Private eye turned natural curiosity into career path

Benken draws on years as police officer, attorney
Brian Benken carries natural charm and a gun. The first keeps the latter in its holster.

Benken is the most sought-after private investigator in Houston for criminal cases from murder to health care fraud to financial scandals. He’s a blond mix of obsessive attention to detail and laid-back calm. He’s a hybrid — an attorney and private investigator who looks like a classy cop but thinks like a criminal defense lawyer.

“He has this gift. He makes people so comfortable they want to talk to him,” said Kent Schaffer, a criminal defense attorney who recently used Benken on the R. Allen Stanford financial fraud case and attributes some 10 grand jury no-bills of his clients to Benken. “He’s unassuming, low-key and likeable and he gets turned away very rarely.”

Benken won’t do divorce cases, he’s not interested in what he calls “fighting over salt and pepper shakers.” This sometime sleuth and sometime criminal defense lawyer likes to take a police offense report and dissect it to find more about everything such as puttied-over gunshot holes, alternative ways the drugs might have gotten in the car, why witnesses might lie, Facebook photos that tell a different story and on and on.

Lawyers who hire him these days praise his ability to get more detail than the police did, to zero in on lying witnesses and to unravel discrepancies, as he did in the Galveston case of Robert Durst, the eccentric millionaire who tossed a neighbor’s body parts into the Gulf but was acquitted of murder.

In that case Benken test-fired a gun inside Durst’s duplex to find that it was loud enough that more people likely heard the fatal shots than had admitted it. He also found South Carolina witnesses to detail the threatening nature of the man who died, bolstering his client’s self-defense claim.
A career in curiosity

A graduate of Sam Houston State University, Benken landed a job as a financial investigator in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in 1983. He was interested in what the lawyers did, so he went to law school at night to become one in 1987. He was curious about what police officers did, too, so he went to the police academy and became a peace officer in 1989.

He also became a prosecutor, then a criminal defense attorney, often defending police and deputies. Then he started doing more private investigations. Right now, sometimes he’s the attorney, more often he’s the investigator, but often he uses both his law and investigator licenses.

“People sometimes ask ‘What are you today?’ ” said Benken. His Heights Boulevard office is furnished with antiques, but features a little red chalk-outline-like dead body, stabbed in the heart with a pen.
‘I just like the hunt’

Benken said putting the puzzle together is more fun than arguing in court. He favors murder cases because “there is always something to work with” — like alibis, witnesses who haven’t yet told all, and accidents. He carries a gun but doesn’t feel in danger, except from the occasional growling pit bull.

“I just like the hunt,” Benken said. And many of Houston’s best criminal defense attorneys — Schaffer, Mike Ramsey, Chip Lewis, Dan Cogdell and George “Mac” Secrest among them — like sending him after quarry.

Between his time in the DA’s office and his time out of it, he has quietly gotten his hands on many of the biggest criminal cases in Houston. They range from investigations into corruption at the Hermann Hospital Estate and construction contractors paving private roads for a county commissioner in the 1980s, through the Enron and Stanford financial scandals, and to high-profile cases such as what turned out to be false charges against police in the death of Pedro Oregon, who was shot 12 times by police in a highly publicized and controversial drug raid.

His methods are often creative. In one case, in which a 280-pound client was accused of assaulting a woman in a Suzuki Samuri, Benken taped a re-enactment that showed how difficult it would have been for his large client to maneuver inside the cramped vehicle.

In another case he played a female laundromat owner in a courtroom re-enactment that helped convince the jury she was shot in self-defense.
From client to colleague

When Benken suspected a testifying witness really needed a wheelchair though she said she didn’t, he got video of the FBI wheeling her from her home the next morning to bring her back to court.

Cogdell said that when other investigators come back with a sentence or two saying someone worked at a restaurant, Benken reports on their shift hours, their favorite customers, work enemies and the kind of detail that can make a cross-examination work.

“A lot of investigators are ex-cops, many in the twilight of their careers, and they don’t really believe in the innocence of their clients. Their attitude is: ‘I’ll get around to it when I finish with my cheeseburger and beer.’ But Benken is uniquely reliable, professional and helpful. He gets into the weeds,” said Cogdell, who used Benken to investigate the case against fallen judge Don Jackson and to look into health care fraud by a doctor couple who pleaded guilty last week.

It was in winning freedom for accused Houston police officer Jim Willis in the Pedro Oregon case that Benken found the Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. The men bonded during the ordeal, and Willis later started investigating with Benken.

Willis says his years as a policeman and his understanding of being wrongly accused makes him a good complement to Benken’s legal mind. “We don’t have to be good cop-bad cop when we interview people. We show them all respect,” Willis said. “I’d say it’s more like good cop-better cop.”