The Florence Salon Murders
On the morning of November 6th, 2001, a customer walked into the Hair Gallery - a hair-and-nail salon in Florence, Montana. She immediately encountered the body of the salon owner, Dorothy Harris, which would be just one of three found in the salon that day. Over the years, investigators have struggled to determine which of the victims was targeted... or why...
On the morning of November 6th, 2001 - a Tuesday - a customer pulled up to the parking lot of a hair-and-nail salon.
This salon, called the Hair Gallery, was located off of Highway 93, in the small town of Florence, Montana. It was an isolated building, off of a regularly-used but not-quite busy highway, in a small and scenic area of Montana.
As this customer pulled into the parking lot, she saw an oddly-dressed man walking out of the Hair Gallery. He was wearing a large, black coat and what might have been a top-hat, but he was leaving through the shop's front door.
The customer made a mental note of this oddly-dressed man, but continued pulling into the parking lot. She had a manicure appointment set up for 11:00 A.M., and that time was quickly approaching. She parked, and got out of her car, making her way to the back door of the Hair Gallery - which she knew as the main entrance.
When this customer walked in through the back door, she was horrified to discover a body in the immediate walkway. The body, which was lying face-down, was unmistakably dead... the victim lying in a pool of their own blood. Unbeknownst to her, there were two more bodies located in the hair salon, but she wouldn't learn that until later on... after the authorities arrive to examine the scene.
The customer stepped over the body in order to reach the nearby telephone, where she called 911 and alerted them to the crime scene within this small town hair-and-nail salon.
This is the story of the Florence Salon Murders.
Florence, Montana, is an incredibly small-town within a heavily-forested area of the state.
It is a part of Ravalli County, which itself has just around 40,000 residents.
Florence, which was originally settled in the late 1800s by Irish immigrants expanding out from nearby Missoula, was originally referred to as "One Horse." This was, of course, a joke referring to the area's size, disregarding it as a town entirely.
Florence, just like its overarching Ravalli County, is mostly white... over 96% of the population identifies as white, which is pretty par for this area of rural Montana.
The population, which has hovered at less-than-a-thousand for decades now, has actually decreased in recent years. Around 900 people lived in the town at the 2000 census, a number which decreased to 765 a decade later.
The only "notable person" to come from Florence, Montana, was a baseball player named Jim Tyack, who served as a bench outfielder for the 1943 Philadelphia Athletics.
The weather trends in this area are what you'd expect from Montana at-large: the area experiences all four seasons, with the summers jumping up into the mid-90s, and the winters dipping down into single digits. This makes sense, when you consider that the area appeals to those that love being outside, and the area is a prime candidate for hiking and other outdoor activities.
Florence is just about twenty miles south of Missoula, Montana, and about 130 miles west of state capitol Helena. It is just a short drive away from Idaho's northwestern border, to give you some idea of its place, geographically. Florence also happens to be wedged between a collection of National Forests, and is just a short distance away from both Lolo Peak and St. Joseph Peak.
This location drives a lot of traffic through Florence, as tourists often travel from out-of-state to enjoy the area's wildlife, and to visit National Forests for either scenic reasons or for any number of outdoor activities.
However, Florence has continued to be the very definition of a small-town in America, where everyone's face is known, and strangers aren't common. Many Florence residents say that it is the type of place where you don't have to worry about locking your front door, because crime is something that happens in other cities and towns, but not here.
U.S. Route 93 runs throughout Florence, Montana, serving as the major artery that gives life to the small town. Peppered along the sides of this highway are the various shops and restaurants that support this small town.
One of these small shops was a hair-and-nail salon named the Hair Gallery, which had become a staple along the town's main strip. The store had a bright sign, which illuminated its message - "All About Nails" - to passing vehicles along Route 93.
The building that the Hair Gallery was in had once been the Florence post office, and - as such - was surrounded by windows. This meant that the interior of the shop was easily seen by anyone driving or walking by.
The owner of the Hair Gallery, a 62-year old named Dorothy Harris, was often described as a "chipper grandmother" who loved making crafts in her spare time. She loved creating things with her hands, as was apparent in her hobbies and her career.
The store, which was closed on Sundays and Mondays, was open the other five days of the week. This meant that Dorothy, who owned the salon, would often make her weekly bank visit on Tuesday mornings, right as the salon was opening.
This was the case for the morning of November 6th, 2001, as Dorothy had driven down to her bank in the town of Stevensville, to make her weekly deposit, before heading back to the Hair Gallery salon along U.S. Route 93. Stevensville is about ten miles south of Florence, and police would later theorize that she arrived back at the salon just minutes before a customer found her body in the walkway of the salon that she owned.
It was around 11:00 A.M. that a customer arrived at the Hair Gallery for her regular nail appointment. This is the same customer that saw an oddly-dressed man walking out the front door of the salon - a man that would become a vital component of the story moving forward.
This customer walked into the salon through the backdoor, which she knew as the main entrance. Not many people used the front door, which the oddly-dressed man had departed through.
