Lauren Winkler, 28, (right) helped raise money to provide children in Africa and the Middle East with open-heart surgery. (Photo courtesy Save A Child's Heart/
Lauren Winkler, 28, (right) helped raise money to provide children in Africa and the Middle East with open-heart surgery. (Photo courtesy Save A Child’s Heart/

DOWNTOWN — A woman who worked to provide free open-heart surgery in Israel to children from Africa and the Middle East was one of four people killed in a private jet crash at Santa Monica Airport Sunday.

The Los Angeles County coroner’s office Friday identified the victim as 28-year-old Lauren Winkler of Irvine, Calif. Kyla Dupont, 53, of San Diego, Calif. was also identified.

Winkler was the girlfriend of Luke Benjamin, 28, who also died in the crash, along with his father, Santa Monica-based Morley Builders CEO Mark Benjamin, an avid pilot and philanthropist.

Officials had to use dental records to identify the victims. The remains were recovered Tuesday. The remains of a dog and two cats were also found in the wreckage.

The website for Business Ghost Inc., an Irvine, Calif.-based company specializing in ghost writing books, featured a blog post by Business Ghost CEP and President Michael Levin, a close friend of Winkler’s father, in which he confirmed her death. In the post he said Winkler was a fundraiser and executive with the nonprofit Save A Child’s Heart, which provided free medical care for disadvantaged children in Africa and the Middle East.

“The children Lauren’s organization serves come to Israel from 45 countries, with every conceivable heart ailment; some congenital and some induced by war,” Levin wrote. “These are Syrian children, Palestinian children, Jordanian children, and children from other nations whose governments remain in a state of war with Israel and who reject the notion of a Jewish state.”

Levin said Winkler traveled to Idaho for the weekend with the Benjamins. He said Mark Benjamin was at the controls when the Cessna Citation jet suddenly skidded off the runway and crashed into a hangar after landing at SMO. The hangar collapse onto the jet, causing a fire that killed all onboard.

The National Transportation Safety Board is handling the investigation into the crash. Its work has been hampered by the federal government shutdown. No information on what caused the crash or who was at the controls of the jet has been released.

According to Van McKenny of the NTSB, “there was no communication (from) the pilot indicating there was a problem with the aircraft at any time during the flight.”

A witness told KCAL a tire on the landing gear might have blown out on touchdown, causing the plane to swerve to the right.

“Since flight manifests for private aircraft do not require the names of the passengers, Lauren’s father, Gary, and her mother, Carole, remained in an agonizing limbo state for hours, and then two whole days, while the coroner’s office matched dental records with the bodies removed from the jet,” wrote Levin, who attended the same synagogue as the Winklers.

“Lauren’s death reminds us … that our days are numbered and we don’t know how long we’ll be here. But while we’re here, we’re meant to love and serve one another.”

Levin wrote that Winkler helped arrange more than 3,000 visits to the Wolfson Medical Center and the Save a Child’s Heart Children’s Home in Holon, Israel and coordinated volunteers and interns with Save A Child’s Heart ( He called on people to donate to the organization in Winkler’s name.

“Lauren’s great heart has stopped beating, but thanks to her and people like her, and the surgeons and the nurses and the volunteers and the organizers, all unpaid, thousands of tiny hearts beat on,” Levin said.

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