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.

Trace the scars life has left you. It will remind you that at one point, you fought for something. You believed.

“You are the only person who gets to decide if you are happy or not—do not put your happiness into the hands of other people. Do not make it contingent on their acceptance of you or their feelings for you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone dislikes you or if someone doesn’t want to be with you. All that matters is that you are happy with the person you are becoming. All that matters is that you like yourself, that you are proud of what you are putting out into the world. You are in charge of your joy, of your worth. You get to be your own validation. Please don’t ever forget that.” — Bianca Sparacino

Excerpted from The Strength In Our Scars by Bianca Sparacino.

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  • guest

    My friend was recently murdered in her apartment in Japan. I did not know her very well and I felt very similarly as I scrolled through all of her last facebook activity. I did not know how to feel about everyone’s comments directed at her. I thought maybe the comments seemed disingenuous and for the sake of other people, but I quickly changed my mind and realized that everyone was heartbroken and just trying to make sense of what had happened in the most appropriate way they knew how. This was one of your most touching and interesting pieces.

    • Guest

      *everyones, sorry

  • http://twitter.com/alalalex alex

    This article prompted me to check the Facebook of someone I knew who died last year and evidently today is the one year anniversary of his death. Such an eerie feeling. This really hit home today.

  • Sophia

    This is an excellent piece of writing. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but, man, that’s interesting.

  • Howstrangetobeanythingatall

    This was beautiful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/katemuselli Kate Muselli

    This is beautiful Ryan, Katie would have been proud! Thanks for including me in your article & asking me some questions! And FYI Liz Cat is Katie’s older sister Liz. Thanks again Ryan, great article. It’s things like these we need to keep Katie’s loving memory and spirit alive. Xoxo Kate

  • Natalie

    A good friend of mine died last summer and people still post things to her wall. Her other close friends and girlfriend, I know, find this type of display irritating and almost disrespectful. I know that my friend herself would not like it either. But I suppose whatever way in which people wish to grieve is their business. However, it seems worse that someone this person did not even know or barely knew is able to participate in her life, in her memory, without her consent.

    • AlexMathews

      In what way is that “disrespectful”? It’s a form of coping…leaving messages to people who have passed. I’m not sure how that constitutes disrespect in any way.

      I mean if I died, I would be fairly touched knowing that people still were still leaving me comments and messages years after my passing.

      • Kenni

        I think she was saying that some of the people posting weren’t 100% genuine and maybe didn’t even know her and their pretending to be close to her seemed disrespectful to her memory.

    • Guest

      Its the same thing as sendings notes or leaving letters at a memorial or grave. It’s just virtual

  • http://chamblee54.wordpress.com/ Chamblee54

    ” I’ve never had anyone close to me pass away before”
    This is a 25yo gay man speaking. If this had been written twenty years ago, he would have known dozens. The bug drugs are a miracle.

    • http://twitter.com/alisonwisneski alisonwisneski

       Woah. Out of line.

      • scsh

        I don’t know if this is a social justice issue. Twenty years ago, yeah, that was a thing, and it was huge. It totally really happened, and I don’t think this comment was offered as a slur but a history. An ugly one.

    • Anonymous

      why are u bringing up aids tho

    • scsh

      I’m mostly blown that a 25 year old anyone hasn’t. It’s a game changer. You are never the same.

    • Cita

      And if it had been forty years ago, I doubt any 25 year old would be able to say the same.  Wars happen, technology advances, life expectancy increases.  It’s not that complicated, and it certainly has nothing to do with being gay.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/43U72R5XURCTH76BADAQEXRWXU Nicole

    i really thought i was the only one with this type of morbid curiosity. whenever i notice the passing of someone mentioned on facebook i am always interested in reading the comments and googling articles for the cause of death. it is incredibly interesting that in this case facebook is being used as a form of justice and not just mourning. 

  • pineapple

    last year in my last year of high school a guy who was in one of my classes died. I didnt know him very well, more of an acquaintance yet our whole school was really affected. People post on his facebook all the time, the posts are mainly to say they miss him and update him about life. I find it really weird looking at his page from awhile ago because it’s almost like you can pretend they are still around reading their comments and seeing the pictures. It can really transport you back. If he was close to me I don’t know if I could handle looking at his page, I think it would just make me too sad.

  • http://twitter.com/JonTargaryen Carly Fowler

    An acquaintance of mine died in the 10th grade. He never had the chance to accept my friend request since I sent it a few days before he died. I still have access to his wall and every day some new memory is shared, even after 2 years. I didn’t know him very well but I can’t help but read the comments and weep. He was such a genuine person. People always say the best about you when you’re dead but he was spectacular when he was alive, as well. I feel strange seeing his facebook activity forever immortalizing him but it was definitely a way to cope.