The body that this customer found in the back doorway was that of salon owner Dorothy Harris, the adored 62-year old grandmother who had become a staple of small-town Florence. She was curled up in a fetal position, and was described as lying in a pool of her own blood.
The customer stepped over Dorothy's body in order to reach the telephone, which she used to phone authorities. She was unaware that there were two more bodies in the back of the salon, which police would find when they arrived to examine the scene.
Police found two more bodies in a small utility room, which were later confirmed to be Brenda Patch and Cynthia Paulus - two women that happened to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Brenda Patch was a 44-year old woman that worked as a manicurist for the Hair Gallery.
Cynthia Paulus was a 71-year old customer, who visited the salon on a weekly basis. She had a standing appointment for Friday mornings, but had changed her plans in order to look nice for a University of Montana basketball game later that evening.
Police would later theorize that Patch and Paulus had been alone at the shop when an unknown attacker arrived, who led them to the utility room that their bodies would later be found in. There, they had likely been forced to kneel, before their lives were violently ended.
A police official would later state that the small room the two women were found in, a utility closet-type room, was a "battle scene."
It is believed that Brenda Patch and Cynthia Paulus were the first to be killed, and salon owner Dorothy Harris arrived back at the salon just minutes later. She was killed in the doorway she entered, but suffered the same violent death.
Officials would originally state that all three women had been killed with a sharp instrument, but would later add a more terrifying, obscene detail: all three women had their throats slit, with deep incisions that created a grisly crime scene for investigators to pore over.
Authorities would also state, later on, that the three women had suffered "other injuries," but refused to elaborate. This wasn't any kind of sexual assault, as that motive was lacking from the scene entirely.
Police officials later described the crime scene as "dynamic," without offering up many more explicit details.
Investigators, including members of the Ravalli County Sheriff's Office, would later describe this crime scene as the most brutal they had ever seen.
Sheriff Perry Johnson, who described the scene as "horrific," said that there was a tremendous amount of blood at the scene.
"Why this occurred, we simply don't know. What I fear is this could be somebody that, for whatever reason, decided this was a good day to do some evil work."
From the start, this crime shocked everyone that lived in the town of Florence - as well as the surrounding area.
This small town, which had less than a thousand resident, had been aware that petty crime was a constant of life. The area had a number of drug addicts and delinquents, who often stole to feed their habits. But violent crime like this was unheard of... especially a crime that was so brazen and obscene, to happen along the town's busiest road in the middle of the day.
As I said just a few minutes ago: this was a town where locking your front door wasn't a necessity. Everyone knew everyone else within the town.
Denise Philley, a Florence resident, was quoted in the days after this crime took place:
"We haven't locked our house for 12 years. We're not in Los Angeles. This is Florence, montana, for crying out loud."
Brian Philley, her teenage son, had the same kind of shock in the aftermath of the triple-murder:
"I came home and my parents had the door locked. I said, 'How am I going to get in?' We never lock our door. Then I heard they came in here and killed these three old ladies.
"It's such a small town - everybody knows everybody. Everybody would know someone if he walked down the street. It must be an out-of-towner, or some guy up in the woods we don't know about. You know, a Unabomber guy or something."
The investigation into the brutal crime struggled from the moment the crime was called in to local authorities.
Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson, who was very active throughout the investigation, was quoted as saying in the aftermath of the crime:
"I can safely tell you right now we haven't developed a motive. We haven't developed that scenario yet that is going to allow us to clear this case up... We've had the last eight weeks to eliminate those (leads) and we'll take however many weeks it takes to eliminate every one of them."
Investigators had quickly discovered that there were no items of value or any money missing from the crime scene. The only items that were unaccounted for were a couple of styling capes, which held very little value by any metric.
Likewise, there was no evidence of a sexual assault being the motive.
Ravalli County Sheriff's investigators began looking through the personal and professional relationships of the three victims - Dorothy Harris, Brenda Patch, and Cynthia Paulus - but could find nothing that stood out to them.
They looked through financial statements, insurance and telephone records, and collected DNA samples - as well as palm prints - from a number of family members, friends, and other acquaintances.
The only lead they discovered through this was a business acquaintance of salon owner Dorothy Harris: a relative, whose relationship with Dorothy was described as "contentious." However, this lead quickly evaporated and led to a dead-end.
Sheriff Perry Johnson told the media:
"I feel pretty comfortable at this point that we have done what we can to develop any family members as a suspect and we've not been successful doing that. Have they been completely eliminated? I'd say absolutely not. They won't be completely eliminated until we've got a signed and sealed confession on our desk."
One of the main issues that investigators were faced with was trying to determine the target of the attacks.
The three women that were murdered weren't the type of have enemies... especially enemies that would murder them in cold-blood with no regard for the lives of others.
Investigators struggled to connect the crime to any of the victims; in particular, salon owner Dorothy Harris. Investigators believed that she hadn't been there when the first two women were led to the small utility room and murdered, so it was unlikely that she had been the intended target. She had likely been heading back from her bank in the town of Stevensville, which was roughly eight miles away from the salon - a drive that took anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes.
