Episode 020: Benjamin Eastman

December 6, 2021

When a lifelong friendship ends in betrayal, the brutal details shock a small town community. Who killed Benjamin Eastman, and why?

[Note: This episode was originally recorded in December 2021. It was re-recorded with new case information in April 2023.]

Episode Media
Benjamin Eastman (Facebook)
Benito Marquez (KOMO News)
Jonathan Adamson (KOMO News)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a tragic story of friendship and betrayal. This episode discusses sensitive topics and includes graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.

Sixteen-year-old Benjamin Eastman was a funny, likable kid growing up in the small town of Randle, Washington. He loved the outdoors, and he took advantage of every opportunity to go fishing with friends or ride dirt bikes with his dad.

In June of 2018, the summer before his junior year, Benjamin was bouncing back and forth between his mother’s house, his brother Derek’s place, and the home where he lived with his father, BJ. He was enjoying the freedom of summer break, having just celebrated his sixteenth birthday, and was spending time with his friends and family without the worry of schoolwork or after-school commitments.

On June 23, 2018, Benjamin and his dad spent the evening playing video games before building a campfire in the backyard, where they sat together, laughing and talking in the cool night air. Around midnight, BJ decided to turn in. He told his son he loved him just like he did every night. Benjamin replied, “Love you, too.”

When BJ awoke the next morning, Benjamin wasn’t in the house. He didn’t think much of it; Benjamin was a social, energetic teenager – it wasn’t unusual for him to head over to a friend’s house any time of day. BJ figured Benjamin was probably hanging out with his best friend, Benito Marquez. Benjamin and Benito – who went by Benny – had been friends since kindergarten. They were constantly over at each other’s homes or out camping in the woods together. BJ figured Benjamin would call him later.

But Benjamin didn’t call. Again, BJ wasn’t that concerned – his son was always on the move, and sometimes they didn’t talk for a few days. Their whole extended family lived in Randle; Benjamin was probably with his mom or one of his siblings.

Unfortunately, it took several days for anyone to realize that Benjamin wasn’t with family or friends. When BJ realized that no one had seen or heard from Benjamin since Sunday, he called the local authorities and filed a missing persons report on Wednesday, June 27th.

Detectives immediately began contacting Benjamin’s family and friends, trying to piece together a timeline. After his father had gone to bed on Sunday morning, Benjamin had texted Benny Marquez and made plans to meet up to go camping that day. But when detectives questioned Benny, he said that Benjamin had never shown up. He assumed Benjamin had changed his mind and they would catch up later.

By now, it was clear that Benjamin was in trouble. This wasn’t a case of a teenage runaway – Benjamin loved his family and friends, and there had been no indication that anything was wrong in the days leading up to his disappearance.

Word spread quickly in the small town. Benjamin’s family put up flyers with his face and a description of what he had been wearing the last time he’d been seen. Benny Marquez reached out to their mutual friends on social media, and posted Benjamin’s missing poster on his Facebook feed, saying, “Please if you hear anything about him or where he’s at, notify BJ Eastman and send prayers out for his family.”

Investigators and search teams canvassed the town of Randle and the surrounding foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range. Was it possible that Benjamin had set out for the planned camping trip with Benny and somehow gotten lost in the woods?

On Thursday, June 28th, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office received information about a possible shallow grave on a remote property just south of town. When deputies searched the area, they found a small wooden cross next to a mound of recently disturbed soil. The property owners insisted that it was just the grave of the family dog who had recently passed away, but when deputies investigated further, they discovered the body of a young man, wrapped in plastic and twine.

For detectives, the pieces of the puzzle began to come together. The property where the body was found belonged to a relative of Benny Marquez. And Benny had been the last person to have any contact with Benjamin as they planned their camping trip over text on Sunday morning.

Within hours of the discovery, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release, stating that they were attempting to locate 16-year-old Benito Marquez and his brother, 21-year-old Jonathon Adamson. But unfortunately, the brothers had fled town the minute they learned that Benjamin’s body had been discovered.

The next day, an officer with the Washington State Patrol pulled over their vehicle during a routine traffic stop in Ellensburg, Washington, over a hundred miles away from Randle. Benny and Jonathon were both taken into custody on suspicion of murder.

The Lewis County coroner released the results of Benjamin’s autopsy, which indicated that the teen had died of blunt-force trauma to the head. His death was officially ruled a homicide.

But what had happened in the woods that day? How had a lifelong friendship ended in murder?

As detectives questioned Benny and Jonathon at length, details of the shocking crime began to emerge.

