Elizabeth Kenyon taught emotionally disturbed children in 1984 at Coral Gables High School, south of Miami, Florida, but hoped one day to return to fashion modeling. At age 23, she was the kind of beautiful young woman that turned men’s heads. Two years earlier, she had won the title of Orange Bowl Princess and had been a finalist in the Miss Florida Contest. With thick brown hair and a wide, sociable grin, she made friends easily.
On March 4, Kenyon left her apartment in Coral Gables to visit her parents in Pompano Beach, a trip she made every weekend. According to Bruce Gibney, in his book, The Beauty Queen Killer, Beth’s father noticed bruises on her arms and legs that day. Alarmed, he asked her what had happened. She shrugged it off as a schoolyard fight that she had broken up.
Kenyon stayed with her parents until 9:00 that evening, and then got into her car to return home. Her roommate recalled that she arrived around 10 and went to bed. She went to work the next day and spoke to Mitch Fry, the school’s police officer and security patrol, in the parking lot. He watched her get into her car and drive away. Fry was to be the last person to see Kenyon alive. On Tuesday, she did not show up for work, so Fry called her roommate and learned that Beth had not come home the night before. Nor had she called to tell anyone where she was.
Beth was not the type that would go somewhere without telling someone. Calls to others who knew her got everyone worried. Her parents began calling around to friends and to hospitals, with no luck. Finally, they contacted the police at the Metro Dade Public Safety Department and filed a missing person report.
Several days went by with no news, so Bill Kenyon took matters into his own hands. He hired a private investigator, Kenneth Whittaker, to look into the matter. He discovered that there were several men in Beth’s life, and thus several potential suspects: Beth had been on a dinner date recently with a man from West Germany; she had begun seeing a man again with whom she had broken off the relationship; and she had occasionally been having dinner with a former boyfriend, a photographer named Christopher Wilder. She had told her father that on their first date, Wilder had been a real gentleman. After a few more dates, he had even proposed marriage. But Beth had felt that at seventeen years her senior, he was too old for her. So over the past two years, they had remained friends.
Whittaker questioned Beth’s parents about each of these men and learned that Beth had mentioned Wilder to them the day before she had disappeared. He’d gotten her an opportunity to do some modeling for good money.
Yet a call to Wilder produced only disappointing results. The man claimed he had not seen Beth in over a month. The other two men did not seem viable suspects, either.
The investigation seemed to have reached a dead-end when another former boyfriend stopped at a gas station in Coral Gables to show Beth’s picture around. It was a Shell station where Beth normally bought her gas. To everyone’s surprise, two attendants said that Beth had been there on Monday afternoon. She was about to pay when a man in a gray Cadillac drove in behind her and paid the bill. Beth seemed to know him and she mentioned that they were on the way to the airport. When the attendants were shown photographs, they easily picked out Chris Wilder as the man with her. Beth’s car was subsequently found at Miami International Airport. Yet she had not packed to go anywhere.
The police would not help with what was still a missing person’s case, so Bill Kenyon staked out Wilder’s house himself. When he did not find the man at home, he sent his investigator to the Boynton Beach Police to ask about Wilder. They told Whittaker they had a lengthy rap sheet on him. He was far from the “gentleman” that Beth had once described. He’d had a history of sexual offenses.
Beth’s parents suddenly realized that — on the very night that Beth had visited them for the last time, they had seen a television report about another missing woman — one who looked very much like Beth.
The Kenyons were chilled by the resemblance. Their instinct was that Wilder had been involved in their daughter’s disappearance, and that perhaps he had abducted both women.
Rosario Gonzales, 20, had disappeared on February 26, 2000. She’d been working at a temporary job distributing aspirin samples at the Miami Grand Prix racetrack, where witnesses said she had left around noon with an older man. She, too, had pretty dark eyes and long, brown hair. She had not even picked up her paycheck.
Nothing clearly linked the two, except that Kenyon knew Christopher Wilder, who sometimes drove cars in races and often hung around at the Miami racetrack. Also, both had participated in the Miss Florida contest and wanted to be models. (In the book Human Monsters David Everitt reports that Rosario had previously posed for a book cover that Wilder photographed.)
That Wilder had lied about seeing Beth made him suspect. Now a look at his case file at the Boynton Beach police station convinced the private investigator that Wilder could very well be a sexual predator. Beth’s rejection of his marriage proposal may have elevated her danger.
