Meeting the monster

By Amy Donaldson

Ron and Sy Snarr, of Salt Lake City, pose for a photo on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, after reading a letter from Jorge Benvenuto, who murdered their son, Zachary Snarr, in August 1996.
Photo Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

GUNNISON — 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 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.

“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 told him that 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 everyday. 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 to 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 Liane 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 of 2019, Benvenuto received a letter from Zach’s mother, Sy Snarr.

“It was not even a full page,” Snarr said of the letter she dictated to her friend Dru Weggland Clark while she drove, “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, toward my feelings. And I said, ‘I want you to know that I have forgiven you. And I know that Zach has forgiven you 100%.'”

A couple of weeks later, the Snarrs received another letter. This one was from Benvenuto’s mother, Nelida.

Sy Snarr grieves during a ceremony in honor of domestic violence victims at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Oct. 21, 1998
Snarr’s son, Zachary, was shot and killed while taking photographs at Dimple Dell Reservoir in 1996. A photo of her son is on the
Photo Credit: Deseret News

“She was kind of … taking responsibility. ‘I wish I would have seen the warning signs,’ and all this, and just this really sweet, sweet apology letter,” Snarr said. “And that’s when I told Ron, ‘I’m going to write back to her.’ Because I’ve always just felt for his mother. I did. I just thought, ‘How is she coping with this?'”

While her husband, Ron Snarr, hadn’t felt that same connection to Jorge Benvenuto’s mother, he was overcome with remorse as she read her words.

“I wrote a letter to her and basically said how sorry I was,” said Ron Snarr, who described himself as the “angry guy who had no mercy.” “The way I treated her, what I told her … had to be so hurtful: Why’d she give birth to a monster? It was just awful.”

He gets emotional remembering how much anger he felt toward anyone associated with the man who stole his son.

So he sat down and wrote his own letter to a woman he hadn’t seen in decades.

“And I said, ‘I am so sorry for the way I treated you and your family, and would you please forgive me?'”

In the months that followed, letters flowed between the Snarrs, Nelida Benvenuto and Jorge Benvenuto. A friendship was born. Affection took hold.

In one, Jorge Benvenuto expressed how he felt about receiving her letters.

Sy Snarr reads the letter aloud: “Dear Sy, I wanted you to know that the letter and messages that you have sent me since January have been very difficult for me to read. It is not what I expected. It was somehow easier for me in the past, when you and your family were angry at me and hated me. I understood that reaction. But the change of heart that you and your family have had and the forgiveness that you’ve expressed toward me have left me feeling humbled, undeserving of it, and without words to respond to you. I feel that I owe you and your family so much. I wish there was something I could do.”

And then she adds, ” I thought that was really sweet, too. … That’s his attitude. It’s like he, I think he felt very undeserving of the forgiveness. And he’s been very humbled by it.”

As they continued to correspond, they continued to share the details of their lives. She told him about losing her youngest son Levi to cancer, and he shared painful details about being bullied when he first moved to the United States with his mother.

Page by page, a bond was forged. And eventually, the correspondence between Sy Snarr and Jorge Benvenuto opened up unanticipated possibilities.

“It … opened a huge door of, just a flood of … wonderfulness and happiness and blessings to me,” Sy Snarr said. “I really care about him. I do. … But I think it’s really hard for him to grasp that he’s really … forgiven by us. And he has said in a letter to me, ‘I understand why Yvette hates me. She has every right.’ … He knows what he did. But he’s very grateful for what’s happened between us and our relationship. … He says he really looks forward to my letters and I look forward to his.”

Her affection blossomed into genuine care and eventually love. She loves all of his letters, but some of them cause her to wonder if he doesn’t deserve a life beyond the prison walls.

“Some of them make me sad,” she said, “just, you know, sad. I so want him to have another chance. I just believe in second chances. I think everybody deserves a second chance.”

Benvenuto said he was shocked not only that Snarr wrote back, but that she continued to write him week after week, month after month.

“To my amazement, Sy continued to write me, so I continued to write her,” he wrote to KSL. He was disappointed when Rodier said she didn’t want a letter from him, but he also understood. That was the reaction he had expected.

Jorge Benvenuto in 2007 photo.
Photo Credit: Utah State Prison

Benvenuto said that as he exchanged letters with the Snarrs, he began to feel a depth of healing he hadn’t known he was feeling.

“I carried around a lot of guilt over what I had done and communicating with them helped me, too,” he wrote. “It is difficult to describe on paper everything that has happened over the last two years, how one thing has led to the next in such an unexpected way. The Snarrs are truly amazing people.”

In another letter to KSL he said, “I’m not the first inmate to have written to his victims with an apology. What has been amazing in this case is the response by the Snarr family, which I’m still humbled by.”

The meeting

For years, Snarr had dreamed about meeting Benvenuto. She thought about what she’d say, how she’d feel, and what it might mean for the rest of her life to meet and talk with the man who killed her son.

In February of 2020, she finally got her chance.

“The door opened, and the guard brought in a 40-year-old, middle-aged, clean shaven man with the whitest whites,” Weggland Clark said of Benvenuto’s prison uniform, “very white, clean clothing and Sy just exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe that’s him. That’s Jorge. I can’t believe it.’ And as he came through the door, Sy walked up and embraced him, and he embraced her.”

Weggland Clark fights back tears at the memory.

“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 the inmate and her friend, and she said a physical change came over her Snarr.

“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.”

Ron and Sy Snarr, of Salt Lake City, talk on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, about how they forgave Jorge Benvenuto, who murdered their son, Zachary Snarr, in August 1996 after reading a letter from Benvenuto.
Photo Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Snarr said she told him she’d been dreaming of meeting him. She thanked him for the letter.

“I told him what that letter had meant,” Snarr said, “how it literally gave me my life back, this letter, that first letter.”

They talked about their lives, what they’d lost and where they had found joy. And Snarr talked about the young man Benvenuto killed. Later, she worried that talking about Zach had been insensitive. And in a phone call a week later, she apologized.

“I said, ‘I’m really sorry that I sat there and talked about Zach so much,'” Sy recalled. “I didn’t intend to, you know. And he said, ‘No, I’m glad you did. … Believe me, I remember every word you said in the hearings. And I know how special Zach was. … I think of him every day.’

“This meant a lot to me when he said this. He said, ‘Wherever my thoughts are, they always come back to Zachary.’ He calls him Zachary. And he says, ‘There’s never a day I don’t think about him.'”

That meeting brought Snarr and Benvenuto even closer together. They began talking on the phone weekly as they continued to exchange letters. A month after that meeting, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the prison. They have not been able to see each other again.

More shockwaves

When attorney Mark Moffat first learned that the quiet 19-year-old he’d defended had written to the Snarrs, he was shocked.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I just never thought Jorge would ever get to a place like that.”

The man that Moffat knew was closed off and distrustful, even of the team working to save him from the death penalty. The man he knew had fought the guilty plea that saved his life and had declined a meeting with Sy Snarr.

Moffat never expected that man would write a letter of apology.

“So when he finally did it, and did it on his own … I was really surprised,” Moffat said. “And then what was an equal … (or) maybe more surprising, to me, was Sy’s reaction to it. And Ron’s reaction and the family’s reaction to the letter.”

He could barely imagine the relationship that had blossomed.

Zachary Snarr’s headstone is surrounded by flowers at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Millcreek on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022. 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.
Photo Credit: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

“Because my whole experience with the Snarr family … was that they were very, very angry and unforgiving of what Jorge had done to their son,” Moffat explained. “They hated him for it. They hated me and James (Valdez) and the defense team for what we did.”

That letters between them had created not just forgiveness but friendship, just seemed too extraordinary to believe.

A few months after learning about the letter, Moffat reached out to the Snarrs to see if they might be interested in discussing his efforts to repeal the death penalty in Utah. They invited him into their home, and on a snowy day in December of 2019, Moffat and a colleague sat in the same living room where they learned that their son had been murdered 23 years earlier and discussed the miracle they’d experienced.

“There’s pictures of Zach and their other family members,” Moffat said. “And we’re there talking about the case.”

And they’re discussing the letter they received from Benvenuto 11 months earlier.

“I’m hearing from Sy, and I’m hearing from Ron about how this letter that Jorge Benvenuto wrote to them changed their lives,” Moffat said. “And it changed their perspective of him. It changed how they felt about what had happened about the death penalty.”

And then Sy Snarr made a suggestion that still surprises Moffat.

“I just said, ‘I wish I could get him out of there’,” Snarr 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.”

As Moffat left, Ron Snarr embraced him. He apologized for hating him. When Moffat got back to his car, he knew something profound had happened in that house.

“To be part of that,” he said, “it was emotional for me. I mean, it kind of took it out of me. … I’m walking out with Ron and we’re talking and then he gives me a hug. And, I was just blown away. I couldn’t go back to work. And I just remember going up to my house. It was cold outside, it was snowing. I went on a snowshoe walk with my dogs just because that was about all I could do at the time.”

Moffat chokes back tears.

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

An evolving story

While Moffat continues to research whether the Snarrs can petition the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole for a commutation of Benvenuto’s sentence of life without the possibility of parole, the Snarrs and Benvenutos have forged a deep friendship that continues to draw in new family members.

Right after Snarr and Benvenuto met, Nelida Benvenuto and her oldest son flew to Utah to meet the Snarrs. The families have visited each other, attended weddings, baby showers, and shared many meals.

Sy Snarr and Nelida Benvenuto exchange texts and calls on the anniversary of the crime — Aug. 28.

Ron and Sy Snarr, of Salt Lake City, talk on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, about how they forgave Jorge Benvenuto, who murdered their son, Zachary Snarr, in August 1996 after reading a letter from Benvenuto.
Photo Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I think they have suffered in ways more than we have,” Snarr said, pointing out that “she lost a son too.” Her loss, Snarr said, is saturated in guilt and shame.

