Howard Benzel, 67, and his wife owned a building in the 2100 block of Madison Street. On March 28, 2020, Benzel went to the building to speak to Frank Walton.
His wife of over 40 years told police they had been having problems with Walton, 42. He was living in the commercial unit he rented to sell used goods. The Benzels didn’t plan to renew his lease.
Benzel was supposed to be back in Mukilteo to take her for a drive at 1 p.m. Worried, his wife went looking for him around 4 p.m.
Passersby discovered human remains two days later about a mile north of Lake McMurray in Skagit County. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the remains as those of Benzel and ruled his death a homicide caused by blunt force trauma.
On the witness stand, Medical Examiner Dr. J. Matthew Lacy made what he considered a conservative estimate for how many times Benzel was struck: 25. One wound on Benzel’s cheek was consistent with being hit with a hammer, Lacy testified. He said there was also some evidence of possible strangulation and bleeding on Benzel’s brain.
A Snohomish County Superior Court jury found Walton was the culprit.
Prosecutors and Walton’s defense attorneys made closing arguments to the jury Thursday. Deputy prosecuting attorney Elise Deschenes laid out evidence linking Walton to the killing, including video footage showing him driving in Skagit County the day of the murder, his DNA on various objects and Benzel’s blood in Walton’s unit.
“He made the decision he was going to kill Howard,” Deschenes told the jury. “If you don’t believe that perhaps he decided before it started, he decided at the second hit, the third hit, the fourth hit, the fifth, the 15th, the 20th, the 25th and likely many more after. He decided and followed through on his intent to kill Howard Benzel.”
Walton’s public defender, David Roberson, argued there was little evidence of premeditation and the defendant had no motive to kill Benzel. He also said prosecutors hadn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Walton murdered Benzel.
“There is no doubt that the lead detective on this case … did an exhaustive, thorough investigation,” Roberson said. “And even after that, you still have questions as to what happened to Howard Benzel.”
Jurors heard from over 30 witnesses during the trial in front of Superior Court Judge Anna Alexander.
Walton declined to testify Thursday. Flanked by his defense attorneys, he often wrote on sheets of white paper during testimony.
The jury began deliberating around 9 a.m. Friday.
Prosecutors charged Walton with first-degree murder last April. At trial, jurors were given four options. They could have convicted Walton of the original charge of first-degree murder, or the lesser charges of either second-degree murder or first-degree manslaughter. Or they could have acquitted him. They convicted him of the second-most-serious charge.
The jury also found Walton guilty of tampering with physical evidence, a misdemeanor.
As the verdict was delivered just after 4 p.m. Friday, members of Benzel’s family cried with relief.
Walton had no prior felony convictions, according to court documents. In 2013, a woman petitioned for a protection order against Walton, alleging he choked her and threatened to “turn my lights out.” A judge granted the restraining order.
An obituary described Benzel as a dedicated father of two and a grandfather who was “dependable, funny, smart, honest, motivated — the list could go on.”
“He died too soon in life and had so much more to accomplish,” the obituary said.
Walton has been in the Snohomish County Jail since his arrest last year.
His sentencing is set for Dec. 13.