He was America’s most wanted man.
Christopher Wilder. Photographer. Race-car driver.
He pulled one last act of violence as police finally closed in.
But he had already left horror behind.
Dead or missing young women in South Florida and beyond.
Here is a look at the saga from the archives of the Miami Herald, 35 years later.
END OF THE LINE
Published April 14, 1984
Christopher B. Wilder, an elusive Australian-born millionaire who criss-crossed the United States on an 8,000-mile rampage of rape and murder, shot and killed himself Friday during a confrontation with state police in a small northern New Hampshire town.
Wilder, America’s most wanted man, had been on the run from an army of FBI agents and police since March 22 and was believed bound for Canada.
He died by his own hand as two state troopers approached him at 1:45 p.m. at a Getty gas station in the center of Colebrook, N.H., an isolated town 10 miles from the Canadian border.
His death was greeted with mixed emotions by those seeking him.
“It brought a feeling of relief that he is no longer a fugitive, that there will be no new victims,” said Miami FBI Agent-in-Charge Joseph Corless, who coordinated the manhunt. “But there are so many questions to ask him. The one person who could answer all of them is dead.”
Among the questions left unanswered are the whereabouts of five kidnapped women still missing, including two Dade models.
Law enforcement agencies along the East Coast had been on alert for the 39-year-old fugitive since Thursday, when two of his victims were found on rural roads in upper New York State, and local authorities were on notice that Wilder, who lived in Boynton Beach, had friends in New Hampshire. Friday afternoon, two suspicious state troopers in plainclothes spotted the distinctive gold Pontiac Trans Am taken from a New York State woman apparently murdered for her car Thursday.
The troopers drove by the gas station twice, then stopped to check the driver out. As Trooper Leo Jellison, 33, approached him, Wilder ran to his car and snatched a .357 Magnum from the glove box.
“Jellison jumped him and Wilder turned the gun on himself,” said State Police Maj. William Cray. Wilder fired two shots, the first into his own stomach. The bullet exited his back and struck the approaching trooper, lodging beneath a rib.
Wilder scrambled into the car and fired a second fatal shot into his brain.
“He is dead ... deceased from a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Cray said.
The trooper was listed in stable condition after surgery. Hours later, Wilder’s body still lay slumped across the blood-drenched front seat of the Trans Am. Police, FBI and curious crowds jammed the town of 2,500.
“It’s like Fourth of July. It looks like the whole state is here,” said Herc Lemieux, 55. He operates a garage 300 feet away from the Main Street showdown between the nation’s most wanted fugitive and local police. “It looks like 5,000 people out there.
“I thought they had robbed the bank across the street,” Lemieux said. “He shot one of the troopers and wounded him bad.” FBI fingerprint experts dispatched to Colebrook positively identified the dead man as Wilder, a Boynton Beach businessman, Grand Prix race car driver and part-time photographer.
In a bizarre twist to the case, Tina Marie Risico, 16, abducted by Wilder from a Torrance, Calif., shopping center on April 4, strolled into the Torrance police headquarters at 4:08 p.m. EST alive and well. She was traveling with Wilder in New York State on Thursday when Beth Dodge, 33, was shot to death for her Trans Am, and an abducted Indiana girl was stabbed and left for dead on a roadside.
The Indiana teenager, who survived, told police that it was Tina Marie Risico who lured her to Wilder’s car with promises of a modeling job Tuesday at a shopping center. There the girl, Dawnette Sue Wilt, was abducted at gunpoint and taken to New York. Wilder tortured his victims with electric shocks, beat, stabbed and raped them.
Yet one of the fugitive’s final acts, the FBI said, was to take Tina Marie to Boston Thursday night, give her several hundred dollars and put her on a plane for home. After arriving in California, Corless said, “She made a few stops” before informing her parents or police that she was safe.
The girl went shopping at a lingerie boutique with the money Wilder had given her. She bought a bra and some clothes. Then, before going to police headquarters, she stopped to visit a boyfriend. “Fact is stranger than fiction in this case,” said Torrance Police Sgt. Emilio Paerels. A
fter the girl was interviewed by police and FBI agents, Torrance Police Capt. James Popp said she is not suspected of any wrongdoing.
“I think she’s been a victim during this entire ordeal,” Popp said, “... acting under a great deal of duress and coercion. The man killed 10, and she did what he wanted her to do.”
Tina Marie herself was physically abused by Wilder, suffered electric shocks applied to her breasts, ankles and arms, and feared for her life during the terrifying ordeal, said Torrance Sgt. Rollo Green. Wilder told the girl that the electric shocks were “punishment,” police said. In the Wilder saga’s only happy ending, Tina Marie was reunited with her parents at Torrance police headquarters.
“It was a tearful reunion, with hugs and kisses, very touching. They were ecstatic,” said Sgt. Green.
During their flight, Wilder cut Tina Marie’s hair short and shaved off his beard and mustache, police said.
“They knew they were hot,” said Green. Tracy Ison, a lingerie store clerk in nearby Hermosa Beach, Calif., said Tina Marie walked into the store Friday and “just sort of announced, ‘I’m the girl who’s missing. He gave me some money and put me on a plane.’ She was shopping with a large sum of money and said she wanted to think a little bit before calling her mother,” Ison said.