“They carried the guilt of what he did,” she said. “They were harassed for what he did. People weren’t real nice to him for what he did, and they were devastated by what he did. … They didn’t see it coming. Nobody saw it coming. … They left Utah because of what he did. And I’ve learned, like, his mother’s landlord made her move out because she was his mother, which I think’s terrible. You know, she was devastated, devastated by what he did and, and yet she’s his mother. Of course, she’s gonna support him and love him. You do. … A real mother, I think, never gives up on their kids and she loves him and she’s a wonderful woman.”

And then Ron Snarr adds, “She’s an angel on Earth. She really is. And what she’s gone through has been horrific.”

Sy Snarr said the healing that began with that one letter is immeasurable.

“When all this happened, his brother sent us an email and said that he just feels like a huge weight — this dark cloud’s been lifted, you know? Because they’ve carried it for all these years of what he did,” Snarr said of Benvenuto’s brother, Pablo. “And we don’t want them to suffer anymore.

“We love them. I mean, we literally love this family. They’re our family now.”


By Amy Donaldson

Ron and Sy Snarr, of Salt Lake City, read a letter on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, from Jorge Benvenuto, who murdered their son, Zachary Snarr, in August 1996. The simple letter, they say, “changed everything” for them.
Photo credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As soon as Liane Bell saw her mother’s friend, she felt her anguish.

“Real pain,” Bell said, a sob choking her voice. “Real intense pain. And I have questioned since — I don’t know how she moved about, really. I don’t know how she physically was able to leave her apartment and get in our car and go to church after hearing and knowing the intensity, the severity of what had just happened with her son, what he had done.”

A mother’s pain

Bell was getting her five children ready for a church service the morning of Sept. 1, 1996, when her mother called and asked for a favor.

“She said, ‘Nelida’s son has committed a horrible crime, and all that Nelida wants to do this morning is be in a place where she can partake of the sacrament to bring peace and comfort to her soul,'” Bell recalled. Her mother explained that her friend’s son had shot two young adults, killing one and gravely wounding the other, just a few days earlier.

And then she asked her daughter if she’d take the woman to church with her family in hopes of finding a few minutes of peace.

Bell wasn’t sure what to say or do for the woman whom her parents had met while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City a couple of years earlier. The woman, Nelida Benvenuto, had three children, and shortly after Bell’s parents returned to Provo, Utah, Benvenuto moved to Utah, hoping to give her children the kind of support they lacked in New York.

But less than a year after arriving in Utah, her youngest son had done the unthinkable. On Aug. 28, 1996, he shot two 18-year-olds he’d never met — Yvette Rodier and Zachary Snarr. Rodier survived, but Snarr was killed. Jorge Benvenuto, 19, was arrested a day later at a gas station in Lehi as he attempted to walk to his brother’s house in Provo.

Bell’s parents said their friend was devastated by what her son had done. She hoped for relief from the suffocating pain in a sacrament meeting.

Bell and her husband drove Nelida Benvenuto to their home, where they asked her to join them in a family prayer before they left for church.

“Nelida joined us, but she hadn’t said anything yet,” Bell recalled. “You know, I just wonder if the heavens felt a little closed to her at the time. … We knelt in prayer and just asked for comfort, and that peace would be found somehow in the meeting. And then we got in the car and drove to church.”

The woman wore sunglasses, even in the building, and said very little.

“She just shook her head a lot and tears flowed very easily,” Bell said, adding that she prayed, but admitted she wasn’t even sure what to ask for. “I just didn’t even know where to begin in a prayer. It’s just too huge. … I was just so sorry for her. And what could I say that would even bring her peace at that moment? Nothing.”

That Sunday happened to be the first Sunday of the month, which meant it was fast and testimony meeting. For those of the Latter-day Saint faith, that meant instead of a pre-planned sermon, anyone in the congregation could come to the pulpit and share their testimonies, thoughts or feelings.

But instead of the usual discussions of faith or doctrine, a succession of teenage congregants walked to the pulpit to share something else — pain.

“They were standing to just shed their emotions of grief,” Bell said, fighting to control her own sadness at the memory. “One by one these youth stood up crying and crying and expressing emotions of, ‘I can’t understand why this happened. … Why do we have to endure this in our lives, we’re kids.’ Just heavy, heavy emotional testimonies.”

And as each teen stood in front of the microphone, the woman sitting next to her squeezed her hand.

“The mother of this killer, which the youth had no idea was sitting right next to me on the bench, listening to how her son had changed these … lives forever,” Bell said, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. “And she started squeezing my hand, and just saying, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” As one more youth would walk up, she would look and just, ‘I can’t. I’ve got to leave. I can’t go through this anymore.”

But they sat, frozen in pain, afraid to call attention to themselves if they left, as members of the congregation shared their disbelief, their memories, their pain.

“So she endured,” Bell said, sobbing. “I don’t know how she did that. She endured an hour meeting, at least, of hearing of the grief that her son had just caused this student body.”

Bell took her home as soon as the meeting ended.

“It was just Nelida and I in the car,” Bell said. “Nothing much was said. … I remember saying, ‘Nelida, I know that you will find a purpose in this someday. And you will find comfort eventually in your life.’ And of course, she didn’t respond. I don’t even know if words were heard at that point. She just wanted to get home really quickly.”

Bell found herself wondering off and on over the years why Benvenuto ended up in that particular church meeting. It seemed an unfortunate twist of fate, even cruel.

But she has since also found herself consuming news differently. Anytime she reads or hears about a tragedy, she always thinks about those who loved the person everyone else hates.

“I always think of family members,” she said. “I always think of mothers, when I hear statements from them later of apologies, or we just don’t know how this happened. We are so sorry. … I just feel like they don’t even have the adequate words to express their pain for the pain their child caused.”

The email

And then a few years after Bell’s mother died in 2014, she received an email from Nelida Benvenuto.

“She said that Jorge had written a letter to the victims, and that he wanted someone to … hand deliver … this letter to the Snarr family, and would I be able to do that? Would I be the person that would hand deliver the letter.”

Bell imagined herself on the Snarrs’ porch.

She wondered what she’d say after they answered the door. She wondered how they’d feel about hearing from the man who had murdered their son.

“I thought about it,” she said. “I prayed about it. I didn’t feel like I had received any kind of reassurance or answer. So I told Nalida, ‘I don’t think I can do that. I just … I want to watch out for the victims first. And that’s great that Jorge has a letter of repentance, but I’m not I can’t find a way yet.'”

But a year later, she realized she and Snarr’s mother had a connection — her cousin, Karen Fairbanks. She asked her cousin if she thought Sy Snarr would want a letter from Jorge Benvenuto. Her cousin promised to ask.

At an annual holiday dinner in 2018, Fairbanks told Sy Snarr about the letter Benvenuto had written.

A photo of Zachary Snarr that was taken just prior to his murder in August 1996 is pictured at his parents’ house in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. During an interview, Snarr’s parents, Sy and Ron Snarr, talked about how they forgave and have grow to love Zachary’s murderer, Jorge Benveuto, and his family.
Photo Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I said, ‘I’ve waited 22 years for that letter,'” Sy Snarr said. “Every Aug. 28, every single Aug. 28, I think, ‘Does he know what today is?’ You know, does he even think about Zach? Does he care? That had always been in my mind. And so I said, ‘I want the letter.'”

Once Bell received the letter via FedEx, she invited Sy Snarr to her house. And in the same living room where she had knelt with Nelida Benvenuto all those years ago, she handed her a letter from the man who killed her son.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to read it now,'” Snarr recalled. “I want to read it with Ron.”

The two women talked about a number of things, and Bell told Snarr about that church meeting all those years ago.

“I can’t imagine what that was like for her,” Snarr said of Nelida Benvenuto. “What are the chances? I can’t imagine how hard that was for her, and Liane said she was just shaking and had her sunglasses on. … My heart really went out to her at that point. You know, how awful for her.”

‘A beautiful letter that changed everything’

Snarr said it was surreal to hold a letter from her son’s killer in her hands.

“I used to think, ‘I wonder if he’d ever even write a letter or something,'” she said. “I never thought it would happen.”

When her husband, Ron, returned home from work, they sat together and read the letter. Empathy washed over them.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, everybody makes a mistake … and he made a terrible mistake,” Ron Snarr said. “I just kept thinking of Jesus — forgive them for they don’t know what they did. He wasn’t, he didn’t know what he was doing. … I’m trying to have the spirit of Christ in me, you know, and forgive one another as you’d have them forgive you … and I’m feeling the tap on my shoulder is what I’m feeling.”

He laughs to himself at the thought of his son tapping him on the shoulder, as Zach used to do, reminding him, even from the grave, of what was right.

“He’s all over it,” he said of his belief that his son had something to do with the letter reaching them. “He was just an exceptional human being. He was.”

The simple, hand-written letter created a beautiful but fragile refuge from the pain Sy and Ron Snarr had endured for more than two decades. Sy Snarr, especially, became fiercely protective of this new and unique relationship. At first, they were very careful about whom they told about the letter and the transformation it had wrought in their lives.

The one exception was their children.

Sydney Snarr tears up as she talks about her brother, Zach, at his funeral in August 1996. Zach Snarr was shot and killed on Aug 28, 1996, at Little Dell Reservoir.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The next day, Sy Snarr read it over the phone to her oldest son, Trent, who lives out of state, and to Sydney, who lives about 20 minutes from her parents.

“I called Sydney and I said, ‘I want to read you this letter’,” Sy Snarr recalled. “And she said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I want to hear it.’ And I said, ‘You need to hear it.'”

Sydney Snarr Davis said she’s not sure she’d have accepted the letter if it hadn’t come from her mother.

“She started reading it to me,” Davis said, “and by the end of the first paragraph I was crying and my hands were shaking, and she finished the letter, and it was just silent for a minute. And I said to my mom …”I needed to hear that; I can breathe for the first time in 24 years. Like, I could take a deep breath and not feel that crack … in my heart.”

Sy Snarr said there was a long silence after she read the letter to Trent Snarr.

“And he was emotional, too,” she said. “And he said, ‘The whole thing is just so incredibly sad to me.’ … But that letter was so … I felt his sincerity. He made no excuses. He didn’t ask for forgiveness. Nothing. He just, it was a beautiful letter that changed everything.”

