How A Witness Derailed The Hunt For A Killer: Laverne Pavlinac

Taunja Bennett, 23 years old.

Currently Netflix are running a season of Catching Killers. This is a great documentary format that interviews the cops that were involved in notable cases. Many now are getting on in years yet their insights give us a behind the scenes view of the big picture that was their day to day.

In the first of these they look at the hunt for The Green River Killer. This turned out to be a nonsense creature called Gary Ridgeway. Ridgeway killed sex workers and others that had slipped through the cracks in our society. The total in the end was 49. All were killed in the state of Washington in the USA. The lead investigator and others on the team take us from the first murders to the point when Ridgeway was put away for good.

The second case was not thought a series of murders at the time. It was a single brutal killing. 23 year old Taunja Bennett had been at a bar in Multnomah County, Oregon. During the night she had been playing pool and having a good time. Her body was found dumped off a road into bushes. This was in January 1990. Multnomah is a area which is part of the greater Portland-Vancouver region and the terrain is what you would expect. When it is dark it is very dark, when it is light it displays stunning scenery and ample woodland. Both of  these elements allow free movement of good and bad people without much observation.

Taunja Bennett, 23 years old.

The cops had some problems identifying the body as Ms Bennett had suffered strangulation and severe beating. When they did get an ID they then went about the business of tracing her movements. This led to the patrons of a bar called the JB Lounge. She had last been seen on 23rd January 1990. She was a happy person apparently. I noticed in particular the description of her hugging strangers as they came in. Maybe she thought everyone was her friend.

A call came in identifying a suspect. John Sosnovske was 39 years of age and was described as an alcoholic with violent tendencies.  The informant turned out to be Sosnovske’s girlfriend, 58 year old Laverne Pavlinac. She was very co-operative with the police. She claimed to be scared of her boyfriend. She talked of him being violent during sex and having a thing about knotting rope.

Pavlinac and Sosnovske

Cops interviewed Sosnovske and as time went on Pavlinac provided more and more information. Finally, she gave an account where Sosnovske had selected Ms Bennett as a victim and influenced Pavlinac to help him. The detail she gave included evidence she had created and in the account of the murder she admitted pulling on a rope that ended Ms Bennett’s life. As you might have guessed the big problem was Pavlinac was making the whole thing up.

This woman literally implicated herself in a murder and put herself right in the centre of it when she and Sosnovske had had nothing to do with it. Worse Sosnovske gave an account indicating someone he knew had killed the victim. He placed himself in a car with Ms Bennett’s body after the fact.

None of it was true. In fact this poor young woman had been killed by a serial killer called Keith Hunter (AKA Jesperson). You can check out Hunter if you like. He was a huge nonsense creature who killed women because he was messed up by mum and dad or some other excuse he came out with later. His type do not interest me much. They seem to be like clones of one another. They select weak people and go after them. Most are as dumb as bricks but are lucky for a bit. Others are clever though they are messed up, inadequate killers wrapped in a ball of cruelty and sordid obsession. It is hardly the sort of clever I can respect.

My issue is with witnesses. I highlight this point in the case of Roy Tutill. In most situations witnesses are well meaning. Occasionally they are spot on. At other times they do what Pavlinac did. She is fantastic example of why we should be so careful theorising about murders online.

She played the victim. The intimidated girlfriend. Maybe Sosnovske was a nasty guy, equally he might not have been. He was an ex army vet from the Vietnam war and otherwise I know nothing about him. Pavlinac died in 2003, but I would not take her word for what the weather was doing outside if she was still breathing. Pavlinac gave several accounts, she used newspaper photos to direct the cops to where the body had been dumped and concocted the whole thing.

When we look at cases and give our view Pavlinac should come to mind.

She and Sosnovske spent over five years in prison before Hunter pushed the cops to accept he had killed Ms Bennett. The view is that he was not happy about these others taking ‘credit’ for the murder. Maybe that was true. He demonstrated that he was her murderer by directing cops to where he had ditched her purse and contents. These items had disappeared that night and were found a distance away. Only the killer could have known about this and where they were. Certainly Pavlinac and Sosnovske had not been able to say what had happened to the items.

Hunter had killed Ms Bennett after meeting her and taking her back to his home nearby. The terrible thing is Hunter went on to kill seven more women.

Applying The Pavlinac Effect  To Online Investigation

I’m going to coin the phrase and use it every time I start thinking through an unsolved case. When a witness, even one that implicates themselves, gives slam dunk evidence I’m going to apply thought to the Pavlinac effect. As you might know I see witness evidence as essential to criminal prosecutions, but I place it way down at the bottom of a list of the best evidence.

In some ways this brings to mind the unsolved murder of Sophie Tuscan Du Plantier in Ireland. There a person gave detailed evidence about seeing a suspect. She named him and claimed he had been intimidating her. She was the star witness. Later she told a court she had made the lot up. Though many believe she had become scared and tired of the very long investigation, a stark fact remains. Time was lost and focus was altered by her testimony.

In Pavlinac’s case she is described as a person who so wanted rid of a bad boyfriend she made the lot up. She would rather have been in prison than outside with him. That is one possibility. I also suggest it may have had an element of something similar to Munchhausen’s. That condition is one where the illness a person claims to have is concocted because of the fuzzy feeling they get from the sympathy of others. It can lead to illnesses being claimed for children or others around them. This is called Munchhausen’s by proxy.

Was Pavlinac at first looking to get rid of a boyfriend? Once she found pliant and sympathetic detectives did she then revel in the central character role she had created for herself?  If you watch the documentary you might find grounds to agree with me.

Far from being a person I can feel sorry for, Pavlinac ( and to a lesser extent Sosnovske) became a focus and as a result Hunter was left to go on killing. The detectives investigating the murder of Ms Bennett, at least the one on the TV, I would not ask to check if the front door is locked. Left to them it is quite possible Hunter would have got away regardless. We will never know. What I can say is Pavlinac epitomises why we should be wary of witnesses. She shows how witnesses can send an investigation so far off a killer gets to kill again.

Do you know of other situations where witnesses have deliberately placed themselves in court for a murder they did not commit and allowed a serial killer to kill more?

Take Care

Tim

NB: I have seen two dates for the murder of Ms Bennett, 21st and 23rd of January. I went with the most mentioned.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laverne_Pavlinac

https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=3654

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