MYSTERY-DEATH-INSIDE-PIC.jpg
Rebecca Wellington, 31, had lived in her studio apartment in Seattle's Pioneer Square for less than a week when she was found dead on the bathroom floor. While a medical examiner ruled her death was the result of an accidental drug overdose, her closest friends believe she was murdered. (Photo: Facebook)

Mystery surrounds death ruled accidental overdose

Rebecca Wellington had lived in her studio apartment in Seattle's Pioneer Square for less than a week when she was found dead on the bathroom floor.

It was Tuesday, May 8, 2012.

Just after 2:00 a.m. that day, Wellington's friend showed up outside the building at 213 1st Avenue South, worried after she missed several appointments at the hair salon where the two worked in South Lake Union. Repeated calls and texts to her phone had gone unanswered.

"It was very unlike her to just not show up for a client," said Christopher Ritenour, who had last seen Wellington early in the morning on May 7. The two worked out of the same loft space on Minor Avenue, where Wellington styled hair and Ritenour did makeup.

"I knew something was wrong," he said.

Without a key to get in, Ritenour waited outside the building until one of Wellington's neighbors came home. The young woman who lived in the apartment next to Wellington's, agreed to run upstairs to check on her and come back down.

There was no answer at apartment 2D when the woman knocked on the door. It wasn't locked, so she opened it and stepped inside. To the left, she could see Wellington on the floor next to the bathroom sink. One of her arms was purple and vomit was coming from her mouth, she later told police. She called Wellington's name, but got no response.

"Call 911!" she yelled, and woke up building manager Scott Landrum, who was asleep two doors down.

"I just heard a loud screaming and a banging at my door," Landrum said. "She was hysterical in the hallway screaming 'She's dead! She's dead!"

The woman rushed downstairs to tell Ritenour, who ran up to the apartment to see for himself.

"She had ants in her mouth. I will never forget that," he said. "Her lips were blue. But I couldn't see any of that until I bent over and brushed the hair out of her face. It looked like she was just taking a nap on the bathroom floor."

Under her head were rolls of toilet paper as if she'd made a makeshift pillow, he recalled. Her body was lying on a shower curtain and partially covered with a towel, he said, as if she were using it as a blanket.

A few moments later, Ritenour emerged from the apartment and told Landrum, who was waiting in the hallway, that Wellington was dead. With that, he retrieved Wellington's two small dogs and left before police arrived.

"I didn't want to fall apart right then and all I could think about was being in my bed," Ritenour said. "I just didn't want to be there anymore."

Ritenour left his phone number with Wellington's neighbor and told her police could call him if they had any questions.

Minutes later, Officer Thomas Barnett with the Seattle Police Department responded to the scene.

Once inside, he noted that the studio was unkempt.

Wellington's belongings were scattered about and Officer Barnett concluded that she had unpacked from her move, but never found time to put things away.

There was no evidence of a struggle, he wrote in his report.

On the kitchen counter he found a small, clear plastic bag that contained a "tan colored substance that had a powdery rock form."

The King County Medical Examiner's Office later ruled that Rebecca Rose Wellington died from acute combined methamphetamine, diazepam and fentanyl intoxication - an accidental drug overdose.

'The sweetest person you could want to know'

"Finding my best friend deceased was more than I could handle," Christopher Ritenour, wrote on his Facebook page a day after her found Rebecca Wellington dead.

"I am planning funeral services now and will post date and time for funeral and wake," he wrote. "Clients of Rebecca should contact me if they need a referral to another stylist."

Wellington, 31, opened the Wellington Loft Salon on Minor Avenue North in October 2010. Her clients described her as a "truly talented hair stylist," who was "innovative, pleasant, and professional."

"I trust her innately," a former client wrote in an online review. "I tell her what I'm thinking about and she always follows through with something cute and sexy - something that perfectly matches my personality."

"She's also fun and easy to talk with," another client wrote.

The salon closed after Wellington's death.

Brad Mathews, 59, of Seattle, was Wellington's longtime boyfriend. He first met her ten years before her death when she became his stylist. The two dated for five years, but broke up a few months before she died.

Mathews described Wellington as stunningly beautiful and stylish.

"Fashion was her love," he said.

Wellington loved to shop at Sway and Cake, a clothing boutique on Sixth Avenue in downtown Seattle, and at Barneys New York, a high-end retailer with a department store on Pine Street.

