Airport crash victim identified as Irvine woman

Los Angeles County coroner's officials Friday identified the first of four victims who perished when a jet crashed into a hangar at Santa Monica Airport this past weekend.

Lauren Winkler, 28, of Irvine was killed Sunday when a twin-engine Cessna Citation she was riding in touched down at the airport, then veered hard right off the runway and smashed into an airport hangar, bursting into flames and collapsing the building.

All four aboard the aircraft were killed. Los Angeles-based construction company Morley Builders announced that its chief executive, 63-year-old Mark Benjamin, and his 28-year-old son, Luke, a senior project engineer, were also on the plane, although coroner's investigators have yet to confirm their identities.

Winkler was the younger Benjamin’s girlfriend, according to a blog on BusinessGhost, a ghost-writing company based in Irvine. The blog’s author, Michael Levin, described himself as being good friends with Winkler’s father.

The 28-year-old Winkler was a fundraiser and executive at Save A Child’s Heart, an international organization that provides free open-heart surgery in Israeli hospitals for African and Middle Eastern children. According to the organization’s website, Winkler was a UCLA graduate who produced commercials in Los Angeles, New York and Tel Aviv.

The Benjamins, Winkler and a fourth woman were returning to Santa Monica from Hailey, Idaho, a frequent trip Mark Benjamin made as a member of the Idaho Conservation League’s board of directors. He also owned a second home in Ketchum, which is about 12 miles north of Hailey.

According to the league, just last month he shuttled fellow board members on his private jet to Boise, Hailey, Idaho Falls and finally Santa Monica.

The county coroner has not identified the fourth passenger pending matches through dental records, an official said.

The National Transportation Safety Board started an investigation the night of the crash and began inspecting the plane Monday. But investigators have paused their inquiry because of the partial federal government shutdown that began Tuesday.

Before suspending its inquiry, the agency moved the wreckage to a secure site, where it will be stored until the investigation can resume.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) asked Deborah A.P. Hersman, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board, to broaden the agency's investigation beyond determining the cause of Sunday evening's crash. He asked that the agency look into residents’ concerns about safety for the airport’s neighbors.

Hersman said she would take Waxman's request under advisement.

Twitter: @josephserna

Serna writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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