Malibu Woman's Death Raises Many Difficult Questions
• Son of Pepperdine University President Thought to Hold Key to Some of What's Unknown
BY ANNE SOBLE
The case number at the office of the Los Angeles Department of Coroner is 2012-02852. The name on the file is Katherine Jessie Wilkins. Wilkins died on April 28 at the Malibu family home she had moved back into last August. Her parents were in Chicago that weekend. The cause of death is currently listed as deferred, the DOC catch-all term used until the completion of toxicology tests expected to take another four to six weeks.
The DOC file can't be expected to include anything personal about the vibrant young woman everyone called Katie. It makes no reference to the anguished family Katie Wilkins left behind or their fierce determination to obtain answers to their questions about the circumstances of her death.
Family members, especially her older brother Steve Wilkins, stress that they intend to keep up the drumbeat for those who may have some of the answers to these questions to step forward and help to bring them some closure.
Katie Wilkins, 25, was attractive, talented and appeared to be embarking on a promising career as a graphic designer. The Malibu High School graduate had recently received a degree with honors from the Art Institute of California in Orange County and had set up a website, www. katiewilkinsdesign.com and was planning on doing freelance work while she explored the options that might await someone creative and enterprising.
That all ended on Saturday, April 28, when Katie Wilkins' brother found her lifeless body on the floor of the garage. It is not known exactly when she died. Her death is being attributed to a possible heroin overdose, but this awaits the results of toxicology analysis.
Steve Wilkins told the Malibu Surfside News, "I am extremely grateful to each and every law enforcement officer and fire department member I have met since Katie's death. I was beyond distraught when I found Katie; these men and women and their composure and compassion toward me and my family stands out when I reflect on the moment of walking into my parents' home to find Katie dead in the garage and being confronted with the reality of her death."
Regarding the ongoing investigation and "particularly the detectives on the case," Steve Wilkins added, "Their work has been exceptional, deliberate, methodical, careful, compassionate and caring."
However, Steve Wilkins does not have similar sentiments toward the individual thought by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigators to be the last person who saw Katie Wilkins alive.
LASD Homicide Detective Tim O'Quinn told The News that "according to the facts as we now have them, it appears that Christopher Benton was the last person to have been with her before she died. If there are facts that might change that, we do not have access to them because we do not have [access to Benton] at this time."
Benton, 27, is the son of Andy Benton, the president of Pepperdine University, and his wife Debby. The younger Benton is their only son and reportedly lives at the Benton residence on the Pepperdine campus. The Benton and the Wilkins families have known each other for decades.
O'Quinn said surveillance cameras at the Malibu McDonald's show someone who appears to be Benton, who the detective indicated has a record of prior arrests in the Los Angeles area and is said to now be at a drug rehab facility, getting into Katie Wilkins' silver BMW on the evening of April 27. Benton had reportedly crashed his car and texted Wilkins to pick him up. The family does not describe them as close friends, but they reportedly have known each other for years.
The operating assumption is that Chris Benton allegedly fled the Wilkins home in her car when the young woman had a major drug reaction or was dead. As to whether the drugs were self-administered, O'Quinn said any conjecture at this point is "speculation." However, he confirmed family reports that the needle marks were on Katie Wilkins' right arm and the young woman was right-handed. O'Quinn also acknowledged that her body has some signs of minimal bruising but adds that might have been incurred if she fell to the floor.
Wilkins' silver BMW was found abandoned in a part of the Woodland Hills area, that is described as on the route to the offices of noted criminal attorney Ronald J. Lewis who the family has ostensibly hired to keep Benton under wraps and prevent any direct communication with the LASD or the Wilkins family. O'Quinn said the car is awaiting department processing for contents and fingerprints but this was not finished when The News went to press.
According to Lewis' online profile, he has represented many high-profile clients in the business and entertainment world and specializes in cases regarded as sensitive in nature. In a response to an inquiry from The News, Lewis said, "Thank you for your e-mail. Because there is an ongoing investigation, I will not be issuing any statements at this time."
However, O'Quinn states that Benton is not a suspect in Katie Wilkins' death, which at this time is not considered foul play, but the detective would like to talk to him about what happened after he was picked up at the fast-food eatery.
Steve Wilkins has kept up an incessant media barrage of requests that Benton step forward and tell the LASD and the family what he knows.
In an April 27 timeline provided by her brother to The News, Wilkins said, "Chris texts 'u comin' to Katie at 8:32 p.m., at 8:33 p.m., video surveillance from the Malibu McDonald's shows Chris getting into Katie's car and just the two of them driving away. No more texts between the two of them for a period after that also confirm Chris was picked up [by Katie] as was planned."
Steve Wilkins maintains "Katie's time of death is sometime after she left McDonald's with Chris and the morning of April 28. The final text Chris sent to Katie was at 1:13 p.m. on April 28. There were no more texts between the two of them. I showed up to the house at 6 p.m. on April 28 to find Katie dead and her car missing with no drug paraphernalia present."
Her brother said a load of laundry sat partially processed in the washing machine and some food had been prepared. The family dog was loose.
Steve Wilkins asserts that the Benton family is more concerned with status and appearance than with "trying to help a grieving family find closure."
Detective O'Quinn also is concerned with resolution for the Wilkins family. He said, "My goal is to help the family find some closure. I truly believe Chris Benton knows some things. Because there is no criminality to leaving a person in medical distress or not calling 911 to report a death, there is nothing to charge. Even if we forcibly tried to talk with him, he would remain silent and defer to counsel."
Katie Wilkins' father, Robert, indicated that he called the Benton family and spoke with Debby Benton, who told him that her son was in rehab. He said, "The family didn't reach out to us after Katie died. No compassion, no concern. Not a word."
The family said it is particularly upset with part of a media statement that members attribute to the Pepperdine University president to the effect that "illegal substances are a scourge on society and they have hurt many wonderful families in Malibu."
The family indicates that Benton added, "If anything, I hope this devastating situation will underscore the damage that drugs have had on some of our best and brightest."
Steve Wilkins retorts that the senior Benton "is in denial about his own son."
Katie Wilkins' brother stresses that "knowing her mindset intimately leading up to her passing, has made the circumstances surrounding her death very difficult given the game of cat and mouse we've been subjected to since. The manner in which the circumstances of her death have played out have shown me the very worst of what I could imagine in people. For those with information essential to my and my family's well-being, for them to indulge in rhetoric and a legal construct at a time like this is not what I would have expected and it is a disrespectful 'gotcha' to Katie and my family at a time when we deserve, expect, and need better."
Her brother added, "Katie did not like and was discomforted with the thought of people who may judge her on her past issues with heroin and cocaine. I can't think of anyone who had an opportunity to meet her and affirm her as a whole person that did this. Doing so is a great insult to her and others who have suffered addiction and drug abuse issues. The stigma and scourge of drugs is carried on not by those who have had issues with them, but rather the stigma is realized and perpetuated by others choosing to judge another merely by focusing on drug use over all else and vulnerable with those who were having difficulties themselves. This beautiful gift she shared with others, her willingness to become vulnerable for the benefit of another, in my belief led to her death."
Steve Wilkins said Chris Benton sent his sister a text on the Saturday she was found dead that said: "Wut happened? was that ur brother? Lemme kno that ur alrite. have a good day."
If Chris Benton ever sits down and discusses the fateful hours that remain an enigma, this text message and many other unknowns may be explained.