, then to her own daughter. She'd later recanted, as they often do, but that hadn't stopped McIntyre from using her tearful admission. After Wendell Birkland finished his elaborate seven-hour closing argument, McIntyre punched the button on his tape recorder, and once more replayed her words.

"I didn't plan to kill her . . . " Pavlinac could be heard sobbing throughout the courtroom. "I didn't mean to . . . I feel like it's my fault . . . ."

When the tape ended, McIntyre rose and pointed at Pavlinac. "You listen to those words and that emotion," he told the jurors, "and you will look at Laverne Pavlinac and see the face of a murderer."

He'd spoken that day with certitude. It was, to him, familiar territory: You take a stand, or else you never get anything done. You fix on your theory, you argue your vision, the jury decides what's true. Hardheaded, volatile, a pit bull, but honorable and conscientious--that was McIntyre's professional reputation. The Bennett case was one of five murder prosecutions he handled in 1991.

Could he have made a monstrous mistake? Could he have put the wrong people in jail? No way, McIntyre thought. No way.

"Tell me Mac," Schrunk's voice was asking. "What are these letters about?"

Someone in the Pavlinac family must have written them. A relative, or a friend of a friend. What a hassle, what an irritation. He was one of Schrunk's top lieutenants, a senior deputy district attorney in charge of the violent crimes unit. He preferred to savor triumphs, not second-guess them.

Still, people were asking questions. Mike Schrunk was asking questions. They would have to look into this. They couldn't blow this off.

McIntyre punched a button on his phone. "I don't know what those letters are about," he told his boss. "I'll check it out."

*

It had never been an obvious or uncomplicated murder case, but then, few are. It started in late January 1990 with the body of an unidentified female, found strangled in the brush off an isolated road in the Columbia Gorge. Schrunk put McIntyre on it right away, gave him Keith Meisenheimer as his second-chair prosecutor. In mid-February, the case's two lead investigators, Al Corson and John Ingram, came to brief them.

The detectives sat before the prosecutors, appearing tentative but pleased with themselves. By then, they'd identified the victim as Taunja Bennett, 23, a mildly retarded and emotionally disturbed regular on the local tavern scene. They'd also fixed on a suspect. "Guy named John Sosnovske," Corson declared.

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