The fatal shooting came as FBI and police all along the Eastern Seaboard intensified their search for Wilder, who had doubled back east from Southern California and whose most recent victims were discovered Thursday in northern New York State.
“At any given time,” Corless said Friday, “several hundred FBI agents were working this case.” Across the country, he said, “thousands of local and state police” were taking part in what he described as “one of the most extensive manhunts ever conducted.”
The FBI was also assisted in the search by Wilder’s brother, Stephen.
“He was very, very helpful, providing us with background,” Corless said.
The FBI alerted South Florida Police early Friday to be on the lookout for the gold Trans Am, on the possibility that Wilder was headed south -- perhaps back to Florida, where his odyssey began. A tentative sighting was reported in Baltimore, Md., with Wilder allegedly traveling southbound. Wilder, who liked beautiful models and pornography, is suspected in the kidnappings of at least 10 women since Feb. 26.
Two barely escaped with their lives, four were found savagely slain and four, including Dade models Rosario Gonzalez, 20, and Elizabeth Kenyon, 23, are still missing.
The nationwide manhunt ended suddenly in the town of Colebrook, on the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont. Storekeeper Lemieux said the first he knew of the confrontation was “when the town cop went by at about 100 miles an hour. I heard the brakes screeching and a woman ran out from across the street and said to call an ambulance and a nurse.”
Hours later, Lemieux said, “Police cars are still coming in. There are usually not many cops in town. For excitement it’s the biggest thing that ever happened here. Everybody’s nervous. If he is the guy who murdered all those girls, I’m glad it’s over, for him.”
SECRETS TO THE GRAVE
Published April 16, 1984
The man who was America’s most wanted fugitive three days ago lay Sunday in the preparation room of a small funeral home in the remote northern New Hampshire village of Colebrook.
The secrets of Christopher Wilder, 39, died with him.
Police say the wealthy businessman and amateur photographer kidnapped and killed beautiful young women who wanted to become famous models. He will come home to Boynton Beach this week.
The whereabouts of four young women who vanished in his wake remain agonizing mysteries; nobody knows when they will come home.
FBI agents searching for clues are examining four color photographs of unidentified young women found in Wilder’s attache case. With the photos were a sharp-bladed knife, an address book, receipts and 49 $100 bills.
“He must have snapped. He went crazy,” Wilder’s brother Stephen said Sunday in an interview on WTVJ-TV, Channel 4. “He wasn’t the same person I knew. ... It’s terrible. It’s a mess.”
Stephen Wilder, who flew here from Australia to help the FBI, called his brother a “loner” who was not a millionaire but claimed to be one to impress women.
“He had a lot of trouble establishing relationships with women,” Wilder said, adding that his first reaction to the news of his brother’s death was relief. “I was happy he’d been stopped.”
Stephen Wilder will claim his brother’s body, which is being shipped air freight to a funeral home in Boynton Beach, according to Robert Moore, director of Newman Funeral Home in Colebrook. Wilder’s body will be cremated, Moore said.
The fugitive had been sought from coast to coast by an army of law-enforcement officers before his fatal skirmish with a 240-pound state trooper on Colebrook’s Main Street Friday. Wilder’s fingernails were chewed down to the quick, Moore said.
“He bit his nails bad. He must have been nervous.” But, he said, Wilder looks at peace.
“When I fix them, they always look peaceful,” Moore said with pride.
Nobody in town remembers the last shooting in Colebrook. Another fugitive was captured there once, a man who had killed his wife in New York. It was 1913. But last week was an eventful one in the town.
On Wednesday a robber drove up to the bank on Main Street in a taxicab stolen in Maine. He marched inside, snatched $300 from a teller’s hand and shouted: “This is a robbery.” “What do you think you’re doing?” demanded the teller.
She slapped his hand and he fled. A village police officer who didn’t know about the robbery arrested him for speeding before he got out of town.
“That taxi stood out like a lead balloon here,” said one resident.
There are no taxis in Colebrook, as frenzied members of the press discovered when they descended in droves later in the week. Two days later, on Friday the 13th, Christopher Wilder had even less luck than the hapless bank robber did in Colebrook.
“It has been hectic,” Moore sighed at the funeral home Sunday. It hasn’t been local residents asking questions or trying to steal a glimpse of Wilder’s corpse. “It has been only the press hounding everybody,” Moore said.
Both he and his canopied funeral home have appeared on network television newscasts reporting the event. Colebrook is a town with no limousines. Neighbors in the close-knit community lend their freshly washed cars when needed for a funeral and a station wagon hauls the flowers to the cemetery.
Moore, who handles about 55 funerals a year, has been busy lately. After November the ground is frozen too hard for grave digging. Townspeople who die in winter, are placed in temporary above-the-ground quarters and buried after the spring thaw.
The FBI and police confiscated all of Wilder’s clothing, along with blood and hair samples from his body. For his journey home, Wilder will be “outfitted with underwear and a smock similar to pajamas. He’ll go back very presentable,” Moore said.