Whittaker went with an ex-police officer to talk with Wilder at his office at the Sawtel Construction Company, which he owned with a partner. Wilder pulled up in the gray Cadillac described by the gas station attendants. Yet inside his office, he repeated his denial of having seen Beth in the past few days. He insisted the attendants had made a mistake in their identification. Then he brought in his secretary to vouch for his whereabouts, but that proved to have been a mistake.
The investigators told her they were looking for Beth Kenyon, and she said, yes, the girl whose car was found at the airport.
No one had mentioned an airport and finding the car had not been made public. The secretary seemed flustered and asked Wilder if that wasn’t the information he had given to her.
Wilder was quick. He said that Beth’s mother had told him that.
Mrs. Kenyon later denied it.
Around the same time, the police learned that Rosario Gonzales, the other missing girl, had also known Christopher Wilder. That information spurred them into a countywide hunt, following numerous leads and tips, many of which were mistaken identifications or dead-ends. Then Whittaker informed them that Christopher Wilder had been at the Miami Grand Prix and that he was a suspect in Beth Kenyon’s disappearance.
These disappearances became a more serious matter, and regular detectives from Metro Dade were now assigned to Beth Kenyon’s case, with the possibility that the same suspect had kidnapped two girls within a week’s time. They placed information in the newspaper, hoping to get some help from the public.
Just as Christopher Wilder was celebrating his 39th birthday on March 13, the police were collecting a file on him. Three days later, he read in the Miami Herald that “a racecar driver” and “wealthy contractor” was suspected in the disappearances, and he realized it was time to move. He did keep his appointment with his therapist, who was treating him for sex crimes for which he’d received parole. Knowing his preference for girls with long hair and his fantasy about holding a girl captive, the therapist asked if he knew anything about the missing Rosario. He looked her in the eye and denied it.
Two days later, he dropped his three dogs at a kennel, withdrew a substantial amount of money from the bank, and told his partner he was being framed and was “not going to jail.” He got into his 1973 Chrysler New Yorker sedan and drove off. He had said to others that stress was bad for him. Now it was about to provoke a shocking spree.
The Development of a SadistBorn March 13, 1945, Christopher Bernard Wilder was the oldest child of an American naval officer and an Australian native. Immediately after he was born, writes Michael Newton in The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, he was so close to death that a priest gave him Last Rites. Yet he recovered, though he remained sickly, and at the age of two, he almost drowned in a swimming pool. A year later, he had an attack of convulsions that made him faint.
His childhood was fairly stable, but he did some window-peeking in early adolescence and got into trouble when he was seventeen. He was arrested with a group of friends for the gang-rape of a girl on the beach of Sydney, Australia. He pleaded guilty and received a year of probation with counseling and electroshock therapy. That apparently provided some fuel for his fantasies, writes Gibney, for unlike before this treatment, he now imagined shocking girls while having sex with them. Therapists noted his need to dominate women and his desire to turn them into slaves for his pleasure. He wanted to hold a woman captive against her will.
When he was 23, he married a woman, who soon discovered his sexual dark side and left him after only eight days. He had photographs of naked women in a briefcase, and he apparently used these to try to force a nurse into sexual relations. Instead, she went to the police but did not press charges in court.
Around this time, Wilder, who had lived in the United States at one point during childhood, immigrated to there in 1969, settling in Florida, where he did very well for himself during a building boom in the electrical and construction business. He bought a nice home, began racing cars, and developed his photography hobby. (Michael Cartel points out in Disguise of Sanity that the diamond ring he wore was fake, his Porsche was twenty years old, and his nice home was constructed from leftover materials, so much of his glitter was a façade.) He got into real estate, which further enriched him. He had a speedboat, sporty cars, and a home with an indoor-outdoor pool. He was known to hold some wild parties.
But he got into trouble again. In 1971, he was turned in to the police for trying to get women to pose for him in the nude. He wanted to take their photographs. He got off with a fine. Lying low for a while, he resurfaced with the police when in a home in which he was doing a renovation he forced a high school student to have oral sex. She turned him in and this time, he went to court. When asked if he was sane enough to stand trial, Earl James says in Catching Serial Killers that he told the judge he was masturbating twice a week to the mental image of raping a girl. He did not think what he had done to the girl was wrong.
A doctor who examined him said that he was not safe in an unstructured environment. He and another psychiatrist recommended supervised treatment. Wilder tried to get his lawyer to make a deal, but the case went to trial. Nevertheless, a jury acquitted him.
