It’s been one month since the body of Christopher Marks was found on the beach below Shoreline Park, but authorities are still puzzled as to what circumstances led to the death of the 60-year-old Santa Barbara County vintner and investment advisor.
The Santa Barbara Police Department and the FBI — called in to conduct an extensive underwater search on October 3 — will only confirm that the death was suspicious, which points to either homicide or suicide, and that the specific cause was blunt force trauma to the head, which is what the family has been told. Meanwhile, others with knowledge of the case have told The Santa Barbara Independent that Marks was shot in the back of the head, but authorities have not yet verified that claim.
While blunt force trauma remains consistent with a fall from the cliffs at Shoreline — which was the initial hunch until the autopsy came back suggesting otherwise — those familiar with police forensics say that such trauma can also describe injuries caused by a gunshot wound. Given that the police and FBI spent at least two days scouring the sands, surf, and cliff sides with metal detectors, there is strong reason to believe that the authorities are searching for metallic evidence, suggesting that a gun or weapon of some sort was employed, self-inflicted or otherwise.
The Marks family remains largely in the dark and continues to wonder why the beloved father of five — who owned and operated Sweeney Canyon Vineyard since 1981 and was a partner in the Marks Theriot Walston & Co. investment firm in Los Angeles — is gone. In an extensive interview with The Independent last week, son Casey Marks said that his father seemingly vanished from his Vista Del Pueblo condo that Wednesday night, September 19, leaving his laptop open, cell phones on the table, and truck in the driveway. “It literally looked like he was picked up from the apartment and dropped in the ocean,” said Marks, who works at Fidelity Investments on upper State Street.
“Earlier that day, he delivered wine to the Bacara, and that evening we had a 15-minute conversation about pouring at the Rancho Sisquoc harvest festival and barbecuing for a Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation fundraiser,” said Marks. “Twelve hours later, he was dead.” When found on the beach, Christopher Marks, witnesses say, was wearing slacks, a button-up shirt, and shoes or sandals. “He wasn’t a walker, and he wasn’t a drinker, so the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Marks, noting the coroner is still in possession of his father’s body, wallet, and wedding ring.
Marks’s widow, Kristi Marks, the winemaker for Sweeney Canyon Vineyard and the event coordinator for Saks Fifth Avenue in downtown Santa Barbara, was initially cooperative with the police investigation, giving a three-hour interview alone. But, according to her son, she and others in the family have since hired attorneys, fearful that the police aren’t telling them the whole story and are trying to poke holes in their statements rather than focusing on other possible suspects. “We think they’re fishing and trying to find inconsistencies in my mom’s story,” said Casey Marks. “We’re not going to put her in that position.”
At his funeral at Holy Cross Chapel on September 29, hundreds were in attendance to pay tribute to the man, who was active in the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, supported the Young America’s Foundation, and loved the outdoors. “He was a jack of all trades. He always had a project going,” remembered Casey. “I miss him,” said Jack Walston, a partner in Marks’s firm. “He was a great guy with a wonderful family.”
But Marks also left behind a string of legal cases and business disputes, which the authorities have been investigating in search of possible motives and suspects. “He was in the middle of litigation,” Casey Marks admitted. “But nothing led us to believe that he had given up.”
Over the past two weeks, The Independent has also researched the public record on these matters and conducted interviews with many of the people involved. Though few wanted to speak for attribution about the cases, most were candid about their involvement and the details of each situation, and many expressed shock and dismay that Marks was dead.
The business disputes include the following:
• The recent loss of half of the Marks family’s Sweeney Canyon property — as well as the prominent though unfinished yellow chateau featured on the winery’s website and labels — in April 2012 to a former family friend and business associate named Hank Blanco. Blanco had loaned Marks $2.1 million and foreclosed on the property when the loan and its $679,000 in interest were not paid. A roommate with Christopher Marks in college and the best man in his and Kristi’s 1980 wedding, Blanco also received 400 cases of wine in payment, but found the wine to be bad and unsellable, so he continues to fight for about $100,000 from the family, according to court documents.
After selling his business technology company some years ago, Blanco has focused on real estate and money-lending ventures. Those who know him say he is a respected businessperson and a beloved boardmember of the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation. Blanco declined to comment for this story.
• A lawsuit earlier this year between Marks and Santa Ynez Wine Corp. owner Arthur White about the delivery and treatment of seven tons of chardonnay grapes. Marks contended that White and his workers botched the processing and fermenting steps, resulting in 400 cases of oxidized, undrinkable wine. The case was eventually settled and dismissed.
• An ongoing and controversial attempt to develop roads and other infrastructure off of Sweeney Canyon Road that led to the 2009 creation of the Santa Rita Hills Community Services District, for which Marks served as director. This effort has been strongly and publicly opposed by the Cargasacchi family, as well as others concerned about possible development in the rural area. But according to Michael Seitz, the district’s legal counsel, the district was recently making more progress than ever before, and the opponents have even started to warm to the idea.
• The recent reorganization of his investment firm, Marks Theriot Walston & Co., which was formerly known as Marks McBroom Walston & Co. Former partner Martin McBroom sued Marks in Los Angeles Superior Court for contractual fraud, claiming Marks spent more than $1 million in company money on personal expenses like the vineyard, vacations, car insurance, school tuition, and “a purported ‘educational fund’ for [Hank] Blanco’s children.” Marks countered that, as 50-percent owner of the firm, the money was his to spend as he wished and also argued that McBroom used company funds for personal trips, homes, and cell phones, and that the two partners had approved each others’ expenses for 14 years. Recalled the men’s former colleague Jack Walston, “[The dispute] was over who spent more money than the other person.”
But Marks’s cross-complaint also claimed that, in 2008 and 2009, McBroom was repeatedly asked about his “increasingly irrational and bizarre behavior” and his verbal and psychological abuse of the staff, namely Walston and Ted Theriot, who left with Marks to create the new firm in February 2010. Marks, who offered to sell his shares to McBroom for $1 prior to the lawsuit, alleged that McBroom stole the firm’s records, which have since been lost or destroyed, and that McBroom hired auditors to reconstruct the missing books and then used the documents to “threaten, coerce, and intimidate” Marks. In February 2012, Marks successfully lobbied the court to force McBroom to turn over those financial records within 30 days. Whether that ever happened remains unclear, as the available court record ends after that order.
The Independent’s attempts to contact McBroom, including a telephone message left on October 5 at his office in Henderson, Nevada, have not been successful. The attorney who initially represented McBroom against Marks, but who removed himself from the case last year, could not be reached for comment, nor could other attorneys mentioned in the lawsuit.
Today, while it’s clear Marks’s death was not accidental, authorities still cannot say whether they believe it was the result of a homicide or suicide. But as the days go by, Marks’s family and friends are increasingly suspicious that he was murdered. “I think [the police] have suspects they’re talking to,” said Casey Marks. “It seems like they’re keeping things very close to the chest.”
Unless further evidence is discovered, the case of Christopher Marks will likely go down as an unsolved mystery, the latest in 30 open death investigations that have stumped the Santa Barbara Police Department over the last half-century.