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02.08.12

Beautician’s Murder a Strange Tale of Contract Killing and a Sex Change

The circumstance of Debbie Higbee Benton’s brutal murder seem endlessly strange, investigators and local residents say, ranging from the fact that her estranged husband elected to have a sex change to the allegation that her death was a contract killing.

When police found Debbie Higbee Benton’s shot and badly beaten body last May at her beauty salon in Gladstone, Ore., a Portland suburb of 12,000 people, it was hard for anyone to imagine why someone might want the hair stylist dead.

“Debbie was absolutely one of the sweetest people you’d ever in your life meet,” said Delores Carlin, whose husband and sons all got cropped at the Gladstone Beauty Salon.

These days, there are some altogether different questions swirling around Gladstone, centered less on why someone might kill Debbie Benton and instead on why police have yet to arrest her estranged husband, 49-year-old Lynn Benton, who was until a week ago a sergeant in the Gladstone Police Department.

Lynn Benton was fired, according to a memorandum issued by the city’s chief of police in December, first because he fraudulently married a Brazilian man in 1993 so that the man could obtain U.S. citizenship, and second because he possessed and viewed pornographic material on a city-issued laptop. But these are only the most recent revelations about the veteran cop with 24 years of service—a mere sampling of the bizarre facts that have come to light since 54-year-old Debbie Benton’s shocking death.

For starters, when Lynn Benton first married in 1993, he was a woman. (The couple divorced in 1996.) But at some point during the police sergeant’s second marriage, with Debby Higbee, he decided he was a man. When the couple married in 2010, Lynn Benton dropped the “e” from his birth name, Lynne, changed her middle name from Irene to Edward and checked “male” on the marriage license application. Gay marriage isn’t legal in Oregon, but the court doesn’t require proof of gender. Because Benton identified as a man on the license, the two were wed, according to a report in The Oregonian newspaper.

Fast forward to Debbie Benton’s murder last year: within days of the crime, police arrested a distraught Susan Ellen Campbell, 55, on suspicion of killing the beautician. But Campbell had no criminal background, and there was no evidence of a robbery, leaving Gladstone residents wondering what possible motive Campbell might have for wanting Benton dead.

Then came a December bail hearing. Prosecutors called police investigators to the stand who said Campbell confessed, not to Debbie Benton’s outright murder but to “participating” in the crime, according to The Oregonian. She told investigators that Lynn Benton promised to pay her $2,000 to kill Debbie Benton and that when she walked into the Gladstone Beauty Salon on May 28 and shot Debbie Benton in the back with a .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun, it didn’t finish the beautician off, according to Oregon City police detective Brad Edwards's testimony.

Benton said he only had a work phone, according to police. Just then a ringing noise came from his jacket pocket.

According to police, Campbell then called Lynn Benton. By the time Debbie Benton’s body was found, she wasn’t just shot in the back. She was severely beaten, with a dozen broken ribs, a lacerated liver, and signs of strangulation that included a fractured thorax. Clackamas County’s medical examiner called it “Kill, kill, and overkill.”

Detectives would learn that Lynn and Debbie Benton had a volatile relationship, and that the police sergeant underwent a female-to-male sex-change operation, legally changing his name to Lynn Edward and his gender designation to “male” at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. At first, Debbie Benton supported the gender change, prosecutors said. Then she opposed it, even issuing an “ultimatum” that Benton halt the gender reassignment, and the couple separated, weeks before the killing.

This dispute did not make for an amicable parting, according to investigators. Debbie Benton allegedly had photographs of bruises administered by the sergeant, according to investigators at the bail hearing. Lynn Benton admitted physically abusing Debbie Benton and was “extremely worried that any report of that would cause [his] law-enforcement career to end,” Edwards said at the bail hearing.

When investigators talked with Lynn Benton after the killing, they asked him for all cell phones in his possession, Edwards said in court. Benton said he only had a work phone. Just then, a ringing noise came from his jacket pocket. Handing the phone to the detective, Benton buried his head in his hands and cursed, the investigator said in court. All record of calls and text messages the day of the killing had been erased.

Campbell, a friend of Lynn Benton, attracted the interest of police after a neighbor called investigators in the wake of the murder. According to Detective Edwards, the neighbor had a phone conversation Lynn Campbell, recorded by police, in which she discussed plans to cover up the crime and said Benton wanted his wife dead. Edwards said Campbell’s son claimed to have overheard Benton offer his mother $2,000 to commit the crime.

The money never changed hands, investigators say, because it was supposed to come from a safe-deposit box that Debbie Benton had blocked her husband from accessing.

The probable-cause statement for Campbell’s arrest states that the woman admitted to being alone with Debbie Benton when she was closing the salon on May 28, that she admitted to “participating” in killing her, that she led police to a handgun matching the caliber of the weapon used to kill Debbie Benton, and that Campbell described injuries that could have been known only to police and to Debbie Benton’s killer.

Given all that, some in Gladstone wonder why Campbell is the only one locked up right now. (Benton’s high-profile attorney, Pat Birmingham of Lake Oswego, did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.)

“I think they ought to put the bitch in jail,” Delores Carlin said. “I’m tired of her running the streets—or him, whatever it is. I don’t understand why she hasn’t been arrested.”

Another Gladstone beautician, Younique Phan, said plenty of people in town are asking the same questions. “Only God knows what really happened,” she said. “But if [Benton]’s a policeman, she might know how to get away with it.”

The trouble for prosecutors, said a source close to the investigation, is that in this case much of the evidence against Lynn Benton comes from Campbell, as reported to an investigator. On its face, that makes it hearsay, inadmissible in court. That law about having the right to remain silent, that a statement can be used against you? It means Campbell’s statements can only be used against her, not Benton.

For what she said to directly implicate the former cop, she’d have to testify against him. And that would involve cutting a deal with Campbell—the prosecution’s chief suspect.

It’s not uncommon for a district attorney to cut a deal with a hit man, the source said, but it’s a delicate decision.

Clackamas County Chief Deputy District Attorney Greg Horner would comment about none of this, offering only that the case remains “under investigation.” Whether that means more arrests are to come is anyone’s guess, but it gives the town of Gladstone plenty to talk about.