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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”