Police were able to determine that Dorothy had visited the bank roughly thirty minutes before the bodies were discovered by a customer; meaning, of course, that the three women had likely been killed just minutes before the customer walked in through the back-entrance.
Sheriff Johnson stated:
"We believe this is really significant. We believe that this woman walked into the salon within a minute or two of the murders."
Investigators would soon reveal that a palm print was found at the scene of the murder, but would not give any more details about it: where it was found, whether it belonged to a suspect or a victim, etc.
Same goes for a pair of black sunglasses that were recovered from "right in the middle of the crime scene," according to Sheriff Johnson. Police would reveal an image of the glasses, but authorities wouldn't state where, exactly, the glasses had been found, deciding to keep certain details from the crime scene close to the chest.
Sheriff Johnson stated about this:
"I think it's one of those situations where we just don't want to disclose some of those things that we need to hear from a viable suspect or from a viable witness."
The investigation would soon establish a suspect in the crimes, who would later be determined to be a person-of-interest in the triple murder.
The customer that pulled into the parking lot of the murder and discovered the body of salon owner Dorothy Harris, recalled seeing a "oddly-dressed man" walking away from the front door of the salon.
The description she provided of this strange man would be given further credence when other eyewitnesses added details of their own, and recalled seeing this individual walking through the area of the scene in the time frame provided.
This oddly-dressed man was described as being young, somewhere in his twenties or early thirties. He stood about six feet tall, with narrow facial features. Some believe that due to these features - a narrow, youthful face - that this man might have actually been a woman masquerading as a man, but that is mainly chalked up to local gossip.
This oddly-dressed man was wearing an unusual, wide-brimmed hat; possibly a fedora or even a top hat. He was also wearing a black, calf-length duster coat. Together, these two items created a person-of-interest that seemed out-of-place and out-of-time, looking more like an 19th century outlaw than a murder suspect from 2001.
Several townsfolk from the surrounding area recall seeing this man walking away from the salon, in a short period of time after the murder took place. He was described as "walking with a purpose."
The day that the bodies were found within the salon, a bloodhound was brought out by police officials, in an effort to track the oddly-dressed man. The bloodhound found the man's scent on the grass in front of the salon, as well as in the alley on the side of the business. The dog then tracked the scent north, through the dirt parking lot of the Wild River, a local bar and restaurant.
It seemed like the oddly-dressed man had made his way through the back streets of Florence, and then across a school parking lot, before the scent was lost in a nearby pasture, along One Horse Creek Road. This area was roughly four blocks away from the crime scene.
The next day, another bloodhound was brought out, in an effort to pick up the scent once again. This bloodhound was able to find the scent, in the pasture nearby One Horse Creek Road, and continued it to a home across-the-street.
The owner of the home, who was described as being physically unable to commit the crimes, was cleared as a suspect almost immediately. However, this painted an odd picture of the culprit's getaway route, walking through this small town in an odd outfit, before disappearing entirely just a short distance away from the crime scene.
Investigators would later declare this individual a "person of interest," so not necessarily a suspect, but their identity continues to elude police officials to this day.
The Ravalli County Sheriff's Office handled the case from the jump, and have been credited in the years since for being open-minded throughout, and reaching out to other authorities in an attempt to catch the killers.
In the immediate aftermath, the Sheriff's Office reached out to members of the FBI, the US Attorney's Office, the DEA, the US Marshalls Service, as well as other local law enforcement agencies for assistance.
Sheriff Johnson stated that this was a common practice for him and his department, who often tried to court those whose opinion differed from their own, as it added to the strength of the investigation:
"I've been wrong before. I would never discount their opinions and I think that it lends itself to a more successful investigation: the fact that people have the ability to speak their mind. Just because I'm the sheriff doesn't mean that I'm right. I don't have a crystal ball."
On this podcast, I normally cover cases where police departments stonewall other investigators and researchers, so it's refreshing to read about a case where investigators and officials remained open-minded throughout.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in to help Ravalli County officials create a profile of the killer. Sheriff Perry Johnson stated that this profile was helpful in trying to assist their search, but made it hard to pin down anyone specifically, because the area was full of hunters and outdoorsmen - as such, it was rife with similar personality traits.
"It may be somebody with efficiency, who has training, but it may not, and they were very adamant about that. It doesn't have to be someone with special training, just someone who was invested, and who was a cool, calm person to begin with. That might be one of those personality traits."
Jerry Crego, a retired police captain from the Missoula County Sheriff's Office, assisted with the investigation in the early months. He stated about the profile developed by the FBI for this case:
"I've used (profiles) and, you know, they're pretty fascinating. The problem, though, in the end, is that they don't have the name of a suspect at the bottom. You still don't have anybody to arrest."
By the end of 2001, the salon triple-murder was already on its way to becoming a local legend. It had changed Florence... possibly forever. The illusion of safety in this small, sylvan town was damaged beyond repair.
The month after the crime took place - in December of 2001 - the case was featured on an episode of "America's Most Wanted."