As Wilder crisscrossed the country by car on his 8,000-mile odyssey of terror, authorities say, four women were left dead and four others vanished. Of the three who survived, one escaped. Another lived, though stabbed and left for dead. And the last, Tina Marie Risico, 16, is safe at home in Southern California, reportedly put on a plane by Wilder in one of the final, inexplicable acts of his life.
The girl’s safe passage home was no apparent change of heart or behavior by Wilder, police say. Shortly after he released Risico with a fistful of traveling money, Wilder tried to abduct a 12th woman, police say, in Wenham, Mass. She accepted the offer of a ride when her car broke down, then dived out of his car and escaped after he pulled a gun.
The unidentified woman was unaware the man was Wilder until police later pieced together his trail. A lawyer hired by Risico’s father said Saturday that the girl will sell her story to the highest bidder.
Still missing are Michelle Korfman, 17, of Boulder City, Nev.; Sheryl Bonaventura, 19, of Grand Junction, Colo.; Rosario Gonzalez, 20, of Miami; and Beth Kenyon, 23, of Coral Gables.
ON THE TRAIL
Published May 13, 1984
The unmasking of Christopher Bernard Wilder as a homicidal sadist is an epic study of lost chances, frustration, and human tragedy.
Should police here have caught him before he embarked upon his travelogue of terror?
The question is legitimate.
For seven days they knew who he was. Yet no policeman ever questioned him, watched him or tried to detain him.
One officer, not assigned to the case, did telephone Wilder. He left a message on his answering machine. Wilder did not return the call.
In the blind and bitter anguish of hindsight, the families of two missing Miami women damn the bureaucracy of law enforcement.
“I went along. I was gullible,” said William Kenyon, whose daughter is missing. “Now, if anybody asked me how to handle a situation like this, I’d say take it into your own hands. Don’t count on the police for anything. They were negligent and unresponsive.”
“What proof did we have?” replied a disheartened homicide detective, Ray Nazario. “We had no proof he was a maniac.”
“Nobody expected we had a man who was going to go on an odyssey of murder across the United States,” said FBI man Joe Del Campo.
Wilder, 39, described by his sex therapist as a “deeply disturbed walking time bomb,” owned a Boynton Beach contracting firm, raced expensive sports cars, photographed beautiful women, then tortured and killed them.
“It all could have been prevented,” said Delores Londos, whose son intended to marry the first missing Miami woman. “That’s why the families are furious. You wonder what the police were doing. It just went on and on and on. We found out a lot from all this. We found out the system is really rotten.”
“Our police department did things the way they should have been done,” said Miami Homicide Detective Harvey Wasserman. “We followed police procedure, sound judgment and rules of law.”
“We could not pick him up,” said Metro Homicide Captain Robert W. McCarthy, whose men investigated the case of the second missing woman. “We had nothing to pick him up on. I wouldn’t authorize sending a homicide team all the way up to Palm Beach County to sit on a surveillance.”
The case of Rosario Gonzalez, 20, fills a huge cardboard box. It represents thousands of man-hours. Miami detectives talked to hundreds of people.
“We all were discussing the best way to approach Wilder,” said Wasserman. “He was not ignorant of the law. If we were going to approach him, we wanted to have the best case, the most information we could have. We knew we would probably only have one chance.”
It was a chance they never took. Here, according to police files and Herald interviews, is what happened: Wilder raced a black Porsche in the Miami Grand Prix on Saturday, Feb. 25. The next day, Sunday, he attended as a spectator. He parked his white 1978 turbo-charged Porsche Carerra near Bayfront Auditorium.
A motorist complained that he took up two spaces. Wilder should not have been in Miami. He was violating his probation for attempted rape. He was restricted to Palm Beach County.
SUNDAY, FEB. 26
At 1:15 p.m. that Sunday, Feb. 26, Rosario Gonzalez, a strikingly attractive model distributing aspirin samples at the Grand Prix, took a break — and vanished. Wilder was seen after 5 p.m. driving north on Florida’s Turnpike in his Porsche, apparently alone.
At 6:30 p.m. someone else saw him drive away from his Boynton Beach home in another car, his gray Cadillac. He dined leisurely that evening with friends.
“He was clean and relaxed,” says Wasserman. Wilder left his friends at 8:30 p.m. “He said he was going home to sit in his Jacuzzi.”
No trace of Rosario has been found. Many families complain that police do not respond quickly when an adult is reported missing. Not so with Rosario. Her parents were frantic by nightfall Sunday.
By the next day, Miami homicide was on the case.
“Every now and then we get a case that, after talking to the parents and friends, we don’t think is a runaway. And we jump on it right away,” Wasserman says. Detective George Morin interviewed the mother, Haydee Gonzalez. He interviewed local and New York officials of the firms involved in the aspirin promotion. Police questioned a man, a friend of the family, seen talking to Rosario at the race. He later passed a polygraph test.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 29
On Wednesday, Feb. 29, the first news story of the disappearance at the Grand Prix appeared in the Miami Herald. Another model and her mother remembered Rosario walking behind a man in his 30s. They described him to a police artist. The drawing was distributed to the media with appeals for help.
