PODCASTS

‘The Letter’: Meeting the monster

Oct 18, 2022, 10:48 AM | Updated: 10:54 am
Ron and Sy Snarr, of Salt Lake City, pose for a photo on Aug. 19, after describing their relationsh...
Ron and Sy Snarr, of Salt Lake City, pose for a photo on Aug. 19, after describing their relationship today with Jorge Benvenuto, who murdered their son, Zachary Snarr, in August 1996. (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)
(Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

Editor’s note: This is the eighth and final episode in a series highlighting a KSL podcast series titled “The Letter.” It explores the many aspects of grief, the realities of reclaiming lives shattered by violence and the possibilities of forgiveness stemming from a 1996 Utah murder that veteran police detectives said was unlike any other they had ever investigated.

GUNNISON, Utah — Jorge Benvenuto sat alone in a prison cell in central Utah trying to put into words how he felt about killing a stranger when he was 19 years old.

He’d wanted to write to the family of Zachary Snarr for many years. He wanted to tell them how sorry he was that he’d shot and killed the 18-year-old he’d killed at Little Dell Reservoir on Aug. 28, 1996. He wanted to write a letter to Yvette Rodier, the 18-year-old who survived the shooting. But most people in his life advised against it.

For 17 years, Benvenuto sat in maximum security, mostly alone, while his family and friends went to school, got married, and started families. While they lived ordinary lives, he grappled with the extraordinary pain he’d caused to people he’d never met.

Jorge Benvenuto in 2007 photo. (Utah State Prison)

“I felt like I owed them at least an apology for what I had done,” he wrote in a letter to KSL. “But I thought that I didn’t have the words to do so, that I couldn’t articulate it the way I wanted to.”

He worried that his inability to express himself would make an apology seem insincere. Other people advised him against it. They said it would cause more harm than good, that he’d already hurt them enough and that he should just leave them alone.

And he agreed with all of that… But he also couldn’t shake the feeling that he should reach out. While he was in maximum security, he said he struggled, as many people do, with how the isolation creates “an even darker and more resentful mental state.”

“It hindered me from getting to the point in which I could contact them,” he said. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons it took me so long. I always found a reason to put it off for another day.”

He was also still struggling with his own mental health issues.

“I’ve spent so much of my life caught up in my own unresolved issues that I couldn’t see anything or anyone else and what they were going through,” he wrote.

He said he thought about Yvette and Zach every day. He regretted what he’d done. He regretted not getting help. He regretted not recognizing that he needed help.

Over the years, he wrote many letters to the Snarrs and Rodier. They all ended up in a garbage can. For a long time, it felt like there weren’t words that could express how he felt.

“They were never good enough,” he wrote. “What does one say to those one has hurt so much? But I kept feeling that it was something I had to do.”

So he kept writing them until he wrote the letter he ended up sending to his mom. She held it until Lianne Bell was able to make contact with the Snarrs through her cousin. While he waited, he thought about what might happen…At worst, he said, they’d reject it.

The best case scenario he imagined, “The Snarr family would say, ‘OK, you’ve said your peace, now never contact us again.”

But his letter set something in motion that no one saw coming.

Unexpected gifts

Instead of the expected silence or rejection, in January 2019, Benvenuto received a letter from Sy.

“It was not even a full page,” Sy Snarr, “but I just told him how much I appreciated his letter. And I told him that, like him, I had gone through a change too towards my feelings. And I said, ‘ want you to know that I have forgiven you. And I know that Zach has forgiven you 100%.’”

Ron Snarr sits for a portrait with his dog Otto as he looks at his sons’ graves at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Millcreek on Sunday, Aug. 28. Snarr’s sons, Levi and Zachary, are buried next to one another. (Ben B. Braun/Deseret News)

A couple of weeks later the Snarrs received another letter. This one was from Benvenuto’s mother, Nelida. Eventually, the three of them were exchanging letters – and phone calls -regularly.

From these letters, a friendship between the two families was born. The Snarrs’ affection for the Benvenutos deepened, and a little more than a year after that first letter arrived, Sy Snarr and Jorge Benvenuto met face-to-face at the Central Utah Correctional Facility.

Sy’s friend, Dru Weggland Clark, watched as her friend embraced the man who killed her son.

“And I was standing behind Sy, and he said, ‘I’m so sorry I took him from you.’ And Sy said, ‘I know you are.’

Weggland Clark watched a two-hour conversation between Sy and Jorge, and she said a physical change came over her friend.

“She was radiant,” Weggland Clark said. “The bluest eyes – I mean, I’ve been with her all morning, all of a sudden her blouse took on this radiant, she was glowing. She expressed her… beyond forgiveness, the redemption for Jorge.”

That meeting, their growing friendship, it led to something else – something even more unexpected about 10 months after that meeting.

The Snarrs invited Benvenuto’s former defense attorney Mark Moffat to their house. They shared how their lives had been transformed by the letter and how they now spoke weekly on the phone, as well as continued to exchange letters regularly.

And then, Sy said, “I so want him to have another chance. I just believe in second chances. I think everybody deserves a second chance.”

Moffat, who’d visited the Snarrs hoping to enlist their help in a legislative effort to repeal the death penalty in Utah, said he listened in awe to the Snarrs’ story.

And then Sy makes a suggestion that Moffat still can’t quite believe.

Zach Snarr (Family photo) Zachary Snarr’s headstone is surrounded by flowers at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Millcreek on Sunday, Aug. 28. Zachary's parents, who use to own a gardening company that he worked for, maintains both his and his brother Levi’s headstone. Ron Snarr said both boys loved flowers. (Ben B. Braun/Deseret News)

“I just said, ‘I wish I could get him out of there,’” Sy said. “And he said, ‘Do you really feel that way?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ And he said, ‘Well, there are some things you could do. Let me check into it.’ And I was so excited.”

Moffat said the meeting is one of the most moving he’s had in his life.

“It’s one of the most profound experiences that I’ve had as a lawyer,” he said. “It’s emotional for me.”

While Sy Snarr said she isn’t sure what the future will hold, including whether or not it’s possible to petition for a change to Benvenuto’s life sentence, she’s certain of one thing. She wants the healing – for all involved – to continue.

“And we don’t want them to suffer anymore,” Sy said of the Benvenuto family. “We love them. I mean, we literally love this family. They’re our family now.”

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‘The Letter’: Meeting the monster