Over the next several months, investigators and officials working the case - primarily, within the Ravalli County Sheriff's Office - became split down the middle. Those on one half believed that the murders were perpetrated by somoene familiar with at least one of the victims. Their thinking was that knives suggested intimacy and familiarity with one or more victims, and generally featured some kind of personal motive. Sheriff Perry Johnson was a fan of this theory, stating:
"With a knife, you put your hands on people. It doesn't give you the ability to be a bystander at your own crime. You have to be personally invested... It's a whole different element than with a firearm."
But on the other side of this divide, where investigators and officials that believed the crime to be random: a senseless murder, driven by an unknown or unapparent motive. After all, no motive had been discovered by investigators, as the crime didn't seem driven by either robbery or sexual assault.
Soon, though, the case would become a standout in the records of the FBI. Officials there struggled to find any other similar crime, which took the lives of three or more victims, which had no apparent motive. This made it hard to track, at least as far as US crimes go.
Sheriff Perry Johnson stated:
"There may be triple homicides and there may be cases that look and sound like this, but there are no cases like this. The dynamic just doesn't exist anywhere around. We haven't found a sister case, a twin case, any kind of case that comes right back to us and says you guys should be looking in this direction."
Great Bend, Kansas is a town very similar to Florence, Montana.
Despite featuring a much larger population - hovering around 15,000 residents - and being located roughly 1300 miles away, Great Bend is a small town smack-dab in the middle of Kansas. It is roughly right between three large metropolitan areas: Kansas City to the east, Denver to the west, and Oklahoma City to the south.
Great Bend is noteworthy for a number of U.S. Highways that intersect within it, including Route 56, which runs throughout Great Bend itself.
On the afternoon of September 4th, 2002, a customer was pulling into the parking lot of the Dolly Madison Cake-Discount Bakery, located at 1004 Harrison Street. Just like the Florence Hair Gallery, this building was a standalone unit, not attached to any strip or shopping mall.
As the customer pulled into the parking lot, she saw an unfamiliar man locking the front door. This customer had been here before, and had never seen that man working. She got out of her car and approached the front door, but the unfamiliar man told her that the bakery was closed for the day.
This woman found it odd for the bakery to be closing so early in the afternoon, but thought little of it at the time.
Later that evening, a delivery man entered the bakery through a back door. Just inside, he found the bodies of two women.
Mandi Alexander, just 24 years old, was the mother of two young children, who had been working as the bakery's clerk for all of three days.
Mary Drake, 79 years old, was a customer that had been picking up some bread that afternoon, and had not yet returned home.
Both women had been stabbed to death, and were lying face-down in pools of their own blood.
Much like the salon murders up in Florence, a motive in this double-murder was hard to determine. Investigators were able to find a tiny amount of money missing from the bakery, but the purses and wallets belonging to both Mandi Alexander and Mary Drake had been untouched. There also seemed to be no sign of a sexual assault taking place before or after the women were killed.
Dean Akings, the police chief of Great Bend, stated:
"There was money missing out of the cash register, and that, as far as motive is concerned, is all we know.
"For what was taken out of there, if robbery was a motive, there's a whole lot of other places they could go for a whole lot more money."
Most shocking to police was the realization that, just like the crime up in Florence, the killer had struck the bakery during a busy time period: the evening rush, some time between 5:15 and 6:00 PM.
Police were able to get in-touch with the customer that had witnessed the strange man locking up the bakery that afternoon. She was able to supply investigators with information about the man, and was able to help create a composite sketch. This sketch was distributed throughout the area, and contained the following details: the suspect stood about 6'1", weighed around 175 pounds, had light brown or blond collar-length hair, and was somewhere between 30 and 35 years old.
This information rang alarm bells for a nearby employee, who worked for a motel just a short distance away from the bakery in-question. He said that a transient had checked in on the day of the murders - September 4th - and had checked out the following day. The employee noted that this man had shaved his head before checking out.
Just like the salon murders in Florence, this double-murder has remained unsolved in the nearly two-decades since. Investigators have confirmed that the two cases have been linked in the years since, but because of the lack of any motive, it is hard for them to find comparisons.
No details have been released about how the two bakery victims- Mandi Alexander and Mary Drake - were killed. Police revealed that they were "stabbed," but offered up no additional details. No motive was ever discovered, and the person-of-interest seen by the customer that afternoon has never been identified.
Over the next few years, the triple-murder in Florence continued to plague local investigators.
Eventually, a new sheriff was elected. Chris Hoffman took over as the sheriff for Ravalli County, and Perry Johnson - who had been open and active with the case from the beginning - moved back into a position as one of the county's lead detectives.
It wasn't until 2005 that any news broke regarding the unsolved crime from the hair-and-nail salon. This is when police announced that they had developed a lead suspect, and were actively preparing for charges to be filed.
Brian Walter Weber, who had been born in Arizona, grew up in Florence, Montana.
At the time of the murders, in 2001, he had been living in Nampa, Idaho, a city near Boise, roughly 375 miles away.