A tipster thought he saw the missing woman cavorting with a man aboard a yacht in the Miami River. Police found the yacht and the woman. She was not Rosario.
On March 1, a Miami firefighter gave detectives the last known photos of Rosario. He had snapped them at the race the day she vanished. Seated on a stone step, her hands are clasped modestly around her knees, her blond hair tumbles over her shoulders. She is wearing her diamond engagement ring. She is smiling.
“This girl was perfect,” says William Londos, 21, her fiance. “So innocent and sweet. The first time I ever saw her, I said this is the kind of girl you marry.”
The photo would help, police were sure. Rosario had been one of 12 identically dressed models.
“Now we had a picture of her the way she was that day,” Wasserman said.
Police pursued more than 200 leads, some outlandish. An anonymous letter to West Miami police from a psychic said, without further details, that Rosario could be found “west of Miami.”
Another, more ominous lead, police hotly pursued. A motorist driving on the Turnpike Monday night, Feb. 27, saw a girl fitting Rosario’s description flee from a car occupied by three men. One chased and caught her, beating her as he dragged her back to the auto.
The motorist followed the car to Boca Raton’s Glades Road Exit. He identified the car as a Chevrolet and caught the last three numbers on the tag: 378.
“I begged Tallahassee,” says Wasserman.
He got what he begged for, a computer printout of all Florida cars bearing that partial tag number. There are 12,000, about 1,000 of them Chevrolets. Detectives began checking them out, focusing first on owners in the Miami to Boca area. They never found the young woman. They do not now believe she was Rosario.
A travel agent tipped police to a mysterious walk-in customer eager to leave the country. Questioned, he was eliminated as a suspect.
SUNDAY, MARCH 4
On Sunday, March 4, as the search for Rosario dragged on, Elizabeth “Beth” Kenyon, 23, a Coral Gables Senior High School teacher, visited her parents in Pompano Beach. Her first year as a teacher had been difficult. Beth taught emotionally disturbed youngsters.
As cheerleading coach, she also attended as many as three basketball games a week. She had saved one suicidal student who slit her wrists. She stayed one night at the Jackson Memorial Hospital Rape Center, comforting a schoolgirl who had been assaulted.
Beth had confided to other teachers that she was disappointed in teaching. That Sunday her wealthy parents noticed bruises Beth had sustained breaking up a schoolyard fight. At about 9 p.m., Beth kissed her dad goodbye and drove back to Miami. After she left, the family watched the 11 o’clock TV news. A picture of a beautiful girl flashed on the screen.
“Hey, that looks just like Beth!” cried her brother, Bill. It was Rosario Gonzalez, the missing model from the Grand Prix. The next day Beth Kenyon disappeared.
Only two hours before, Beth had chatted with Coral Gables Police Officer Clifford “Mitch” Fry, assigned to the school. After classes, she drove off. She did not return to her apartment that night. She was absent from school Tuesday morning. It was unlike her.
An assistant principal asked Officer Fry to check. Her roommate said Beth had never come home. That, too, was unlike her. Beth did not even have her purse with her.
Some months before someone had stolen her handbag at school, and she simply kept her driver’s license and a credit card in her car’s ashtray. Her roommate called the Kenyons at 4:30 p.m. to ask if Beth had spent the night with them. She had not.
Panicky, the parents notified Metro police. An officer took Beth’s name, height, weight, eye color and race. Police handled the report routinely. It would take three days for it to arrive at the missing persons office.
TUESDAY, MARCH 6
The Kenyons began at once that Tuesday, March 6, to telephone all the friends listed in Beth’s address books. One was Christopher Wilder, whom she had dated.
A message was left on his answering machine. Wilder appeared at his contracting firm in Boynton Beach that day, both hands cut and scratched. His secretary and his business partner noticed the injuries. He said that a sliding glass door at his home had been broken during a fight between his dogs. Police later would find broken glass.
They also would see two Miss Florida beauty pageant photographs on his living room wall. Beth was in both.
Miami homicide detectives, unaware of Beth’s disappearance, still searched for Rosario. They re-questioned her sister, Lisette, 18. Perhaps Rosario left home on her own, they theorized. If she had, detectives believed, Rosario would have confided in her younger sister. Lisette Gonzalez was subjected to a grueling four-hour interrogation and polygraph test, administered by Wasserman.
“I was shocked I had to take it,” she says. “He was nasty. He was pretty rough. He cursed at me.”
“Sometimes you have to be tough,” Wasserman says. “I hoped she would understand the reason. It was important that it be resolved.”
He does not recall cursing at her, he says. She passed the test, he says.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 7
By Wednesday, March 7, school officials and scores of friends knew Beth Kenyon had vanished. It was mentioned at a school board meeting. A Miami Herald reporter and a photographer, who both knew her, heard of her disappearance.
Suspecting she might turn up, the Herald did not run a story.