Sy Snarr has likened her grief and anger to a backpack full of rocks. She had taken many steps to lighten her load by setting down some of that anger and resentment. But Jorge Benvenuto’s letter to her family emptied that metaphoric backpack of rocks she hadn’t even realized she was still carrying.

“When I read that, every last little rock, pebble is gone. It’s gone. … And you know, I don’t know what his life has been like. … I listened in court, but I thought they were just making excuses. … But you know, I don’t know what caused him to do it. But I know that he has sincere regret about what he did. And he’s taken full, full responsibility.

“It really impresses me that he didn’t put the blame on anyone else or something that happened to him. … He didn’t ask me to forgive him. He just said, ‘I’m so sorry. What I did was wrong. And please don’t blame my family.’ And that, that really touched my heart right there, that touched my heart.”

‘I felt like he was in my house’

Sy Snarr learned that Benvenuto had also written a letter to Rodier, who survived the attack. She reached out to her to see if she might be open to receiving a letter from him.

“She told me about the letter,” Rodier said. “She told me how beneficial it’s been for her.”

She was surprised that Benvenuto had written the letter and shocked that the Snarrs wanted to hear from him.

“I would never think that she would want to hear from him,” she said. “But I love that for her.”

Rodier said she could tell that the letter had helped Sy Snarr immensely.

“I could tell it brought her a lot of … I don’t know if she used the word peace, but that’s the feeling I got, is that she felt peace with it, and it has been very helpful for her,” Rodier said. “And she’s so glad she got it.”

When Sy Snarr mentioned that Benvenuto had a letter for her, Rodier said she sobbed.

“I think it was partly because I don’t think about him,” she said. “And then he was suddenly in my house. Essentially that’s how I felt. I felt like he was in my house at that minute. And so I just cried.”

Zach Snarr is pictured in an undated photo. Snarr was shot and killed on Aug 28, 1996, at Little Dell Reservoir.
Photo credit: Snarr family photo

Rodier said she was overwhelmed, and she told Snarr she needed to think about it. She couldn’t even put her feelings about the offer into words for several days.

“I tried to figure out how I was going to present it to him,” she said of why she didn’t tell her husband right away. “Not because it was anything bad, but just I had to put the words to what it was and what I was feeling. … When we did finally talk about it. He was intrigued. He had questions that I didn’t have answers for. And then we just kind of went back and forth on pros and cons about why it would be good or bad.

“And the end for me was I didn’t want to give him that relief that he’d given something to me that maybe helped me. Which sounds really mean and a little bit vindictive. But he can write the letter. … But I feel like my receipt of the letter would give him some sort of comfort that I don’t feel he deserves.”

Rodier said she isn’t consumed with anger at the man who shot her. She also doesn’t want him in her life — in any way.

“The way I feel about him is very neutral,” she said. ” I’ve never been angry at him. I feel like probably because everyone around me was so angry at him, that it was easy for me to just let them be angry. I’ll deal with my own stuff and they can be angry. So I don’t have any extreme feelings about anything toward him. I guess except that I don’t want him to feel comforted by something I’d do for him.”

Total forgiveness

The Snarrs feel their son has had a hand in what’s happened. Sy Snarr sat down and wrote Benvenuto a letter.

“I did write him back,” she said. “And I told him without a doubt, I knew Zach had forgiven him immediately.”

She admits it took her a bit longer to follow her son’s example.

“And my forgiveness is sincere,” she said. “I have totally, totally forgiven him.”

But what Sy Snarr was about to learn is that forgiveness wasn’t an ending.

It was, as she would learn, the beginning of something else entirely.

Making Peace With The Shadows

By Amy Donaldson

Yvette Rodier in her office in Salt Lake City on Jan. 10, 2011.
Photo Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The details of the nightmares aren’t always the same.

Sometimes it’s the faces of those killed that change.

Sometimes it’s where they die. Occasionally, it’s her who dies — or feels dead — in the dream.

But for Yvette Rodier, there is one constant in the nightmares that have plagued her since she survived a shooting 26 years ago. And that is how it feels to be caught, once again, in a violent, random attack.

“The nightmares have been me with someone that I care about, another male, often Zach,” Rodier said of Zachary Snarr, who was killed when they were shot 26 years ago by a stranger. “And we’re in random places. We can be at a restaurant, we could be at a park, we could be at somebody’s house. And then someone comes in and just opens fire and kills them. And sometimes I die or think I’m dead in the nightmare. But it’s always, for sure the other person (who has been killed).”

She pauses.

“Those are really hard to wake up from,” she said.

And the toughest aspect of living with the nightmares is that there is nothing she can do but be generous with herself.

“Just be afraid and feel sad and scared for a little bit,” she said. “You know, the unfortunate part is that now we all have these places that are not safe. So 20 years ago, me thinking I wasn’t safe at a grocery store, people would probably laugh at me. And it might take me a minute to go back to a grocery store until I either forget the dream or just move forward.”

But in 2022, random violence, even mass shootings, is so common, it doesn’t always make national news. And no place — not schools, churches, or even grocery stores — have proven to be immune to violent attacks.

“I just feel bad for other people,” Rodier said. “I’m kind of used to it now, which is horrible; but it’s my life. But for all these people, that every day (life) just changes for them, I just ache. It’s just a different world they’re entering in.”

Rodier said it’s difficult to know just how many people are changed by these random acts of violence. Those who survive with bullet wounds are not the only ones changed by the trauma these events inflict on us.

“The numbers are so much bigger than (survivors),” she said. “So many lives are changed. When someone does these horrible, random acts of violence …the ripple that goes out is so big. But we’re not really addressing that. We’re not even really addressing any of it.”

For Rodier, and other survivors, there is no choice but to wrestle the shadows, contemplate the tough questions. If they don’t, they have no hope of escaping the pain caused by a stranger.

Innocence shattered

Yvette and Zachary had been friends since junior high school, but Aug. 28, 1996, was their first ‘grown-up’ date. They spent dinner talking about how they’d spent their summers and what they hoped to find at the University of Utah that fall.

Both driven students with kind hearts, they sat on the edge of promising futures, and for an evening, all they saw was life’s possibilities.

But a 19-year-old with a gun obliterated everything.

When a man they’d never met — Jorge Benvenuto — opened fire on the teens, who were setting up camera equipment to take pictures of the full moon at Little Dell Reservoir, Snarr was killed and Rodier’s life was changed forever.

When Rodier woke up in a hospital, flanked by her parents, she knew even before anyone said anything that her friend was dead.

What she didn’t know is that her life would never be the same.

The 18-year-old left the hospital struggling with a long list of physical injuries, including a severe limp, an open wound on her side that her mother had to pack by hand every day, and bullet wounds to her head that would cause memory and concentration issues for the rest of her life.

It was the psychological wounds, however, that would be most difficult to heal.

A few days after she left the hospital, another friend from school asked her on a date. She accepted, and after a long list of explicit instructions from her mother, the young man, Dave Whitby, escorted her on what he thought would be a fun outing.

“We went to a Ute football game,” he said of the University of Utah’s team. “Worst mistake of my life.”

David Whitby and his wife Yvette Rodier.
Photo Credit: David Whitby

Rodier is sitting across the room from Whitby as he recounts the date and she laughs as she interjects, “The Utes have the cannon, and none of us knew how I would respond. I did not respond well.”

Every time the team scores, they fire a cannon.

“So we had to go after maybe the second score,” he said.

Shaken, Rodier decided she’d rather go home than continue the date. The two said goodbye, and though they would eventually end up getting married, it would be a long and winding road before they would find each other again.

Finding purpose

As Rodier sat on the side of the road that night in 1996, with strangers and paramedics tending to her wounds, she began to feel guilty.

“I definitely feel so bad that I did leave him,” she said, emotion choking her voice. “I often wonder why I didn’t just stay and hold him. Why didn’t I try to put pressure on his wounds?”

Tears fill her eyes.

“I’m fairly certain he was dead when I left him,” she admits. “And … I did learn in court, the very first bullet that hit him killed him. So he was dead. But I didn’t know and why wouldn’t I have just stayed with him and just held him?”

She tries to swallow a sob.

“He would have done that for me,” she said softly.

Rodier understands that what she feels — survivor’s guilt — isn’t rational. But it doesn’t stop her from feeling guilty that she survived, that she gets to chase dreams, enjoy building a family and just live a life — all things that were stolen from Zach.

And for a long time, she tried to live her life for both of them. Every decision she made, she thought, “What would Zach do?”

“That was just more than I could do,” she said. “That was really hard. … Just because I’m human. I make all sorts of mistakes. And I know Zach would have, too, but I just felt like I was disappointing him so much, that … finally, at some point, I had to stop thinking that way.”

What Rodier couldn’t shake, however, was the idea that she had survived the brutal attack for a reason.

“I’ve wondered, like, there must be a reason I’m here, right?” she said. “I need to do something. There’s got to be some sort of purpose. And I didn’t feel it for a long, long time. And that was really hard. I kept thinking like, something’s gonna show up in my life, and it’s just gonna work.”

That feeling chased her as she pursued a journalism degree at the University of Utah, and followed her into her marriage with Jeremy Evans, a ceremony that took place about 10 months after the shooting.

Neither journalism nor marriage turned out to be that purpose she felt she had to have in the wake of the shooting. As it turned out, the purpose she was searching for came in the form of a little girl named Romney Rae.

“And the moment my daughter was born, it just hit me,” her voice quavering. “So now, I just have to make sure she stays alive.”

A new passion

Just before she became a mother, she realized broadcast journalism wasn’t the career path she wanted to pursue. So she applied to be the assistant to a newly appointed federal judge, Paul Cassell. Suddenly the shadows she’d be trying to outrun became the reason she stood out from the crowd.

“I’ve done a lot of work with crime victims,” Cassell said, noting there were about 150 applicants for the part-time job Rodier applied for, “and I’ve come to appreciate their sort of resiliency and their trust in the system that sometimes lets them down.”

He thought having Rodier in his office would be a benefit to him and to those who passed through his courtroom. He said it wasn’t just that she was a survivor of a brutal crime that made her an asset. It was her attitude and work ethic.

