June 15, 2018

Christopher Wilder: The Cross Country Killer

Ask any true crime "fan" who Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, The Green River Killer, John Wayne Gacy are and you'll get an answer.  Christopher Wilder, while just as heartless and cruel, is a forgotten killer in the annals of crime.

Born in 1945 to an American naval officer and Australian woman in Sydney, he barely survived his birth (he was reportedly given last rites by a priest) and then nearly drowned in a swimming pool two years later.  At the age of three, a sickly child, he suffered convulsions that led to fainting spells.

Despite his shaky health, his childhood appeared to have been average until his teens.  He started peeking in windows and in 1962, at the age of seventeen, he participated in the gang rape of a teenage girl on the beach in Sydney.  Pleading guilty, Wilder received a year of probation to be combined with counseling and electroshock therapy.  Rather than helping him, it seems the shock therapy fueled his violent fantasies.  He began to foster a need to dominate women and hold them against their will.

At 23, Wilder married but his new bride left him after only week, once she discovered his dark fantasies.  She had also discovered that one of Wilder's passions -- photography -- led him to have photographs of naked women in his briefcase.

In 1969, now divorced, he headed for Florida, settling in Boynton Beach.  The building boom led him to a large economic success, making a fortune in real estate and construction.  He bought himself a nice home, boat, and cars, began racing and developing his photography.  From the outset, Christopher Wilder looked every bit the successful playboy.

In 1971, he landed in hot water again.  This time he was turned in to local authorities for attempts to get various women to pose nude for him.  He received a fine.  He kept his nose clean briefly but he simply couldn't stay out of trouble.  He forced a high school student to perform oral sex on him in a house he was renovating. She turned him in, resulting in him being taken to court.  Wilder told the judge that he was masturbating at least twice a week to the image of raping a girl and did not think what he had done was wrong.   Doctors that examined him believed he was not safe in an unstructured environment and needed supervised treatment.   Efforts to make a deal fell through and the case went to trial.  The jury, somewhat amazingly, acquitted Wilder.

In 1974, Wilder approached two girls in a shopping center and, posing as a photographer, attempted to entice them into a "modeling job" with him.  One girl agreed; he drugged and raped her in his truck.  He was allowed to plea bargain those charges down to probation with therapy.  Claiming he suffered from blackouts, the sex therapist Wilder was required to see believed that he was making progress.

In 1982, on a trip home to  Australia, he was accused of grabbing two 15 year old girls and forcing them to pose nude on a beach.  He bound them into subservient positions and masturbated on them before letting them go.  Wilder's parents posted his hefty bond and Wilder was allowed to return to Florida to await trial.  That trial would be postponed multiple times before the final date was set for April of 1984.

Rosario Gonzalez
On February 26, 1984,  an aspiring model by the name of Rosario Gonzalez vanished.  Rosario was 20, a beautiful girl who was working a temporary job distributing aspirin samples at the Miami Grand Prix racetrack.  Rosario reportedly knew Christopher Wilder and had posed for a book cover with Wilder as the photographer.  Witnesses recounted that she left with an older man around noon.  She never returned; she didn't even pick up her paycheck for the day's work.  Wilder was at the race that day, racing a Porsche 911.

On March 5, 1984, Elizabeth Kenyon vanished.  Beth, 23, a Miss Florida finalist and former Orange Bowl Princess, taught emotionally disturbed students but hoped to return to modeling in the future.  She too knew Christopher Wilder; she had dated him.  She was close to her parents and drove from her home in Coral Gable to theirs in Pompano Beach every weekend.  Her last visit with them would be on March 4, where they had seen a news report on television about the missing Rosario Gonzalez.  The following day, she went to work as usual.  The school's security patrol officer watched her climb into her car and drive away.  He was the last person, save her killer, to see Beth Kenyon.