Ron Stone, an insurance man and president of the University of Miami Alumni Association, had dated Beth. He tried to help. He stopped by the Shell service station she patronized at Bird and Douglas roads. The attendant said he had seen her two days before — on Monday afternoon, March 5. She offered a credit card, he recalled, but a man in a hurry, a man who drove a Cadillac, rushed up and paid for her gas with cash.
The attendant said that when he started to wipe her windshield, Beth said, “Forget it, we’ve got to get to the airport.” He remembers the conversation. “How do I look?” Beth asked the man who paid for her gas. “Just fine,” he said. “Who’s going to take the picture?” she asked. “I’m going to,” he said. Both cars drove north.
That day Beth’s father and brother searched for her car in the parking lots at Fort Lauderdale Airport. Officer Fry searched at Miami International. Fry was working on his own time. He called friends in Beth’s address book.
One was Wilder. Fry identified himself and left a message on Wilder’s answering machine. That same day a pair of self-described psychics from Canada arrived at Miami police headquarters and announced that they could help find Rosario. Poring over a map of Dade County, they led Detectives Morin and Sgt. Bobby Cheatam across a large section of west Homestead, pointing out abandoned houses, wells and ditches. They found no sign of Rosario Gonzalez.
Another 30 or 40 psychics also would offer futile leads. Without psychics or police, Beth Kenyon’s father found his daughter’s car himself at Miami International. He found it by telephone.
A clerk checked a log of cars left in long-term parking and told him that Beth’s Chrysler was in Building 5, Level M. Her convertible had been backed into the space. Her New York license tag had been removed from the front. The rear-view mirror was broken off. School books, folders and papers lay on the seat, along with a pair of sunglasses.
THURSDAY, MARCH 8
On Thursday, March 8, Wilder saw his Palm Beach County probation officer. It was a routine visit. He saw a seamstress, leaving his black racing suit to be monogrammed. She happened to be the wife of Thomas Neighbors, 35, a Palm Beach police detective. They chatted.
“He was excited about the race at Sebring,” said Neighbors, who suspected nothing.
That day Wilder also returned the Kenyons’ telephone message. He apologized. “I’ve been gone the past two days,” he said.
The mother told him Beth had not been seen since Monday and asked if Wilder had seen or heard from her. He said he had not seen Beth since a dinner date the month before. He would do anything he could to help, he said. The Kenyons believed him. There was no reason to disbelieve him. They had met Wilder two years before, after a friend introduced him to Beth.
“She would never go out with somebody unless he was a friend of someone she knew,” her mother says. “I used to call her Mother Hubbard.”
Beth had invited Wilder to dinner. They dined on crepes at a Pompano Beach restaurant. The Australian’s manners were impeccable. Beth, a former Orange Bowl princess and part-time model, confided in her mother. She told her when photographers made passes or asked her to pose in the nude.
Wilder, she had said, was a perfect gentleman. The parents say Wilder proposed to Beth after only a few dates.
“Mom, I’ve never even kissed the guy and he asked me to marry him,” Delores Kenyon quotes her daughter. Wilder told Beth, “You’ll grow to love me.” “She was kind of laughing about it, a little amazed,” the mother says. “She told him she’d like to remain friends and as far as I know, they did.”
“He had a way of listening to problems,” her father says. “They could communicate with each other.”
Wilder told Beth’s friends that he loved her; he wanted to take her to Australia and make her “a princess.” He treated her royally. He offered to pay her way through an auto racing school. When she forgot her sunglasses on the way to a race, he stopped at Lord and Taylor’s and chose a $40 pair.
“She told him if he was crazy enough to spend that on sunglasses, she’d take them,” the mother says. Beth had mentioned Wilder the day before she vanished. She had returned a week earlier from a New York visit with the family of ABC sports announcer Jim McKay, whose son she dated. She told her parents she had had a wonderful time, but that while away she had missed a $4,000 modeling job as “Miss Budweiser” at the Grand Prix. Chris Wilder had found the job for her, she said.
That same Thursday the Kenyons hired private detective Kenneth Whitaker Jr., 28, to find their daughter. They paid him $1,000 a day. “My gut feeling,” he says, “was that she would be back by the weekend.”
SATURDAY, MARCH 10
On Saturday, March 10, Beth’s father began to wonder about Chris Wilder. Could he have been the man at the gas station? Wasn’t he a photographer? Didn’t he drive a Cadillac? Kenyon and his son found Beth’s scrapbook. They took it apart and removed a stack of photographs of her boyfriends. Two photos showed Wilder.
Then they took their homemade photo lineup to the Shell station and showed it to the attendant, Richard Norman.
“We did it very professionally,” the father says. “Ricky looked at the picture of Wilder. He yelled, ‘That’s him!’ “
At that instant, midafternoon, March 10, 1984, Beth Kenyon’s father knew in his heart who had taken his daughter.
“We called every police agency from Miami to Palm Beach,” the mother said. “Metro missing persons told us they did not work Saturday. They gave us another number, and another number. They told us to call back Monday when missing persons opened. We talked to three or four agencies in Miami.
“We called Boynton Beach police. They all said it was out of their jurisdiction. We just sat here crying,” the mother said. “Absolutely no one would listen to us.”
