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08.25.12

Pepperdine President’s Son Chris Benton Arrested

Already wanted for questioning in the overdose death of a Malibu designer, Chris Benton has been jailed on unrelated charges. Jamie Reno talks exclusively to a detective who interviewed him.

The dark saga of Chris Benton continues. Benton, the only son of Andrew K. Benton, president of Pepperdine University, a prestigious seaside Christian college in the hills of Malibu, Calif., was arrested Thursday morning on the campus for making “serious” threats against his family, according to a Pepperdine spokesman.

Benton, 27, who has a long history of arrests and was already wanted for questioning by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department after allegedly leaving the scene of a Malibu graphic designer’s fatal heroin overdose in April, was booked for making criminal threats and also on suspicion of being a convicted felon in possession of a gun and in possession of ammunition.

Authorities found a loaded semi-automatic gun they believe Benton discarded on a nearby hillside and ammunition in his car. Benton had gone to his parents’ on-campus historic mansion, the Brock House, on Wednesday, and allegedly made threats against them, according to a spokesman for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

His parents called the sheriff’s department, and deputies looked for Benton overnight. When Benton returned to the family home on Thursday, campus security called the sheriff’s department.

Sheriff’s deputies swarmed the Pepperdine campus, where students have already returned from summer break in preparation for the beginning of the fall semester on Monday. A brief chase ensued, and Benton was apprehended.

The arrest of Benton, who was still being held at press time in lieu of $250,000 bail, is unrelated to graphic designer Katie Wilkins’s death. But the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner’s long-awaited autopsy report released this week, which ruled Wilkins’s official cause of death was acute morphine (heroin) intoxication, left the door open to the possibility that the drugs were not self-administered because the needle marks were on her right arm and she was right-handed.

The use of force in the administration of the lethal drugs has not been ruled out, the coroner said in its finding. Which means that Benton, while still not a suspect, is not entirely off the hook in the Wilkins investigation.

Benton entered rehab right after Wilkins died but has said on his Facebook page that he has been living in Mexico City. He was the last person to see Wilkins alive and knows more than he is sharing, police say.

But until his arrest on Thursday investigators have been unable to question Benton about Wilkins’s death—despite the fact that surveillance footage showed him getting into her car at McDonald’s on Pacific Coast Highway the night before she died, that his fingerprints were found just a few feet from her body in her family’s garage, and that he apparently fled the scene in her car.

Tim O’Quinn, a detective with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s homicide bureau who investigated Wilkins’s death but is not involved in Benton’s current arrest, tells The Daily Beast exclusively that he visited Benton in jail on Friday morning—and brought Wilkins’s parents with him.

“Chris is arrested on another matter, but he’s in custody in a known location, so we went and talked to him,” says O’Quinn. “I did this in an effort to get some much-needed answers for the Wilkins family.”

O’Quinn says that Benton has been “schooled well by his attorney. He stayed off the subject of the drugs, and Katherine’s (Katie’s) car, which we believe he took when he fled the scene. He did apologize to the dad (Rob Wilkins), generally, for what happened that night and said his intent was never to hurt Katherine. But he didn’t say much.”

Ronald J. Lewis, Chris Benton’s attorney, tells The Daily Beast that he is “not happy” that O’Quinn took the Wilkins family to jail to visit with his client.

“I can’t comment specifically on this case, but I will say that it was bizarre and sneaky that a sheriff’s detective took the girl’s parents with them to do a jailhouse interview with my client. It’s like subterfuge. Why do that? They know he is represented by a lawyer. But I wasn’t even called. This boy, Christopher Benton, has a horrific heroin addiction. I would not wish that on my worst enemy. I’ve seen people ripped up by this—people under this addiction aren’t human any more. The Benton and Wilkins families have both been visited by this devil, both have suffered the worst tragedies. Heroin addiction is the most evil addiction you can have. Chris is what you see in the papers—he is a very ill young man. Both families have been hurt by a common cause, which is heroin addiction, and it knows no boundaries on economics. It can affect families like the Wilkinses and the Bentons or a kid from South Central. To bring in the family for this secret interview, which they didn’t even tell me about, is a questionable-at-best move.”

Lewis adds that while he doesn’t approve of what O’Quinn did, “it is not illegal. It is not a question of legality. I just don’t like it. It’s sleazy in my opinion.”

