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Suspect in storage locker deaths tracked to Idaho

CALDWELL, Idaho -- A former Seattle-area man suspected of clubbing his wife and two sons to death and hiding their bodies for nearly 12 years in a rental locker faced arraignment on fugitive charges Friday.

Mark James Bender, 50, who had embarked on a new life, was traced to Nampa, Idaho, from the rental records at Shurgard Storage Center in Federal Way, Wash. The bodies were found there Wednesday by a man who purchased the locker's contents sight unseen at a state auction after rental payments for it inexplicably stopped, police said.

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Medical examiners in Seattle identified the three as Barbara Bender, who was 35 in 1980, and her sons, Mark, 16, and Brian, 8, and said all three were killed by blunt blows to the head. Police said a hatchet with blood and hair fragments was found among the lockers' contents.

Authorities said the three victims were last seen alive by neighbors on April 2, 1980, loading a U-Haul trailer, the day after Barbara Bender had filed divorce papers on her husband, known as 'Bill' to his friends. However, a missing persons report on the three was not filed until 1985.

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Bender was taken by surprise and at his Nampa home late Thursday night and placed in jail on $1 million bail, Idaho authorities said.

Capt. Glendon Crawforth of the Nampa Police Department said Bender was a relatively 'low-key' resident who was married and who worked as a salesman for the Happy Day Ford dealership in nearby Caldwell.

Bender was scheduled to appear in court later Friday to have the Seattle charges read and to indicate whether he would waive extradition to Washington state.

Despite the rapid development of the investigation and the quick arrest of the suspect following the discovery of the bodies, detectives still were puzzled about certain aspects of the case.

'We would like to find out why the payments stop,' said King County Police spokesman Dave Robinson. 'Also it seems kind of strange that the wife and two sons...were not reported missing for five years.'

Barbara Bender's mother, Bette Jones of Sheridan, Wyo., told the Morning News Tribune of Tacoma that she was unaware of the divorce action, although she had talked to her daughter on April 2, 1980. She said she had assumed the family had been 'relocated' by the FBI.

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'I feel numb. I never believed I could feel so much hate,' she said. 'I never suspected Bill, but people in the family did.'

King County Police spokesman Rick Chubb said Mark Bender apparently had paid the rent on the locker -- in his own name -- with out-of-state checks for nearly 12 years then inexplicably stopped making payments in January.

'We believe they've been in the locker since 1980,' he said of the bodies.

The extensively decomposed remains were found wrapped in heavy landscaping plastic and buried under a 3-foot layer of clothes and other personal effects inside the outdoor storage unit, said George Gennai, the unwitting owner of the grisly evidence.

Gennai said he bought the contents at auction suppossing they might include antiques or other valuables.

'You say, 'Gee, somebody's paid rent on here for 12 years -- there's got to be a reason,'' Gennai told the Tribune.

He said he had already taken a load of items, most of them destined for a garage sale, from the locker to his home and returned for a second load. Upon digging deeper, he came upon the plastic bags under what he described as a makeshift 'shrine' of Bibles, crucifixes and a bottle labeled 'holy water.'

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Gennai said as he uncovered the bags he detected a strong stench and told his son there might be 'something dead' inside.

'I said, 'Jesus, Lonnie, this smells like Vietnam,'' Gennai said. He said he didn't realize they were human remains until he opened one of the bags and discovered a human skull, which he believed to be that of the youngest boy, Brian Bender.

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