Elizabeth Kenyon
The Kenyon family hired a private investigator to search for Beth and the investigator found that Beth had recently gone out with three different men - - one being her former boyfriend, Christopher Wilder.  Wilder had even proposed marriage to Beth but she turned him down, feeling their 17 year age difference too much.   As far as Beth knew, they had remained friends.  In fact, she had told her parents on March 4 that Wilder had gotten her several modeling jobs.

Wilder claimed that he had not seen Beth in over a month and the case seemed to stall before two attendants at a local gas station where Beth frequently purchased gas recalled seeing her on March 5.  She was filling up when a man in a gray Cadillac drove up behind her and paid for her gas.  They identified the man as Christopher Wilder.  According to the two witnesses, Beth stated the pair was headed for the airport, although she had not packed nor told anyone she was leaving.  Her car would later be found at the Miami International Airport.

The Kenyons' investigator also spoke with authorities in Boynton Beach and found that Wilder had a lengthy rap sheet for sexual offenses.   The noose was beginning to tighten around Wilder.

March 13, 1984 was his 39th birthday.  On March 16, the Miami Herald reported that a wealthy contractor and racecar driver was suspected in the disappearances of Rosario and Beth.  He kept his appointment with his counselor that day, who asked him if he had anything to do with the disappearances.  He denied it.   On March 18, he dropped off his beloved dogs at a kennel and withdrew close to $50,000 from the bank.   He told his business partner he was being framed and would not go to jail.  Then he climbed into his car, a 1973 Chrysler New Yorker, and took off on a trip that would result in death for many women.

Terry Ferguson
On March 18, 1984, 21 year old Terry Ferguson had gone shopping at a mall close to home in Satellite Beach, roughly two hours from where Wilder had fled.  When Terry didn't return home, her stepfather located her car in the mall parking lot.  About an hour after she had been last seen at the mall, a tow truck was called to a state road by Canaveral Groves to pull a car out of sand.  Wilder, claiming he had gotten lost, had placed the call.  He paid for the tow with his business partner's credit card, which he had stolen.

On March 20, 1984, Wilder had moved on to Tallahassee, where he had grabbed 19 year old Linda Grover.  Like Terry Ferguson, Linda had been shopping close to Florida State when Wilder approached her.  He conned her into accompanying him to his car by telling the pretty blonde he could get her on the cover of Vogue.  Once at his vehicle, he clubbed her and headed north, into Georgia.  He pulled off once to bind her hands and tape her mouth.  At another stop, he placed her in the trunk of his car.  In the town of Bainbridge, Wilder checked into a motel and removed Linda from the trunk, wrapped in a blanket.  Once inside, he glued her eyes shut, shocked her with electrical wires, raped and throttled her.  Linda managed to get into the motel bathroom, where she locked the door and began beating on the walls and screaming, hoping to awaken other guests.  Panicked, Wilder grabbed his belongings and beat a hasty retreat, leaving nothing of himself behind.  Terrified, Linda Grover waited for over half an hour before she would even venture out.  She then wrapped herself in a bedsheet, as her abductor had also taken her clothes, and hurried to the manager's office, where the police were called.

Linda Grover proved to be an excellent witness, as she remembered her kidnapper's car and his appearance perfectly.  As Wilder had used his own Florida driver's license to register at the motel, he was quickly identified.  An APB was put out immediately for both Wilder and his vehicle.

Despite the quick action, Wilder slipped out of Georgia and headed west.

Terry Walden
On March 21, 1984, Terry Walden, a 24 year old nurse, wife and mother from Beaumont, Texas, informed her husband that an older, bearded man had approached her and asked if she would model for him.  He pressed her, asking if she would go to his car to see samples of his work.  She refused and firmly told him to leave her alone.  Two days later, on March 23, Terry vanished.  A friend had seen her around 11:30 that morning, at the student union on campus where she took classes, but Terry was not seen after that.  Her orange Mercury Cougar was also missing from the parking lot.