His next act, three years later, was outright rape. He adopted the name “David Pierce” to approach two girls in a shopping center, posing as a photographer who needed models for a job he had under contract. One went with him and he drugged her and forced her to have sex in his truck. She turned him in. But he plea-bargained the charges down to probation with therapy. At that time he claimed he suffered from blackouts on weekends. He was scheduled to see a sex therapist, who over the months of treatment believed he made progress.
Wilder returned to Australia to see his parents, but he did not stay out of trouble. In 1982, he was accused of grabbing two fifteen-year-old girls from a beach and forcing them to pose without clothes for photographs. Cartel says that he bound them into subservient positions and masturbated over them. He let them go and they went to the police.
His parents posted his substantial bail and he was allowed to return to Florida until his trial, set five months away. Then it was postponed, and postponed again, and by the time his hearings were finally scheduled for April of 1984, he wasn’t an easy man to find. Had even one of these judges understood the danger of this sexual predator, he might have been stopped before so many girls died.
On the Run“This case contains several lessons which are significant to those called upon to investigate serial murders, “ writes Earl James. He devotes a chapter to the Wilder case because it was an example of a man who traveled thousands of miles and whose behaviors were novel and extraordinarily depraved. In particular, he notes, investigators must be vigilant when they suspect someone of such crimes, because these men will get others to lie for them and establish phony alibis.
James believes that the police involved should have asked Wilder to take a polygraph in the Kenyon case rather than just accept his version of events. It was a mistake that allowed this man to get away. They had enough on him to make the request and not doing so was a serious misstep. It was also a mistake not to place him under surveillance the instant a link between the two missing women was suspected.
Almost right away, it’s suspected that he picked up a girl in Merritt Square shopping mall on Sunday, the day after he left, by luring her with the promise of a modeling career—her ultimate ambition.
Terry Ferguson, 21, was from Satellite Beach, Florida, two hours north of where Wilder had departed. She was not far from home when she disappeared, and she was last seen at several different stores in the mall. Her stepfather found her car still parked there. An hour after she was last seen, Wilder called for a tow truck to come to a state road near Canaveral Groves to pull his car out of the sand. It was a lovers’ lane, but he was alone. He claimed he had gotten lost. He paid for the tow with his business partner’s stolen credit card. Once free, he was on his way.
Five days later on March 23, a female body was found about 70 miles west of Terry Ferguson’s hometown, dumped in a snake-infested canal. The body was identified from dental charts as Terry. Once the story ran in the local newspaper, a witness came forward to say that she had seen the long-haired brunette talking to a tall older man. Looking through mug shots, without hesitation she picked out Wilder as the man with whom Terry had been speaking. But he was now long gone and had even killed again.
Yet in his self-destructive drive, he made a serious mistake.
Shock TreatmentsHis next victim was from Tallahassee, but he had grabbed her on March 20 from a shopping mall near Florida State University. Leaving her in a motel, he had driven her car to various places before abandoning it, and then had taken her across the Florida state line into Bainbridge, Georgia, close to Louisiana. Only 19, she was blond and pretty. She had fallen for his line and made herself vulnerable. Instead of photographing her as promised, he tortured her, and from her the police were able to learn a more detailed version of Wilder’s peculiar modus operandi.
Around 11:00 that night, she screamed at the motel, waking other overnight guests. A man intent on locating the source of the distress passed by another man with a suitcase who was rushing out. The stranger in a hurry excused himself, speaking in a foreign accent. He sped out of the parking lot as if to escape someone. And the screams had stopped, so there was no way to find the room from which they had originated.
However, the girl eventually found her way to the night manager’s desk. He was stunned to see her standing there, wrapped only in a sheet, her hair soaked in blood. Something was wrong with her eyes, but she urged him to call the police immediately, so he did. He called an ambulance as well, and they were able to determine that this girl’s eyelids had been glued shut, and they found bruises all over her body.
The motel clerk supplied the police with the name of the man who had registered for the room, paying with cash and using a Florida driver’s license. He was in his mid-to-late thirties, around six feet tall, deeply tanned, and physically fit. He had thinning brown hair and a trimmed beard.
A search of the room revealed that while the man may have packed quickly, he had taken anything that could have helped them to identify him. Yet there were bloodstains on the wall, duct tape on the floor, and an indication that someone had used the bed. It was time to speak to the girl.
At the hospital, she told police officers that she had been shopping at a mall near where she went to college and was in the parking lot when the man had approached her. He told her that he was a photographer looking for a model to pose for him. She need only go with him to a nearby park, with no obligation. He told her she had a fresh face and she was just the type he was seeking. He would pay her $25 for less than an hour.
