Ann Arbor native whose husband's body was found in wall writes book
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wilburn
(This story has been revised to identify an individual as named in the book.)
A man commits suicide in front of police who then discover a corpse in a makeshift coffin hidden behind a fake wall.
A black man is convinced he’s Arabic because he’d overheard his mother say she had a fling with a Sudanese truck driver.
These are part of a story of drugs, murder and extortion in the liberal, collegiate community of Berkeley, Calif.
It sounds like something cooked up by a West Coast crime writer like Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald, but this was, in fact, the real life tale of Ann Arbor native Wendy Wilburn.
Wilburn, 51, recently co-wrote a book about the sad and bizarre circumstances surrounding the disappearance and death of her husband, Taruk Ben-Ali, who went missing in 2004. Four years later, his body was discovered in the walls of an apartment after his father, Hassan, shot himself to death in front of Berkeley police.
Taruk Ben-Ali was only 40 years old at the time.
For the literary project, Wilburn teamed up with Dave Dye, a veteran Detroit-area journalist and fellow 1979 graduate of Huron High School. The result is “The Grave Wall,” which was released June 6 and is currently available on Amazon.com.
For readers, the book is a fascinating tale about greed and Ben-Ali’s strange family. For Wilburn, however, it's the story of a tragic episode in her life.
After graduating from Huron High, Wilburn attended the University of Michigan until moving to California to take a sales and marketing job in the hotel business. It became her career for the next 30 years.
She married and had a son, Jordon, now 19, but the marriage didn’t last. Wilburn soon divorced her first husband and concentrated on raising her son and working in the Bay Area.
In 1998, she met Taruk Ben-Ali, who worked at Jordan’s school.
“I was a volunteer at my son’s elementary school and he was a counselor there,” she said in a recent interview.
But the two wouldn’t get together until 2000 when Wilburn, who was then living near the border of Oakland, sought to move closer to the Berkeley area. She remembered Ben-Ali said he owned an apartment building near the University of California-Berkeley campus.
She called him.
“He was so happy to hear from me because he lost my number,” Wilburn said.
There weren’t any vacancies, but Wilburn soon occupied Ben-Ali’s life in a different way - as his girlfriend. Two years later, in 2002, they were married in Las Vegas. They settled in Hayward, Calif. with Wilburn’s son, who accepted Ben-Ali as his father.
The family seemed destined for domestic bliss.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wilburn
‘I never really cared for him’
On the surface, Taruk Ben-Ali didn’t seem like the type of person who would end up dead in a wall.
He graduated from U-C Berkeley with a degree in psychology and eventually earned a master’s in social work from an online school, according to Wilburn.
In addition to his days as an elementary school counselor, his professional resume included positions at the Berkeley Youth Alternatives and the First Place Fund.
He worked out religiously and was an avid football fan.
But what Wilburn didn’t know was that her husband also had a problem with cocaine and heroin.
“It was something I did not know when I met him,” she said. “In 2002, he started talking about it. I never would have known. He seemed so straight-laced.”
Wilburn claims it was Ben-Ali’s father, Hassan Ben-Ali, who introduced him to cocaine when Taruk was 15 years old.
“For the big 1-5, Hassan Ben-Ali introduced his son to cocaine,” Wilburn and Dye write in the book. “Most parents light candles on a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ Hassan put a line of coke on the table and showed Taruk how to snort it.”
Besides giving his teenage son drugs, Hassan had other peculiarities, according to Wilburn.
“Taruk’s dad was very eccentric,” she said. “I never really cared for him.”
Hassan Ben-Ali, for instance, wasn’t his birth name. He was born Leroy Wright and was an African American. At some point, though, he reportedly had overheard his mother say she had a tryst with a Sudanese truck driver.
Hassan believed this man to be his biological father. He also claimed to be Arab and changed his name. Wilburn said Hassan was briefly married to Ben-Ali’s mother, who is identified in the book as Sue Johnson, when Taruk was young, but it didn’t last long. The book describes Hassan as a womanizer and manipulator.
Johnson remarried but continued to live in the apartment building owned first by Hassan and then by Taruk -- the same building where Hassan would someday hide his son’s corpse in the wall and take his own life.
At some point, Hassan worked for the postal service, but quit when he came into some money and acquired the apartment house on 2235 Ashby Ave. near U-C Berkeley’s campus.
“It’s a prime piece of property,” Wilburn said. She estimates its current worth at $1.8 million.
Wilburn and Sue Johnson are currently in a legal dispute over Hassan’s will and who gets the building.
Back in 1993, the bank foreclosed on the property, but Taruk Ben-Ali eventually bought it from the bank and allowed his parents to continue living in their separate apartments.
According to Wilburn, Taruk was only in his 20s at the time and didn’t quite know what he was doing, so he turned the day-to-day management of the building back over to his father and let him take the profits.
But in 2004, Taruk Ben-Ali was let go from his new job at the First Place Fund, which he had taken for the bigger salary and title.
“He had a big ego,” Wilburn said. “He really wanted that title. That was the beginning of the end. He was terminated. It killed him.”
He began hanging around his father's apartment more as he entered a downward drug spiral.