"She was a very, very stylish woman as well as being beautiful. The clothes, the makeup, her hair would be great, of course," he said.

But more than her beauty, Mathews remembers the brightness she brought to a room.

"She's just the sweetest person you could want to know. She really is," he said, fighting back tears. "And I talk about her in the present tense, because that's how I think of her."

Although the two had broken up, he said they remained close friends.

"The loss of someone this wonderful is the enormous thing," he said. "The sense of loss is huge."

Mathews last heard from Wellington three days before her death when she left a voicemail on his phone.

Hi sweetheart, it's me. Hey, this is the first time I've had a chance to call you. Things have just been - I'm hanging in there. I'm exhausted. I just finished work for the day...It's a nice little respite just to take a break and sit down and talk to your voicemail...it just makes me feel really peaceful.

The voicemail was two minutes long. In it, Wellington talked about how her move was going and how she'd been.

Mathews said he has listened to the message more than a dozen times and, even a year and a half after her death, can't bring himself to delete it. To him, it's much more than a memory - it's a potential clue.

Deadly dose

According to records, the King County Medical Examiner's Office put Wellington's time of death at around 9 a.m. on the morning of Monday, May 7.

In her system when she died was a lethal combination of methamphetamine, diazepam and fentanyl. Diazepam is a prescription drug commonly used to treat anxiety, while fentanyl is a pain medication - something that Wellington, according to her friends, was deathly allergic to.

"In her body were drugs that she would never have taken," said Mathews, who has never believed that Wellington's death was an accident.

Wellington's allergy to opiate-based pain medication was well known among her friends, he said.

A few months before her death, Wellington had a near-fatal encounter with fentanyl while on vacation in Miami Beach after coming in contact with a dollar bill that had been used to snort the drug.

"She went, essentially, into a coma or was nonresponsive and they had to revive her," said Mathews, who does not believe Wellington would have knowingly taken fentanyl the day she died and does not believe she committed suicide.

"I don't see her as the kind of person who commits suicide. Not Rebecca," he said. "It's not who she is. She doesn't despair. She doesn't get down."

"I think she was murdered," he said.

Christopher Ritenour, Wellington's close friend, has not ruled out the possibility that she took fentanyl on accident, but said she was careful about who she got drugs from and who she took drugs with.

Ritenour described Wellington as an occasional drug user, who smoked pot once in a while, sometimes did cocaine on the weekends before they went dancing, and took her prescribed Adderall "in excess" at times.

"They weren't an everyday thing," Ritenour said of drugs. "She liked to have fun and she liked to be in an altered state at times."

But Ritenour said Wellington never went to work high and he doesn't understand why she would have taken a drug like methamphetamine when she had a client scheduled early in the morning the day she died.

"It was really important to her not to let it affect her work," he said. "She would never go to work hung-over or strung out."

Ritenour last saw Wellington around 1 a.m. the day she died, eight hours before her time of death. He said the two had been together most of the day and had not taken drugs of any kind.

On Sunday nights, the two frequently went to Re-Bar, a club on Seattle's Capitol Hill. But on this particular Sunday, Ritenour said Wellington was exhausted from her move to Pioneer Square and the two decided to part ways. Wellington went home and Ritenour went to Re-Bar to catch the last few minutes of house music.

"Every day I think about the fact that it is my fault," he said of Wellington's death. "She asked me to stay the night that night and I selflessly decided to go dancing instead. Whatever happened to her wouldn't have happened to her if I had been there."

'The DEA is downstairs'

Both Ritenour and Mathews believe that Rebecca Wellington would still be alive today had she never met a man named Bernard Mustafa III.

Shortly after Mathews and Wellington broke up, she met Mustafa at a club through the house music scene.

"She thought he was this cool, laid back, funky, music-loving guy who liked to laugh," said Ritenour. "She found him to be super sexy."

Ritenour said Mustafa was extremely generous with his money and recalled an occasion where he paid $50 covers for all of Ritenour's friends to get into a warehouse party downtown - and tipped the doorman with a $100 bill.

Mustafa also paid for the trip that Wellington had taken to Miami Beach a few months before she died.

"He gave her $5,000 right before they left and said, 'Go get a bikini and new shoes and a bag or something,'" Ritenour said.

When Wellington arrived in Miami with Mustafa, she called Ritenour to tell him they were staying on a private island and Mustafa had rented a Lamborghini.

"I mean, we knew that he had money, we didn't - God we didn't know how much."