He seemed sincere and credible. He was well dressed, in a pin-stripe suit and was not at all pushy. She had hesitated for a moment, but then decided to go along with him. At his car, he’d shown her some fashion magazines and claimed that several of the impressive photos were his work.
Something told this girl not to go with him, so she thanked him and declined. At that moment, he punched her hard in the stomach. Then he hit her in the face and pushed her into his car. She couldn’t breathe, let alone struggle, and he was already in the car and driving fast before she got her bearings. When he stopped near a wooded area, he placed duct tape over her mouth and bound her hands together. A little farther away, he stopped again and placed her in the trunk of his sedan. She lay there, bound and gagged, for hours while the man drove to an unknown destination. When he finally stopped, he opened the trunk, wrapped her in a sleeping blanket, and carried her over his shoulder into a motel room. She had no idea where they were or what he might do next.
The man said that if she did not remain quiet, he would kill her. Then he began to subject her to torture. Cartel says that he intended to keep her there and torture her over a period of several days.
He made her undress and then lay down next to her and masturbated. (James says he also shaved off her pubic hair and Cartel adds that he put a knife to her groin to see how she would react.) Then he made her perform sexual acts, and finally he raped her twice. All this time, he was watching the television. She hoped this might be all he would do, but apparently he had decided to make things more interesting for himself. He pulled out an electrical cord, which appeared to have been cut in the middle and fashioned for some specific purpose. There was even a switch. She found out what this contraption was for when he applied two open copper wires to her flesh and used the cord to painfully shock her feet.
Afterward, he used a bottle of Superglue with an applicator to force her eyes shut, then used a blow dryer to try to harden it. He did a poor job of it, since she managed to see what he was doing through tiny slits.
He turned the channels until he found an aerobics show, and then ordered his abductee to get up and dance in the way the women were dancing on the tube. She could barely see, but she complied. Her feet were still wired, so when she did not perform as he wanted, he shocked her into obedience.
The television seemed to mesmerize him. After a while, he stopped paying attention to her and remained glued to the screen. She thought she might be able to escape, so she moved toward the bathroom. He came at her, grabbing a hairdryer to hit her in the head. He had told her that if she tried to escape, he would kill her and now she faced that possibility. The girl was terrified. Nevertheless, she struggled with him and managed to get into the bathroom and lock the door. Her eye had been gouged and was bleeding, but for the moment she was safe. She turned around to the wall that was shared between rooms and pounded, screaming as loudly as she could.
She heard fumbling in the room and then the door slam closed. She prayed that he was gone. Yet she waited fully half an hour before she dared to venture out to see. She hoped her screams had frightened him. When she cracked open the door, sure enough, he had packed his “toys” and left. He’d even taken her clothes. But she thought he might still come back, so she ran out, grabbed a bed sheet to cover herself, and went in search of help.
At any moment, she knew, she might still encounter her captor, and he could still kill her. Yet to her relief, she made it to the motel office without being stopped.
After she told her story, the sheriff issued notices to all patrol cars to be on the lookout for a cream-colored Chrysler sedan, and sent bulletins to neighboring states. They also sent a notice to the FBI, since with a kidnapping they could now step in. In fact, they had already been on the case while Wilder was still in Florida.
Aware of the two missing girls in Florida, they gave this incident a lot of attention. Christopher Wilder, a convicted sex offender, was a very dangerous man, and he was desperate. Yet despite his knowledge that the law was after him, he was clearly unafraid of approaching and grabbing girls along the way.
No one spotted the car. Wilder managed to get to Texas, where he found his next victim.
Terry Diane Walden, a 24-year-old nurse from Beaumont and mother of two, told her husband on March 21 that a bearded older man had approached her and asked if she would pose for him as a model. She had turned him down, but he had asked her to go with him to his car to see some samples of his work. She requested quite firmly that he leave her alone. Then two days later on Friday, she disappeared. Her husband failed to make the connection at first.
A friend had seen her around 11:30 that morning, hurrying through the student union at the college where she took classes, and her orange Mercury Cougar was gone from where she usually parked it. Her frantic family went through the weekend trying to locate her.
Then on Monday morning, March 26, a worker found her floating facedown in a canal near a dam. She was fully clothed. The pathologist found that she had been tied up with different types of rope at one point, gagged with tape, and stabbed multiple times, but there was no indication of sexual assault.
Forty detectives were assigned to the case. They found a strip of duct tape in the water, footprints nearby, and tire tracks, but could not find Terry’s car.