“Well, what was amazing about her,” he said, “was she just walked in the room and immediately lit up the room. She had such a love of life and was so outgoing and enthusiastic and cheerful.”

It was while working in Cassell’s office that she discovered her passion for the law.

West Valley City prosecutor Yvette Rodier works on her treadmill desk in the West Valley City Justice Court building on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.
Photo Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“I chose to go to law school,” she said. “That was a really, really hard decision. So I think maybe starting to make life decisions like that gave me a little bit of confidence.”

It was not the career path anyone expected for her. It was a job, after all, that would immerse her in the criminal justice system — where her first and only experience was associated with deep trauma.

But everyone who knew and loved her noticed a change in her as she began to pursue her law degree.

“I think that it was actually very healing for her,” said her younger sister, Danielle Rodier. “I don’t want to put words into her mouth, but I think that her survivor’s guilt was a lot worse until she decided to go to law school. … I remember talking with her and her saying, ‘Why did I survive and he didn’t? I have to do something. I need to do something important, something big.’ And having Romney really helped with that. … Being a mother helped with that sense of purpose and reason for surviving.”

But law school allowed her to use the terrible things that happened to her to help others.

“It seemed that there was a clear path of how she can take her experience and use it for good,” Danielle Rodier said.

Toni Sullivan, Yvette Rodier’s aunt, said she saw a remarkable change in her niece as she pursued a law degree.

“It changed her whole trajectory,” Sullivan said. “That’s when we started seeing more glimpses and the reality of the girl that we’d known all of our life up to the date of the shooting, the one who said, ‘I can make this happen. … This isn’t going to be an easy road, but I’m going to get on this road, because I’m going to help to make a change.'”

She said Rodier had unique knowledge of the system because she’d navigated it as a victim. It made sense to everyone that she started her law career advocating for victims after she graduated in 2008.

Even as she found her purpose and her passion, she was struggling to make her marriage work. Shortly after she graduated, she and Evans divorced.

Then, on Sept. 1, 2009, she got a call that her brother Brandon was missing — and so was her father’s gun. They called the police and then they waited for news. It was when they saw a police helicopter hovering over her father’s house that they realized her fun-loving, gentle brother might be gone.

“Brandon was so much fun,” Rodier said, a smile spreading across her face as tears fill her eyes. “We knew he was in pain. And we knew that there was a potential for him to have suicidal ideations. The day he did it, we had no idea. None. He had just gotten back from a trip with my dad, and Dad said they had a great time. So for us … we didn’t know it was that dark at that moment.”

It was around that time that Rodier decided to seek mental health treatment. She’s visited with a counselor after the shooting, but she said she was young, wasn’t ready to confront the realities of what happened, and felt gunshot victims have a unique kind of trauma that maybe her therapist wasn’t able to understand.

“I think we all think, ‘Oh, you need to go right now. Fix this right now,'” she said. “And that for me wasn’t wasn’t helpful. It made it feel like I wasn’t doing what people thought I needed to do.”

But once she was ready, counseling helped her deal with survivor’s guilt and the accompanying lies it told her.

“It was entirely me keeping myself stuck,” she said. “I think a lot of it is survivor’s guilt. That if I’m not stuck, then I’m not being aware of Zach and him being gone. If I stay stuck, that means I’m acknowledging everyday that I’m alive and Zach’s not. … I don’t think I felt worthy enough. … I don’t think I felt like I had value that would let me be me without the shooting as part of me.”

West Valley City prosecutor Yvette Rodier is pictured in her offices in the West Valley City Justice Court building on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.
Photo Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Survivor’s guilt convinced Rodier that her value was tied to her trauma. And that was the lie she needed to unravel.

After that, she was able to escape those feelings of inadequacy and pain. She was able to find joy in life’s daily blessings and happiness in her friendships. Whitby returned to her life, and eventually, he’d propose. Even that, however, wasn’t free from the shadows of the past.

“We were up at a cabin, and I took her on a hike one day and got down on one knee and proposed,” Whitby recalled. “She graciously said yes, but I kid you not … it was like the gods were just laughing with irony because literally, within 30 seconds … a bunch of campers a half mile up just started blasting rifles, just target practicing. And I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!'”

They both laugh, and then Yvette adds, “It was definitely a quick kiss, and then I think I started crying — more because of the gunshots, not because of the proposal.”

Then she looks at her husband, “Sorry!”

He laughs, “We’re big on irony and laughter. It was like, ‘OK, back to reality.'”

Another shooting death

The couple enjoyed a happy, stable life until one afternoon in 2014. Rodier was working as the victim witness coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She was in the federal courthouse on April 21, 2014, when a defendant rushed toward a witness testifying in one of the courtrooms and was shot and killed by a U.S. marshall. The courthouse was locked down for several hours, and when Yvette was finally allowed to leave, she was shaken to her core.

“It was so scary for me and it was probably the most anxious and fearful I have been since we were shot,” Rodier said. “And I don’t think I wanted people to really know or feel bad for me, or I just kept it to myself.

She was desperate to keep her pain to herself because she worried it would give those shadows power over her all over again.

“I think I was hoping I could just do it all on my own,” she said. “And I couldn’t. I did go back to therapy, which I think was very helpful. And I’m glad that I did. But I hadn’t wanted to be in therapy for a long time, I’d felt pretty solid.”

She quickly realized that her strategy of “pushing through” wasn’t going to work.

“I think I was extra terrified because I was responding so negatively,” she said. “And then I was so crushed, that I wasn’t going to be able to get past it. I thought if I made it through so many years, and I did OK, but if this, if this is the way I’m responding to this shooting, maybe this is going to be my new normal because I can’t do it. I can’t push through it. I really, I was stuck for quite a while.

David Whitby, his wife Yvette Rodier, center, and daughter Romney Rae.
Photo Credit: David Whitby

“But Dave saw all of it. I was a mess for months after being in that room (near the shooting). The noise, the smells, I hadn’t experienced anything like that since we were shot and it brought so much back, and I think what I missed most was that I had gotten to this really lovely place of safety. And I felt safe everywhere I was, especially in the courthouse. And it took away that safety for a long, long time. And that was really hard for me.”

Her husband had to walk her to and from work, and she struggled with some of the old demons, while battling some that were new. Eventually, she found her footing again. She decided to take a job with West Valley City as a prosecutor, and she finds it an impactful and empowering way to advocate for a responsive criminal justice system.

“I really missed the courtroom,” she said of why she changed jobs. “I mean, I was in the courtroom, but I missed the advocacy that can be there. So when I was doing victims’ rights, I was in the courtroom in front of the bar arguing, and prosecution just always seemed like something I could do. I wasn’t sure. So I’m grateful West Valley gave me a chance to try it. And I love it.”

Rodier and Whitby have built a joyful life together as they acknowledge the realities of the past without being held prisoner by it. Life would give them beauty and pain, but they’d navigate it all together. Through it all, those who know her best say she’s stayed optimistic and generous.

“She sees the world in this unique light, where she has every opportunity to pay attention to the darkness or the hard things that are going on,” Danielle Rodier said. “Even in her job, she sees a lot of blech. And she still wants to share love and light with everyone. I can say that she’s not a victim of her story. She was a victim in her circumstance. But she has not carried that story with her as the victim, which is so beautiful. She’s used it to … empower herself and others.”

And while Rodier and her family have worked so hard to build a life that keeps the shadows in check, a question from the man who shot her forces her to reconsider those choices.

Putting Down The Rocks

By Amy Donaldson

The headstone of Zachary Snarr.
Photo credit: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Grief was like air for Sy Snarr in the weeks and months after she lost her 18-year-old son in a random shooting.

The grief very quickly became both a sanctuary and a prison.

Even as it suffocated her, it felt like the only place she could exist — a strange in-between place where her anguish seemed to breathe life into her son’s memory.

She existed in this place almost everyday after a 19-year-old shot Zachary Snarr and Yvette Rodier as they were setting up a camera to take pictures of the rising full moon at Little Dell Reservoir in August of 1996. The mother of four searched for reasons, explanations, some shred of information that might make her loss feel bearable.

But nothing satisfied the injustice she felt in losing her “beautiful boy” to such brutality.

“I was sitting in my living room and everywhere I looked, I would see Zach,” she recalled. “His guitar, sitting on the couch playing his guitar, walking through the door, saying, ‘Mom, I’m home.’ … And I was sobbing. I was just sitting there sobbing and this was quite a while just missing him. … And I remember looking up. My oldest son was standing there and he just looked so sad. And when I looked at him, he just walked out of the room.”

That’s when it hit her.

That grief that she’d wrestled and embraced, that she’d tried to run away from and find sanctuary in, that terrible vigil was keeping her from the people she loved most.

“That was the kick in my gut I think that I needed,” she said. “When he saw me so upset, and he looked so sad and just turned around and left the room, I realized I had let the death of one child become more important than the lives of three more than I loved every bit as much as Zach. And it just brought me up short, like, ‘What am I doing? What am I doing to my family? They deserve to have a mom. … They need to know that I still love them more than my life, and that I would do anything for them.'”

Angry with everything

But in those quiet moments alone, Snarr didn’t know if she could do what was necessary. She didn’t know how to leave her painful cocoon. She didn’t know how to be a “normal” parent, a wife, a friend when sadness seemed a part of every breath.

“I knew I had to change, but I didn’t think I could change my feelings for Jorge Benvenuto,” she said of the man who pleaded guilty to killing her son and gravely wounding Rodier. “I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t. I would just curl up in the fetal position. Honestly … it was just so painful. And that pain and then the anger.”

When she wasn’t swimming through heartbreak, she was consumed with rage.

“I was angry with everything and everybody,” she said. “I was angry at (Benvenuto), obviously. I was angry at God for allowing this to happen to my son, if that makes sense. I would see other 18-year-olds out there, and I thought, ‘Why are you here and my son is not?’ I know, that’s totally irrational.”

She thought any possibility of enjoying life had been buried with her son.

“I’d see people out running and laughing, and I’d think, ‘How can they do that? Was I ever that way?'” she recalled. “And I thought ‘I’ll never be happy again. I really, truly believed I will never be happy again. I can’t smile. I can’t laugh. … It was just so devastating.”