At the time, Brian - who was in his mid-20's - had become a small-time drug dealer. He dealt primarily in methamphetamine, which he also used and became an addict of. Because of his meth addiction, he begin slipping into a world of not only crime, but violence. Those that knew him described him as a violent man, who began committing petty crimes to help support his habit, such as robbery and theft. However, in his words:
"...I would never kill someone."
During the first week of November, in 2001 - at around the same time that the triple-murder took place - Weber visited the area of Missoula with a girlfriend of his. This girlfriend, at one point, had a restraining order against Weber - for domestic violence - but they had apparently made up at this point in time. Weber said that they made the trip for business, relating to his drug dealing, but this visit would put him on the map of investigators.
Just weeks after the murders took place - in November of 2001 - Weber was contacted by local police officers, down in Nampa, Idaho. It was Thanksgiving day, when he was asked if he would mind coming in to cooperate with investigators and answer some questions relating to the Florence murders from a couple of weeks prior. Weber agreed to the interview, as well as agreeing to give a sample of his DNA and a search of the van he had been driving.
"They asked me if there was any reason why my DNA would be in that building."
Weber was referring to investigators asking him about the hair salon, and if he had visited it at any point in time. Weber admitted that he was familiar with the building itself, since Florence was a very small place; but said that he hadn't been inside that building since it was a post office, over a decade prior, when he was a child.
"I hadn't been in that place since it became a hair-cutting place."
Years later, Brian Weber would admit that he was high on methamphetamine during the interview, and couldn't remember how or why investigators had originally suspected him in the murders.
Shortly after this interview took place, Weber tried to give up his life of crime and drug use, and moved to California. However, within months, he had returned to Montana, where he began dealing drugs once again.
In November of 2003, Brian Weber was arrested for brutally assaulting a man named Keegan Strelnick, in what was described as a meth deal gone wrong. Weber was charged with beating Strelnick alongside an unknown associate until:
"... the two apparently got tired of assaulting him."
Weber's bail was set at $100,000, and his official charges were listed as aggravated burglary and aggravated assault.
In May of 2004, he accepted a plea deal, which downgraded his charges to felony burglary and misdemeanor assault, and gave him a three-year sentence of probation.
Jennifer Clark, the Deputy Missoula County Attorney, said that federal investigators had expressed a personal interest in Weber's case, and had urged for her - and her office - to try and keep Weber locked up for as long as possible.
"They were very, very interested in making sure he stayed locked up until they could indict him."
The reasoning for that became very clear just a month or so later, when Weber was was charged with new crimes in July of 2004. The charges included possession of dangerous drugs with intent to distribute, but he would later be linked to two separate incidents involving large-scale meth operations.
In December of 2004, Weber was convicted in a U.S. District Court of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, with his sentencing set for the following year. He was facing some serious jail-time, with the possibility of spending a third of his life beyond bars - if not more.
In May of 2005, Weber's sentencing came to a close, and he was given 24 years and 3 months in federal prison for this most recent conviction. And because of the stringent laws in the U.S. for drug felonies, it was looking likely that he'd end up serving most - if not all - of his sentence.
It was at around this time that an anonymous source began communicating with a local paper, The Missoulian. This source stated, in regards to the active state of the triple murder at the Florence hair salon from nearly four years prior:
"They've got the guy locked up, so there's no real hurry. They've got the time to make sure they've got it all right before they go ahead."
It was later in this year, November of 2005, that Weber's name officially surfaced as a suspect in the salon murders. Weber, who was then-identified by his prison number, 08347-046, was a component of the Ravalli County's investigation into the murders, as they explored links between organized crime - namely, drug traffickers - to the violent murders of Dorothy Harris, Brenda Patch, and Cynthia Paulus.
Weber, who had been singled out due to alleged remarks he ha d made to two different sources in prison, was being investigated as the main culprit. And now the entire area was aware of the investigator's interest in him for the violent crimes.
Weber, who plead his innocence, told the same paper that outed his identity:
"The bottom line is that I've done a lot of bad things... but I never did those murders."
Throughout 2006, the saga regarding Brian Weber continued to unfold; this time, from behind bars.
Ravalli County officials had enlisted the help of an inmate from a Missoula County jail to assist them in their investigation. This inmate, named Perry Willingham, had been arrested in October of 2005 on suspicions of making methamphetamine in his hotel room, as well as forging legal documents. Since his arrest, he had been cooperating with Ravalli County investigators, and had been feeding them information about Weber. A listening device was installed in a jail cell he shared with Weber, and he was supplying them with extra statements allegedly made by Weber.
However, word of his involvement in the ongoing murder investigation had made it back to Weber himself, and this inmate - Perry Willingham - alleged that Weber made threats against his own life. As such, he asked to be moved to a jail in Ravalli County, but had to be asked for another move when he became aware of Weber's connections in that jail.
This prison drama was undercut by another development in 2006, when Brian Weber received some good news. Due to some legalities exploited by his lawyers, one of the two convictions from the year prior was dismissed, and his 24-year sentence - which was very unlikely to see an early parole or release date - soon became a 10-year sentence with much more lenient parameters.