The FBI came in to help. They knew that Wilder had stolen license plates in Baton Rouge shortly before to place on his Chrysler. He had stayed at a motel near Beaumont where he had registered under his partner’s name, L.K. Kimbrell. Terry’s husband supplied a description of the man who had approached her, and it matched Wilder. Then his abandoned Chrysler, sans plates, was located. It appeared that he had removed the stolen plates from his car and had probably put them on Terry’s. At least they knew the car he was using, and the license plate number. But he had a head start. By then he’d reached Nevada, via Oklahoma and Colorado. Reports of missing women were turning up almost daily.
On March 25, Wilder had grabbed Suzanne Logan, 21, from an Oklahoma City shopping mall, where she had driven after dropping her husband off at work. Because she did not keep an appointment that afternoon or pick her husband up, he reported her missing. On the same day that Terry Walden was discovered, a fisherman found Logan floating in a reservoir. Unlike Walden, she had been tortured and raped before she was stabbed to death. Some of her clothes had been removed, James says, and her face was badly bruised. She also had small cuts on her back, as if stabbed superficially with a knife. Her pubic hair was shaved and her long blond locks had been snipped off. Eventually a maid found her hair in a wastebasket at a motel. Logan had likely been lured by her interest in modeling, and Gibney says she had been dead less than an hour when she was found, but was not identified for over a week.
Shortly after this grisly discovery, but in Colorado, blonde Sheryl Bonaventura, 18, was kidnapped from a Grand Junction mall, and a witness described a bearded, well-dressed man who looked like Wilder talking with her. He had wandered through the mall, soliciting women for photographs and modeling jobs. Someone had seen him with Sheryl, a girl who’d already done some modeling and hoped to do more. She had likely been an easy mark for him. Her Mazda was left in the parking lot, locked, with her sunglasses inside. With a nationwide alert now targeting Christopher Wilder as a fugitive and predator of pretty girls, this missing-persons report received immediate attention.
A waitress later said she had spotted Sheryl on the same day she disappeared having lunch in Silverton, Colorado, a hundred miles away, with a man who looked like Wilder. She had given her name to the waitress and told her they were heading for Vegas. Another teenage girl had eaten lunch and left the restaurant with them as well.
Wilder and company spent the night in a motel in Durango and went into Las Vegas, but that was the end of the ride for Sheryl. Wilder was already scouting out his next prey.
She disappeared from Las Vegas on April Fool’s Day. Only 17 but highly photogenic, Michelle Korfman had been in a fashion show sponsored by Seventeen magazine, and a photograph examined later showed Wilder in attendance, smiling broadly as he watched her. She wanted to be a model. It probably wasn’t difficult for him to persuade her to accompany him, or at least to listen to him until he had her at a disadvantage. Witnesses saw them leave together, and other people recall him approaching a number of women that day about modeling. Eight turned him down, but some had agreed to meet him in front of Caesar’s Palace. He had not shown up. Michelle’s car was found, which meant that Wilder was still driving the orange Mercury.
On April 3, the FBI placed Wilder on their Ten Most Wanted list, and the intensive manhunt picked up steam.
A ProfileAt the time the Behavioral Science Unit had been in operation for six years, with John Douglas as chief, and the agents were developing the computer database known as ViCAP. They had gone out to a number of locations to assist with serial crimes like rape and murder, and now they had Christopher Wilder to consider. In Human Monsters, David Everitt points out that this was the same month in which Henry Lee Lucas was convicted of murder in Texas, after confessing to hundreds across several states.
In Wilder’s case, they knew who the perpetrator was, they just did not know where he was or where he would strike next on his path of death. Several times, they arrived at a motel or restaurant within hours of his departure. He kept stealing license plates and driving in erratic directions. He was exceedingly difficult to predict.
While they judged him to be a classic serial killer, in retrospect there are many criminologists who classify him as a spree killer. Yet if he had killed the two women he had abducted in Florida and had continued in that pattern, without getting nervous and running, then he would be a serial killer. There was some evidence later that he might have killed several years before.
He was compulsive about killing. It was a sexual addiction. He was a charming white male in his 30s, spurred by sexual fantasies and excited by a certain type of victim—in this case, beautiful young women who could be models. Hence, he was dubbed “The Beauty Queen Killer.” He was highly mobile, willing to drive long distances to keep doing what he was doing. James says “It is not unusual for a serial killer to drive between 100,000 and 200,000 miles in a year.”