Snarr’s friend and neighbor Dru Weggland Clark said she could see and feel her friend’s pain, even when she tried to hide it.

“I personally have never seen anyone with such a physical manifestation of grief,” Clark said. “When you hugged her … (you could feel she was) just broken, just distraught.”

Ron Snarr stands next to his son’s graves at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Millcreek on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022. Snarr’s sons, Levi and Zachary, are buried next to one another.
Photo credit: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Clark had always admired the kind of parents Ron and Sy Snarr were to their four children.

“They were a great role model about how to raise a family,” she said. “All the kids knew how to work, how to get things done, but they also knew how to have great family times and fun.”

Sydney Snarr Davis, who was the second oldest of the Snarr children, said losing her younger brother sent the family into a tailspin.

“I grew up in a really happy home,” she said. “My childhood was ideal. I loved my brothers. They loved me. My parents were excellent. We just had so much laughter and joy in our home and really, we were a family that truly loved and enjoyed each other. So after Zach died, my parents just … we were changed.”

The close-knit family was tethered to each other by their grief, but somehow it also isolated them from each other. The children worried about adding to their parents’ burden.

“I would feel like I knew I needed help,” Davis said. “And we all did. But I would go home (from college at Utah State), and I’d see how traumatized and depressed and anguished my parents were. And I was like, ‘I can’t add to that. I don’t want to add to that.’ And Trent did the same. And Levi did the same. And we all just suffered on our own. Yeah, I knew my family was there for me. And they knew I was there for them. But it’s like how can I add to your burden?”

A couple of weeks after Zach’s death, Davis had a dentist appointment to have her wisdom teeth removed. Because she was returning to school at USU, they couldn’t reschedule it.

“I came home from the surgical center, and the pain medication had started wearing off,” she recalled. “And I remember laying on the couch, and I started crying because my mouth hurt so badly.”

Her dad came into the room and found her crying.

“My dad sat next to me and I said, ‘Dad, it just, it just hurts so much,'” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks 25 years later. “And my dad wrapped his arms around me and just started sobbing. And he’s like, ‘I know Doll. I know, it hurts. It hurts so bad.’ And just sobbed. And … we were both crying, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘We aren’t talking about the same pain.’ And my dad just cried and cried.”

Another devastating blow

Davis said they all did the best they could under the weight of their heartbreak, but real joy returned to their lives with the birth of their first grandchild when Davis gave birth to Zachary Davis in October of 2000.

“My parents took on that role with gusto,” Davis said laughing. “Like, they ate it up! And so that was when things started to kind of lift.”

Life gave Sy and Ron Snarr seven grandchildren, and they became the kind grandparents every kid dreams about having — building forts in the living room, slumber parties and trips that allowed them to build treasured memories.

But as they worked to rebuild their happy family life, they were dealt a devastating blow. Their youngest son, Levi, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sy Snarr met the diagnosis with determined optimism.

“He had a very rare cancer,” she said. “It’s epithelioid sarcoma, which they told us from the get-go, there’s no cure. I said, ‘You just treat him because there’s something more powerful than you.’ … I truly believed I could not, I would not lose another son.”

But they did lose the boy they called their gentle giant.

On Dec. 17, 2007, Levi Johnson Snarr left to, as he told his mother, “go live with my brother.”

Ron Snarr looks at his sons’ graves at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Millcreek on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022. Snarr’s sons, Levi and Zachary, are buried next to one another.
Photo credit: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

“I wanted to die for a long time,” Sy Snarr said, pain evident in every syllable. “I used to think, ‘Why would anybody want to die? … How could anybody be that depressed?’ You know, I never understood it.”

She pauses as the tears fill her eyes.

“I get it,” she said. “I get what it’s like to be that depressed, where you literally do not want to get out of bed. I did not want to get out of bed. I did not want to go on with my life. I wanted to die.”

Ron Snarr was equally despondent after burying his youngest son next to Zach in the cemetery plots where they’d intended to be buried. He was working at the University of Utah on the baseball field when a storm rolled in. He raised his arms to the sky and yelled for relief.

“He just put his arms up and said, ‘Come and take me God! Take me! Strike me down.’ I mean, he was like me; it’s like, what is going on here?” his wife said. “We’ve lost … these two amazing sons in totally different ways. But both were so painful. And you’re just trying to get over, get on with losing one and kind of getting to where you think, OK, I’m surviving this day by day … and then we lose another one? And it was just too much.”

First feeling of hope

Sy Snarr said that the weight of grief and anger eventually became too much to bear. She knew she needed a change, but she had no idea how or what might help them.

“When you have that much hatred and anger in you, you become that; you are angry and hateful,” she said. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I had become.”

Sy and Ron Snarr, of Salt Lake City, talk on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, about how they forgave Jorge Benvenuto, who murdered their son, Zachary Snarr, in August 1996 after reading a letter from Benvenuto.
Photo credit: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

It was as Sy Snarr listened to a woman speak at a church meeting that she felt the first feelings of hope. The woman talked about finding forgiveness after losing someone to violence.

“And it just hit me, I thought, I want to be like that,” she said. “I want to feel that. I want to be able to forgive him.”

That decision was just the beginning. Finding her way to forgiveness would be complicated, but eventually she felt like she’d found a way to rid herself of the resentment that made her heart feel so dark and heavy.

“And it was a process,” she said. “I’ve likened it to backpacks full of rocks, that you have to let go a little at a time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight for me.”

In fact, Sy Snarr said it took her about 15 years to put down those rocks. Her husband said it was a little longer for him — maybe 18 years. But eventually, they found themselves in a good place, a happy place.

Sy Snarr only had one remaining wish, she said. One thing she hoped that someday she’d be able to do.

“I wished I could tell him I’d forgiven him,” she said. “I’ll never get that chance.”

But she was wrong. Not only would she get that chance, she was about to receive the kind of gift so miraculous, most people don’t even believe it exists.

A Death Sentence Waiting to Happen

By Amy Donaldson

Family members gather outside a courtroom where Jorge Benvenuto was sentenced for murder on Jan. 30, 1998. Sy Snarr, Zach Snarr’s mother, holds a large picture of her son.
Photo credit: Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sy Snarr tried to focus on her husband’s face and what he was trying to tell her as she fought her way out of a sleepy haze.

“I had actually been up for so long,” Snarr said trying to recall the hours after her son was murdered in 1996. “They tell me I was standing there and all of a sudden, I just passed out on the floor. They had put me in bed, and then my husband came in and said, ‘They got him. They got him.'”

As the pain yanked her back into the reality of her son being shot by a stranger while on a date with a long-time friend, she realized what he was saying.

“I was like coming to,” she recalled, “and I’m like, ‘What?’ And then it hit me. … They got him!”

A short time later, prosecutor Bob Stott arrived at their Salt Lake home to meet with the family and try to answer some of their questions about the arrest of 19-year-old Jorge Benvenuto, who had confessed to shooting their son Zachary Snarr and Yvette Rodier, both 18.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘Kill him,'” she said. “I actually said that. Because I thought, ‘He deserves to die.’ I wanted him to die.”

Snarr wasn’t alone.

Almost everyone involved felt like if there was ever a case that cried out for the death penalty, it was this one — the unprovoked, random attack of two teenagers who were just enjoying a summer night taking pictures of the moon at Little Dell Reservoir.

“It was just a very bad fact situation,” said prosecutor Roger Blaylock, who worked the case with Stott. “And by bad I don’t mean for a prosecutor. It’s a good situation (for prosecutors), because it’s so terrible. Here are two young people up at the reservoir, just kind of taking pictures of the moon and somebody comes up and shoots them both. … What is there about the defendant that is socially redeeming?”

Inevitable death sentence?

Benvenuto couldn’t afford his own attorney, so the case was assigned to the Salt Lake Legal Defender’s Office. Mark Moffat was one of the attorneys assigned to the case, and right from the start, he said they felt like the deck was stacked against them.

“I just remember when … the shooting occurred,” he said, “it shook the community. We had two young kids that were up there doing an innocent thing … in the mountains, where everybody in the community went from time to time, everybody goes up in the mountains to hike or, you know, get away. And there was just something about that case that freaked the community out.”

Add to the circumstances that Rodier had survived to offer a terrifyingly detailed account of what happened. And their client had confessed.

The crime also occurred at the height of the “tough on crime” stance a lot of communities embraced in the 1990s. There was a long list of legislation passed, both locally and at the federal level, aimed at creating tougher penalties for violent crimes. From gun and gang enhancements to laws that sent juvenile offenders straight into the adult criminal justice system, the attitude of everyone was to protect society by punishing offenders as severely as possible.

Moffat also worried that a jury made up of typical Utahns wouldn’t relate to the struggles of an immigrant from Uruguay.

“One of the things that we thought was (a) positive for us was Jorge’s age,” Moffat recalled. “But given everything else that was going on, with who he was, and what he had done, we just felt it was going to be a death sentence.”

When Benvenuto was charged with aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder and two counts of robbery, both families supported the initial effort of prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

It wasn’t until Snarr heard the medical examiner testify that she realized she might not be able to listen to the details about how her son died if the case went to trial.

“The day the medical examiner testified I think was the worst day of my life,” she said. “Because she did show a drawing of Zach and talked about where he shot him and … after he’d shot him twice, he actually held the gun point blank to his head. And I had not known that. And that really affected me. It did. And I had driven myself down there and I literally had to pull over; I could not drive home because I was wailing, sobbing. It really — it just killed me that that had happened to that beautiful boy of mine, you know that his life ended that way. It was hard.”

Then she was watching a news report of a killing in Kearns, and she realized this was going to be much more difficult than she understood.

“They were showing drawings of this person’s body showing where she had been stabbed over and over,” she said of the news report. “And I thought, ‘I cannot watch this on TV about Zach, I can’t do it.'”

A friend of the family, who was also a state senator, worked with prosecutors and corrections officials to arrange a tour of the Utah State Prison for the Snarrs. After the tour, they agreed to a deal that would spare Benvenuto’s life but would keep him in prison for the rest of his life. The deal took advantage of a law passed in 1992 that gave prosecutors another option in capital murder cases — life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Zach’s older sister, Sydney, was out of state when the family toured the prison, but her family told her what they’d seen afterward.

