Death In The Time Of Facebook

The last thing Katie Wilkins—a 25-year-old graphic designer from Malibu, California who was found dead in her parents’ garage on April 28th of an apparent drug overdose—wrote on her Facebook was “Me too!” It was in response to a comment a friend named Christina Montaldo had left on her wall that said, “I’m gunna love our weekend get togethers…hikes and bbqs. hells yes get ready!” Katie Wilkins “liked” the wall post and wrote the aforementioned response on April 27th at 12:58am. Less than two days later, her lifeless body was discovered by her brother.

I never knew Katie Wilkins personally. According to Facebook, we have 2 mutual friends—one of whom made a status update about her passing and that’s how I found out about it. Kate Muselli—a fellow Malibu resident and a friend I had met through Livejournal when we were teenagers and eventually met  IRL when we were both living in New York years later—wrote on April 30th, 11:21am, two days after Wilkins’ body was found, “Waking up to find out one of your best friends has passed is not the morning I wanted. I love you forever Katie Wilkins. I dont even know what to say anymore. But I know I will miss you more then I have ever missed anyone.” I clicked on her name to see her Facebook (I had some vague recollection of who she was from lurking photos on Kate’s Facebook) and saw an outpouring of grief from friends and family on her Facebook wall. One girl had written moments earlier, “Hey I love you so much. I’m not sure if what I’m hearing is true. Please please call me sweet girl. I’m thinking of you.” The fact that this friend had not  been sure if Katie Wilkins had died, even after  it was reported on Huffington Post and other various L.A. media outlets, strikes me as odd but it’s also a testament to the pervasive role Facebook plays in young people’s lives. Assuming her friend had already called Wilkins’ phone to see if she was alive, her next logical step was to write on her Facebook wall because she knew that was a place she routinely checked. It seems morbid to use Facebook as a confirmation of someone being alive or dead but in today’s digital age, it’s become the most immediate and reliable news source about someone’s life.

After I looked at Katie’s Facebook, I Googled her name to find out how she died and, to my surprise, a bunch of articles came up. After I read one from LA Weekly, I understood why there was such intense media coverage: Wilkins had been found dead in her garage with no apparent trauma to her body and her silver BMW missing. With no clear cause of death and a presumably stolen vehicle, this could be a potential homicide which, in the affluent, safe community of Malibu, is almost unheard of.

Days passed with no new news but I continued to check Wilkins’ Facebook for any potential updates. I also, out of morbid curiosity, went through her Timeline to get an idea of what her life was like. She wasn’t the most active user on Facebook but she would occasionally check in places and would almost always respond to people’s wall posts. In the last few months of her life, her friends had been writing that they missed her and wondered where she went. Katie responded to one of these inquiries on January 27th, three months before she died, with, “Just stuck in my house on the hill haha. Still looking for work. What you doing this weekend?” In her death, every little comment or “like” becomes an important marker for her existence. As someone who had never met Katie, I wanted to get a feel for who she was and this was the only way I knew how.

On May 7th, a woman named Liz Kat posted on Katie Wilkins’ Facebook wall a quote from Steve Wilkins, Katie’s brother who discovered her body. It goes as follows:

I’m Steve Wilkins, Katie’s brother. I found Katie dead in my parent’s garage during the afternoon/evening of April 28th. She died sometime between the late evening hours of April 27th and the morning hours of April 28th.

At this time I believe Katie died of a heroin overdose, the investigation revealed strong indications of this. Included in the toxicology report is testing for date rape drug, specifically rohypnol. I believe the heroin or heroin/rup was administered by another person. The investigation revealed strong indications that the injection was not self administered.

Somone was there at the home with her before she died; her car keys are missing from the home, her car is missing from the home, if OD then drug paraphernalia was taken from the home. Investigation revealed the house was clean of drugs/drug paraphernalia. Her car remains missing and no one has come forward with any information about it. No one has come forward about her whereabouts on the evening of April 27th.

After successfully unlocking her cell phone, I looked at Katie’s phone log to check her txt messages for indications of her contacts and plans leading up to her death.

