‘MasterChef Junior’ star Ben Watkins, who died on November 16, 2020, was preceded in death by both of his parents in a 2017 murder-suicide. Ben’s mother, Leila Edwards, 43, was shot and killed by his father, Michael Watkins, 46, who then turned the gun on himself, the Post-Tribune reported.
Ben, who appeared on Season 6 of the popular reality cooking competition show, died at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago after being diagnosed with an extremely rare tumor, according to TMZ. He was 14.
Ben’s maternal grandmother, Donna Edwards, and his uncle, Anthony Edwards, told the Post-Tribune they never figured out what caused Watkins to kill his wife and then himself. The Post-Tribune reported at the time that both said they saw no warning signs, though Anthony Edwards told the outlet the couple had been discussing divorce. Northwest Indiana Times writer Jane Ammeson reported that Watkins had also been ill with cancer, and that Ben was in the home at the time of the shooting. According to The Northwest Indiana Times, Watkins and Leila Edwards were discovered after police met a family member at the home for a welfare check.
According to research published in July 2020 by the Violence Policy Center, nearly 11 murder-suicides occurred in the U.S. each week in 2019, resulting in more than 1,200 murder-suicide deaths. The research indicated that 89% of murder-suicides were carried out with firearms, and 65% involved an intimate partner; of that number, 95% were women killed by their intimate partners. In 2019, VPC reported, 67 children were “survivors who witnessed some aspect of the murder-suicide.”
Watkins and Leila Edwards owned and operated two businesses in Gary, Indiana, at the time of their deaths, according to the Post-Tribune. In January 2017, Watkins had opened a restaurant named after his son: Big Ben’s Bodacious Barbecue & Deli. Leila was an artist and jewelry maker who owned a business next door to the restaurant called Wonderland Stained Glass, the Post-Tribune reported. Edwards “taught mosaic, stained glass and industrial sewing at a learning center for steelworkers” for about three years before her death, the Post-Tribune reported, and shared her talents with elementary school students.
Anthony Edwards became Ben’s legal guardian following his parents’ deaths, according to the Post-Tribune. Community members at the time held fundraisers and established a trust fund for Ben, the Tribune reported, which his family said raised nearly $30,000. Neighbor and lawyer Trent McCain told The Daily Meal in March 2018, “We want Ben to able to continue his education in the culinary arts wherever he wants to in the world.”
“Ben insisted on only one thing for this column,” journalist Jerry Davich wrote at the time. Ben told Davich, “I want a picture of my mom and my dad.”
Following Ben’s death, Edwards told the Kenosha News, “Our Ben went home to be with his mother Monday afternoon after a year-and-a-half battle with cancer. … Ben was and will always be the strongest person we’ve known.”
According to a GoFundMe campaign started by his “Grandma Donna and Uncle Anthony,” Ben was treated for angiomatoid fibrous histiocytoma, a difficult-to-diagnose soft tissue tumor that typically occurs in children and young adults, with 80% of cases in people under the age of 30, according to the Atlas of Genetics and Cytogenetics in Oncology and Haematology.
“There’s no cause, and it’s not hereditary so it didn’t come from his parents,” Edwards told the Post-Tribune in August. “We still don’t know, [but] Ben has found peace with it, though.”
Watkins Was 11 Years Old When He Appeared on ‘MasterChef Junior’
Ben was only 11 years old when he competed on Season 6 of MasterChef Junior, which premiered in March 2018, less than a year after his parents’ deaths. He first cut his teeth in the kitchen by working alongside his father at his barbecue restaurant in Gary, Indiana, which Watkins had opened in January 2017, only months before his death. Ben sold his own baked goods there, according to the Post-Tribune.
The restaurant closed after Watkins’ death, but at age 11, Ben hoped “to resurrect it someday to continue his parent’s dual dream,” the Post-Tribune reported.
While Ben didn’t move beyond the Top 18 on MasterChef Junior, he easily became a fan favorite during his stint on the series. During his 1 1/2-year battle with cancer, he never let his diagnosis deter him from pursuing his dreams, his uncle said. “Ben still dreams of opening his own bakery or restaurant someday,” Edwards told the Post-Tribune in August. “He views all this as a temporary problem and he will get through it.”
Following the news of his tumor in August, the cast of MasterChef Junior, including host Gordon Ramsey, made a tribute video for Ben to get better and get back in the kitchen as soon as possible.
“In his short life, Ben has endured more than his fair share of suffering,” said McCain. “With the love and support of his grandmother, uncle and the entire community, however, Ben has already overcome insurmountable odds. If anyone can beat this disease, it is Ben.”
Ben Is Remembered as a Kid Who Could ‘Just Light Up a Room’
Katie Clark, who has known Ben’s mother for years through their children’s schools, saw numerous similarities between Ben and Leila, according to the Post-Tribune. “Much like his mother, Ben can just light up a room,” she told the outlet.
“It’s heartbreaking that she cannot be here to help Ben through this, although I know he has a wonderful grandmother and uncle,” Clark added. “She’d be overwhelmed with pride at the young man Ben is becoming. He is polite, outgoing, smart, funny, and remained that way even into adolescence, which isn’t always the case with kids entering that phase of life.”