“My older brother Trent said that it gave him nightmares,” Sydney Snarr Davis said. “It was so awful, and I remember him telling me that I think I would rather die than live the rest of my life in that hellhole. And at that point, I was like, ‘Well then, good. Do it.’ You know, let’s forget about him. He can go in there and rot.”

Zach Snarr’s brothers, Levi, 17, (left) and Trent, 23 wait outside courtroom for sentencing of Jorge Benvenuto in 1996. 
Photo credit: Deseret News

Rodier, who had gotten married about 10 months after the shooting, said she didn’t think his punishment was her decision to make, although she acknowledges her family hoped he’d get the death penalty.

“I don’t recall thinking about it at that time,” she said. “I definitely knew I was afraid of him. And so if there was something that would keep him away from me, I was all for it. But I, I don’t think I ever wished death upon him.”

Moffat said Benvenuto vacillated about whether he wanted take the deal — or take his chances with a jury — until moments before he entered a guilty plea in October of 1997.

“Keep in mind, when you do death penalty work, there are people that you come to know, as we call them, volunteers, who basically say, I’m not going to fight. …And Jorge was, on certain days, a volunteer. Other days, not. I mean, he vacillated and it made these discussions really hard. … And they continued right up until the moments before the plea.”

After Benvenuto entered a guilty plea, he fired his defense attorneys and his family hired two private lawyers. Those men appeared with Benvenuto for the sentencing in January 1998. The hearing was a formality, but the change in legal representation indicated there might be a change in legal strategy.

Still, the judge had accepted the guilty plea and then Rodier and members of the Snarr family spoke before Benvenuto was sentenced without offering a word of apology, explanation or defense of himself.

‘I was alone that night’

“I need to know that the murderer will never walk free,” Sy Snarr told the judge. “He made a terrible choice. Now he must pay the consequences for that choice. We need some closure. Our family needs to get on with our lives. Yvette needs to get on with her life. But we cannot do that until we know that we and everyone else are safe.”

Yvette’s mother, Linda Rodier, who died in 2018, said Benvenuto’s actions didn’t just end one life.

“I think it’s important that the court know — and that everyone here know — that on Aug. 28, 1996, Mr. Benvenuto killed two people,” she said. “We miss a part of Yvette that will never be here. She cannot be alone. There is a part of her that is dead, and I don’t know that it will ever be returned to us.”

And then Yvette Rodier stood and read a statement that she wrote. It is the first time she offered insight into the complicated nature of her recovery. Until this moment, she’d been answering reporters’ questions or offering police details of a crime. At 19, she stood and told the world what she’d faced and it was a powerful moment.

Yvette Rodier speaks during a sentencing hearing for Jorge Benvenuto, who shot her and left her for dead and shot and killed Zachary Snarr, in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City on Jan. 30, 1998.
Photo credit: Kristan Jacobsen, Deseret News

“On Aug. 28 1996, the word that describes that night the most is alone,” she said. “I was with my dearest closest friend, and he was murdered right next to me. It’s hard to describe the feelings that go through your mind when you know that someone that you love dearly is lying dead beside you. I was shot many times, I don’t know how many. I’ve got the scars to prove it. But I was alone that night, after a person who had just murdered my friend rummaged through my clothing, and I could feel his hands on my body.

“I was alone.”

She described the painful gunshot wounds, the ringing in her ears, the fog in her brain.

“I guess you really don’t know what happens until after, but I remember it all,” she said. “There is nothing that I have forgotten. And I don’t know if I will ever forget. Since that night, my body has basically been ripped apart again. I’ve had five operations, one more to come. Most of them on my head, opening my head, taking pieces out, putting them back in.”

She talked about chronic pain, about the surgeries and the impact on her family.

“It’s the psychological pain that I think has hurt the most,” she said. “I know what depression is. I know because I have suffered in many days. I think a lot of it has to come from survivor’s guilt. I know that’s a clinical term but I feel guilty that Zack died. And I don’t know if the person who has done this does. I sure hope so. But I didn’t try CPR. I know CPR. Why didn’t I do it? I didn’t try to hold his wounds or hold him tight. I couldn’t remember his family’s phone number in the operating room. And I call that phone number almost every day and I couldn’t remember it.

“I hate dealing with the guilt. It’s so unfair. I hate that feeling. A lot of my psychological pain is fear. I’m afraid to cross the street. I’m afraid someone is attacking me. I’m afraid someone is stalking me. I’m afraid of nighttime. I’m afraid of gunshots on the television. My whole family’s had to alter their life so I wouldn’t have to be alone by myself. I’m too afraid of my fears.

“I don’t sleep. I have horrible nightmares that I die or the people I love die. I think part of a lot of the psychological stuff is that I know that when he stopped that shooting and reloaded, that he was aiming right at me.”

And then she continued: “Zach and I are not the only victims here. Our families and friends, our communities are, too. It’s not just us we need to have justice for. It’s for all of us around us. I just, I know that I have a family who loves me and protects me and takes care of me. And I’m thankful for that. Because I don’t think I would be strong enough to stand today and say how much this has hurt me. But out of all this, I can deal with it. I’m alive. I can wake up tomorrow. I’m lucky. But Zach never will.”

‘I was so naive’

Judge Anne Stirba, who passed away in 2001, was deeply moved by the outpouring of love for Zach Snarr and for Yvette Rodier’s moving plea for justice.

She told Benvenuto he would never really understand what he’d done because he’d never be a parent.

“I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child,” Stirba said. “You will never know what it is to have a child or to lose a child. Mr Benvenuto, I don’t think you will ever know the pain, the full extent, the full measure of pain which you have caused.”

The judge expressed admiration for Rodier.

“What Yvette is today, she is because of her own incredible courage, and her strength and her will to heal, despite what you took from her,” she said.

And then she sentenced Benvenuto to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars. She took the extraordinary step of adding that she would write a letter to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole recommending that he never leave prison.

“I felt so safe when he got life in prison without parole,” Rodier said. “To me, it just made the world a safe place for me again. And I wasn’t afraid, necessarily, that he was getting out, but to have the judge say that … it definitely felt so good, and it continues to feel really good.”

After the sentencing, the Snarrs expressed their relief, even if it was tinged with rage.

“I never have to see him again,” Sy Snarr said at the time. “I think that’s what makes me the happiest because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is sit there in that courtroom with him — it’s hard.”

Now, more than two decades later, Snarr laughs at the idea that it all could have ended at sentencing.

“Oh, I did (think it was over),” she said of her contact with her son’s killer. “I was so naive.”

A Gun and a Death Wish

By Amy Donaldson

Police escort Jorge Benvenuto to jail after his arrest 
Photo credit: KSL TV

SALT LAKE CITY — Tom Watson and his wife had just finished watching the 10 p.m. news the night of August 28, 1996 when the phone rang. They let the call go to their answering machine, but when Tom heard the voice pleading for one of them to answer because he’d “done something so bad”, he told his wife to pick up the receiver.

When she did, the man immediately said, “I’ve done something real stupid.”
Watson told police his wife replied, “Here, you better talk to Tom.”

She handed her husband the phone and the 19-year-old they had befriended about a month earlier – Jorge Benvenuto – told him something that made the color drain from his face.

“Tom, I’ve really done something stupid’,” Watson told police Benvenuto said. “And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ The voice on the other line said, ‘I’ve killed two people.’”

While Watson tried to wrap his mind around what Benvenuto was telling him, his young friend grew more agitated.

“You’ll see it on the news shortly,” Watson said Benvenuto told him. “I killed them up at (Little) Dell Reservoir.”

Watson asked Benvenuto where he was, and the younger man told him he was on 10600 South in Sandy. He asked Watson to meet him.

Tom said he couldn’t meet him until 9 a.m. the next morning because he had company.

Then, in an eerily calm voice, Watson said Benvenuto told him, “I think your phone is being tapped. I’m going to hang up.”
The line went dead.

Tom immediately called the police. 

Jorge Benvenuto’s truck found at Little Dell reservoir 
Photo credit: Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office

Detectives were already at the apartment complex because the pickup truck abandoned in the parking lot of Little Dell Reservoir was registered to Jorge Benvenuto, and it listed an apartment near Watson’s on the registration. 

As detectives fanned out across the valley chasing leads and looking for Zachary Snarr’s stolen Bronco, Watson called Benvenuto’s sister, Monica. The couple had known her longer, as it was her apartment Jorge had moved into in early July.

Monica told him that she had not seen her brother that day. He’d been staying with her for the last week, and he had been making plans to move out of state.

Earlier that night, she’d returned home to find police and the manager of her new apartment building trying to enter her apartment after reports of a gunshot.

There was a bullet hole in the wall above the sink, but her brother was gone.

She had no idea what happened, but around 2:20 a.m., she had another visit from the police. This time it was Salt Lake County Sheriff’s detectives trying to figure out where her brother was and why he’d shot two people he’d never met.

Watson told police he befriended Benvenuto because he seemed lonely. After his apartment was burglarized, he made a habit of visiting the Watsons, sometimes for hours at a time.

“He started coming up to the (apartment), and we thought it was kind of weird because he never brought a friend or anything with him,” Watson said of Jorge’s visits that began in July. “But he started coming up to our house, and he would sit for three or four or five hours at a time. And he didn’t have friends of his own. And my wife even asked him if he had a girlfriend. And he said, well, he had one in New York. But he didn’t have one here.”

Benvenuto moved to Utah with his family members in the fall of 1995. For the first nine months he was in Utah, he lived with his older brother in Provo. He moved in with his sister, apparently just as she was moving into a new apartment. 

While Monica Benvenuto moved out of the apartment they were sharing, Jorge stayed for another few weeks as the rent was paid through the end of the month. Shortly after she left, the apartment was burglarized. Jorge, who had very few possessions to begin with, lost most of what he cared about, according to his sister. 

Both Monica and the Watsons said Benvenuto was livid and fixated on finding the thief and extracting revenge.