Putting him on the Ten Most Wanted list generated more publicity about him countrywide and made it clear that catching him was an urgent matter. Everitt says the FBI did not want to reveal many details of Wilder’s brutality for fear of inspiring copycat crimes. Authorities monitored the use of the credit cards Wilder had stolen from his partner, but it was still difficult to determine where he was going. They expected that at some point he would try leaving the country.
The best bet for him was Mexico, since that government would not extradite a man who might face the death penalty or life without parole, as Wilder surely would do. At the very least, it would take years.
To try to get a better sense of Wilder’s personality, people who knew him were interviewed. His business partner said that he spent a lot of time watching television, because he didn’t have much else to do, while others claimed that beautiful women went to his home in droves. He even had a girlfriend who could not believe the charges, although she recalled several strange incidents. Once Wilder had commanded her to leave his home, fearing he might hurt her, and another time, she had woken up to find him at the foot of her bed. He claimed he did not know how he had gotten there or why. Someone brought forward photographs that Wilder had left for developing, which included women he did not know and prepubescent children. He had told his girlfriend that his photography hobby was a sickness, but he had to do it.
In Florida, the manager of a dating service offered a tape that Wilder had made in 1981. He talked a lot about himself on the tape and said that he wanted a long relationship but not marriage. He was seeking “depth and sincerity.” He also indicated that he preferred women in their early 20s. The FBI broadcast the tape to help women who were approached by him to see him for what he was. He could be anywhere, and any pretty woman was a potential victim. There were a lot of shopping malls around the country, and one thing they knew for sure was that he would not stop abducting and killing pretty girls until he was caught.
Younger VictimsA sixteen-year-old girl, Tina Marie, had filled out a job application at Hickory Farms, north of Torrance, California. Wilder had followed her into the store and on their way outside he offered her $100 to pose for him. He was shooting a billboard, he said, and she would be seen for miles around. What he needed, however, were a few test rolls.
Apparently she did pose for some photos for him, but after one roll, she told him she had to go home. To her surprise, he grew angry. He pulled out a revolver and stuck the barrel into her mouth. He then said, “Your modeling days are over.”
Binding her, he put her into his car—still the stolen one from Texas—and drove with her for over two hundred miles to El Centro, California. There he already had a motel room, and he took her inside. He tied her to the bed and attacked her. Yet he did not kill her.
“It has been speculated,” says Michael Cartel, “that Wilder stopped short of killing [her] because he believed she was robotic enough to help him capture other victims.”
A missing-persons report was filed right away. She had family and a boyfriend who insisted she would not have run away. She clearly had been at Hickory Farms. From there, no one knew where she had gone, but she had not come home. The store manager identified Christopher Wilder as the man he had seen approach her.
Wilder and his captive now turned and drove east. They stayed in Taos, New Mexico, on April 7. He began to spot newspaper articles about him wherever he went, and the videotape from the dating service was broadcast on television. Now millions of people would know him on sight. They knew what kind of car he was driving.
Yet that did not stop him.
The next girl was also sixteen. Dawnette Wilt was filling out a form at a store in Gary, Indiana, when another girl interrupted her, introduced herself as Tina Marie Wilder, and asked her to step outside the store to speak to the manager. That turned out to be Wilder. He had forced one victim to lure yet another, and he grabbed Dawnette and used a gun to force her into the car. He placed duct tape over both her eyes and mouth. Since he had a driver—Tina Marie, who had already been assaulted—he was free to torment and rape Dawnette in the car.
They stopped at a hotel in Ohio, where Dawnette was treated to Wilder’s special torture device, and then they all drove across Pennsylvania to New York State. Tina Marie and Wilder took photographs at Niagara Falls before they went to Rochester, New York for the night. There, Dawnette was raped and tortured once again. Wilder warned both girls that if they tried to draw attention to themselves or to escape, he would kill them. They believed him, and while he took three or four showers each day, they remained in the various rooms.
When Wilder saw on television an appeal for Tina Marie’s return, he drove them both away and then took Dawnette out into the woods near Penn Yan. He tried to suffocate her, but she struggled so much he could not get a grip. So he took out his knife and stabbed her, front and back. She pretended to be dead, so he left her there and walked back to the car. When she knew he was gone, she struggled to her feet and walked out to a road where she found someone who would take her to a hospital. She told the police that Wilder was driving the Mercury Cougar and was heading toward Canada. He had told the girls that he would not be taken alive.
