EVERETT — Howard Benzel went to the mixed-use building he owned with his wife in the 2100 block of Madison Street in Everett on March 28, 2020. He needed to speak with Frank Walton, the tenant in Unit 10.
Benzel told his wife of over 40 years he’d be home in Mukilteo by 1 p.m. The couple planned to go for a drive.
But he didn’t come home. As his wife grew concerned, she went looking for him. At the two-story building, with residential and commercial units, she found his truck and cell phone. Benzel, 67, was nowhere to be seen.
“He should’ve been home a long time ago,” the wife told a dispatcher in a 911 call. She said in another frantic call she thought Walton killed Benzel, adding, “Please get somebody here now.”
Passersby discovered human remains two days later about a mile north of Lake McMurray in Skagit County. The Snohomish County medical examiner reported Benzel had been struck at least 25 times, prosecutors say.
Walton, 42, was charged a few weeks later with first-degree murder in Benzel’s death. His trial began Thursday in Snohomish County Superior Court.
The wife told police she saw Walton wiping up blood outside the Everett building, according to the charges.
She assumed it was her husband’s blood. She yelled at Walton, “You killed him, you killed my husband!” deputy prosecuting attorney Audrey Majkut said in court. Majkut added that Walton responded she was “crazy.” He reportedly left in his purple Buick.
Investigators found blood droplets from the building to the street.
An Everett officer thought Benzel might be inside Unit 10. The officer forced his way in. There, police reported finding a puddle smelling like bleach on the floor, according to court documents.
Blood was reportedly found on two small rugs in the entryway and behind the door.
A neighbor told police she heard two men arguing loudly in Walton’s unit just after 4 p.m., according to charging papers. They heard loud banging sounds. Then five or 10 minutes of silence.
The wife told police they had been having problems with Walton. He was living in the commercial unit he rented to sell used goods. The Benzels didn’t plan to renew his lease.
Defense attorney Paul Wagner said in his opening statement Thursday that Walton also wanted to leave. Walton had no motive to kill, Wagner argued.
Majkut claimed forensic analysis revealed the blood was Benzel’s.
“Howard cannot tell us what happened, but the evidence can,” Majkut told the jury in her opening statement Thursday afternoon. “And the evidence tells us that Howard was murdered and that his murderer was the defendant.”
Walton said in an initial police interview that he left the building when Benzel’s wife yelled at him, and that he went to his north Everett storage unit for about half an hour. He reported he then went to a Marysville apartment complex. Detectives claimed his story didn’t hold up. The defendant’s timeline and details often changed in the interview, according to charging papers.
In a dumpster outside the Marysville apartment, police found rags that smelled like chemicals, as well as cleaning supplies, packaging materials, a banner and thick rubber floor mats — all of which had blood on them.
In another interview, Walton acknowledged lying about several aspects of his initial story, according to police. Confronted by detectives about the inconsistencies, he said, “I was in fear for my life.”
He reported he was in his office when two men who “appeared to be cartel members” burst in with Benzel, according to court documents. Walton claimed they punched Benzel in the head, making him bleed in the unit. He said they then left, telling him to clean up the unit and not to talk to the police. That’s why he disposed of the evidence, Walton claimed.
After that, Wagner asserted, Walton went to Quiznos to see friends and decompress. As his public defender told that story in court Thursday, Walton wiped his eyes with a tissue.
Wagner argued detectives didn’t pursue that angle enough in their investigation.
“There is going to be no evidence in this case, other than what you hear from Frank about what those two men did, that anyone intended to cause serious injury to Howard,” he said. “And certainly not that anyone intended to kill him, and certainly not that it was premeditated. That evidence does not exist.”
Walton is Black. Benzel was white. The jury has no Black members. Defense attorneys argued prosecutors pushed to excuse potential jurors who expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement or distrust of the police.
An obituary described Benzel as a dedicated father of two and a grandfather.
“He died too soon in life and had so much more to accomplish,” the obituary reads.
Prosecutors expected the trial to last three weeks.