Salt Lake County Sheriff’s detectives recovered a slug from the murder weapon used earlier by Benvenuto for target practice. 
Photo credit: Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office

It was after a second burglary that Benvenuto began talking about getting a gun.

“Somebody broke into the apartment and stole a lot of his stuff,” Monica Benvenuto told police after the shooting. “A couple of times this happened – somebody broke in and took all his tools. He had a TV – all this stuff is his. So, he was really upset about that. That’s when he got the gun.”

Watson said he talked often about whom he suspected and what he wanted to do if he found the thief.

“He was very angry,” Watson told police. “He thought that the man that lived all the way to the end of the hall from where he lived, on the left hand side, he thought that he had broke into his house; and he said, if he had the gun he ordered at that time, he says ‘I’d go down there and shoot him.’ And he seemed very disturbed.”

At 19, Benvenuto was too young to legally buy a gun for himself. Police learned from Monica that it was an older co-worker, Evan Smith, who helped him acquire the weapon near the end of July. 

Smith said he and Benvenuto became friends. 

“I’ve met a lot of people like Jorge at his age, you know,” Smith said. “And I was a little bit like Jorge at his age. Not to the extremes he went to, but a lot of similarities.”

His young co-worker was smart, worked hard and dreamed about moving to Las Vegas. Smith said Benvenuto confided in him on occasion, sharing the fact that his parents “had problems and had been through a divorce.” 

He said he was struggling with his relationship with his sister, but Smith told police he didn’t really know the details.

“I never knew the full story on anything,” Smith said. “I really didn’t ask…That was personal information.”

Smith bought the gun on layaway and Jorge paid the payments. Once he’d paid it off, Smith took him shooting in the foothills of the West Desert. 

The Monday before the shooting, Benvenuto quit his job. He told Smith he’d be leaving by the end of the week. But the next morning, Smith said Jorge was fired. He wasn’t sure why.

Once Benvenuto had the gun in his possession, he said things that his family and friends found unnerving. 

As police questioned them in the hours after Snarr was killed and Yvette Rodier was in a hospital fighting for her life, they began to see warning signs that they missed before the shooting.

Monica told police, “It was mainly after he got the gun that he’s been talking about killing somebody.”

When detectives asked why, she said, “Just for no reason.”

They asked who, and she answered, “Anybody.”

“Is he angry at something right now?” the detective asked her in an interview that night. 

Monica, like most who knew Benvenuto, struggled to answer that question. They seemed to agree he was angry, depressed and adrift. But no one could help police understand what led to him shooting two teens he’d never met, who’d done nothing to him and who had nothing to offer him.

A few days after the shooting, Monica Benvenuto would tell a television reporter that the burglaries and buying the gun created a uniquely concerning situation.

Her brother talked about shooting the thieves who’d stolen his property.

“I told him it’s not worth it,” she told the reporter. “You’ll spend the rest of your life in prison for somebody that took some stuff.”

Watson said Benvenuto came to his apartment the day he bought the gun. He had the handgun tucked in his waistband most days after that, and he talked about how it made him feel to take back a little of the power that thieves had stolen from him.

The investigation at the crime scene at Little Dell reservoir in August, 1996
Photo credit: Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office

In between talking with Watson and Monica Benvenuto, detectives found Snarr’s Bronco abandoned in the parking lot of a car dealership on 10600 South – the very place Benvenuto told Watson he was when he called.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, detectives went to the place where Tom told Jorge they could meet. No one showed up.

Around 10 p.m. that night, Jorge called Tom again. He told him he’d walked to a gas station in American Fork, and he asked for money. A few minutes after that call, Lehi police approached him as he sat on a curb outside the gas station, and once they learned who he was, they called Salt Lake County Sheriff’s detectives.

They had their man.

Sgt. Jerry Townsend let his detectives know Benvenuto had been detained by Lehi police. He jumped in his unmarked car and drove south to pick him up. Almost immediately after putting the young man, covered in dust from walking along the railroad tracks, into his car, Benvenuto began talking.

“How long did it take for you guys to find the people I shot?” he asked.

Townsend detailed their conversation in a report. When Townsend told him that Rodier had survived, he was shocked.

“You mean the girl isn’t dead?” the report said Benvenuto said. “I can’t believe she’s not dead. I wish she would have died so she didn’t have to suffer.”

Detectives Keith Stephens and Kris Ownby questioned Benvenuto once he arrived at their offices. He never asked for an attorney, and confessed to the shooting right away. When asked for his reasons, he doesn’t hesitate.

“What it basically boils down to is I’m tired of living,” he said, “and I don’t want to breathe anymore.”

Stephens interrupts him, but then Benvenuto continues. He never wanted to kill anyone. The shooting “that was in the heat of the moment thing.”

He tells the detectives that he was driving around, listening to the radio “to see if I could muster enough nerve to do me in.”

Stephens asks if he was planning to take his own life, and Benvenuto says “yes”.

“Maybe I’m just too chicken (expletive) to do it myself,” he tells them. After an exchange about how these feelings led to him killing someone else, he said, “I didn’t really mean to do it, but it happened, you know. I don’t know. I don’t know what came over me.”

They discuss the fact that he reloaded the gun to make sure Rodier didn’t survive. And then he makes a request.

“Give me the death penalty,” he said. “I deserve it. You both know I deserve it.”

And then he continues, “The whole thing is really stupid. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t do it like that. I’d leave them alone, let them live their life…and just take mine.”

The question about why a young man with no criminal history would shoot two people he’d never met would nag everyone involved in the case for years. 

The Survivor

By Amy Donaldson

Yvette Rodier speaks to news reporters from her hospital bed. 
Photo credit: KSL TV

SALT LAKE CITY — Yvette Rodier willed herself not to move as the man who’d emptied a gun into her body shoved his hand into the pocket of her jeans.

She realized she needed to stop screaming and pretend to play dead when the initial burst of gunfire stopped, and she heard him reloading the gun. The 18-year-old fell on her side next to her date, Zach Snarr, as bullets ripped through her side and her leg. After he reloaded, he fired at her head.

Then, as suddenly as the shooting started, it stopped.

She heard footsteps toward them, and she held her breath. Zach lay motionless beside her.

Yvette’s eyes were open, and she saw the shooter’s, felt his breath on her skin as he searched their pockets. She swallowed fears about what he might be looking for or what he might do.

On a second search of Zach’s pockets, he found what he was looking for — Zach’s keys. He ran toward the parking lot of LIttle Dell Reservoir where they’d parked just a few minutes earlier to unload the camera equipment they planned to use to take pictures of a rising full moon over the water.

An aerial shot of the area where the shooting happened, Little Dell reservoir
Photo credit: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Yvette exhaled.

It smelled like something was burning. She tasted metal. Her head felt hot, her body tingled.

“It felt like I was sweating, but that was blood,” she testified in the preliminary hearing in February of 1997, just seven months after the shooting that killed one of her best friends and changed the course of her own life.

Yvette didn’t move until she heard the Bronco drive away, and then she called for help.

“Help!” she yelled. “We’ve been shot!”

A woman’s voice responded.

The woman said something about going for help. Yvette laid in the silence but not for long. She didn’t know why they’d been shot. She didn’t know if he’d come back.

She called Zach’s name. He didn’t answer.

She tried to stand up, but her right leg wouldn’t support her.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” she testified. “But I knew I had to get help, and I knew that … it would have taken a long time to go back up the asphalt, then over to the road, and I knew that the road was above me, so I knew that I could go up the hill.”

What she did to survive the night of Aug. 18, 1996, still shocks the detective who led the investigation of the shooting.

Detective Keith Stephens remembers the shooting of Zachary Snarr and Yvette Rodier at Little Dell reservoir 
Photo credit: Andrea Smardon

“We came back a couple times to photograph both at night and during the daytime just to get that different perspective,” said now-retired Salt Lake County sheriff’s detective Keith Stephens. “And it was … it was just unbelievable. … Just like … did this really happen?”

And that was just the beginning of how Yvette’s determination to reclaim her life would impress and inspire those lucky enough to know her.

“It was superhuman,” he said, stopping to fight back emotion. And that continued, he said, throughout the investigation. Yvette accommodated every request from police or prosecutors, and even the media.

“She was extremely selfless,” he said, his voice quivering. “She put all her injuries aside to help with the investigation. … She was very eager to help, very eager to, in her own way, speak for Zach.”

Yvette’s fight for her life would only become more complicated in the months and years after her miraculous survival. And it began from the moment she woke up in the hospital with her mother sitting next to her.

“I just know Zach’s dead,” she said. “I don’t, I don’t know how. But I’m sure of it.”

Later that morning, the Snarr family gathered in her room.

“And Sy came to me very first and hugged me,” Yvette recalled, referring to Zach’s mother, Sy Snarr. “And she leaned in and just said, ‘I’m so glad he was with you, because I know he was happy.'”

Gratitude and guilt washed over Yvette.

“I remember … those words daily,” she said softly. “And it was such a gift that they would take that time and come and visit me and tell me that, you know, especially the day after their son’s been killed.”

Sy Snarr knelt next to Yvette, her grief so heavy, she couldn’t even stand.

Yvette took her through every detail of Zach’s last night from where they went to dinner to the fact that he’d expressed so much pride in the fact that his mother had made the quilt he’d spread on the ground.

The blanket Sy Snarr made for Zachary Snarr at the crime scene
Photo credit: Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office

“I don’t know why it mattered, but I never would have known,” Snarr said. “I had taken him to lunch there a few days before — Zach and I, just the two of us — and he liked it, and I think that’s why he took her there, but I was glad to know that.”

What Yvette couldn’t share was how she felt guilty about surviving when Zach did not.

“When I was on the side of the road, and I had left Zach to get help,” she said. “I think I started feeling guilt at that moment that I wasn’t with him. And that he likely had died and I didn’t.”

The camera bag at the crime scene
Photo credit: Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office

Yvette’s road to recovery was brutal.

First, there were the physical injuries. No one could tell how many times she had been shot because she also sustained injuries from the shrapnel created when the bullets hit the tripod. She suffered hearing loss, memory problems, and for months, she had a severe limp because her leg was so badly injured.