In desperation, the father called the sheriff of Niagara County New York, their home, for advice.
“Nobody in the state of Florida will listen to us,” Kenyon pleaded. “He said the sheriff of Palm Beach County was a personal friend,” the mother said. “My husband was crying on the phone.”
Kenyon called Palm Beach. The sheriff was not in.
“A lieutenant or a sergeant listened to our story. He said it was out of his jurisdiction.”
The mother also called Whitaker. His father Kenneth Whitaker Sr., former Miami FBI chief and an attorney, took her call. He decided to call Wilder himself.
“It rang about 14 times before he answered,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker identified himself as the Kenyons’ lawyer and told Wilder he was “conducting an inquiry into Beth’s whereabouts.” “Wilder said he would be glad to call Beth’s mother and reassure her again that he had not seen Beth in weeks.” “What if I told you you were identified as being seen with Beth as recently as Monday?” Whitaker said. “I would categorically deny that. It’s been two or three weeks since I’ve seen her,” Wilder said.
The witnesses, Whitaker continued, “seem relatively sure that you were the one they saw with Beth. We have a picture of you, and you’re the one they picked out.” “I can assure you, Mr. Whitaker, that is not true,” Wilder told him.
Whitaker said Wilder spoke “quickly and clipped, in staccato, machine gun fashion.” He said Wilder agreed to meet with his detective son the following day and to appear in a lineup later in the week. Wilder immediately called Beth’s mother.
“I like you, I like Beth,” he said. “Why is this man (Whitaker) calling me?” “Everybody associated with Beth is being investigated, not only you,” she told him.
Wilder asked to talk to her husband. He was not in. An hour later Wilder called a second time. “Mr. Kenyon,” he said. “I don’t know what this is all about.”
Wilder claimed he was at his Boynton office at the same time he was reportedly seen at the gas station. Kenyon did not believe him. That night Kenyon and his son stalked Wilder in Boynton Beach. They watched his home. They had binoculars — and a .38- caliber revolver.
At one point William Kenyon Jr. slipped through the bushes in the dark to take down the tag number on a trailer in Wilder’s driveway.
“Billy wanted to go in with a gun,” his father said. The son wanted to hold the weapon to Wilder’s head until he told the truth about Beth. His father stopped him. Driving their car, “we slowed down in front of the house,” Kenyon said. “A hand pulled the drapes apart and Wilder looked out. I sped away.”
They returned home and telephoned Gables Officer Fry. It was 11 p.m. “What should we do?” the father asked. “Should I have somebody watch his house?” “Yes,” Fry told him. “You have the money, you have a private detective, he has the manpower. Watch the house.”
They got the Whitakers on a conference call. The senior Whitaker advised against it. He said it made no sense to jump to conclusions.
SUNDAY, MARCH 11
The next morning, Sunday the 11th, the younger Whitaker went to Boynton to keep his appointment. Wilder was not there. His dogs were barking.
Whitaker checked with Palm Beach County police. For the first time, he discovered Wilder’s criminal past: two Palm Beach rape accusations, probation, and kidnapping and sex assault charges set for April trial in Australia. That afternoon Whitaker called Miami homicide. He had a theory. Miami’s Rosario case and Metro’s Kenyon case could have something in common: Christopher Wilder.
“I think it’s about time we sat down and talked, enough of this red tape between departments,” Whitaker said.
At 11 p.m. Miami Homicide Detective Morin called Rosario’s parents. Had they ever heard of Christopher Wilder? They did not recognize the name.
Morin called Metro homicide to talk to the detective handling the Kenyon case. There was none. The case was still stalled in missing persons. No homicide detective was assigned. Earlier that same evening Christopher Wilder, casually dressed in shorts and a pullover, dropped by the Palm Beach County home of police detective Neighbors.
“He seemed to be in a hurry,” Neighbors says. “He brought the patches he wanted sewn on his racing suit for Sebring.”
Neighbors, assigned to the juvenile and missing persons sections, did not know about Wilder’s record — or make any connection to the missing Miami women. Independently, Gables Officer Fry ran a records check on Wilder. And he, too, quickly put the Rosario--Kenyon cases together. Beth, he figured, was in “big trouble.”
It was Monday, March 12. He telephoned Miami Detective Harvey Wasserman. He did not know about Whitaker’s theory. Fry told him about Metro’s Beth Kenyon case — and about Christopher Wilder.
“All of a sudden all the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end and you get a cold chill,” Wasserman said.
Fry took his file to Miami police headquarters. “I could see the lights light up in their eyes.” Fry “was frustrated,” Wasserman said, because Beth Kenyon’s case was “still being handled as a missing person.”
Wasserman called a Palm Beach detective who knew Wilder. He told him the man was capable of anything. Wasserman called Metro. Homicide would be assigned to investigate the Kenyon case, he was told.
“For the first time we felt good,” Wasserman said. “We had something to work. We all felt Christopher Wilder was going to be our person.”