Early in the morning on June 24th, not long after BJ had gone to bed, Benny had texted Benjamin and asked him to go camping with him and his brother. Benjamin agreed, leaving home around 3am. He had no idea that his best friend was luring him to his death.

When Benjamin met up with Benny and Jonathon on the edge of a remote road outside of town, he suddenly found himself under attack. The two brothers began hitting and kicking him, knocking him to the ground and brutally beating him.

At one point, Benjamin broke loose from the attack, and Benny suggested that they just let him go. But Jonathon told him that they’d already come too far. They caught Benjamin and began beating him again. Jonathon later told detectives that he thought they kicked Benjamin over 100 times.

But that wasn’t enough for the two brothers. While Benjamin was still breathing, clinging to life, Benny and Jonathon sexually assaulted him before finally bashing in his skull with a rock. After nearly an hour of unspeakable torture, Benjamin Eastman was dead.

Before they buried him, Benny and Jonathon stripped off his clothes and their own, burning them in a pit along with the shovel they used to dig the shallow grave. The metal head of the shovel didn’t burn; it was left among the charred evidence.

At first, the brothers thought they had gotten away with it. It seemed like everyone believed Benny’s story about Benjamin not showing up for their camping trip. He had put on a good show, helping spread the word about Benjamin’s disappearance. But as the searches went on, the brothers grew more and more paranoid. Eventually, they returned to the scene of the crime, dug up Benjamin’s body, and relocated it to another shallow grave on their family’s land, marking it with a cross.

Detectives were shocked by these revelations, but perhaps even more so by the reason – of lack thereof – behind the brutal murder. As he walked detectives through the events of June 24th, Jonathon suggested that the entire attack was over a girl. “I guess in a sick, demented way, I was trying to teach him a lesson.”

On July 2, 2018, Benito Marquez and Jonathon Adamson were charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape, tampering with physical evidence, and unlawful disposal of remains. Sixteen-year-old Benny was charged as an adult due to the brutality of his crimes.

As the judge read out the charges, Benjamin’s father sat in the front row, leaning on the railing. He told reporters, “I wanted them to look at me, I wanted to look them in the eye.”

But the road to justice would not be easy. In February of 2019, Benny Marquez pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape, striking a deal with prosecutors to tell the full story of what happened for a reduced sentence. Jonathon Adamson was also expected to enter a guilty plea, but he backed out of the plea agreement at the last minute. It wouldn’t be until July that he finally pleaded guilty, over a year after Benjamin’s death.

In the meantime, authorities charged several other people in connection with the murder. Benny and Jonathon’s mother, Kindra Adamson, and Jonathon’s fiance, Emma Brown, both pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance. Authorities said that the women knew of the crime and helped the brothers leave town once Benjamin’s body was discovered, providing investigators with misinformation.

Then, a friend of Benny’s – 17-year-old Michael Salazar – was charged with murder, tampering with evidence, and rendering criminal assistance. He allegedly knew about the plan to assault Benjamin before it even happened, but he did not warn anyone. Even worse, he actively stopped his girlfriend from alerting authorities. Salazar’s mother was also charged with rendering criminal assistance by helping to cover up the crime and misleading detectives.

A month later, 24-year-old Jerald Thompson was charged with witness tampering after Jonathon told him to convince Benny not to plead guilty so that he couldn’t testify against him.

But in the end, both Benny and Jonathon pleaded guilty to the murder of Benjamin Eastman.

At their sentencing in November of 2020, Benny apologized to Benjamin’s family. “I can’t really express how sorry I really am. I’m not the monster that I was that night… He was my best friend, I don’t know how I did what I did. It’s unforgivable, but holding that hate in your heart is just going to hurt you more and more and more.”

Jonathon also expressed remorse, saying, “Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do to change the past.”

Superior Court Judge James Lawler said that he had never seen a case like this in the 38 years he had practiced law. “This case, unbelievably, just kept getting worse. This case and your actions are simply beyond belief, but we have to believe it.”

Prosecutors asked the judge for the highest sentence allowed by Washington state law for Jonathon Adamson, describing him as the instigator of the attack and saying that he had earned every day of the maximum sentence.

For Benny, prosecutors asked the judge to consider his age and the fact that the plan was clearly hatched by his older brother. Although he had played a significant role in his best friend’s murder, Benny had been completely honest with investigators from the time of his arrest and had met the requirements for his plea deal.

Ultimately, Jonathon Adamson was sentenced to 47 years in prison for first-degree murder, first-degree rape, second-degree kidnapping, and witness tampering. Benito Marquez was sentenced to 26 years in prison for first-degree murder and first-degree assault. Because he was just 16 at the time of the murder, he will be eligible for release after 20 years.

