05.15.12

L.A. Sheriff and Relatives Baffled by Mystery Death of Graphics Designer

A young graphic designer is found dead in her parents’ garage of an apparent drug overdose. Police say the son of Pepperdine University’s president may have been the last to see her alive, but he’s not talking—leaving investigators and the woman’s family searching for answers.

A cloud of mystery and suspicion still hovers over the death of Katie Wilkins, 25, a beautiful graphic designer found dead in the garage of her parents’ mansion in the hills of Malibu, Calif., on April 28. Investigators with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said Wilkins, whose body was discovered by her brother, probably overdosed on heroin. Toxicology results are pending.

But the person investigators think was the last to see her alive, a troubled member of a prominent Los Angeles family, isn’t talking.

Sheriff’s investigators believe that person is Chris Benton, 27, son of Andrew K. Benton, president of Pepperdine University, a prestigious and picturesque Christian college in Malibu that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Investigators say surveillance cameras show Chris Benton, who has a long history of arrests in the Los Angeles area and entered a rehab facility shortly after Wilkins’s death, getting into a car with Wilkins at a McDonald’s restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway on the evening of April 27. Katie’s body was discovered on the garage floor the following day.

After Wilkins died and the young Benton allegedly fled the scene in her car, according to police, Benton’s family hired well-known Los Angeles–area defense attorney Ronald J. Lewis, who according to his website, has represented many high-profile clients in the business and entertainment world and specializes in major felony cases such as those involving drugs, murder, and sexual offenses.

Investigators say the young Benton is not a suspect in Katie’s death, but they would like to talk to him to find out just what did happen the night he met up with her. So far, Benton isn’t cooperating, and members of Wilkins’s family are demanding answers. 

Reached on Monday, Lewis said, “I can’t make any comment about this case at this time. It is an ongoing investigation. Perhaps at some point I will be able to share more information with you.”

Katie’s brother, Steve Wilkins, 31, told The Daily Beast, “Katie’s death is tragic, our family is still in shock, but Chris Benton has been able to hide from all this with the help of his father’s name and pocketbook.”

He said that when he discovered his sister’s body, a load of laundry was in the washer, a meal had been prepared, the dog had gotten out of the house, and his sister’s BMW was missing. 

katie-wilkins-1
Courtesy of the Wilkins Family

“The Benton family has hindered my family’s grieving process and prevented us from getting the facts behind what really happened to Katie,” said Steve Wilkins, who noted that his family and the Benton family have known each other for many years. Steve has been a friend of Chris Benton’s sister, Hailey Benton, who attended Pepperdine and is now an attorney, since they were in grade school.

But Katie’s parents, who were out of town the weekend their daughter died, said Katie and Chris Benton were not close. “They knew each other but they weren’t close friends,” said Katie’s mother, Diane Wilkins, who acknowledged that Katie had had her own drug problems in the past, but that “she’s been off hard drugs for three years. She had just graduated from college and was doing so well. We were very surprised when we learned that they had met up the night before Katie died. I don’t know what happened, but I do know that Katie made a terrible mistake meeting up with Chris that night.”

According to court documents, Chris Benton has been arrested at least seven times in the Los Angeles area, including an arrest for drug possession. He spent five months in jail in 2004 for “grand theft of a person.” Investigators say Benton lives in his parents’ home on the Pepperdine campus. Wilkins’s family has been waging an impassioned online campaign to persuade Benton to break his silence.

“We just want to know what he knows about our daughter’s death,” said Diane Wilkins, who added that Katie graduated last June from the Art Institute of California in Orange County with a bachelor of science degree in graphic design, moved back in with her parents last fall, and had been working on her graphics-design business from home.

“She came into my room the night before she died as I was packing for a trip to Chicago, and said with a big smile on her face, ‘Mom, I like me,’” said Diane Wilkins. “She had a history of depression that resulted in drug use, but she had come so far. She was truly happy. We were so proud of her. This doesn’t make any sense. There is just something wrong here.”

Steve Wilkins, who with the help and permission of police detectives was able to change the password of his sister’s phone and gain access to her text messages, said Chris Benton initiated the contact with Katie.

“Katie’s death is tragic, our family is still in shock, but Chris Benton has been able to hide from all this with the help of his father’s name and pocketbook.” —Steve Wilkins
katie-wilkins-2
Courtesy of the Wilkins Family

“Chris contacted Katie and suggested he was off dope,” he said. “Chris kept asking Katie, ‘Are you sober?’ Katie texted back and told him she hadn’t done hard drugs in a long time. After they met up, she wound up dead the next day of an apparent overdose. We want to know why; we want to know what happened that night. But we can’t get any answers from this family who we’ve known almost all our lives.”

Rob Wilkins, Katie’s father, said he called the Benton family and asked them for answers. He said he briefly spoke with Debby Benton, Chris’s mother, but she didn’t want to say much: “She just told me Chris was in rehab, but that’s about all she said. Their family didn’t reach out to us after Katie died. No compassion, no concern. Not a word.”

