A story, like a life, does not end but goes on and on like a river.
But people need ends. They need things neatly wrapped and tied. In the case of Robert Glenn Bennett, they need closure. They need to know what happened. Where he disappeared to. So here is an end, but it must be understood that it’s really just a beginning.
Two adults and four kids enter the woods south of Washington. They’re on an autumnal hike, taking in the changing colors, the coolness in the shadows, the birdsong. The mother, Janice Radford, poses her children on a log. She snaps the shutter on what will become the iconic image of this tale, and they march off again. Her daughter points to something beneath a tree and asks what it is. Something to do with hunting, Radford says. Something camouflaged. On they go, but Radford turns and looks back.
“I think he wanted me to find him,” she says later. “It was like he kept trying to point himself out to me but not to the kids. First the picture taking. Then walking by him and still not seeing, and then it’s like he told my daughter to tell me. It was like he was saying, ‘Look, here I am. I want to be found after all.’”
She sets the photo on her work desk. It’s a typical family shot except that the tree behind her daughter has a faint blue-green thread looped around a fork. A small dark lump rests against the bottom of the trunk, obscured by her daughter’s smiling face.
“If my daughter wasn’t there you could see him,” she says.
The discovery of Bennett’s body on Nov. 11 brought to a close the longest search for a missing person in recent local history. “Other than on rare occasions when someone goes missing for a few hours, usually an elderly person, I can’t remember anything like this happening in the county,” said Washington County Sheriff Bill Overbeck.
Bennett was reported missing on Aug. 2 by his father, Robert S. Bennett.
Overbeck’s reaction to the news mirrored that of many others, and not just that of the family. “I was relieved,” he said. “Then I was disappointed.”
His disappointment had more to do with a young couple finding the body and how close the search had come to finding him, but he was not alone in his feelings. It’s one thing to believe the rain-swollen waters of Mill Creek swept him away, as most did, and another to learn he died at his own hand. But to those who knew him best, it wasn’t at all improbable. Indeed, it was almost surprising that he made it as far as he did.
After the funeral, his mother, Margarette Bennett, reminded her husband of something she’d said 25 years before: “Robert will die young and at his own hand.”
It might not have happened if events had transpired differently. If his vehicle hadn’t broken down 1,200 miles from home. If he hadn’t left home under such circumstances. If he hadn’t been so alone.
“This was the only door open,” said his wife, Judy Burkett. “I don’t feel he had a choice.”
Robert Bennett, 46, Hazel Green, Al., was born in Ft. Benning, Ga., lived six years in Germany and thereafter moved frequently. He received straight A’s in college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Control hired him as a software engineer, a contract position that left him time to pursue his interests. He was a bookworm, a pilot, a scuba diver, a dancer, and, near the end of his life, a freelance photographer. He enjoyed exploring caves and once swam in manatees off the coast of Florida. He was, his mother said, “an adventurer.”
He was also manic depressive.
A marriage lasted seven years and collapsed when his wife left him.
Treatment did little to help him and medication left him feeling empty, a friend recalled. Sometimes he was irrational, obsessed with fiscal debt, government spending, things he had no control over. He would leave for days or weeks or pace the floor all night—he called it “working,” part of his spiritual journey. After dabbling in square dancing, he progressed to contra dancing, a traditional early Americana form of English country dances. Contra dancing did something no other hobby could do: it drew him out of his self-imposed shell.
In contra dances, dancers form a parallel line and join together to live music, usually reels or jigs. Eye contact is encouraged, partially to keep tabs on your partner’s next move. By the end of the evening it’s likely every dancer has danced with every other dancer at least once.
“Bob was an introvert,” Burkett said. “Dancing gave him a reason to meet people.”
More than that, it was a chance to meet happy people. “You never see mad people dance,” Burkett says. “Dancing gave him happiness and pleasure. It was a positive experience.”
So positive that he took up photography to try to capture that happiness. He specialized in dance photography, capturing that effervescence, that melding of people and motion. In his photographs the dancers’ eyes are the focus. For the first time people noticed him and commented on his work. And it was at a dance in River Falls, S.C., that he met Judy Burkett.
Burkett’s marriage was near its end. There was no attraction between her and Bennett, yet when he complimented her on her dancing it gave a welcome boost to her ego.
After her divorce, while she lived in Hendersonville, N.C., a fellow dancer invited her to a dance in Memphis. Bennett was there and asked her two questions: how was her husband, how about a second dance. Before the night was over he invited her out.
“He swept me off my feet,” Burkett said. In short order she sold her house and moved to Alabama. Bennett moved in the same day.
He wasn’t working at that time, having quit his job for a dancing and photographic sabbatical. A van outfitted with a computer, 30-inch monitor, generator and satellite dish served as his mobile photo lab, and a small trailer was always packed to embark at a moment’s notice. Burkett’s spacious yard had plenty of room for his rig.
It wasn’t long before they exchanged wedding vows. As she slipped the ring on his finger, Burkett told him, “I love you for who you are. You’re unpredictable. You’re there for me. You care about life. You’re passionate, full of love, you’re giving, you’re kind, you’re spiritual, and you are loved.”
He was all those things and more, she said. His unpredictability manifested itself in many ways, from an occasional desire for seclusion, a penchant for misplacing things and an obsession about government spending. His passion for hobbies flared white-hot only for so long and then abruptly burned to ash. It was a moment-by-moment mode of life, spontaneous, unrehearsed, extemporary. Because of this nature, he insisted on not being caged by a controlling relationship, something Burkett was only too willing to accede. For Bennett these weren’t faults but part of his spirituality, integral to his personality.
“This was very important to him,” Burkett said. “He worked hard at figuring out his spiritual beliefs. He felt in the spiritual world more than the material world.”
And he could be romantic, such as the time he set an orchid arrangement in the center of the bed and scattered photographs around it. “It just took my breath away,” Burkett said.
Smoking was a vice he could not overcome. Determined to finally break the habit, he told Burkett he was moving to the van for a few days, that he wasn’t going to be bearable. When that failed, he went in search of an isolated place where he could get completely away from people. Like everything else he did, it was impulsive and without a known destination. He ended up on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota, the stomping grounds of the legendary Crazy Horse, whose biography Bennett was reading.
What transpired there is unknown. When he returned he was able to concede to his habit by rolling his own cigarettes and using organic tobacco.
“It didn’t bother me that he wanted to go off by himself,” Burkett said. “It didn’t bother me that he sometimes left his tools out in the rain, or tracked mud onto the carpet. The thing about Bob is I could see and feel something about him. He was so wonderful I was able to accept him with all his imperfections. I never knew what to expect of him.
“I didn’t see his mental illness, his depression,” Judy said.
Until it was too late.
Bennett had been at his parents’ house for a few days and returned home with a promise of a nice supper. When she arrived from work, he was asleep on the couch. Perturbed that he’d broken his promise, she drove to the store, bought groceries and returned to start cooking. She was not a happy camper.
He realized it. It was the first time he’d seen her this way, and he reacted by calling his dog, Oscar, and loading him in the van. Burkett knew he was leaving and didn’t try to stop him. He’d left before but always made a point of keeping in contact.
This time was different. It was July 13, 2007. Burkett would never see him alive again.
(Continued next week)