DENVER (AP) — On a frigid January night in 1984, Kim Rice woke to a flash of pain and sat up in bed to see a stranger’s silhouette, his arm raised to strike another blow with a hammer.
She screamed, and the stranger threw the hammer at her and fled. Rice’s then-husband, in bed beside her, had been attacked, too. Despite suffering a skull fracture, he chased after the intruder, racing out into the snow to try to follow the stranger’s footsteps.
Inside their Aurora home, there was blood on the walls, the mirror, the curtains, the ceiling. It was wet on Rice’s face as she called 911.
The home invasion was the first of four attacks during a 12-day spree by the so-called “Hammer Killer” in January 1984 that ended with the slaughter of three members of the Bennett family in Aurora.
Police believed one attacker was responsible, but they didn’t identify a suspect for nearly four decades. By the time DNA tied 61-year-old Alex Ewing to the spree, it was too late for authorities to prosecute him for the assault on Rice and her now ex-husband.
The statute of limitations, which sets the deadline by which a crime must be prosecuted, had passed. Rice’s case would never go to court.
But there’s no statute of limitations on murder, and when Ewing stood trial this summer for killing the Bennett family, Rice was there. She sought some sort of closure, some vicarious justice.
She stared at Ewing as he sat shackled to the floor. Prosecutors believed he was the man who’d smashed a hammer into her head, the man who’d given her a concussion in her own bed, but she harbored some doubt.
“I wanted to go because I was still looking for some truth to the fact that this was tied in,” said Rice, who still lives in Colorado.
— Long road to justice
Five days after Rice was attacked, someone bludgeoned and raped a 28-year-old woman in Aurora after she pulled into her garage. The day after that, 50-year-old Patricia Smith was killed with a hammer at her home in Lakewood.
Then five days later, 27-year-old Bruce Bennett, 26-year-old Debra Bennett and their daughter, 7-year-old Melissa Bennett, were killed by an attacker wielding a hammer. Melissa’s 3-year-old sister was brutally attacked but survived.
“It wasn’t until the Bennetts that they started to tie all this together,” Rice said.
Police realized the attacks followed a similar pattern. For both Rice and the Bennetts, investigators believed the suspect entered through an open garage door.
As authorities realized the connections, the media descended, Rice said. Reporters came to her house, reported on Rice and her then-husband’s trip to a gun store. The case riveted the region.
“What was scary is they showed our address and our house and everything on the TV, and we had two copycat, two attempted break-ins,” she said.
But after a rush of initial activity and significant investigation, the case went quiet. There were no more attacks, no suspects.
After her assault, Rice was shaky and frightened. She tried to avoid her garage. She’d park in it and race into the house. She easily became afraid, sometimes just by driving home alone at night. She suffered migraines that started at the site of the hammer’s blow, at the scar on the top of her head.
“Years would pass where I wouldn’t think about it, and then something would happen to remind me of it,” she said. “I would get pretty shaky, I would lose sleep over it.”
She became consumed with ensuring her garage door was locked. If she spotted any home with an open garage door, she’d go knock on the front door and tell the residents to close it.
She still does that today.
“It was just one of those things where, if my door had been closed, he wouldn’t have chosen us,” she said.
Over time, Rice convinced herself that the attacker was dead. So it was a shock when, in 2018, investigators called her into a meeting and told her that they believed the man who attacked her was alive, and in prison. That he’d be charged with murder.
“I didn’t expect it to come to anything after all these years,” she said.
And in some ways, for Rice, it didn’t — the statute of limitations had expired, so there was nothing prosecutors could do about her case, which Rice said she understood.
The current statute of limitations on most felony cases in Colorado is three years, although the time allowed for prosecution is much longer for some charges, like sexual assault, which has a 20-year window. The statute of limitations on sex assault charges was doubled in 2016 amid the claims against Bill Cosby, after women spoke up about why it took them years to report the alleged assaults.
Ray Harlan, chairman of the nonprofit Colorado Victims for Justice, said lawmakers should consider revisiting the statute of limitations on other charges, too, pointing out that it’s easier today to preserve evidence than in the past.
“The rules about statutes of limitations were written in an era with totally different technology,” he said. “… Historically, evidence rooms and evidence lockers would only hold so much stuff, and eventually you had to get rid of the things least likely to ever be used. So you get rid of plaster casts of tire tracks and footprints — but what if you scan those plaster casts and put them in a server? Then they last forever.”
— Judgment day
Rice attended the murder trial for the Bennett family in July with some trepidation. She wasn’t sure she belonged there. It wasn’t her case.
But she soon found she shared a connection with the Bennett family’s relatives, who welcomed her, even insisting she join them for lunch at times during the lengthy trial.
“It’s a camaraderie, you know, that you don’t want to have,” she said. “But at least it gives you some warm feeling, because the people in my life, you know, they didn’t know what was going on there.”
As the trial wore on, Rice became certain that Ewing was responsible for her own attack as well as the Bennetts’ killings. After Ewing was convicted of their murders, she wrote the judge a victim impact statement. At sentencing, Ewing’s defense attorney objected — she was not a victim in this case, he said, and so should not be allowed to submit a statement.
District Judge Darren Vahle dismissed the concern.
“I saw the judge smile and he looked right at me, and I just felt this inclusiveness,” Rice said.
When Vahle went on to sentence Ewing to three life sentences, calling Ewing an “abomination” who inflicted an “unspeakable orgy of violence” on the community, Rice found her closure. The judge said everything she wanted to say. She left the courtroom in tears.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking good, bad or indifferent, I was just trying to get control.”
A weight had been lifted, she said. And although Ewing is set to stand trial in Jefferson County in the killing of Patricia Smith in October, Rice has no intention of attending that trial. She’s ready to be done, to put it all to rest.
“I can honestly say,” she said, “I’ve never slept quite as good.”