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Crime News In Ice Cold Blood

Oregon Woman's Secret Life As An Escort Ended With Her Being Strangled To Death By Obsessive Client

Ashley Benson was found dead in the stairwell of a Portland hotel. The evidence ultimately led back to Tae Bum "Chris" Yoon, an extremely possessive client. 

By Ethan Harfenist
Ashley Benson and Tae Bum (Chris) Yoon

By the time she was killed, Ashley Benson was living a double life: Struggling single mother by day, escort by night. Unfortunately, her forays into the world of prostitution would ultimately lead to her untimely death.

Ashley was found strangled to death on Dec. 26, 2014 inside the stairwell of the Doubletree Hotel in Portland, Oregon by somebody working at the hotel. At first, the identity of the body was a mystery.

“They didn’t know her name, they didn’t know how she got there. There was nobody else she was connected to,” Michele Michaels, a detective with the Portland Police Department, says in the latest episode of the Oxygen Media true crime anthology, “In Ice Cold Blood.”

The case would prove to be a journey into the murky world of pimps, prostitutes, and johns that ultimately consumed Ashley.

Right off the bat, investigators were interested in a man named Tae Bum "Chris" Yoon, who arrived on Christmas Day and checked out of the hotel the day the body was found. They swept room 715 and looked into its phone logs: in addition to discovering a fingernail that allegedly belonged to the victim, police discovered that several calls were made from the room to a number featured on an ad on BackPage.com, a website that was used for sex workers to advertise their services.

“There was an advertisement for escort services, and it was our deceased,” Michaels says. “That was big.”

While investigators were looking into Yoon, a front desk worker at the Doubletree informed investigators he had checked back into the hotel — stunning police.

However, it was eventually determined the gentleman who arrived on Dec. 26 actually spelled his name Chris Youn: Somehow, Chris Yoon learned of Chris Youn’s reservation — they apparently lived in the same building in Bellevue, Washington — pretended to be him, and checked into the hotel a day earlier under this assumed identity.

While investigators began looking further into Yoon, police canvassing the hotel eventually found Ashley's purse behind a vending machine in the hotel and were able to positively identify her. It was the same woman featured in the photos on the BackPage ad.

“We had no idea she was on BackPage.com,” Ashley’s stepmother, Jodie Benson, says in the episode. “She kept that whole entire life secret from us.”

Ashley’s family gave the names of two men in her life to police: Marlon, the father of her son; and her current boyfriend, a man named Marcus. Police quickly crossed Marlon off their list since his alibi checked out, but looking into Marcus, they found he'd had previous run-ins with the law.

More importantly, however, Ashley’s friends and family said Marcus “had control” over her; one of Ashley’s friends even told police Marcus was involved in Ashley’s escort business. Police got the impression Marcus may have been a “Romeo pimp” to Ashley, or a trafficker who pretends to be in a relationship with a young, vulnerable person.

Marcus admitted to knowing who Yoon was, though he said he never met him in person, and admitted to dropping Ashley off at the hotel on Dec. 25, the day she was supposed to meet Yoon.

“He said he was like a boyfriend of Ashley’s, but not really a boyfriend,” Portland Police Department Det. Bryan Steed says in the episode. “As I recall, he said something like, ‘Ashley benefits from that relationship financially.’”

As police searched for Yoon, they began piecing together communications between him and Ashley from emails and phone records in order to get a better sense of what their relationship was like. To law enforcement, Yoon was a possessive man who was jealous of the other men in her life.

“It starts to paint a picture for us. And the picture that we’re seeing is that Chris Yoon really had a crush on Ashley Benson,” Michaels says in the episode. “He was in love with her. He wanted her to be his girlfriend.”

Ashley Benson and Tae Bum (Chris) Yoon

The growing circumstantial evidence against Yoon allowed for police to obtain a warrant to ping his cellphone to get a location. The first ping hits showed that he was not in Bellevue, but back in Portland at another hotel.

Two weeks after Ashley's murder, Yoon was nabbed at Union Station. When police swarmed him, he reportedly said, “How did you find me?”

In custody, Yoon admitted he tried to coerce Ashley to leave escort work, adding he believed Marcus was the one pulling the strings in that relationship. As far as what happened to the victim, he went so far as admitting that there was an argument between them over payment. It remained unclear why Yoon checked into the hotel under an assumed identity, however, though police said it may have indicated a degree of premeditation on his part.

Two and a half years after the crime, in June 2017, Yoon was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 18 years in prison for strangling Ashley Benson to death.

“The only thing I feel for you is pity and disgust,” Sierra Smith, her sister, said at the time, according to Fox 12 Oregon. “Never in a million years did I think I’d feel sorry for a man that killed my sister, but here I am.”