Benjamin’s father was present for every step of the court proceedings, staring down his son’s killers as they confessed what they had done. BJ was determined to get justice for Benjamin, no matter how difficult. He wanted everyone to know that Benjamin was loved, and that he would not be forgotten.

In November of 2021, three years after Benjamin’s death and one year after Jonathon and Benny were sentenced, new information about the case came to light.

By this time, Benny had a new attorney, Talitha Hazelton with TeamChild, a non-profit organization that supports youth involved in the juvenile justice system. After pouring through all of the court documents and investigative reports in Benny’s case, Hazelton filed a motion to overturn his guilty plea and sentence on the grounds that his court-appointed attorney, Shane O’Rourke, failed to properly defend him. In the motion, Hazelton stated that O’Rourke advised Benny Marquez to plead guilty without sufficiently examining all the evidence in the case.

Perhaps the most important piece of information that was either overlooked or ignored was the statement made by Benny’s younger sister Lydia.

According to Lydia, Benjamin Eastman had sexually assaulted her on the night of June 13, 2018. She was 14 years old at the time, and Benjamin was 16. The next morning, he messaged her on Snapchat, allegedly admitting to the assault and offering to buy her Plan B, but Lydia told him she would take care of it and blocked him on Snapchat. She spent the next ten days dealing with the aftermath of the assault, afraid to tell anyone what had happened. Finally, on June 23rd, Lydia confided in her brother Benny about the assault. She believes that this was the catalyst for Benny and their older brother Jonathon luring Benjamin into the woods and murdering him later that day.

Lydia also stated that she told detectives about the Snapchat messages after Benny was arrested, but they never followed up with her about the sexual assault. They never requested to see her phone, and she was not questioned again. Hazelton made it clear in the court filing that the detective who originally questioned Lydia and who was instrumental in the investigation of Benny and Jonathon was a close relative of Benjamin Eastman.

At the end of her declaration, Lydia expressed her desire to have her story told. “My family is not evil, and my brothers are not monsters. They are good people who have done nothing but love me and protect me my entire life. They welcomed Ben Eastman III into our home like he was family, and he raped me. All I want is for the story of what really happened to be told. People can form their opinions on their own, and that’s okay with me. I know some people will still not believe me. But people can’t form opinions if they don’t know what happened, and no one knows what really happened because no one ever let us talk about it.”

In Hazelton’s motion to the court, she argued that Benny’s attorney did not follow up on Lydia’s story or look into the Snapchat messages, nor did he properly investigate medical records and cell phone data that could have been used in Benny’s defense. Instead, Benny was coerced into entering a guilty plea by O’Rourke and State Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer, who allegedly threatened that “he would do everything he could to make sure Benny stayed in jail for the rest of his life.”

Benny and his mother Kindra also filed statements with the motion, outlining O’Rourke’s misconduct, predatory behavior, and ultimate failure to properly defend his client. I have linked all of these statements and the full text of the motion for relief on the podcast website – I encourage you to read them to get the full picture of what happened in this case. The evidence presented by Talitha Hazelton is compelling and heartbreaking.

Although Benny Marquez has never denied his involvement in the murder of Benjamin Eastman, he was also never given the opportunity to speak in his own defense. I want to be clear – I do believe that Benny and Jonathon should be held responsible for the death of Benjamin Eastman, but I also believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at justice, and if our justice system is going to work, we have to make sure that every voice is heard.

At Benny’s sentencing, the judge was not provided any background information or insight into Benny’s state of mind at the time of the murder. Instead, 16-year-old Benny was sentenced as an adult. His current attorney believes that he received a much harsher sentence than was warranted because of this failure to provide mitigating circumstances.

As of this recording, Benny’s appeal is still making its way through the Washington State court system.

The Eastman family have now spent nearly five years without Benjamin. It has been a difficult time, and they have faced their own struggles. His father BJ was arrested for assault in 2019, unrelated to Benjamin’s case. But in spite of his own issues, BJ was still determined to keep his son’s memory alive.

So moved by the support he received from his own community after the death of Benjamin, BJ wanted to help other families going through similar circumstances. In 2019, BJ launched a non-profit foundation called Blessings From Ben. The foundation provides financial relief to families after the loss of a child, and there is also a scholarship in Benjamin’s name for students in the community. BJ hopes he can keep Benjamin’s memory and spirit alive through supporting others. “It’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of this, but I remember my son and his smile.”