“When (Taruk) lost his job, that kind of changed their relationship because Taruk didn’t have any money,” Wilburn said. “His dad was the one basically buying the drugs for him.”
Wilburn said her husband would disappear for days at a time. When he did come home, he didn’t look healthy.
“At one point, he came home and he was this weird-colored red,” she said. “It was something I had never seen. It really slapped me in the face. It was real and it was horrible.”
Everything really changed, though, when Taruk and his father went on a vacation to Mexico. Wilburn said her husband didn’t call her once the whole time he was gone. She was convinced that Hassan, who wasn’t shy about his disdain for Wilburn, was trying to get him to file for divorce.
When he got home, Taruk had noticeably changed, Wilburn said.
“He said he was done with his dad, that he married me because he loved me,” she said. “He wanted it to be how it was.”
Things settled down. Taruk seemed to be getting better. Then, on June 8, 2004, he disappeared.
Is he missing?
Or had he?
Taruk's parents told Wilburn he wasn’t missing, but had merely left her and wanted a divorce. Over the next couple of years, Hassan and Johnson told Wilburn their son was in Arizona or Mexico. At one point, according to Wilburn, Johnson told her Taruk had just visited the apartment with a nice new girlfriend. She commented on how happy her son was.
Wilburn wasn’t buying it.
“I just got fed up with it, so I started looking on my own,” she said. “I never really stopped looking.”
Wilburn checked hospital and jail records. Whenever she went to Las Vegas for business, she would instinctively look for her husband in the places he liked to frequent there.
“Then in 2008, his dad commits suicide and I find out he had been in the wall for four and half years,” she said.
Inside the wall
On Dec. 15, 2008, officers from the Berkeley Police Department were dispatched to the apartment building for a report of an argument.
“Hassan Ben Ali, 60, who was armed with a handgun, opened the apartment door, then soon after shot himself in front of the officers. He was pronounced dead at Alameda County (Highland) Hospital,” said a media release from Berkeley police at the time.
“Why he did that, I really do not know,” Wilburn said about her father-in-law's suicide.
Hassan’s suicide note led police to a laundry room where, inside a wall was a homemade plywood coffin with the remains of the badly decomposed body of Taruk Ben-Ali.
“I was stunned,” Wilburn said. “I still, to this day, can’t believe it. I still don’t have words to say how I feel.”
Wilburn said people, including Johnson, have claimed it was a drug overdose, but “when they did an autopsy report, no drugs were found in his body,” she said.
When asked if she thinks Hassan murdered her husband, Wilburn said: “I’m personally convinced of it. Why would you hide his body in a wall? Why would you take over his persona? If he died in a drug overdose, why wouldn’t you just tell the police, ‘My son is dead.’? Why would you hide him in a makeshift coffin?”
During the time Taruk Ben-Ali was “missing,” his father continued to live off the profits of the apartment building, according to Wilburn.
“His dad stole his identity, so he was taking all the money. For four and a half years, he lived high on the hog off of Taruk’s name and his money,” she said. “He impersonated my husband. He did things you wouldn’t think were possible.”
The father even went so far as get a driver’s license in his son's name, Wilburn said.
But Hassan himself may have been a victim of extortion. At the time of Ben-Ali’s disappearance, Hassan had a teenager living with him. The book includes photocopies of checks from an account in Taruk's name made out for $20,000 and $5,000 to the teen who was living with Hassan.
Since both father and son are dead, law enforcement and legal authorities do not want to pursue the matter, Wilburn said.
Still, there is the matter of the will and what’s going to happen with the $1.8 million apartment building. Wilburn and Taruk's daughter from a first marriage are currently engaged in a legal fight with Johnson over the issue.
“It’s not over yet,” Wilburn said.
Telling the tale
Johnson is partly why Wilburn wanted to write the book to begin with.
“The reason I wanted to write the book is that I don’t believe half of the stuff (she) told me,” she said. “I want to know the truth. I think it’s a story that needs to be told.”
Now, with the help of Dye, she has told it.
Wilburn and Dye went to Huron High together, but didn’t know each other socially. Dye went on to work as a sportswriter at the Detroit News for 25 years. He currently covers the Detroit Lions for FoxSportsDetroit.com.
A mutual friend from Huron, Geoff Baker, knew Dye was a writer and knew Wilburn had a story to tell. He got them together. Dye was hooked.
“It was such a bizarre storyline,” he said. “So much of it was unbelievable.”
After covering football for so long, Dye said, he knew it was going to be a challenge dealing with such sensitive material.
“I was going to have to ask some tough questions,” he said. “It got emotional at times.”
They communicated over the phone and computer. Dye would interview Wilburn, then write a chapter and send it to her to read and edit.
Both Wilburn and Dye said the process was therapeutic for Wilburn.
“I think she’s got a message that’s valuable,” Dye said.
Wilburn now lives in Atlanta with Jordon, who is pursing a musical career. She is working on promoting the book and has hopes that it could be turned into a Lifetime TV movie.
She will be coming to Ann Arbor during the Art Fair in July to promote the book with Dye. Together, they will appear on the Lucy Ann Lance Show. Lance is another former classmate from Huron, Dye said.
The message Wilburn will promote along with her book is her survival through such a harrowing ordeal.
“Thank God I didn’t break and crumble,” she said.