That same day two of Whitaker’s detectives met Beth’s father and brother at Boynton Beach police headquarters. And for the first time they heard that Wilder was under $400,000 bond in the Australian kidnap-rape cases. Outraged, Beth’s brother demanded Wilder’s arrest. Lt. John Hollihan said there was nothing he could do.
“We have no crime here in this town,” Hollihan said. “We had no word from Metro that Beth Kenyon was even missing,” Hollihan says now.
Beth’s brother was so insistent that Kenyon feared his son would be arrested. So the foursome — father, brother and their hired detectives — set up their own surveillance of Wilder’s office.
At 3:30 p.m., Wilder drove up. The Kenyons watched with binoculars from across a field near a car wash. The two detectives, Mike Fonelli, a former IRS agent, and Bill Murphy, an ex-cop, followed him into the office.
Wilder asked why they were questioning him. “Why wouldn’t we, with a record like you’ve got,” one replied.
Wilder’s business partner L.K. Kimbrell provided him with an alibi. He said Wilder was there in the office at 3 p.m. the day Beth disappeared. Later, he would admit to police that he lied because Wilder asked him to. In a lull in their conversation, Kimbrell said: “I understand you found Beth’s car.”
The detectives glared at him in silence. Turning to Wilder, Kimbrell said, “That’s what you told me.” Wilder said Beth’s mother had told him. She did not, she says. That day Wilder, who had access to a dozen cars, bought one more: a 1973 Chrysler New Yorker. It would become his getaway car.
TUESDAY, MARCH 13
Tuesday, March 13, dawned hectic for the Miami detectives. Nelio Valdez, 80, a great-grandfather, claimed he was holding Rosario captive for $10,000 he demanded from her anguished parents. The hoax tied up six to 10 detectives and an FBI agent for at least eight hours.
The old man was arrested, then freed on bond. Police say he was lonely; he “wanted attention.”
That day Beth’s mother called the FBI to plead again for assistance.
“They said since there was no extortion they couldn’t do anything. At 2 p.m. I got a call from an agent. Metro-Dade homicide was finally going to take over the case.”
This was eight days after Beth’s disappearance; four days after the gas station identification. The day was also Christopher Wilder’s 39th birthday. His parents telephoned their greetings from Australia. That same afternoon Wilder consulted his sex therapist, Ginger Bush. He said nothing that alarmed her enough to call police.
At 7 p.m. Detective Ray Nazario issued the first press release on the disappearance of Beth Kenyon. It was brief, with no note of urgency.
“The investigation is being pursued as a missing persons case,” it said. “There is no evidence available at this time to suggest any criminal activity or foul play.”
The release asked anyone with information to call homicide or Crimestoppers Anonymous at 326-TIPS.
“I turned everything over to Metro on the 13th,” Whitaker, the private detective, said. “They told me that they had jurisdiction, they were in charge now. I said, ‘By all means, that’s what we taxpayers pay you for,’ “ he said.
Metro did not conduct the lineup Whitaker wanted.
“I think they could have brought him in for questioning,” Whitaker said. “They could have had a lineup with the eyewitness. Why were they hesitant, if Wilder was willing?”
“You can’t do that,” Nazario says. “First of all Wilder would have to volunteer and I’m certain that he would have contacted an attorney who would have said ‘Forget it.’
And if the station attendant did say, ‘Yes, that’s the guy who paid for Miss Kenyon’s gas,’ what do we do then? Put him in jail for 40 years? There’s no crime in paying for a beautiful girl’s gas. “Keep in mind. There was no crime at this point. No evidence of any crime. We talked to people from her phone directory. We had to verify all the work already done.”
Metro homicide detectives interviewed faculty and students at Gables High. They interviewed the cheerleaders. No one interviewed Christopher B. Wilder.
“I couldn’t accuse him of abduction,” said Nazario. “I couldn’t accuse him of kidnapping. I could bring him back here and put him under the lights, but this is 1984. We don’t do that.
“In a homicide investigation you have to be methodical and discount nothing. In this business you don’t deal only with the deceased but with the life of the potential subject — because he could get the electric chair for first degree murder. There is nothing you can do first. We had no proof that he was a maniac.”
“Nobody had any reason to believe Mr. Wilder was anybody but an honest hardworking businessman known to Elizabeth Kenyon and the family,” said Metro Captain Robert McCarthy.
Beth’s father said Nazario “told me to keep my private investigators out of Boynton,” and warned that he “had the power” to pull Whitaker’s license. “Then he said he wanted to pick Wilder up for questioning, but his superiors wouldn’t let him.”
Nazario denies the statements. Miami homicide did not approach Wilder either.
“It was discussed,” Wasserman says.
He, too, had no evidence of a crime. He thinks Rosario willingly got into Wilder’s Porsche.
“To go to lunch or to go be photographed.” Miami homicide deferred to Metro homicide, believing Metro had the stronger case.
“They apparently had the reins,” Wasserman said. “It was bad enough that Whitaker had alerted Wilder. We shouldn’t circumvent or be that impolite to the other jurisdictions.”
Did Miami ever plan to ask Wilder about Rosario?
“I don’t know,” said Wasserman. “It never came about.”
Why didn’t anyone pick up Wilder for violating his probation?