The timeline that investigators had created for themselves in the Florence triple murder was now looking much more rushed, and they began putting together their entire case against Weber for the triple murder in a hurry.
Before I move forward in the story, I'm going to back up just a bit and tell you about another main player in this story moving forward.
Lincoln Christopher Benavides was born in Idaho, and abandoned by his father as a child. He lived with his mother and a sister, but began using drugs at the age of 9, which would begin a lifelong struggle with addiction.
In his early teenage years, he became the sole caretaker of his younger sister, and the two of them lived on the streets for a period of time.
Benavides got into his first legal trouble at the age of 13, and that jump-started his long life of criminal entanglements.
At the age of 17, Lincoln Benavides moved into an Idaho foster home, run by a woman named Donna Eliason. Eliason, who had cared for over two-hundred children as a foster parent, said that she had a special bond with Benavides, and hoped for him to turn his life around.
"When he came to our house he was standoffish, and as he stayed there he tried hardest of all the boys to make a difference in himself. He came not knowing what to expect and he left with a dream."
Unfortunately, Benavides had a number of mental and emotional issues, and his dream - of being a better, more successful man than the father that had abandoned him - became corrupted by his personal demons. He began selling drugs as a young adult, eventually moving on to head a small drug syndicate that sold meth across Idaho and Montana.
This is where he came into contact with Brian Walter Weber, whose life he has been linked to in the years since.
Roughly six-and-a-half-years after the murders of the three women in the Florence, Montana hair salon, charges were filed against the alleged perpetrators of the violent act.
It was April of 2008, and roughly 70 family members and friends of the three victims were packed into the Russell Smith Courthouse of Missoula, Montana, as prosecutors laid out their case against the two suspects, in a 15-page indictment.
The charges alleged that 33-year-old Lincoln Benavides was the leader of a drug distribution ring that operated throughout Idaho and Montana between 1999 and 2001, and that 31-year-old Brian Weber was a small-time dealer and distributor, who occasionally worked as a violent enforcer for the organization.
The indictment read:
"On occasion, Weber would threaten other dealers, or beat them in order to facilitate the collection of money for the organization. On occasion, Brian Weber and Lincoln Benavides would together threaten or beat someone."
Weber was already serving a 10-year federal sentence for meth distribution, while Benavides were in the middle of a 15-year state sentence for drug dealing. With this indictment, they were facing additional charges of conspiracy to distribute meth, distribution of illegal narcotics, and then three charges each of violent crimes in aid of racketeering and murder while engaged in drug trafficking. That last charge, murder while engaged in drug trafficking, carried with it the possibility of the death penalty.
The indictment offered up very little direct evidence pointing to the two men's involvement in the murder, simply stating that the murders were committed in an effort to collect on a drug debt. The exact details were kept sealed by the court, and officials promised that those details would come to light in the upcoming trial.
In addition to providing very little evidence about the three murders, the indictment also seemed to stress a very light connection between Lincoln Benavides and the murders. In fact, the indictment stressed that he didn't have any direct involvement in the violent crimes, but father, that he "counseled, commanded, induced or procured the killings of the victims."
The prosecutors pointed out that both men had fled the area shortly after the murders took place: with Weber leaving for California, while Benavides left the country entirely before resurfacing in Texas months later. It also pointed to their involvement in drug trafficking and prior violent acts as a guideline of their behavior, and stressed that each had a proclivity for violence.
The charges included in the indictment were primarily based on a number of statements from informants and jailhouse snitches; witnesses that are often deemed as last ditch efforts among legal critics.
Defense attorneys for both Benavides and Weber immediately filed motions asking for a dismissal of the charges, calling the broader conspiracy presented by prosecutors "improper." These defense attorneys also accused the prosecution of "outrageous government misconduct," pointing to a number of borderline-illegal acts perpetrated against Weber and Benavides while they had been in prison, including invasions of privacy and their constitutional rights.
In June of 2009, the deadline passed in which prosecutors could have pursued the case as a capital murder crime. This meant that the option of them pushing for the death penalty was now permanently off of the table.
Rumor has it that the decision to not pursue the death penalty in this case came directly from top officials in the U.S. Department Of Justice, including Eric Holder, then-the-Attorney General for the United States. The U.S. Attorney's office of Montana seemed to lend credence to these rumors in a statement, which read:
"... decisions regarding whether the United States will seek the death penalty are vested in the attorney general. By today's filing, we have informed the court and the defendants that we will not be seeking the death penalty against either defendant."
However, shortly after this decision was made public, the original indictment from the year before was amended, to include a couple of changes. It alleged that the drug ring created by Lincoln Benavides had endured until 2004 - not 2001, as original stated - and levied twenty additional charges of drug trafficking and racketeering against the two men.
Both Lincoln Benavides and Brian Weber continued to express their innocence, and pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In October of 2009, a crushing blow was dealt to the long-lasting murder investigation from Florence.