The Wilkins family admits that Katie had drug problems in the past, but insists she was clean for more than a year when she died and had recently graduated with honors from a college in Orange County and was working successfully as a graphic artist. The Wilkins family believes the coroner’s finding supports their contention that Chris Benton forcibly injected the heroin into Katie.

“The injection marks were on Katie’s right arm. Katie was right-handed,” says her mother, Diane Wilkins. “That makes self-administration of these drugs very unlikely. She just wouldn’t have injected into her right arm.”

O’Quinn agrees that it is “very unlikely” that Wilkins would have injected drugs into her right arm. But, he says, “We can’t prove it, and it is not physically impossible to do. So it’s not something we can take to the DA.”

When asked if Benton was tested for drugs at the time of his arrest Thursday and if that could have any bearing on the investigation of Wilkins’s death, O’Quinn said no.

“Chris’s arrest had to do with criminal threats and with possession of a firearm and not with being under the influence,” he says. “The only mandated drug testing that can be done upon arrest is if the arrest involves possession of narcotics and or suspicion of being under the influence at the time of arrest.”

“The injection marks were on Katie’s right arm. Katie was right-handed,” says her mother, Diane Wilkins.

O’Quinn says Benton’s arrest does not really help the Wilkins investigation other than providing him with a known location for Chris so he could interview him.

“The Wilkins case is a difficult and troubling one for us in law enforcement,” O’Quinn says. “A lot of wrong occurred that night, and we have our suspicions about what really happened. But Chris isn’t talking, and he is in jail for another crime, not this one.”

What troubles the Wilkins family most, says Rob Wilkins, is their belief that Chris could have saved Katie’s life. “We have a table and some chairs set up in the garage where Katie’s body was discovered, and there is a phone right there,” Rob Wilkins says. “If he (Benton) had just taken a minute to call 911, even anonymously, he could have potentially saved her.”

As for the Benton family, one has to wonder what the relationship is now between the young Benton and his parents, particularly his father, a prominent public figure in Los Angeles and devout Christian who’s been forced repeatedly to release statements to the press about his son’s bad behavior.

Andrew K. Benton, who served in 2008 as chairman of the board of directors for the American Council on Education, which oversees colleges and universities across the country, is a member of the religiously conservative Churches of Christ. He is also a retired attorney who likes to play classic-rock guitar and has been described as witty and dedicated to his students.

On Thursday, just hours after his son was taken into custody and despite the allegation that his son had just threatened him the day before, Andrew Benton found himself once again defending Chris when he released this statement to the Graphic, Pepperdine’s student newspaper:

“We love our son and, perhaps, we love him even more as a consequence of the many challenges he has faced in his life. He has made a number of harmful decisions, especially those emerging from experience with drugs and poor choices in friends. We don’t know exactly how we arrived at this point, but we are a family and we will work through it. We hope this present situation is the beginning of a new path, and we pray fervently to that end.”

Not surprisingly, the on-campus arrest has the Pepperdine community buzzing, with some calling for the resignation of Andrew Benton.

On the school newspaper’s website, a commenter named Nick Berg wrote: “As a Pepperdine Alumnus who cares deeply about the reputation of the University and the safety of Pepperdine students, I am deeply troubled that there was a criminal threat, ammunition in Christopher Benton’s car, a gun discarded on a nearby hillside, and an arrest on campus according the Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman. After the tragedies of Virginia Tech and Oikos University, I am horrified to think what could have occurred. That we’ve gotten to this point and that Christopher Benton was even allowed on campus is really unacceptable given his connection to the Katie Wilkins case. Frankly, I don’t want to hear about Dr. Benton’s hopes and fervent prayers for his son. I want to know that the University cares more about safeguarding the broad Pepperdine community against incidents involving gun violence than it does about the President’s son. This situation is so far out of bounds that Dr. Benton should resign as President of the university and focus on his family.”

But another commenter named Kristen Chang responded: “Dr. Benton should NOT resign as President. He’s done such a good job and he’s well-loved by all. He is not responsible for the actions of his adult son—knowing AKB (Andrew K. Benton), I’m sure he did all he could to raise his son well. But ultimately we get to make our own choices.”