  • Memoriesforever

    I’ve thought about the mourning process in the age of social media since the myspace days when I saw a friend of friend’s profile became a shrine to them. I also have never had someone close to me pass away who had a facebook and don’t think I’d know how I feel about it until I experience it (knock on wood). Regardless, I think it’s incredibly sad to see. 

  • Vaecordia

    I think what I find most disturbing in all of this is the use of Facebook to post information that has not yet been officially made public, or the posting of information as fact when it may be merely speculation or the last shreds of hope by a family mourning and looking for something or someone to blame.  I feel for the young lady’s family and friends, but there is a reason we don’t try people via the court of public opinion.

  • Ana

    a girl that attended the same highschool as me died from cancer more than one year ago. her mother used facebook to cope with the grief, but the strangest/saddest part is she continues to write messages on her wall,all the time, messages to her, and they look like a desperate cry for help. I have no idea if this is a healthy thing to do, it seems like it’s a behaviour that’s enabling you to be stuck in that grief. I’m not one to judge, but you have a valid point, grief has changed. when she died, I had this morbid curiosity, reading messages from other people, all those words were, like you said, sort of validating her as a person. 
    everyone has their methods of coping. maybe it helps, and if it does, it’s for the best and we shouldn’t criticize.

  • http://external-harddrivedeals.com/seagate/free-agent-goflex-sale FreeAgent

    How sad is this really? I can’t seem to imagine the hurt people must feel for her. It’s hard to lose someone. And maybe facebook is their only outlet and their only connection, making it harder to let go.

  • http://twitter.com/thesungjong Josh

    Anyone else find this slightly creepy and not at all touching? Of course I clicked the links too, but I wonder where the line is between “mourning the tragedy” and indulging in emotional voyeurism of the type that Nancy Grace et al. traffic in.

    • Rohainaextra

      He’s a writer. Writers investigate. They have questions and ideas, so they seek answers. 

      • Guest

        Ryan O’Connell is not a fucking journalist.

      • ..

        investigating does not always mean journalism. its a pretty broad word.

  • Jess

    This really reminded me of something Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) would have written if he were alive today. Excellent article!

  • JK

    I can relate to this.  A friend of one of my law school friends was murdered last year, right around this time, and a facebook group about her became a place where everyone posted updates about suspects, news articles, search efforts, etc.  It was very interesting, and also, obviously, sad.  We live in a weird time.

  • Benjy

    I still message my friend Ryan from time to time. I miss the fuck out of him. 

  • KWLA

    Amazing article. Very touching. Times have indeed changed, and it is great people can use facebook to stay connected to the ones they have loved and lost if they choose to. Beautifully written article.

  • M.

    6 months yesterday since a friend of mine died in a tragic car accident, and I check her facebook regularly too. I wrote and posted some pictures in the day or two after the crash, but don’t post ongoingly. Some do though, and I think it is a beautiful way of remembering. 

  • s.l.

    i see the draw to this topic (truly i do) and why people find facebook bereavement interesting. i feel like this lacks heart, because as you state in your last paragraph- you haven’t gone through this. i was one of the first to learn of my friend’s suicide. i saw it on her facebook while i was calling our friends to tell them. i needed more time and there was this race against the fb clock that put this thick layer of panic on top of the tragic. my memory of that day is defined by a breathless sprint to tell people immediately. 
    yes i suppose “death in the time of facebook” is a cultural curiosity, supposed to represent some kind of shift in the zeitgeist or whatever. but to her friends its a morgue and we spend hours doing our own autopsies. my wall was the last that she wrote on. her last facebook profile picture was from that time we studied down the street. i have combed through every picture, every comment, to find what went wrong to learn that it cannot be found. facebook in death becomes false hope. ugh. it doesn’t stop being confusing.

  • Jenkyca

    Kate Muselli is a dear family friend and it was from her heart wrenching Facebook post that I first learned about the death of her close friend Katie Wilkins. I think this article about death and Facebook was very insightful and really needed to be written. After looking at Katie’s page and seeing the posts from her friends I felt the Facebook aspect had lent the whole event and the ongoing quest for the truth of this young woman’s last hours a lot of intensly raw and immediate power.

  • http://chamblee54.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/desktop-cleanup/ Desktop Cleanup « Chamblee54

    […] will discuss this, and they are welcome to it. Both subjects are toxic. Slightly more uplifting is Death In The Time Of Facebook. That is a story at Thought Catalog. TC is another good use of spare time. The current offerings on […]

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