Lincoln Benavides, who had been accused of having some knowledge of or involvement in the triple murder, accepted a plea deal. As a part of this plea deal, he pleaded guilty to two federal drug charges - conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and distributing methamphetamine - but all other charges were dropped. This included the three murder charges.
Prosecutors recommended a sentence of 30 years for the two felony counts, but it seemed like they were becoming less and less sure of the murder case, and this plea deal was only proof of that in the public eye.
Tim Foley, a federal defender from California who served on Lincoln Benavides' legal team, claimed that the murder case was "hijacked by lying jailhouse informants and investigators who zealotry outstripped their ethics."
"Mr. Benavides has always denied any involvement in, or culpability for, the Florence homicides, and of course, plead not guilty to the charges in the indictment relating to that event."
Throughout the area, many residents of Florence - and those that knew the victims - expressed outrage at the case against one of the two suspects seemingly being dropped for good.
Jay Harris, the son of murder victim Dorothy Harris, stated about the plea deal:
"It is what it is and there's nothing we can do about it. I'd rather have them in prison than walking free."
Ken Karlson, a Florence resident, said:
"If you got the right one don't let them go... look at the tragedy down here and families that suffered from it."
David Tobin, another resident, echoed that belief:
"I think it's ridiculous. Because I don't know why they didn't pursue the death penalty, because someone committing the crime like that... life in prison should be a blessing, and to get off (entirely) is absurd."
Megan Rick, a Florence resident, stated:
"I think it's outrageous. What he did was awful. He should get the maximum charge, not get off with lesser punishment."
Months later, Lincoln Benavides appeared in court for his sentencing hearing, after accepting the plea deal in October of 2009. Judge Donald Molloy, who handed down a sentence of 25 years, stressed that this was a sentence unrelated to any allegations made against him:
"This is a drug conspiracy and a drug conviction that Mr. Benavides is being sentenced for. He is being sentenced for no other allegation, or connection, or association. This is a drug offense only."
Benavides, who had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, was well aware that he had likely taken his last steps as a free man. Nonetheless, he was looking forward to the chance of being released while still relatively young, and mentioned the good that his stay in prison had done for him, personally.
"I would like to express sincere remorse for what I did. I made some very regretful decisions. Now that I have been away from the drug environment, I can see how much harm they do. I believe my exposure to drugs via my family background had a lot to do with the decisions I made, but that does not excuse them. When I was charged with the homicide of those three elderly women, even though I was innocent, I thought my life was over; given my past experience with law enforcement and the system. As funny as this may sound, now I'm glad for this whole experience."
Despite charges being dropped against Lincoln Benavides, the trial against his one-time associate Brian Weber was expected to go forward.
In December of 2009 - following the plea deal accepted by Lincoln Benavides - lawyers for Brian Weber filed legal motions to have the murder charges against him dropped. Their attempt was unsuccessful, but was able to have two of the federal drug charges filed against him dropped.
This was exposed as an issue with the statute of limitations, as the charges had been filed in October of 2006 - when he was still in prison for his 2004 conviction - but weren't unsealed until nearly two years later, in April of 2008. As such, the charges were no longer valid.
In the legal motions filed at the tail end of 2009, Brian Weber alleged that the charges against him were based on "a whole bunch of hearsay from fellow prisoners." And, sadly, he wasn't too far off of the mark.
On January 22nd, 2010, federal prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss all of the remaining charges against Brian Walter Weber. In this motion, they stated that "the government can not prove beyond a reasonable doubt" that Weber was responsible for the violent triple-murder.
It came to light that the only witness that could provide a motive for the crime, a woman named Emily Ross, had passed away in 2008. The rest of their witnesses, who consisted of jailhouse snitches and drug-using informants, were deemed to have a number of credibility issues: issues which would have exposed the fragility of the prosecutor's case in trial.
Joseph Thaggard, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, also stated that new evidence had been provided by the defense, which seemed to undermine the state's case. This evidence led them to believe that Weber might have been out-of-state when the murders took place.
It was noted in the press that the charges against Weber were dismissed without prejudice, meaning that the door was left open for future charges to be filed if the U.S. Attorney's office could gather up more evidence. But for now, Weber was able to prepare for freedom.
Al Avignone, a lawyer that was a part of Weber's legal team, stated:
"The case is done, and it might be done forever. It has been our contention from the beginning that Mr. Weber is in fact innocent, and we are extremely grateful that the charges have been dismissed."
Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman, who had been in charge of the investigation for around five years, stated about this development:
"This case is not closed and we remain committed to the families of our victims and our community to bring a successful resolution to this investigation. We will continue to apply the resources of this office to that end no matter how long it takes.
"The Ravalli County Sheriff's Office will continue to work with all of our law enforcement partners. We will continue to investigate all information that becomes available for further follow up. This case will remain open until it is resolved."
Perry Johnson, who had been the Ravalli Sheriff when the triple-murder took place, had since resumed work for the county as a detective, and now, as the Undersheriff. He responded to this news, as well:
"This investigation has always been about our victims, the families of our victims, and our neighbors in our community. The focus and efforts of the Sheriff's Office and our law enforcement partners will continue toward the apprehension and prosecution of the people responsible for the murders of Dorothy Harris, Brenda Patch, and Cynthia Paulus. They won't be forgotten."