Even so, he wasn’t so desperate yet that he didn’t have time to go for yet another victim. At Eastview Mall near Victor, New York, he had Tina Marie persuade 33-year-old Beth Dodge, who was getting out of a gold Pontiac Trans-Am, to come over to their car. Wilder forced her inside and took her car keys. He had Tina Marie drive the Trans-Am, following him. When Wilder found a deserted gravel pit, he made the woman get out and he shot her in the back. He left the Mercury there and took the Trans-Am.
Wilder seemed to know his time was just about up. He drove to Boston’s Logan Airport, gave Tina Marie enough money to fly back home and get a cab, and they parted ways. In Los Angeles, she later said that he had expressed a desire that she not be with him when he died.
She barely got away with her life, and even boarding the plane, she said, she believed she would be shot in the back. Oddly, when she arrived in Los Angeles, she asked the cab driver to take her to a lingerie store first. She spoke to the sales manager and told her that Wilder had cut her hair short to make her look like the girl in the movie Flashdance. Then some friends saw her and took her to the police.
Cornering the KillerOn April 13, Wilder tried to grab another girl. He saw a nineteen-year-old by the side of the road whose car had broken down. Wilder offered to give her a lift to get gas, but when he passed the gas station, she knew something was up. She insisted he stop, so he pulled out a gun. However, he had to slow down in one place, and she grabbed the opportunity to open the door and leap out. Rolling away, she managed to escape.
Wilder dumped several articles, such as his camera, suitcase and things he’d taken from the victims, and then drove into New Hampshire. At a service station in Colebrook, New Hampshire, about twelve miles from the Canadian border, he drew the attention of two state troopers. (Newton says they had recognized the car from FBI descriptions, Gibney says they knew it from recent news reports, while Cartel says they thought Wilder was acting strangely enough to investigate.). They looked at him as he stood talking to the attendant and thought he looked like the guy on the FBI posters, sans beard. His tan indicated he was not from around there.
The troopers pulled in and got out of their car. They called out to him, and he dove inside the vehicle, apparently going for a gun. In the scuffle, one trooper, Leo Jellison, jumped on his back, grabbing for the .357 Magnum, and two shots were fired. One went through Wilder into the trooper’s chest, lodging in his liver. The second went into Wilder’s heart, obliterating it. He died on the spot.
It was Friday the 13th. It had been 47 days since the first reported disappearance and he had spent twenty-six days on the run. His luck had just run out.
Found in his possession, as listed by both James and Gibney, were the .357 revolver, extra ammunition, handcuffs, rolls of duct tape, rope, a sleeping bag, his business partner’s credit card, the specially designed electrical cord for stunning the women he picked up, and a novel by British author John Fowles called The Collector.
Published in 1963, this story features a lonely entomologist who collects butterflies and who also captures and imprisons a pretty art student named Miranda. He keeps her in his basement. Seeing nothing wrong with what he has done, he treats her well, expecting that this will eventually win her love, and willingly gives her anything she wants, except her freedom. While she grows to need his attention, since he’s the only person she ever sees, she also views him as evil for his imprisonment of her. Nevertheless, she belongs to him, and this fantasy is not uncommon among sadists.
Among those who hoped to create sexual slaves were Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered seventeen men; Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, who tortured and killed an unknown number of people, and others who actually imprisoned women for sex for long stretches of time but did not kill them. One woman was kept in a box for seven years.
Therapists who had treated Wilder over a period of time knew that he loved this book and had practically memorized it. For him it had been the ultimate fantasy.
But now he would have no more chances to make it come true.
Yet Wilder’s wretched tale did not end there. Six days after the autopsy, New Hampshire pathologist Robert Christie took a phone call from a man claiming to be from Harvard. According to Newton, this man said that Harvard wanted Wilder’s brain for study. He agreed, in the interest of science, but he wanted a formal written request. It never materialized, and when he phoned Harvard, no one there admitted to making any such call.
Even as Wilder was cremated in Florida, there were many questions concerning the whereabouts of some of his victims. The families of the missing were sick with grief that they might never find their daughters.
Yet gradually, a few more were located and identified.
RetrospectOn May 3, over a month after she had disappeared, Sheryl Bonaventura was found under a tree in Utah. She had been killed with a gun and also stabbed. Her time of death was estimated at around March 31, two days after she was spotted with Wilder in a restaurant. Eight days later, in the Angeles National Forest, Michelle Korfman was discovered. She was badly decomposed and it took almost a month to notify her family of the identification. Neither of the two girls who had disappeared in Florida, triggering Wilder’s spree, were ever found.
Some women who were murdered in places where he was known to have been on those dates were tentatively linked to him as well, particularly in Las Vegas. A couple of girls identified him from mug shots as the man who had grabbed them in Boynton Beach, Florida in 1983 and forced them to perform oral sex on him. They were ten and twelve.