“I was hit several times in the head, so there was a lot of blood and damage to my skull,” she said. “He used hollow tip or hollow point bullets. And so one of them hit my left side in my back and went all the way through and got lodged in my left inner thigh. One hit my left side and just totally expanded and blew up the left side, just opened it up raw. And then one more along my shoulder.”

“And it was like, she is going to be OK, but boy, she’s got an ugly road ahead of her,” said her aunt Toni Sullivan. “She really had some very serious, critical injuries. And it was clear that there was a major road ahead (for) her recovery.”

Almost more daunting, however, was the recovery she’d face from wounds most people couldn’t see.

“There were many changes,” Sullivan said. “She became more withdrawn. … For many years, and to this day, she suffered survivor’s guilt. … She was always fearful, and she’s suffered a lot of nightmares … for years and years and years because she would say she could still feel his breath when she’d be asleep.”

Sullivan described how Yvette’s mother, Linda Dart Rodier, who died in 2018, had to clean and treat the gaping wound on her daughter’s side every day.

“That was really difficult for Linda,” Sullivan recalled of her sister. “Initially, it was really difficult to realize she was sticking her (hands) all the way through her daughter’s body.”

Yvette said she continued to struggle with memory loss, hearing loss and nightmares. She couldn’t be alone, and she was terrorized by even the sound of gunshots on TV.

Still, she was determined to reclaim her life. She attended classes at the University of Utah as she’d planned, and she began dating.

Yvette didn’t get to choose what happened to her. But as she worked to heal herself and reclaim her life, she’d find immense gratitude for her ability to choose her path.

“I think that’s the best part about not having any choice in this is that afterward, then I have all the choices,” she said. “I didn’t have a choice. Zach didn’t have a choice. But once I lived, and I’m coming out into society, I have all the cards, I have all the choices. So I’ve been trying to think of it in that way that these are really cool choices I get to have, because of something horrible, but I still have choices.

Yvette Rodier and Sy Snarr attend the funeral of Zachary Snarr
Photo credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“So it’s, I feel powerless to the emotional pain. But as far as moving forward, I feel empowered to be making choices.”

And among those choices she made as she rebuilt her life was to never say the name of the man who shot her. She has held fast to that choice, and it has helped her feel safe.

But more than two decades after that terrifying night, she’d be faced with a choice that would challenge her decision to erase him from her life.

Every Parent’s Nightmare

By Amy Donaldson

Ron and Sy Snarr grieve the shooting death of their son, Zachary Snarr
Photo credit: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sy Snarr understood the words coming out of the Salt Lake police officer’s mouth, but somehow, they just didn’t make sense.

“It was just surreal to me, because I just kept thinking … ‘Wake up! This has to be a dream. Wake up,'” she said. “I just kept looking at them, and they said the girl he was with had been shot. She was at the hospital. I’m just like, ‘This can not be happening.’ They went on and on. And I said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you telling me my son’s dead?’

“They just kinda looked at me like, ‘This woman’s not getting it.’ And I wasn’t. It could not be real to me, you know? This could not have happened to him.”

But it did.

What happened to Zachary Snarr and Yvette Rodier rocked the community and garnered national attention.

In an interview a few days after Zach’s murder, Sy Snarr summed up what happened in a few gut-wrenching sentences.

“It was violent, it was senseless,” Snarr said in that interview, “and I will never understand it, I will never accept it.”

A random act of violence

On Aug. 28, 1996, a teenager they’d never met changed the course of their lives with a single violent act. A 19-year-old struggling with whether to use the gun he’d just purchased to end his own life, decided instead to open fire on two strangers on a date as they were setting up camera equipment on the shore at Little Dell Reservoir just outside of Salt Lake City.

It is a decision that sent shockwaves through the community, and it’s continued to reverberate through the lives of those touched by the incident for the last 26 years. For the Snarrs, it changed them in ways they didn’t really even understand or recognize until decades later.

Sy and Ron Snarr revisit that agonizing night and the painful changes that came afterward in a new podcast from KSL: “The Letter.” But this isn’t just a story of loss and grief and all the ways it transforms people. It’s also the story of how those impacted by violence recover, reclaim and rebuild their lives.

And in the case of the Snarr family, it’s also a story about the healing power of forgiveness, and the impact of an unexpected gift — a letter from the man who murdered their son.

But to fully understand the miracle the Snarrs say they’ve experienced, it is necessary to travel back in time to the day it happened, Aug. 28, 1996.

His last day

The day that shattered Sy Snarr’s world started out like any other. It was a warm, late-summer day, and she was working at Busath Photography while raising four children. She rushed into her house after work to see that her kitchen had been cleaned.

She turned to her 18-year-old son Zach for answers.

“Zach was standing there, and I said, ‘Who cleaned my kitchen?’ And he said, ‘I did it for you, Mama.’ And I said, ‘Thanks, Zach.’ And I am so grateful that I noticed. You know how sometimes you don’t notice these things, I noticed.”

She pauses before sharing the rest of her feelings about what would be a forgettable moment on any other day.

“But I wished I would have stopped and hugged him, and told him one last time how much I loved him. But I was in a hurry because I was going up to Park City. …But I have always been grateful that I noticed he’d done that for me.”

For his mother, Zach’s thoughtful act was pretty standard behavior for the 18-year-old. In a lot of ways, he was a typical teenager — he loved rock music, playing pranks, relished traveling, was gifted at photography and was as independent as they come.

But he also had a sensitivity about him that belied his age.

Even years after his death, Snarr would hear from neighbors that he’d stopped to talk with them, to help them move trash cans or shovel snow. He was a good-natured, good-hearted son, transitioning from an idyllic childhood to a promising future.

But any promise ended with a knock on the Snarrs’ front door just after midnight. Sydney Snarr answered the door and then summoned her parents for the two police officers.

“I just sat straight up in bed and I said, ‘Zach’s not home,'” his mother recalled. “I think I knew at that instant it had to do with Zach. … It’s weird because it’s such a fog all of that time, but I can recall every detail of that night.”

She remembers what they were wearing, and that the officers asked if Zach was involved in a gang.

“They weren’t in police uniforms,” she said. “They were like in black leather. … Anyway, I said, ‘What’s happened to my son?’ Because I just knew. And they said, ‘Well, will you sit down?'”

She sat next to her husband on the sofa in their living room, where pictures of their children adorned the walls behind them.

“I said, ‘Is he OK?'” she recalled. “They said, ‘Well, your son was involved in a shooting tonight.’ And I just thought, ‘You’ve got the wrong kid. Zach would never be involved in something like that!’ And they said he’d been shot and he hadn’t made it. And it was just surreal to me because I kept thinking, ‘That didn’t happen. Wake up. This has to be a dream. Wake up.'”

Once she realized what the two police officers were telling her, she fell across her husband’s lap and the two of them sobbed and screamed and tried not to shatter into a thousand pieces.

Her first impulse was to go wherever Zach was.

“I said, ‘I want to see my son,'” Sy Snarr said. “I wanted to go see him, and they said, ‘You can’t do that. You know, he’s evidence.’ … He was, I think, probably still up there. … I drove right past there, and he would have been laying there. That kind of haunted me because I was that close to him, and I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.”

The aftermath

When police told Sy Snarr that Rodier survived the shooting, she had a friend drive her to the hospital. Ron Snarr walked the neighborhood and Sydney Snarr and her brothers tried to comfort each other as friends and relatives began gathering at their small Sugar House home.

When she returned home, her house was full of people.

“My siblings were there,” she said. “My husband’s siblings were there. Friends, neighbors. … One neighbor told me she heard me screaming. I don’t remember screaming. But she heard me. It was just an awful, awful night.”

Their Zach was gone.

Yvette Rodier and Sy Snarr attend the funeral of Zachary Snarr
Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

And in his absence, the pain contaminated everything. She said the sadness, the grief felt like a weight that might suffocate her.

“You go through so many different feelings and emotions,” she said of the days after his death. “I say to people, ‘When people say they have a broken heart, it’s real. It’s a physical thing. It’s a physical pain.’ That kind of grief. … A friend told me that when I was breathing, I would moan with every breath. It’s that painful. I can’t imagine anything worse. … It’s hell. It’s a living hell.”

The thought of doing even the most mundane task was overwhelming.

“It took me a while,” she said of trying to pick up the pieces of her life. “I didn’t want to leave the house. I would just curl up in the fetal position, honestly. It was just so painful. … And then the anger. I was angry with everything and everybody. I was angry at him. I was angry at God for allowing this to happen to my son, if that makes sense. … I’d see people out running and laughing, and I’d wonder, ‘How can they do that?’ … I really, truly believed I would never be happy again. It was just so devastating.”

That night sent shockwaves through her life, through the lives of her children and through the lives of strangers who were rocked by the random brutality of the crime.

“That night is like a video in my mind,” she said. “It just plays over and over, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

Ron and Sy Snarr remember Zachary Snarr. Zachary was killed in a shooting in 1996. 
Photo credit: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Thursday morning, the newspaper detailed what happened, and she spiraled into darkness all over again.

“I didn’t know until that moment that he’d been shot in the head,” she said. “And that really affected me. I think my knees almost gave out. … That was hard.”

The man accused of killing their son was arrested that next morning. Two days later, the family gathered on the living room sofa to do an interview they hoped would satisfy the media repeatedly knocking on their door.

Sitting between her youngest brother and her father, Sydney Snarr sobs as she tries to explain to reporters what the world lost with her brother’s death.

“He wasn’t just some average guy,” she said. “He was exceptional.”

As the family and the community tried to grapple with what appeared to be a random act of violence, Sy Snarr tried to express a pain so consuming, it felt like it had swallowed her whole. As for the 19-year-old who’d robbed her of a future with her son, she couldn’t even see him as a human being.

“I saw him as a monster,” she said. “Why would he shoot him? Zach would have given him the Bronco. … But it wasn’t about that.”

And it would take more than two decades for her to understand what did happen the night her son was gunned down. That understanding would begin 22 years after that agonizing night with a letter from the man who murdered their son.