A Phoenix man whose disappearance sparked desperate search efforts this week after his car was found completely incinerated has been found dead, police confirmed late Monday.
The body of Benjamin Anderson, 41, was found about 30 miles north of where his vehicle was found burned out after he vanished on New Year’s Eve, according to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
The grim conclusion to Anderson’s disappearance comes just a few days after his friends sounded the alarm over a series of suspicious incidents, starting with his apartment being found in disarray, and ending with mysterious strangers taking over his Lexus.
Daniel Stahoviak, a longtime friend who led search efforts for Anderson and spoke to The Daily Beast about the puzzling circumstances of his friend’s disappearance, posted a photo of the two together on Facebook late Monday after remains found Friday were positively identified as those of Anderson.
In an interview just a few hours prior, Stahoviak said Anderson had called to cancel brunch plans at around 8 a.m. the morning of Dec. 31, but he didn’t think much of it at the time.
Anderson told Stahoviak that he was tired after driving back home to Phoenix from northern Arizona, where he’d been visiting friends. It seemed like a perfectly normal reason to Stahoviak.
But then Anderson vanished.
Stahoviak and others close to Anderson then jumped into action and launched a desperate search for the man they called “Big Daddy,” whose white Lexus UX was spotted at a hotel with three strangers inside just hours before the vehicle was found completely incinerated in the parking lot of a nearby trade school. Frustrated by what he considered to be inaction by the police, Stahoviak had been pounding the pavement for three days in hopes of locating Anderson, an executive concierge manager with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, before it was too late.
“We’re hoping he’s alive,” Stahoviak, 40, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “We’re hoping so. I’m trying to put the pieces together in my mind, and the fears are increasing.”
Before Anderson and Stahoviak, who met in high school, ended their call Friday morning, they agreed to talk later in the day. But at around 6 p.m., Anderson’s aunt, who lives about 20 minutes outside of Phoenix, called Stahoviak, sounding worried.
She said she hadn’t heard from Anderson at all, and was growing increasingly concerned. So Stahoviak said he’d stop by Anderson’s condo to look for him. He tried Anderson first, but his phone was off, according to Stahoviak. When he got to Anderson’s place, Stahoviak let himself inside.
“His work laptop was still on his desk, the screensaver was on, nothing was awry,” said Stahoviak, whose friendship with Anderson goes back more than two decades. “It did look like he left in a little bit of a hurry, there was a half-drank bottle of water, his credit cards were still there, some cash, there was laundry on the floor of his kitchen. And there was a wet towel on his bed. He’s a pretty tidy person, he wouldn’t just leave things lying around. We don’t know the meaning of that, it’s possible he could’ve just changed his clothes really quickly. But he makes his bed every morning, and the wet towel on the bed—Ben would never.”
Stahoviak and a few friends who had accompanied him to Anderson’s condo “turned the apartment upside down,” he said, adding that he had Anderson’s Apple ID password and tried to get into his iPad, but was stymied by the two-factor authentication enabled on the device because Anderson’s phone was missing.
At 7:30 p.m., Stahoviak called the Phoenix Police Department and, with Anderson’s family, reported him missing.
“If you watch TV, when an adult is missing, and at that point, there were no signs of foul play, it’s like, ‘Well, that’s great. Thank you,’” said Stahoviak.
Feeling the need to do something, Stahoviak began monitoring the Citizen app for any leads. He remembered that Anderson’s car was equipped with a GPS tracker, so he called Lexus to see if they might be able to pin down the vehicle’s location.
However, Lexus informed Stahoviak that it could only provide such information to the police. So Stahoviak, who works in Raytheon’s global ethics and business conduct department, called the Phoenix PD once again. The officer on the other end of the line said he wasn’t going to call Lexus, according to Stahoviak. That’s when Stahoviak contacted Anderson’s aunt, who actually owned the car, and asked her to call Lexus. But even she couldn’t make any headway with the company, which insisted that a police officer needed to make the call. This back-and-forth between Stahoviak, the Phoenix PD, and Lexus, went on for hours, said Stahoviak.
“We said, ‘We’re begging you, it’s life and death,’” he recalled. “And they just wouldn't do it.”