Following the dismissal of the charges against Brian Weber, the court records were sealed by Judge Donald Molloy. Many in the community believe that this act - sealing the records beyond criticism or reproach - is indicative of one of two things:
The first is that the investigators believe that Weber is responsible for the killing of the three women, but they have never had nearly enough evidence to convict him. That by merely charging him and an acquaintance with the crimes, they were hoping for a hail mary confession, and seeing what their trace amounts of evidence could get them.
The second, and more damning possibility, is that the records were sealed to protect the sheriff's department and federal prosecutors from an embarrassing revelation. It's alleged by local journalists that the two might have used false information in order to obtain an indictment from a grand jury, and knew that if the issue was pressed in open court, it could result in a bombshell from the defense attorneys, and potential punishment or career fallout for the officials involved.
It has not been determined why the records were sealed, because the case has remained dormant in the nearly-decade since.
Following the dropping of charges in 2010, Brian Walter Weber prepared for his eventual release from his 2004 conviction for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.
In 2012, Weber entered supervised release from prison, which allowed him to step foot outside of jail for the first time in nearly a decade. He was then released from prison, and entered probation... which meant that he could not associate with anyone that had been previously convicted of a felony.
The next year, in 2013, Weber was arrested for violating his probation. He had allegedly given drugs to a former convicted felon named Savonnah Ryan, and had allowed her to use his computer, which she used to post an advertisement for sex work.
He was able to dodge that bullet, and after getting released, moved to Great Falls, Montana. There, he got married, but was apparently abusive throughout the entire five-year relationship, according to his now ex-wife. He continued to be in-and-out of jail for minor offenses, and began dabbling in drug use and drug dealing once again. According to his wife, he began selling marijuana and "bath salts" - the nickname given to recreational drugs that act as a psychoactive amphetamine.
In February of 2017, after a long-developing feud with his wife and her family, Weber was arrested, and charged with felony intimidation. Weber had allegedly been threatening to destroy the homes of both his wife and his wife's sister, and if found guilty, he could face ten years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Both punishments paled in comparison to charges that Weber would find himself facing just months later, however.
In November of 2017, Brian Walter Weber was arrested as part of an FBI sting, which resulted in eight individuals being arrested and arraigned as part of a major drug sting. Weber was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, and the more serious charge of actually doing so: possession with intent to distribute.
Because of the serious nature of this crime, and Weber's prior criminal history, he is now facing life in prison with up to $10,000,000 in fines and five years supervised release... if he ever gets the chance.
Many critics of the investigation point to Brian Weber's continued criminal history as being an indicator of his guilt in the Florence salon murders, while others argue that he has never faced a courtroom for the crime. However, as of this episode's recording, it has not become clear whether investigators and prosecutors ever intend to pick up the case against him, or if that possibility ended long ago.
The November 6th, 2001 murders from Florence, Montana, continue to elude investigators.
The potential involvement and prosecution of Brian Walter Weber and Lincoln Benavides is seen as a major detour in the criminal investigation, which ended up in a dead end, but it derailed the case for a long period of time. Investigators have struggled to resume the case since then, and have made no apparent progress over the last several years.
The triple-murder from the Hair Gallery continues to stand alone in FBI records, with other similar cases of three or more murder victims having some kind of apparent motive. This case has been linked to other similar crimes, such as the 2002 double-murder in Great Bend, Kansas - which I detailed earlier - as well as a 2005 triple-murder in Belleville, Illinois... but that case seems to have some motive related to another illegal drug operation, in addition to having a number of suspects from the area.
Bill Buzzell, who was the Undersheriff for Ravalli County at the time of the murders, expressed remorse at the difficulty of the case, as investigators tried to crack it:
"I've worked a lot of homicides. It's always amazed me what it takes to solve one. Sometimes just the little detail and sometimes it's just handed right to you."
Undersheriff Buzzell also expressed serious remorse for the victims, and how he struggled not to take the crimes personally:
"It's hard for me not to personalize it. When you're invested in the community, it's tough not to.
"Nobody deserves to die like that. Nobody deserves what those people got. I don't think I've had a three-hour block of time that I haven't thought about it."
Perry Johnson, the law enforcement officer that worked the case as both sheriff and lead investigator, has expressed similar remarks.
"We're not going to quit following every lead and I'm not going to quit hoping.
"This is a big deal. This is somebody's grandma. This is somebody's sister. This is somebody's mom."
If you have any information or may know anything about the Florence salon murders, you contact Ravalli County Sheriff's officials through their non-emergency number of 406-363-3033.
It has been nearly seventeen years since the town of Florence, Montana was forever changed by the tragic events of November 6th. But as of this episode's recording, the stories of Dorothy Harris, Brenda Patch, and Cynthia Paulus remain unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Originally published on July 8th, 2018
Other original music created and composed by Ailsa Traves