MISSOULA — It's a notorious cold case that still haunts the town of Florence and the family and friends of the three women murdered that day.
It was the morning of November 6, 2001, when a customer arriving for her hair appointment at the Hair Gallery Salon along Highway 93 discovered a woman lying in an entryway in a pool of blood.
Law enforcement officers rushed to the scene and discovered two more people inside a small storage room. All three were dead. Someone had cut their throats and vanished.
The victims were Brenda Patch, the salon's manicurist. Dorothy Harris was the owner of the business and encountered the killer as she walked back into the salon that morning. Cynthia Paulus was there to have her nails done.
It's 20 years later and no one has been convicted of the crime.
“In my career, this ranks as probably the toughest, most important case I ever investigated,” recalls former Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson.
Bub Hoblitt dreads November. His mother was murdered while getting her nails done at the Hair Gallery salon in Florence. She was one of the three women to die that day.
“I found out early that it had happened but I didn’t know who. I found out before noon that it had happened and I was thinking, ‘oh man,” Hoblitt said. “And didn’t even think to call mom.”
He did not know that just that morning, his mom had changed her nail appointment. So, at the last minute, she unknowingly walked into the crosshairs of evil. “And....that’s when my world fell apart," Hoblitt told MTN News.
Twenty years later, it’s still hard but Hoblitt graciously sat down to share stories and pictures, “she had a huge heart, you know? Like I said we weren’t a big lovey family.
“Thank God I saw her the night before it happened. For some reason, we said let’s pop up and see mom. So, we popped up and saw Mom and Jerry and visited for a while and they followed us out to the car. And I like I said, we were not a big huggy family. But I gave her a big hug and told her I loved her and she said the same. And that was the last time I saw her. Thankful we did it.” - Bub Hoblitt
The community did not just lose Cynthia that day, but 62-year-old Salon owner Dorothy Harris as well. A friend told us then that “she lit up a room when she walked through it. I’m going to miss her very much.”
Salon manicurist 44-year-old Brenda Patch also died that day and her son spoke at the funeral: “No matter what I did or put her through...she loved me.”
The morning of the murders then-Sheriff Perry Johnson had a sense that 911 call from Florence was different -- and he was right. Behind blue tarp and yellow crime scene tape, three women lay dead with their throats slashed.
“Who would have ever believed that in Florence Montana? A daytime triple homicide with three unrelated people at a professional business. That’s just a phenomenon,” Johnson said.
Families and friends grieved and fear set in across the Bitterroot Valley.
“I don’t think I could overstate that. The amount of fear in that community,” Johnson said. “You could just about touch it when you drove into town. People were scared.”
The investigation took detectives across the country, chasing down leads. Officers from neighboring counties also joined the case. It was years later, when finally, two names publicly emerged -- Lincoln Benevides and Brian Weber.
Both faced three counts of murder while engaged in drug trafficking and each conviction carries a potential sentence of death or life in prison.
Prosecutors believe Benevides headed up a local drug ring and Weber was his enforcer. But why that hair salon and why those women?
“I think the thing for us that kept being kind of a mystery. One of these women has a secret,” noted former Missoulian crime reporter Michael Moore.
We generally believed someone related to the women was a target of drug violence and the killer turned up that day to send a message. But now, through his sources, a different story is emerging.
“I talked to a number of people here recently that told me a story that was a little bit different than that,” Moore explained. “And that it was not a relative but that it was one of the women. And that person had run afoul of Lincoln on the end of a bunch of money which wasn’t where it was supposed to be and that Brian was then sent in to reinforce the message or something.”
But federal prosecutors then dropped murder charges against Benevides and he’s later sentenced to decades in prison on drug charges. Then, murder charges were dropped against Brian Weber who is also currently serving time on unrelated drug crimes.
Federal prosecutors didn’t believe they had enough for a conviction. That decision left three families -- and a lot of law enforcement -- with nothing.
“In speaking with people that were outside the Ravalli County jurisdiction but worked on the case, they felt like the investigation had been pretty competent,” Moore said. “And that it was just a difficult case because you didn’t really have anything physical to go on, snitches, this and that which are. You can build a big pile, but it’s not really rock-solid,” former Missoulian reporter Michael Moore
“Oh, you know that I wish a hundred times over that we had a different outcome here. And that they had closure and that every question that you asked me they had an answer to. But I don’t have that,” Johnson said.
“I’ve never felt ill will like this towards anybody. Hate’s a terrible word. I don’t know Brian Weber but I hate him if he’s the killer,” Hoblitt said. “And I hate Lincoln Benevides. Those two people I can honestly say I hate and I don’t even know them and that’s sad. But it’s true.
Twenty years [have] gone by and no one's been held accountable for the murders. Not yet anyway and maybe never; which is why it’s important to remember.
Cindy Paulus was a devoted grandma, an avid horseback rider and Lady Griz basketball fan. Dorothy Harris, the matriarch of a large and loving family, who made friends with everyone she met. And not a day goes by where Brenda Patch's children don’t think of her and hope someday they’ll get justice for their beloved mother.
In the end, it’s about them.
“These were three innocent women that were productive neighbors of ours and it changed our community and it changed our families,” Johnson said. “And it’s good to never forget that each of us makes a difference. Because these girls all did.
Ravalli County has a detective assigned to the case so if new information or evidence comes forward, there is still a chance charges could be filed even after so many years. But there is no justice without truth and that’s what’s needed here.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Detective Sergeant Matt Cashell at 406-375-4024.