As far as Wellington knew, Mustafa was a wealthy inventor who held several patents, including a few designs for high-performance automotive parts. But Ritenour said he became suspicious when he went to Mustafa's house near Yesler Terrace one night and saw two money counting machines on his kitchen table. He had also seen Mustafa deal "Molly" - a pure form of ecstasy - in small quantities at clubs on Capitol Hill.

Still, it wasn't until April 19, a few weeks before her death, that Wellington realized who Mustafa really was.

"We were at work, we both had late clients," Ritenour said. "She walked over right next to me and I could see the tears running down her face and she whispered in my ear, because I had a client right in front of me, she said, ‘The DEA is downstairs. They've arrested Bernard. He's a big-time drug dealer. I don't know what to do, please help me.'"

Agents with the DEA served a search warrant at Mustafa's residence and seized roughly $300,000 dollars, gold coins, a suspected diamond, firearms, a bullet-proof vest and hundreds of thousands of dollars in narcotics, including methamphetamine and 20 grams of pure, unmixed fentanyl - a drug 100 times more potent than heroin.

According to court documents, Mustafa told agents during a subsequent interrogation that his girlfriend, Rebecca Wellington had no knowledge of his drug trafficking operation.

Wellington died a few weeks after Mustafa's arrest, while he was awaiting trial behind bars at a federal detention facility in SeaTac.

While Brad Mathews does not believe Mustafa was directly involved in her death, he said his relationship with Wellington put her at risk.

"Perhaps there was something she knew that people didn't want out," he said. "I mean, someone has to gain from this. Clearly, (Mustafa) had large sums of cash and she very well may have had some of that that she was holding for him."

Ritenour said it was more likely that Wellington had drugs, not cash.

After Mustafa's arrest, Ritenour and Wellington moved his belongings out of the house where agents served a search warrant. In the process, Ritenour said they discovered sealed bags of drugs that had been missed by the DEA. According to Ritenour, the drugs were cleverly hidden inside household items, some of which ended up at Wellington's apartment during the move.

Ritenour said it is conceivable that someone came looking for the drugs the day Wellington died.

"The DEA told Rebecca that (Mustafa) had made a lot of very dangerous people very angry," he said.

Mustafa was convicted on drug and other charges a year after Wellington's death and is currently serving nine years in a federal prison in Northern California. A letter sent to him for comment was not returned.

Unanswered questions

"This is such an unsolved mystery, and I just feel like she's never received justice," said Mathews, who at one point debated hiring a private investigator to look into the circumstances surrounding Rebecca Wellington's death.

He's not alone.

Scott Landrum, the manager at the building where Wellington died, said that roughly nine months ago a private investigator showed up asking questions. He said it wasn't clear who hired him.

Wellington's friends have also tried to get answers, starting a Facebook page called "Justice for Rebecca Wellington."

"This wonderful woman needs justice. She deserves justice," Mathews said. "I'm outraged that someone would do this - that someone did this to her. When I look at the circumstances of this, I don't believe it was an accident and I know she didn't take her own life. If there is someone who did this, they need to be brought forward and punished for it."

The Seattle Police Department's homicide unit is aware of Wellington's death and while the case is not classified as a homicide, it is an active death investigation.

While he hasn't ruled out an accidental overdose, Ritenour said the one detail he can't get past is the fact that Wellington's door was unlocked when her body was found. He said she obsessed over locking doors and had just told him that she felt unsafe in her new neighborhood.

"You'd have to know Rebecca to know how intensely neurotic she was about locking doors," he said. "The fact is, if someone was there and left, they wouldn't have been able to lock the door."

It is that one detail, more than any other, that leads him to believe someone was with Rebecca Wellington in apartment 2D before she died.

Rosemary Montgomery, Wellington's mother, said she won't stop looking for answers.

"All I want is to know the truth concerning my Rebecca's passing," she wrote in an email. "Whatever it takes and however long it may be."

"KIRO Radio On Assignment" features in-depth, investigative reports on a variety of topics including government accountability, consumer advocacy and the criminal justice system. To send a KIRO Radio reporter "On Assignment," email onassignment@kiroradio.com or use our online form.


Brandi Kruse, KIRO Radio Reporter
Brandi Kruse is a reporter for KIRO Radio who is as spontaneous and adventurous in her free time as she is on the job. Brandi arrived at KIRO Radio in March 2011 and has already collected three regional Edward R. Murrow awards for her reporting.
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