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Detectives seek to question son of Pepperdine's president

Christopher Benton was probably the last person to see Katie Wilkins alive, sheriff's detectives say. The body of the 25-year-old Malibu woman was found in her parents' garage April 28.

May 10, 2012|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives are seeking to question Christopher A. Benton, the son of Pepperdine University President Andrew K. Benton, in connection with the death of a Malibu woman almost two weeks ago.

The body of 25-year-old graphic designer Katie Wilkins was found in her parents' garage on West Moon Shadows Drive by her brother, Steve, the evening of April 28. Det. Tim O'Quinn of the sheriff's homicide bureau said Wilkins apparently died of a heroin overdose, although the results of toxicology tests are pending.

O'Quinn said Wednesday that the case was being considered "non-criminal" but that detectives had surveillance footage of 27-year-old Christopher Benton getting into a car with Wilkins hours before at a McDonald's restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Benton, who has checked into a rehabilitation facility, was probably the last person to see Wilkins alive, O'Quinn said.

O'Quinn said Benton had hired Ronald J. Lewis, a Woodland Hills attorney, and has so far declined to talk with investigators. Lewis did not return a call seeking comment.

"We are not actively looking at Chris Benton as a suspect," O'Quinn said. "We don't have a warrant out." But O'Quinn added that detectives would like to ask Benton such questions as: "Did you end up at her house? How did she end up dead?"

"We're hoping Chris will give the family a story … mainly for the family to get some closure," O'Quinn said.

The dead woman's parents, Robert and Diane Wilkins, and her brother have been waging an aggressive campaign online and in the media to persuade Benton to come forward and speak.

A break came in the investigation Wednesday when officials located Katie Wilkins' silver BMW, which had been missing from her parents' eastern Malibu garage since her death. O'Quinn said detectives planned to check the vehicle for prints. "The car obviously was taken by whoever was with her that night," he said.

Steve Wilkins said the vehicle was found in Woodland Hills. Wilkins, 31, said that his sister had battled addictions with cocaine and heroin in her early 20s but that, as far as close friends and family knew, she had been clean "for a year or two."

In Internet postings and interviews, Wilkins said he unlocked his sister's cellphone after her death, checked the log of calls and text messages, and found that she and Benton had planned to meet at 8:30 p.m. April 27. Video surveillance from the Malibu McDonald's at that time shows his sister pulling into the lot and Benton entering the car as a passenger.

Wilkins said his family "deserves answers from the kid who saw her last. The approach of defiant silence has been frustrating, to say the least." Wilkins said his sister's phone logged "an odd text from Chris" about 1:13 p.m. April 28, asking whether she was OK.

"It was obvious they were together and that something of concern happened," Wilkins said Wednesday.

Jerry Derloshon, a Pepperdine spokesman, said Wednesday that the school was "regarding this sad occasion as a personal matter." He confirmed, however, that Chris Benton was in a rehabilitation center "the last I knew."

"The event occurred off campus," he said. "It's not related to the university.... It's truly tragic for all involved."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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