Even in Australia, he was linked to numerous incidents of sexual molestation and two deaths. In 1965, two decades before his final run, two young women had accompanied a man matching Wilder’s description to a beach near Sydney, and they were both found raped, strangled, and placed in a shallow grave.
Two more girls had been grabbed at malls in Florida. One was stabbed to death and the other was never found. Several sets of skeletal remains were found near property that Wilder owned, and one woman was estimated to have been dead for several years.
In other places where Wilder was seen, girls disappeared. Some were found dead, others disappeared altogether.
Officer Jellison recovered from his wounds and was happy to know the identity of the man he had stopped from escaping into Canada. Thanks to him, it was the end of the line for Christopher Bernard Wilder, who left an estate estimated as being worth between half a million and almost two million.
While he’s credited with eight victims, he’s tentatively linked to so many others that it’s impossible to know the final count of his victims.
Since he died as an apparent suicide, Earl James suggests that when the police began to close in on him, he had already decided to kill himself. However, he wanted a final spree before doing so. Yet given the fact that he went to California and then New Hampshire, it seems more likely that he was trying to flee to another country. He got fairly close to the Mexican border, but something must have made him decide to turn around and go back across country. James believes his intent to cross into Canada is unlikely, since he didn’t choose a populated place to do so. But when he died, he was ten minutes from the border.
Some authors call him a nomadic killer, as if he chose to go from place to place as Ted Bundy did. However, that seems to be a mistaken notion as well. He certainly had learned in Australia that one way to elude a trial was to just leave the country. It was also clear to him in Florida that he would have to leave the state. He’s less the intentional nomad and more likely a killer on the run who grabbed opportunities to rape and kill as he saw them.
He also demonstrates the fact that some serial killers use different methods to kill. He used suffocation, stabbing, and shooting. One victim was both stabbed and shot. Several were let go. Many were tortured, but some were merely killed for their cars. Some were left in rivers, some in rest areas, and one in a gravel pit. Yet he kept his victim type relatively stable.
Psychologist Al C. Carlisle believes that serial killers have a divided personality. Wilder certainly exhibited a good side that fooled people, Carlisle points out, and a bad side that harmed them. He was able to maintain a public persona of an upstanding citizen and run a successful business, even as he entertained and acted out his darker fantasies. As each one was played out, and as life became more disappointing, Wilder’s fantasies became more violent. Nevertheless, Carlisle admits, “the pathological process that leads to the development of an obsessive appetite (and possibly an addiction) to kill is still one of the most perplexing psychological mysteries yet to be solved.”
BibliographyCarlisle, A. C. “The Dark Side of the Serial-Killer Personality,” in Serial Killers, edited by Louis Gerdes. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2000.
Cartel, Michael. Disguise of Sanity: Serial Mass Murderers. Toluca Lake, CA: Pepperbox Books, 1985.
Egger, Stephen. Serial Murder: An Elusive Phenomenon. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1990.
Everitt, David. Human Monsters. New York: Contemporary Books, 1993.
Gibney, Bruce. The Beauty Queen Killer. New York: Pinnacle, 1984.
Hickey, Eric. Serial Murderers and Their Victims. 3rd Edition. Wadsworth, 2001.
James, Earl. Catching Serial Killers. Lansing, MI: International Forensic Services, Inc. 1991.
Newton, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. NY: Checkmark, 2000.
Schlesinger, Louis B. Serial Offenders: Current Thought, Recent Findings. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2000.
Seltzer, Mark. Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture. NY: Routledge, 1998.
Katherine Ramsland Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy, and is working on a master's degree in criminal justice. Currently, she teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She has published nearly 1,000 articles and thirty-eight books, including The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, Beating the Devil's Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators, and Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. She has been published in ten languages. Her background in forensic studies positioned her to assist former FBI profiler John Douglas on his book, The Cases that Haunt Us, and to co-write a book with former FBI profiler, Gregg McCrary, The Unknown Darkness. She also co-wrote a book with Henry C. Lee, The Real Life of a Forensic Scientist. Ramsland speaks internationally about forensic psychology, forensic science, and serial murder, and has appeared on numerous documentaries, as well as such programs as The Today Show, 20/20, Montel Williams, NPR, Larry King Live and E! True Hollywood. She was the recurring expert for the American Occult series on the ID network, and her latest book is The Mind of a Murderer: Privileged Access to the Demons that Drive Extreme Violence.