In a statement released to the media, Andrew K. Benton said: “In this case I am just Andy, father of someone who knew Katie and her family. Pepperdine has absolutely nothing to do with this. To suggest otherwise is merely sensationalism. My wife and I hold the Wilkins family in very high regard and are deeply pained by their loss. Illegal substances are a scourge on society and they have hurt many wonderful families in Malibu.”

Benton continued, “If anything, I hope this devastating situation will underscore the damage that drugs have had on some of our best and brightest. I don’t really know anything. Period. I would like to be helpful, but I don’t really know anything beyond what I am reading in the press.”

Steve Wilkins takes issue with Benton’s statement: “He [Andrew] claims to hold our family in such high regard, and says that drugs are a scourge. He’s in denial about his own son, who’s a well-known drug user and thief in Malibu. Andrew’s comments don’t hold water; he’s a powerful, high-profile man who’s just trying to avoid bad publicity. The circumstances of Katie’s death would seem to demand a moral and compassionate approach from the Benton family, not a legally savvy and crafted game of cat-and-mouse that has been used to conceal what really happened and deflect the request for answers from Chris Benton.”

Tim O’Quinn, a detective with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s homicide bureau, confirmed that Benton is a known drug user with a long list of prior arrests and said he understands the Wilkinses’ quest for answers.

“If I had the means to bring Chris in for questioning, I would,” he told The Daily Beast. “But I’m bound by the noncriminal nature of this case. The coroner’s finding was that this was probably a heroin overdose. There were fresh needle marks on her arm, no traumatic injury was found in the autopsy, and there was nothing at the scene to suggest a struggle or a fight. Unless the coroner changes that—and that would only happen if they found a date-rape drug in her system or something of that nature—there’s not a lot I can add to this. We are testing items from the house and the car. We have to wait for toxicology, and fingerprints on the car and the house, but regardless of what we find, from appearances it appears to be an overdose.”

Diane Wilkins noted that there were small bruises on Katie’s shoulders and that the injection marks were on Katie’s right arm: “She was right-handed, which makes self-administration of these drugs very unlikely. I don’t know what really happened, but something just isn’t right. I think the only person who does know what happened is Chris.”

O’Quinn said that while he does not see this as a homicide case, he does believe Chris was with Katie when she died. But, he added, “Can I prove that a crime occurred? We don’t have Good Samaritan law in California; there’s no requirement to call 911 even if she was overdosing. I don’t agree with that; personally, I think we should have such a law. And even if he did get in her car and left, he can just say she gave him the keys. This is just not a strong case from a legal standpoint. But the family certainly deserves some answers.”

The family has set up a Facebook page, and an online petition for Katie, calling for Andrew K. Benton to contact the Wilkins family, was launched by a West Hollywood woman to show support for the Wilkinses. Steve Wilkins has been posting updates on the investigation on a WebSleuths.com forum.

On the forum, Steve said Chris Benton eerily sent Katie a text after she had already died that said: “Wut happened? was that ur brother? Lemme kno that ur alrite. have a good day.”

Steve says he doesn’t know what the text means exactly, but, “To me this sounds like someone who is covering his ass. And it doesn’t sound at all like the other texts Chris sent Katie. It doesn’t even sound like Chris wrote this text at all. I can only imagine what is going on in the Benton family home right now, and in their lawyer’s office, and at Pepperdine. I’m sure they’re all worried about the negative publicity this has caused.”

Andrew K. Benton 
President, Pepperdine University

Andrew K. Benton, who served in 2008 as chairman of the board of directors of the American Council on Education, which oversees colleges and universities across the country, earned his law degree from Oklahoma City University School of Law in 1979, and practiced law in Oklahoma. He came to Pepperdine in 1984 and worked in several leadership roles before being named president of the university in 2000.

Benton is a member of the religiously conservative Churches of Christ, some of whose members aren’t too enamored of the fact that Benton also is a member of a classic-rock band called MidLife Crisis. The band, comprised of Pepperdine faculty, even has a YouTube page and a Facebook page.

When Benton was inaugurated the seventh president of Pepperdine University in 2000, he was widely praised as a valuable member of the community who is committed to students. Benton said at the time, “I accept this challenge as a sacred trust and will do my very best to assist Pepperdine in reaching even higher levels of academic excellence and service.”

Despite Pepperdine’s Christian traditions, this isn’t the first time the school has had to deal with a drug-related issue. This editorial by Pepperdine staff from 2004 addressed the issue.

Jerry Derloshon, a Pepperdine spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times last week that the school was “regarding this sad occasion as a personal matter.” He did confirm that Chris Benton was in rehab, and said, “The event [Katie Wilkins’s death] occurred off campus. It’s not related to the university ... It’s truly tragic for all involved.”

Los Angeles Sheriff’s Detective Tim O’Quinn said he hopes at some point Chris Benton will provide answers to the Wilkins family, “perhaps when his lawyers are convinced that Chris will not be charged with a crime. I am behind the Wilkins family, they deserve answers, and Chris clearly has some answers that he is not providing.”