On January 21, 1990 the body of 23-year-old Taunja Bennett was found in a remote area of the Columbia Gorge, just outside Portland, Oregon. She had been beaten, raped and strangled.
Laverne Pavlinac, 57, read about the murder in depth and decided Bennett’s case could be used to end her 10-year abusive relationship with her 39-year-old boyfriend, John Sosnovske
. She first made anonymous tips to police that Sosnovske had bragged about the crime, but when she perceived no response, she called the detectives working on the case, told them about her abusive relationship and said Sosnovske had murdered Bennett.
Pavlinac later changed her story, however, and said that the two of them had met Bennett at a Portland bar and that Sosnovske forced her to help him rape Bennett and dispose of the body.
Police interviewed Sosnovske, who denied Pavlinac’s claims. A search failed to turn up incriminating evidence. Pavlinac then told police that she had found items in the trunk of her car that matched those sought in a search warrant. Police determined these were planted.
Still, detectives continued to interview Pavlinac. They took her to the Columbia River Gorge to see if she could point out locations only the police and killer would know. She did well at identifying the place where the body had been found, but failed to accurately identify places where personal items belonging to Bennett had been located.
Eventually, the case was turned over to prosecutors and Pavlinac and Sosnovske were arrested in February, 1990. Both proclaimed their innocence.
The evidence against them consisted primarily of Pavlinac’s recorded confessions and accusations as well as her success in identifying the place the body was found. Pavlinac was tried first. She recanted her confession and said that she had made it up to escape from Sosnovske. In January of 1991 she was convicted of felony murder by a jury in Multnomah County Circuit Court. She was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 10 years.
Sosnovske, fearing the death penalty given the result of Pavlinac’s trial, pleaded no contest to murder and kidnapping charges in March of 1991 and was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1994 newspapers and authorities began receiving anonymous letters from someone who contended he had killed Bennett. In 1995, Keith Jesperson, who was known as the “Happy Face Killer,” confessed to killing Bennett and gave information only the killer and the police knew—the location of Bennett’s purse.
In November 1995, Jesperson pleaded no contest to murdering Bennett. On November 27, 1995, based on Jesperson’s confession and at the insistence of prosecutors, a Marion County Circuit Judge ordered Pavlinac and Sosnovske released.
Sosnovske’s conviction was set aside for violation of his civil rights. The judge refused to vacate Pavlinac’s conviction, chastising her for abusing the judicial system. He ordered her release because keeping an innocent person in prison would have been cruel and unusual punishment.
– Michael S. Perry