Chris Benton, son of Pepperdine University President Andy Benton, is the last known person to have been with Katie Wilkins before her death. I have text messages showing a planned meeting between Katie Wilkins and Chris Benton on April 27th at 8:30PM. At 8:33PM video surveillance from the Malibu Mc Donald’s restaurant shows Katie, in her 1998 BMW Silver Z3, pulling into the McDonalds parking lot, Chris entering the car as a passenger, and just the two of them driving away. This is her last known whereabouts before she was found dead at our family home on April 28th.

When Chris Benton was contacted for questioning about his involvement with Katie on the night of April the 27th an attorney was hired for him.

I have indication that Chris Benton was entered into a drug treatment facility on April 28th. He has not been questioned; he has not made himself available for questioning.

This was a huge lead in the case and one that I had yet to see reported on any major news outlet. After that posting, friends expressed outrage about The Bentons’ unwillingness to talk to the police.  Someone wrote on May 9th on Katie Wilkins’ Facebook wall:

I challenge Katie Wilkins friends and alumni of Pepperdine to beseige the face book page of Pepperdine to request President Andrew Benton to answer for his inaction and lack of leadership example by covering for the sins of his son Chris Benton who has a reputation among law enforcement and the Malibu community for being rotten to the core without any moral apptitude!”

Watching Katie’s loved ones share breakthroughs in her case and use her Facebook page as a way to jumpstart some grassroots mobilizing was amazingly touching. In the past, I had only seen Facebook be used as a memorial for those who died. In the case of Katie Wilkins, however, there were a lot of unanswered questions. As a result, her Facebook not only became a place for her friends and family to express their sadness and share memories, it also became a way for people to unite and search for justice in the wake of her death.

A day after the posting of Steve Wilkins’ statement on Facebook,  The Los Angeles Times and other media outlets reported a new break in the case: Wilkins’ BMW had been found in Woodland Hills and was being dusted for fingerprints. Detectives told reporters that the case was still considered “non-crimminal” but that they would like to talk to Chris Benton, and ask him “such questions as: “Did you end up at her house? How did she end up dead?” Unfortunately, Benton has hired an attorney and is refusing to talk. He’s also, as Steve Wilkins previously noted, in an undisclosed rehab facility, which he checked into the day Katie was found dead.

Benton’s reluctance to share information about Katie’s last moments hasn’t deterred her friends and family from finding out what really happened. They’ve created a Facebook page called Truth For Katie with the tagline: “We want justice. We want the truth, for Katie.” in the hopes that it will encourage anyone who has information about her death to come forward and share what they know. They’ve also created a petition at Change.org that’s asking  Chris and his father Andrew Benton to reveal any information they might have.

It’s been two weeks since she passed away and nary a day goes by where I haven’t checked her Facebook for updates about her case. Like I said, I never met Katie Wilkins  but perhaps that’s why I feel so affected by her death. Having access to her Facebook page and her comment history and photos deludes me into thinking that I do know her in some small way even if, in actuality, I haven’t a clue.

I believe that, in many ways, Facebook has changed the way we grieve. I’ve never had anyone close to me pass away before but I’m not sure how I would feel about posting memories of the two of us on their Facebook wall. Kate Muselli, one of Katie’s best friends and my friend from the Livejournal days, wrote me in an email that she finds looking at Katie’s Facebook to be painful but also theraputic. She explains:

I check it everyday. Knowing im not the only one who misses Katie, and that there are other people who loved her as much as I did, makes me feel not so alone. Looking at her pictures & reading her past posts makes it seem like she is still here in a way. I can look back on old comments she has written me, & things I have written her. I have posted on her facebook a few times since I found out what happened, and I think being able to release what im feeling, or say what im thinking to her makes me feel better. I just want Katie’s memory and spirit to live on forever. She was one in a million.

I think about how I would honor someone’s memory when they’re gone and if I would be able to look at their Facebook and Twitter, or if it’d just be too painful for me.  I see pictures of Katie Wilkins now, a girl who’s my age and lives in the same city as my father, stepmother, and brother, and I think of her as someone I could’ve known. And then I look at all of the people who are heartbroken in the wake of her death, who write heartfelt condolences on her Facebook wall and talk about how much they miss her, and I grieve with them. Just seeing how loved she was, just being able to see this at all as someone who had no knowledge of her life prior,  I’m able to join them in some small way and mourn this tragedy. TC mark

image – ABC News

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.

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