She Saw Her Family Murdered by a Hammer-Wielding Stranger When She Was 3. Now She's Speaking Out

Vanessa Bennett's harrowing story is featured on next Monday's episode of People Magazine Investigates on Investigation Discovery and discovery+, and in this week's issue of PEOPLE

Bruce and Debra Bennett and their two daughters Melissa and Vanessa

The blows came hard and fast in the middle of the night.

Sneaking into unlocked garages, the intruder crept down quiet hallways and up the stairs into unwitting victims' bedrooms, where he stood over them — his face shrouded in darkness — before bludgeoning them with a hammer or some other hard object.

Some survived the Colorado hammer killer's barbaric attacks. Others did not.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 16, 1984, three members of the Bennett family of Aurora, Colo. — Bruce, 27, his wife, Debra, 26, and their daughter, Melissa, 7 — were among those killed when the hammer killer, later identified as Alex Ewing, beat them to death.

Bruce confronted the wild-eyed man at the top of the staircase, fighting him so hard they rolled down the steps, breaking spindles in the staircase.

Bruce was no match for Ewing, who bashed the young father's head in with a hammer before slashing his throat with a butcher knife from the kitchen. Ascending the bloody stairs, Ewing sexually assaulted Debra and the girls and beat them with the hammer.

Only one of the members of the close-knit family survived: the couple's youngest daughter, Vanessa, who was just 3 years old when Ewing attacked her with the hammer, shattering her jaw, skull, arms and legs.

Colorado Hammer Killer

For more on Vanessa Bennett's harrowing story of survival and hope, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

Vanessa was found that morning wedged between her bed and the wall, covered in blood, unconscious from the hammer hits, but somehow clinging to life. As the sole survivor of the horrifying home invasion, the once bright-eyed little girl was now alone in the world, forced to grow up without her mother, father or sister.

"There's no fixing what he took from me," Vanessa says in this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Her story is also featured in the Monday, July 11, episode of People Magazine Investigates, airing at 9 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery and discovery+. Titled "The Colorado Hammer Killer," the episode takes an in-depth look inside the case and how authorities finally brought Ewing to justice. (An exclusive clip is shown below.)

Unbeknownst to Vanessa and others at the time, she and her family were the victims of one of the most vicious serial killers ever to prey upon Colorado residents.

Over a span of 12 terrifying days in January 1984, Ewing committed four attacks in the metro Denver area: three in Aurora, when he attacked Jim and Kim Haubenschild, and Donna Holm, who survived, as well as the Bennetts; and one in nearby Lakewood, where he killed interior designer Patricia Smith, 50.

Colorado Hammer Killer
Vanessa Bennett. Courtesy Vanessa Bennett

Ewing's violent spree continued 11 days later in Arizona when he attacked Roy Williams with a rock as he lay sleeping in his Kingman home. It finally ended on Aug. 9, 1984, in Nevada, where he was arrested for attempted murder for attacking Nancy and Chris Barry in Henderson with an ax handle.

Authorities weren't sure they had a serial killer on their hands until 2018, when DNA evidence surfaced tying Ewing — already in prison serving a 40-year sentence in Nevada for attacking the Henderson couple — to the Bennett and Smith murders.

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up forPEOPLE's free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.

Convicted in 2021 for the Bennetts' murders and in 2022 for killing Smith, Ewing, 61, is serving four consecutive life sentences.

Vanessa survived but says she feels like she has been sentenced to a lifetime of pain — both emotionally and physically — as she still tries to make sense of the chaos that left her scarred at such a young age.

Colorado Hammer Killer
Vanessa Bennett and her older sister Melissa. Courtesy Vanessa Bennett

"I was suicidal a lot" starting at age 17, she tells PEOPLE.

Over the years she struggled with homelessness and drug addiction as she fought to escape the trauma that has plagued her since she was a little girl.

These days, Vanessa is on her way to healing. When she turned 30, she says she made a vow to herself "to stop being a victim."

In the past few years, she has gotten clean. She moved into a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, Frankie Willard, 39, and their cat.

Having spoken about her ordeal around the country, she hopes to one day finish getting her college degree and becoming a drug counselor.

Even though Vanessa's journey has been much harder than most, she now knows she can get through anything. "I am unbreakable," she says. "I am a survivor."

As for Ewing, she says, "He is a coward."

See more on the murders of the Bennetts and Alex Ewing's other crimes on People Magazine Investigates ("The Colorado Hammer Killer"), airing Monday, July 11 at 9 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery and also streaming on discovery+.

Related Articles