Eventually, Stahoviak got in touch with “somebody who had a heart at Lexus,” who said the car was near Interstate 17. Lexus also managed to connect with the Phoenix police and told them Anderson’s car was currently parked at a Super 8 motel police said was known for drug activity. But by the time officers got there, the vehicle was gone. One of the cops called Stahoviak and said there was nothing more police could do.
Out of other options, Stahoviak said he and a carload of Anderson’s friends “decided to just go hotel to hotel, and in the parking garage at the Sheraton Crescent, there’s the car—with three people in it.”
The car, which was parked on the fourth level, took off, and Stahoviak gave chase. But when the car began driving the wrong way down one of the streets, things felt like they were getting too dangerous. So Stahoviak backed off, and the car drove off into the night. Stahoviak described one of the occupants as a blonde woman in a pink hat, and a man, either white or Latino, with dark curly hair. He said he wasn’t able to make out any details of the third person’s appearance.
It was now about 12:25 a.m. Stahoviak and the others called 911, and reached an automated message saying all operators were busy and to please hold. Twenty minutes later they finally got through, and the Phoenix police dispatched a squad car to meet Stahoviak and the group at the Sheraton. The cops canvassed the area, but couldn’t find Anderson’s Lexus.
The anguished crew headed back to Anderson’s condo to continue their search for clues, all the while calling Lexus again and again to try and shake loose any scraps of information they could. Finally, a member of the vehicle tracking team said the vehicle was “offline, which meant the car had been tampered with,” said Stahoviak.
“We said, ‘Please, could you give us a zip code?’ That would at least give us a five-mile radius,” he recounted. “You could tell she wanted to help but didn't want to break the rules. And she said, ‘I think it’s in 85021, near Cave Creek Park.’ So we fly out of the house, we drive around for an hour, and there was the car, destroyed.”
Stahoviak said he and the others finally found Anderson’s car, torched to a crisp, in the parking lot of UEI College, a vocational school just north of the Sheraton Crescent hotel.
“We’d been on the Citizen app, but completely missed that somebody had uploaded a video of the car burning at 1:58 in the morning,” said Stahoviak. “The Fire Department put it out and then they left. The doors were melted, it looked like an accelerant was used.”
At about 4 a.m., the Phoenix PD showed up and searched the area, and towed the burned-out shell of Anderson’s car, according to Stahoviak.
“I can confirm that Benjamin Anderson is listed as a missing person,” Sgt. Ann Justus of the Phoenix Police Department told The Daily Beast. “This is an open and active investigation.”
Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who now teaches police science at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Daily Beast, “Unfortunately, his friends did better police work than the police… It shouldn’t have taken finding the burned out car for this case to take on a sense of urgency. You had many clues that this missing persons case was involuntary.”
Stahoviak had put up $10,000 of his own money as a reward for information leading to the discovery of Anderson’s whereabouts. He told the Arizona Republic on Sunday that Anderson had never gone missing before and had no enemies, as far as he knew.
“Those people in that car know something,” Stahoviak told The Daily Beast. “The Sheraton has video footage of those people in that car, because we talked to a security guard at the Sheraton who said the police have it. Those people weren’t wearing masks, so who are they? The security guard said the video was very clear and you could see the driver and passenger switch seats. That’s pretty darn clear.”
The Phoenix PD “dropped the ball,” said Stahoviak. “We were urging them and urging them to do their jobs. We were going out into very dangerous neighborhoods on our own. They told us we shouldn't be out there, and we said, ‘We will, if you won’t.’”
On Sunday evening, Stahoviak said he and three additional carloads of Anderson’s friends went out looking for clues and witnesses. A clerk at the Super 8 told them that there’s no daily housekeeping at the motel, and no one was checking rooms whose occupants were current on their payments. Stahoviak was about ready to start knocking on doors himself.
“Something’s going on at that hotel,” he said at the time.
Stahoviak had his own ideas about what might have happened to Anderson.
“Ben has just always been such a nice person,” he said. “And I think he would've helped anybody. Even if they were drug addicts, he wanted to help them. My theory is that some sort of help was provided, and it went south.”
To Giacalone, “burning the car signals a different level of suspect—one that wasn’t doing it for a joyride.”
“To me, there is another motive,” he said. “Whether they had the right person is also something to look hard at.”