Wednesday, December 11, 2013
DA: "Actionable" info in '93 West Coast Video murders
Posted: Friday, November 29, 2013
On a long ago November morning, Janice Benson woke up to find her 20-year-old son Bryan wasn’t in his bed. That was strange, she thought.
“He never, ever, would stay out without letting me know where he was,” Benson said.
In another nearby Warminster home that morning, Bonnie Youngers found the untouched dinner she had left in the microwave the night before for her 20-year-old son, Seann Campbell. His bed hadn’t been slept in either.
Unlike Benson, Youngers was more annoyed than alarmed. Seann had done this before and she made a mental note to remind him — again — to call if he wasn’t coming home.
Both women got dressed and left for work.
Once there, Benson started calling Bryan’s friends looking for him. When she saw the police car pull up outside her office building, she knew something bad had happened.
Youngers said she had a bad feeling that morning, too, but in her case, she was worried she would be laid off. As she was led into a conference room, Youngers told her boss she understood. It was OK.
But it wasn’t OK. She saw her husband, their pastor and a police officer waiting for her in the room.
November marked the 20th anniversary of what police and prosecutors describe as one of the most notorious unsolved cases in Bucks County history — the West Coast Video murders, a double homicide of two 20-year-old clerks in Warminster.
The case has long puzzled investigators. The victims had been repeatedly stabbed. There was no clear motive and virtually no obvious evidence left behind.
Though fresh clues have dried up in recent years, the case is once again “actively” under investigation, according to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office. Chief of Prosecution Matt Weintraub declined to reveal specifics, but confirmed that police and the DA are pursuing “actionable information.”
“Where there is a lead, there is a chance to solve it,” Weintraub added.
The Courier Times was unsuccessful in reaching Warminster Police Detective John Bonargo, now assigned to the case, for comment. The DA’s investigators are assisting Warminster police, Weintraub said.
After two decades, this is what the public knows about the Nov. 10, 1993, murders of Bryan and Seann, who both worked part time at the West Coast Video store in the Rosemore Shopping Center on County Line Road:
Around 10 p.m., before the two locked the store for the evening, Bryan and Seann were attacked in the adult movie section of the store. The attackers (police believe there was more than one) used long-bladed knives, stabbing the men repeatedly in the back, neck and chest.
The two fought back. Both had stab wounds on their forearms described in the autopsy reports as defensive injuries.
Police found a wire to the store’s security camera had been cut. But the camera wasn’t working anyway; it didn’t activate until after the store was locked, police said.
There was $300 missing from the cash register, but several hundred dollars and both men’s wallets had been left behind.
There was no sign of forced entry. The front door was left unlocked and ajar. The murder weapon never has been found.
The next morning, the store owner found the bodies in the back room.
Eight Warminster police officers investigated, interviewing more than 300 people — including the 75 who had rented movies during the men’s 5-10 p.m. shift. No leads were developed.
Police and the DA’s Office explored possible connections with a similar murder a week later at a New Jersey video store, but determined the murders were unrelated.
Authorities dug into the lives of Bryan and Seann and found nothing extraordinary. They went to the same high school and had mutual friends. Both lived with their parents, within walking distance of the video store. Benson attended Bucks County Community College; Campbell worked full time at Sylvan Pools in Abington, according to the police and family members. Seann had worked at the video store for six years; Bryan had worked there for six months.
Her son wasn’t supposed to work the night of the murders, Benson said. He showed up thinking he was scheduled, and the manager asked if he’d mind staying. Bryan agreed.
“That was a typical Bryan thing,” she said. “He was so easygoing.”
Bryan’s dad was the last person to see the two alive. Gary Benson stopped by the video store around 9 p.m. to pick up movies. Everything seemed normal, so there was no reason for Gary to stick around, his wife said.
“That is what he has had to deal with for 20 years — why didn’t he stay there,” she said.
The murders shook the community to its core. Blue ribbons appeared on trees, doors, signs and clothes. Businesses and individuals contributed to a $52,000 reward fund that remains untouched, Janice Benson said.
Four months after the murder, then-Bucks County DA Alan Rubenstein, now a Common Pleas Court judge, announced a DNA sample had been obtained from what police and prosecutors still believe is the most promising piece of evidence — a half-inch fake diamond stud earring.
The earring, which had fresh tissue and blood on it, was found on the floor between the dead men. Police believe it may have been yanked out of an attacker’s ear during the struggle. No DNA match has ever been made.
Within months after the murders, the police investigation appeared to stall. The blue ribbons started disappearing.
Warminster moved on. But it never forgot.
News stories about the murders appeared in the newspaper occasionally, usually around a significant anniversary. For the families, the stories renewed the hope of jogging someone’s memory or conscience.
Two years after the murder, a jailhouse snitch named John Hall started calling Seann’s family from prison, claiming a fellow inmate serving a life sentence confessed to the murders, according to a 1997 news account. Investigators soon determined Hall had invented the story.
Also in 1997, Warminster police revamped the department’s five-person detective division and started looking at all the information that had been uncovered earlier by investigators.
That same year, a partially rusted knife was found behind the Rosemore Shopping Center. The police tested it, but it didn’t yield any evidence.
In 2003, on the 10th anniversary of the murders, Warminster police said they hadn’t had any new leads in at least a year.
Several days ago, Youngers said the last update she had from police was five years ago.
Youngers, who has since moved to Bedminster, remembers the last conversation she had with Seann a few days before the murder. They worked opposite shifts, so it wasn’t unusual for them to go days without seeing each other.
She reminded Seann she would leave his dinner in the microwave and that he should call home if he was going to be late, she said.
“I always ended my conversation with ‘I love you; be careful,’ ” she said.“And he’d say, ‘I love you, mom. You worry too much.’ ”
“We’ve had 20 years to think about this,” Janice Benson said, declining to elaborate.
Youngers believes the murderer is already in prison, but that is all she’ll say. All these years later, she doesn’t want to risk compromising any facet of the murder investigation.
“If I never find out who did it, that is OK, because God knows who did it,” Youngers said. “Closure is when I put the lid down on the casket. That is the only closure I’ll get until I die.”
That the Bucks County District Attorney’s office has “actionable information” in the case has surprised Benson.
Over the years, the family contacted police with bits of information or pointed out similar crimes they read about. Warminster police never regularly updated the family on the investigation, she said. The family went to the police for updates, Benson said, adding that family members haven’t talked to the police in years.
“I guess we just got tired,” she said in a phone interview. “As time went by, it was like we weren’t getting anywhere.”
Like the community, both mothers said they’ve moved on and still have strong support from family, friends and coworkers. Neither woman is hopeful the murders will be solved.
In the days after the murder, Youngers said she had a sinking feeling, that she still can’t explain, that the murders would remain unsolved.
“It’s 20 years later and I’m not surprised in the least it has not been solved. Would I like to know? Yes, but do I torture myself over it? No,” she said. “You’ll make yourself crazy.”
Benson echoes those sentiments.
“If they haven’t found anything in 20 years, unless someone finally comes forward, I think we’ll just go to our grave not knowing who killed him,” she said. “But if they do solve it, it’s not going to bring Bryan back. The hurt and pain will always be there. There is no closure. I hate that word. You don’t close your son getting murdered.”