A woman whose body was discovered in an Anchorage car crash Monday night was shot, asphyxiated and bludgeoned to death by the car's driver before the crash, and members of the driver's family helped cover up the crime, officials said Wednesday.
The account came in documents charging the driver, 34-year-old Benjamin E. Wilkins, with first-degree murder and other charges, including kidnapping, two counts of sexual assault and DUI.
Wilkins stands accused of killing 30-year-old Jacqueline Goodwin, whose body was found in his car after he crashed into an East Anchorage light pole late Monday, police said.
He appeared in an Anchorage courtroom Wednesday afternoon. His bail was set at $1 million following statements from assistant district attorney Gustaf Olson, who described the alleged murder as "horrific."
Wilkins "engaged in the prolonged and agonizing death of (the victim)," Olson said. "He was on his way to dispose of the body, based on his condition."
Wilkins shook his head as the judge read the sex assault charge and again when Olson detailed the nature of Goodwin's death. He tried to speak at one point but was inaudible.
Wilkins' mother and brother, Jacqueline and Conner Stefano, ages 61 and 28, also face charges, single counts of tampering with evidence and hindering prosecution. Jacqueline Stefano also faces a felony drug charge.
During the investigation, Anchorage police seized a cache of money and drugs from a West Anchorage house, as well as evidence of a fatal shooting, according to the charging document.
Car crash leads to discovery of body
Police responded to the collision around 11:40 p.m. in the area of DeBarr Road and Lake Otis Parkway. Wilkins told police he tried to avoid an animal in the road and struck the light pole, but officers soon determined he'd been driving without a valid license and was likely intoxicated based on observations and failed sobriety tests, the charges say.
When they searched Wilkins' Subaru, police discovered what appeared to be a passenger under a sleeping bag behind the driver's seat. Officers removed the covering and discovered a woman with zip ties on her wrists, a plastic bag with a red drawstring over her head, tape over her mouth and more zip ties stuffed down her throat, the charges say.
"Police noted that the body was warm to the touch without rigor," the charges say. "When medics arrived, they confirmed that the female was dead."
An autopsy later revealed that the victim had a significant injury to her abdomen, consistent with a gunshot wound. She also had significant trauma to her face, the charges say.
An officer initially took Wilkins to jail for DUI processing but ended up taking him to police headquarters for questioning. Investigators saw blood on his shirt and on the tops and soles of his shoes, the charges say. They took Wilkins' phone and found text messages detailing drug deals, the charges say.
Interviews with the family
The wrecked Subaru led police to the West Anchorage home of Suzanne Stefano, Wikins' 88-year-old grandmother.
While at the house, police also spoke with Connor Stefano, who appeared "extremely nervous," the charges say. He told police Wilkins didn't live there and he hadn't seen his brother for about a week. The mother of the two, Jacqueline Stefano, similarly told police her son didn't live in the home, but she said she saw him go to the basement Monday evening.
In a second interview, the mother said Wilkins lived in the basement, according to the charges. She said she heard an argument between Wilkins and a woman on Monday night, and she called Connor over to the house to intervene, the charges say.
During the brother's second interview with police, he said he heard a disturbance coming from the basement but didn't go downstairs until the commotion stopped, the charges say.
"(Connor) described the basement as a mess with blood so he started to clean up the mess with Clorox," the charges say, adding he hid the cleaning supplies in a pillowcase in an outbuilding on the grandmother's property.
Search warrants turn up money, drugs
Police obtained a warrant and searched Suzanne Stefano's home, a motor home and a shed, according to the charges.
They found $125,191 in cash, the charges say. In the basement, they found nearly a pound of heroin, 3 pounds of hallucinogenic mushrooms, 3.5 pounds Xanax pills, 2.5 pounds of methamphetamine, a half-pound of cocaine and about 10 pounds of "processed" marijuana, according to the charges. Police also found almost a pound of "blue Lego-shaped tablets" that need more testing, according to the charges.
"More drugs than many of the police officers had ever seen in years," Olson, the state prosecutor, said in court Wednesday.
Police said they also recovered bloody cleaning supplies from a shed.
"Police recovered zip ties in the basement room consistent with the same type of zip ties used to bind … the victim," the charges say.
Police also found a bed with bloodstains and what appeared to be a bullet hole going through it, and bullet fragments were recovered from the room, the charges say.
Connection between suspect and victim remains an unknown
The court document does not establish any connection between Wilkins and Goodwin.
Court records show both Wilkins and Goodwin have criminal records.
Wilkins was arrested in August 2003 for aiming a gun at a police officer, according to an Anchorage Daily News story. Police said at that time they found a large amount of marijuana and cocaine on Wilkins when he was arrested.
Olson recalled that incident during Wilkins' arraignment. Wilkins was trying to avoid arrest when he pointed the gun, which was stolen, at an officer, he said. The defendant is a danger to the community and poses a flight risk if released, the prosecutor argued.
Neither of the Stefanos appeared for initial court hearings. Online court records show preliminary bail amounts and conditions of release have been set in their cases, but court dates haven't been scheduled.
Jacqueline Stefano's second son, Trevor Stefano, is currently in jail for a drug-related murder, the charges say. Trevor allegedly called his mother from jail in recent days and asked what charges she was facing. The charges say she told her son she suspected drugs.
The court document ends with a statement about Goodwin's autopsy being deemed a homicide. The rest is redacted.
When the judge handling Wilkins' arraignment asked the courtroom if anyone wanted to make a victim impact statement, no one spoke up.
Goodwin's criminal record includes numerous prostitution charges, although most of them were convictions in the mid-2000s. Her more recent charges were for crimes such as theft and disorderly conduct.
Goodwin lived in a room in the home of Geraldine Turner, who said she first opened her doors to a 16-year-old Goodwin. Turner said in a phone interview that she used to run an assisted living home. Once she stopped, she kept a room for Goodwin; she was afraid something would happen to her, she said.
"She was always in the streets," Turner said. "She was a good woman, but she didn't think things through and always found herself in trouble."
Turner last saw Goodwin over the weekend. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, Turner said, but before Goodwin up and left like she had so many times before, she gave her an uncharacteristically enthusiastic hug.
"Maybe she had a premonition of some sort," Turner said.
On Wednesday evening, the West Anchorage home where police say the murder occurred was quiet. No one answered the door. The Wildwood Lane residence is set back from the street by a looping driveway of worn cement. The property includes an outbuilding, and a small motor home was parked in the drive.
Neighbors said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the goings-on of the home. There would be traffic, but nothing unusual for an older woman with family, they said.