Sheriff’s Department Seeks Criminal Charges in Katie Wilkins’ Death
• Homicide Bureau Forwards Request to DA for Legal Action Against Son of Pepperdine University President
BY ANNE SOBLE
Katherine Jessie Wilkins died on April 28, 2012, at the east Malibu family residence she had moved back to in August a year earlier. The death of the 25-year-old everyone called Katie was attributed to acute morphine (heroin) intoxication.
The Malibu Surfside News has learned this week that following an intensive Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigation, the LASD Homicide Bureau is seeking a criminal filing against Christopher Benton regarding the aspiring young graphic artist’s death.
According to LASD Homicide Detective Tim O’Quinn, the lead investigator who has bird-dogged the complex case from the beginning, “The charges against Benton, 28, the son of Pepperdine University president Andrew Benton, being sought have to do with involuntary manslaughter and with taking a vehicle without an owner’s consent, both felonies.”
O’Quinn told The News, “We have seen in recent news across our communities that multiple teenagers and young adults have died due to heroin overdose. Santa Clarita alone has experienced at least six of these types of deaths in the last year. Malibu and surrounding communities have had several, including Ms. Wilkins. Most of these incidents are being closed as accidental deaths, with no criminal consequences. And, based on the circumstances, these closures are often correct.”
In the Wilkins’ case, however, O’Quinn said, “It would be easy to simply close this case as another tragic accident, like so many others. But this is not what occurred here. Yes, Katie had a prior abuse problem, which was clearly in her past. Just prior to her death, she had recently graduated from the Art Institute of Irvine and had established her own successful and developing graphic design business. She had not seen Chris Benton, or any of the persons she may have hung out with in the past, in well over two years. Yet, literally within hours of having reacquainted with Benton and visiting with him at her home, she was dead on her garage floor. Katie had obviously been physically moved into the garage by Benton, had water splashed in her face, and her car was missing. This is not a description of a typical overdose incident.”
O’Quinn added, “Benton took on a responsibility for Katie, if not directly for her incapacitation, then certainly for leaving her in an incapacitated condition when help could have easily been sought. And from Chris’ own narcotics history, he absolutely knew what the end result was most likely to be when he left Katie incapacitated and alone on the garage floor, with a telephone only a few feet away.”
The detective explained, “In my opinion, this is where Chris became criminally culpable for Katie’s death. Here is the issue. There is existing case law which, under certain circumstances, persons associated with or present during heroin overdose incidents can be held criminally culpable for the death of that individual. Now, these cases clearly define what circumstances are necessary for someone to be held criminally responsible for the heroin overdose death of another. And these circumstances do not necessarily require that the person had provided the narcotics or personally injected the victim.”
O’Quinn added, “Even the coroner’s office agreed that this was not a typical accidental overdose by holding the mode of death as ‘undetermined,’ rather than ‘accidental.’” However, he emphasized that “the District Attorney’s Office is the final authority for determining if, in fact, Chris Benton can be held criminally responsible for Katie’s death. I simply present the facts. I assert that in light of the recent resurgence of heroin and related overdose deaths in our communities, the public and specifically those persons involved in these types of overdose incidents, need to know that they can be held criminally responsible for the death of another.”
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s autopsy report referenced by O’Quinn took almost four months to complete. In light of the information about preliminary tests and the presence of recent injection marks, the heroin overdose was not unexpected.
According to O’Quinn, “The reason for this mode as opposed to ‘accidental’ is that there is no way with present facts in hand to determine if the lethal dose was self-injected or injected by another person.”
The issue of self-injection is relevant because the last person known to have been with Wilkins, and whose fingerprint was found near a door not far from her body, was Benton.
Immediately after the news of Wilkins’ death, a criminal attorney came forward who told the LASD he was representing Chris Benton and would not allow his client to make a statement.
At that time, O’Quinn maintained that Benton could not be brought in for questioning. The detective said his hands were tied, and, “For the same issues/reasons as those listed in the coroner’s report, and because Katherine had a known prior history of heroin use, [he would] be forced to close the LASD case shortly as ‘insufficient evidence of a crime having occurred.’”
After stating last summer, “At this time, we simply do not have enough facts and/or evidence in hand regarding what occurred at the Wilkins residence on the night of April 27 to bring about a filing of criminal charges,” O’Quinn indicated the case was not closed but ongoing work might require time and patience.
Knowing that stance might not sit well with many in the Malibu community and be perceived as special treatment for the offspring of a prominent citizen, O’Quinn had emphasized, “The fact is that the ‘proof beyond any reasonable doubt’ standard of justice protects all of us from illegal criminal prosecution. In this particular case, as unpopular a reality as it may be to Katherine’s family, myself, and to many in the community.”
Family members, especially her older brother Steve Wilkins, kept up the drumbeat for those who might have some of the answers to these questions to step forward and help to bring the family some degree of closure.
Wilkins was attractive, talented and appeared to be embarking on a promising career as a graphic designer. The Malibu High School graduate had recently graduated with honors 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 the fateful Saturday when her brother found her lifeless body on the floor of the family home’s garage. It is not known exactly when she died.
Benton, the son of Andy Benton, the current president of Pepperdine University, and his wife Debby, is their only son and he has reportedly lived on occasion at the official president’s residence on the Pepperdine campus.
Last August Benton was arrested on the campus grounds for making “serious” physical threats against family members. He had a loaded semi-automatic gun that he had stolen from his parents and then discarded on a nearby hillside. He may have roamed the campus unchecked overnight before being apprehended by the LASD. The public was never alerted to the potential danger.
During a jailhouse interview with Wilkins’ father Rob Wilkins and O’Quinn, Benton reportedly apologized to the dead woman’s parent for what happened that night and said his “intent was never to hurt Katherine.”
According to O’Quinn, Benton’s involvement in the case was first documented by footage on the surveillance cameras at the Malibu McDonald’s, which show someone who appears to be Benton, who the detective indicated had a record of prior arrests in the Los Angeles area, 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 Wilkins family does not describe them as close friends, but indicates that they had known each other for years.
In an April 27 timeline provided by her brother to The News, Steve Wilkins said, “Chris texts ‘u coming’ 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 running loose.
The family’s operating assumption is that Chris Benton allegedly fled the Wilkins home in Katie Wilkins’ car when the young woman had a major drug reaction or was dead.
As to whether the drugs were self-administered, that remains speculation. Katie Wilkins’ right arm had injection marks. She was right-handed. O’Quinn also acknowledged that her body had some signs of minimal bruising but adds that might have been incurred if she fell to the floor.
Wilkins’ distinctive silver BMW was found abandoned in a part of the Woodland Hills area that was described as on the route to the offices of the criminal attorney ostensibly hired to keep the younger Benton under wraps and prevent any direct communication with the LASD or the family.
If the DA files charges, there is the possibility that some of the questions related to what transpired when Katie Wilkins died may be answered.
Wilkins’ parents Rob and Diane told The News this week, “The possibility of getting answers to these questions is important to us. It may also help to prevent this kind of horrible tragedy from claiming the lives of others...and tearing other families apart in the way that we have been.”
TRAGEDY—Katie Wilkins appeared to be on the threshold of a major new phase in her young life when she died from acute heroin intoxication after supposedly being drug-free for several years. How the heroin was administered, who was involved and why she did not receive help when she became ill are questions that remain unanswered at this point in time.
CHRISTOPHER BENTON—The only photo currently available to the Malibu Surfside News of the person thought to have important information on how Katie Wilkins died.