International man of mystery
Candidate’s checkered past becomes the latest bizarre twist in District 3 council race
By André Coleman 02/07/2013
By his own account, the Rev. Dr. Nicholas Benson is a community activist with advanced degrees from USC and the Fuller Theological Seminary who is running for the Pasadena City Council District 3 seat in hopes of bringing people together to combat gang violence.
But after some digging, the Pasadena Weekly has learned that Benson may not be the person he says he is.
For starters, the reverend attended neither of those colleges, according to officials at both schools. But perhaps even more disconcerting is the fact that Benson’s background is so checkered with different names and birth dates that it’s difficult to determine exactly where the truth begins and fabrications end.
In fact, Benson, supposedly a native of Zimbabwe, has used so many different birth dates he appears unable to remember which is the correct one. When questioned about his birth date, Benson gave the Weekly two different years in less than one minute, later admitting he has used several dates after it was pointed out to him that his most recent answers did not coincide with the Jan. 5, 1945 birth date he provided on a form to legally change his name.
“My real birth date is 1/5/1953,” Benson told the Weekly last week, after which he immediately said, “Yes, 1/5/52. When we were growing up in Africa, they didn’t want us to go to school. You had to be a grown-up man before you started going to school. My uncle said, ‘I will give you a date.’ I don’t even know when I was born, to tell you the truth. My uncle said, ‘You were born at this time.’ My mother said, ‘I think you were born at this time.’ The truth of the matter is I can’t tell you. I had to just find something for myself. To tell you the truth, I don’t know when my birthday is,” Benson said tearfully. “My uncle didn’t want me to go to school. He told me that was my birthday, and my mother told me another day.”
Revelations about Benson’s background are just the latest bizarre twist in what’s turning out to be one of the most controversial local elections in recent memory.
Benson is running against John J. Kennedy, a Los Angeles Urban League executive who was tried and acquitted after the 1993 shooting of a 20-year old man that occurred while the two men were sitting in a car in Northwest Pasadena, and Ishmael Trone, a Pasadena bail bondsman whose residency is being investigated by the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office amid claims he still resides in Altadena with his estranged wife and daughters.
In 1997, Trone pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun possession charge after being flagged by security at Bob Hope Airport. Today, Trone owns a shotgun, Kennedy owns a 9mm handgun and Benson owns a .22-caliber handgun.
The three men are hoping to fill the council seat left vacant by Democratic state Assemblyman Chris Holden, who resigned after winning the 41st Assembly District seat in November.
Benson, according to records obtained by this newspaper, actually graduated from the little-known California School of Theology, an unaccredited interdenominational school in La Habra, where he registered under the name Benson Mnkandla — his alleged birth name. Other names Benson has used include Nicholas M. Mnkandla, Nicholas Benson Mnkandla and Nicholas Jophat Benson, a name he was using last year when he was briefly detained by sheriff’s deputies in Altadena for driving with a suspended license. His license had been revoked by judge for nonpayment of child support, records show.
“Lots of people change their name when they come into this country, because they are struggling when they come here,” Benson told the Weekly. “I legally changed my name to Benson; that is my father’s name. I have never tried to hurt anybody or used anyone’s name.”
Benson, however, was unable to explain other names associated with him, including Benson Caskey — a name the candidate says he’s never used but which is a name connected to his Social Security number, according to legal documents obtained by the Weekly.
In 2007, records indicate that a judge in San Bernardino County ordered Benson to pay child support. Benson said the court order referred to one of his older children. However, Benson originally told the Weekly that his older children, Norman and Tandy, were 32 and 29, which means his child-support obligations for them would have ended well before 2007.
“I was homeless for awhile,” Benson confided. “I fell off on some of my responsibilities. I have never tried to hurt anybody. I just kept my faith and believed in God and kept trying. There was a time when people would not even talk to me. I have done what I had to do to survive.”
Much like Trone, Benson’s actual residence has also come into question.
Benson and his wife, Eva A. Meyers, own a home on Mendocino Avenue in Altadena. According to property records obtained by the Weekly, that address is listed as Benson’s residence from May 1995 to November 2012, the same month the filing period opened for the current election, when he would have had to have been living in a home in District 3 to run for office. Under the name Nicholas Jophat Mnkandla, Benson registered to vote in 2006 using that Altadena address.
According to Pasadena Public Information Officer William Boyer, City Clerk Mark Jomsky’s office — where candidates must file nominating papers to run for office — does not investigate candidates or their residency status. “We assume they understand fully and completely they are signing under penalty of perjury,” said Boyer. “They are responsible with supplying us with their correct residential address. We are not an investigating body. That is up to the District Attorney’s Office.
Deputy District Attorney Anne Ingalls, director of the DA’s Public Integrity Division, told the Weekly that while her office is actively investigating Trone based on a complaint that has been filed. It is not looking into Benson.
“I looked through our database, and we have not received a complaint,” said Ingalls.
But what’s perhaps even more troublesome is the place that Benson actually does call home.
According to him, he and his wife along with two sons, Joshua, 15, and Caleb, 11, live at 280 W. Washington Blvd., a transitional living facility called “Back to Life,” which houses people with substance abuse and sex abuse convictions who are trying to reintegrate into mainstream society.
According to the Pasadena Police Department and the Megan’s Law Web site, a national database which tracks sex offenders, two convicted sex offenders — John Gonzalez and Robert Lou King — currently reside at that location.
Gonzalez was convicted in 1991 of lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14. King was convicted of oral copulation by force or fear with a minor under 14. The database did not list a conviction date for King. Benson told the newspaper that he has no problems with his sons living at the home.
“They are not harmful at all,” Benson said of the two sex offenders. “They are not sex offenders. Their cases are very clean,” Benson insisted. “[Gonzalez] touched a young lady. He didn’t do anything to the young lady, but because of that, he was arrested. He went into the system, and once he went in there, he will stay in there for a long, long time. They come every year to check on them, and I talk to their parole officers and they say he is OK. I really don’t look at him as a sex offender. He’s just an old man. [King] doesn’t live there. He’s a homeless man. He comes and he says, ‘You know what? I need a place where I can have an address so when they look for me I can meet them here.’ He doesn’t live on the property and he doesn’t live in the house. He lives in his car inside my place in the back.”
But that’s not what Benson told the Weekly in a phone conversation just two days earlier. At that time, Benson denied anyone with histories of sex offenses or drug or alcohol abuse was staying on the property.
The property first came to the city’s attention in March 2005, after the Weekly broke the story about another pastor, Roger Marshall, who was housing 10 registered sex offenders without a license. After the story broke, then-Police Chief Bernard Melekian and city code enforcement officials moved in to shut down the program. Within a few days, parole officers moved the sex offenders from the property, located less than two blocks from the King’s Villages housing complex and La Pintoresca Park and Library. Cleveland Middle School and Robinson Park are both less than one mile away from the facility.
Neither Trone nor Kennedy would comment on questions being raised about Benson’s background.
“I am going to stay focused on the issues impacting District 3,” said Trone, who is waiting for the outcome of a probe into his own eligibility to run for office. n