That possibility, Wasserman says, “was being explored by the FBI.” The FBI denies it.
“We can’t arrest somebody for a probation violation,” FBI spokesman Joe Del Campo said. “That’s not an FBI violation.”
Said Metro’s Nazario: “Just because he was in the Miami Grand Prix, I can’t snatch him and put him in jail. Neither can his probation officer. I have to work within the judicial system.
“Say we put him in jail for probation violation. He would have had to have a hearing, bring all the witnesses. You can’t do all that in one day. So they violate his probation. Now what? He gets his attorney, who gets him out. A hearing is set for two months down the line. Would that have kept him at home?”
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 14
On Wednesday, March 14, the FBI quietly and unofficially entered the case.
“They contacted me and wished to assist us,” said Nazario. “Whatever I requested, they did. They checked 190 leads outside of Dade County.”
The FBI had been pressured. In response to the Kenyons’ pleas, Rep. John J. LaFalce and Sen Alfonse D’Amato, both of New York, and former Wisconsin Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus had insisted the FBI intervene. No one from the FBI spoke to Wilder.
“We didn’t anticipate talking to him at that stage of the game,” said Del Campo.
But why, if investigators suspected Wilder was their man, didn’t they watch him? If they had, could they have prevented subsequent crimes?
“I can’t answer,” said Wasserman. “We’re not going to get into a hindsight thing. What happened happened. I didn’t drive him to it, you didn’t drive him to it. Christopher Wilder decided what he was going to do and he did it.”
In retrospect, both Nazario and Wasserman say they would do nothing differently.
“You can’t look back and post judge these things,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman said Miami police have interviewed at least two dozen women Wilder approached sexually. Nazario said Metro interviewed at least 40.
“He degraded and humiliated so many people, especially young wide-eyed models,” said Wasserman. “It was embarrassing for them to talk to us.”
Wasserman found one “very lucky young girl.” She had met Wilder at the Grand Prix — about an hour before Rosario disappeared.
“She fit to a T the type of woman that attracted Wilder,” he said. “Very young, very wholesome, clean cut, in her teens. He wanted her to go with him, to be photographed. He gave her his card.”
The card is simple and tasteful, creme color, with his name, address and telephone number.
“It didn’t say ‘photographer, race car driver — or rapist,’ “ said Wasserman.
The girl’s older sister arrived and stopped her. Wasserman had a long talk with the younger girl. “I told her if you believe in God, or go to church . . . “
Among the unexplained ironies of the case is a page missing out of Rosario’s personal address book, kept at home, in her room. The page is the one with the W’s.
THURSDAY, MARCH 15
On March 15, a Thursday, Wilder skipped his appointment with his Boynton Beach sex therapist. Instead, he checked into a Howard Johnson’s motel in Daytona Beach. The FBI later placed him on the beach, talking to pretty girls in swimsuits.
One of them, Colleen Osborn, 15, is still missing. That day Sheriff Anthony Villella, of Niagara County, N.Y., arrived in Miami to help his friends, the Kenyons. His father died suddenly and he could not stay.
On Friday, March 16 — six days after the gas station identification of Wilder — the Miami Herald published a news story linking the two missing Miami women to a Boynton Beach photographer, a Grand Prix race car driver with a record of sex crimes. The story did not name Wilder. But to those who knew him well, the identification was obvious. Miami police discussed the story, Wasserman said.
“My department felt we were going to have to start moving faster.”
Still, nobody watched Wilder.
That day Wilder telephoned his partner Kimbrell. He said that he was in Tallahassee and that he had “problems.” Kimbrell urged him to return and “straighten them out.”
That night at 10 p.m. he appeared in Boynton Beach. He cried and told Kimbrell, “I’m not going to jail.”
Had anyone watched Wilder’s home the morning of Saturday, March 17, he would have seen Wilder take his three dogs to a kennel, put his suitcase in his Chrysler, and bid farewell to his business partner. Then he drove off — to a travelogue of terror: 26 days from Florida to California to New Hampshire.
Authorities link him to at least nine more abductions and five murders. Three teen-agers survived; one is still missing.
MONDAY, MARCH 19
On Monday, March 19, Metro police notified Palm Beach County of Wilder’s probation violation at the Grand Prix Feb. 26.
“We didn’t know he was down there,” said Kermit Nelson, a probation supervisor. “If we had known, we could have approached the judge for a warrant.”
On Tuesday, March 20, a Tallahassee coed escaped from Wilder after he kidnapped, raped and tortured her. She identified him by photograph, 24 days before his death in a struggle with New Hampshire troopers.
Police here speculate that the bodies of both Rosario Gonzalez and Beth Kenyon eventually will be found near water.
“Wilder had a water fixation,” says Wasserman.
In a 1981 video-date interview, Wilder spoke of water skiing and surfing. His home, with a Jacuzzi and pool, is fronted on two sides by water.
As America’s most wanted fugitive, he toured Niagara Falls.
“Look near water,” Wasserman says. “Police don’t find bodies. Bodies find police. The hunter, the bird watcher, the motorist whose car breaks down . . . “