Also on March 23, a female body was found in a snake-infested canal 70 miles west of Satellite Beach.  It would take dental records to identify it as that of Terry Ferguson.  The local newspaper reported the finding and a witness came forward saying that she had seen Terry talking to an older man the day she disappeared.  Looking through mug shots, and without hesitation, she picked out Christopher Wilder as the man she saw.

Suzanne Logan
On March 25, 1984, Wilder abducted 21 year old Suzanne Logan from the Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City.  Suzanne's husband, whom she had dropped off at work on her way to the shopping center, reported her missing when she didn't turn up for an appointment or to pick him up.  Suzanne was driven more than 180 miles north into Kansas, where he checked into the I-35 Inn in Newton.  As with Wilder's previous victims, she was tortured and raped.  He also cut her long blonde hair, leaving the locks in the motel room's trashcan.  After breakfast on the  morning of March 26,  Wilder drove to Milford Reservoir, just outside of Junction City, Kansas, where he stabbed Suzanne to death and left her body under a tree.  She would be found an hour after her death; some of her clothing had been removed and her face was badly bruised.  Suzanne wouldn't be identified for a week.

On that same day, March 26, 1984, the body of Terry Walden was discovered floating facedown in a canal.  She was fully dressed, tied with rope and her mouth covered by tape.  She had been stabbed multiple times.  There was no evidence of sexual assault.

Forty detectives were assigned to the case and by this point, the FBI had also entered the search for Wilder.

They found he had stayed at a motel near Beaumont, where Terry Walden went out, and a credit card in Wilder's partner's name was used for payment.  Wilder's abandoned Chrysler, without plates, was found; the assumption was that he was traveling in Terry Walden's Cougar.  They had a description of the car and a plate number but Wilder had a head start.  And they didn't know where he was headed.

Sheryl Bonaventura
On March 29, Wilder was in Grand Junction, Colorado when he spotted 18 year old Sheryl Bonaventura at a mall.  The pretty blonde teen, who had already done some modeling, was chatted up by Wilder and likely an easy mark for him.  Like the others, she was simply gone after speaking with him; her car remained locked and in the parking lot.

Unlike his previous victims, though, Sheryl was seen dining with Wilder in Silverton, where they told staff they were headed to Vegas with a quick stop in Durango.   On March 30, he and Sheryl were seen at the Four Corners Monument before he checked into a motel in Page, Arizona.

On March 31, Wilder was back in Utah, where he shot and stabbed Sheryl Bonaventura to death, leaving her body near the Kanab River.

Michelle Korfman
On April 1, 1984, Wilder arrived in Las Vegas and wasted no time heading to the Meadows Mall, where 17 year old Michelle Korfman was competing in a Seventeen magazine cover model contest.   Another photographer caught a photo of Wilder watching Michelle intently, with a broad smile on his face.  Witnesses would recall Michelle leaving with him, as well as Wilder approaching other women throughout the day with his modeling propositions.  Some of those he approached had agreed to meet him later in front of Caesar's Palace; he never showed.  Michelle's car was found in the center parking lot but Michelle was gone.

It's not known exactly when he killed Michelle Korfman but he disposed of her body near a rest stop by the Angeles National Forest in southern California.

On April 4, 1982, Wilder noticed 16 year old Tina Risico at a shopping mall in Torrance.  Tina had  just filled out a job application at Hickory Farms and he approached her as she left the store.  He told her he was scouting for models for a billboard and offered her $100 if she would pose for him.   She agreed and accompanied him away from the mall for her "test shots."  He took some photos before she told him she had to go home, at which time he became angry and pulled a gun on her.  He bound her, put her in Terry Walden's car, which he was still driving, and headed south to El Centro, just outside of San Diego and not far from the Mexican border.   He had already acquired a motel room, where he took Tina, tied her to the bed and assaulted her.  Unlike the unfortunate females before her, however, Wilder did not kill her.  A problematic childhood and sexual assault had left Tina more robotic after Wilder's assault, giving him no hysteria and panic to feed on.  It's possible he may also have considered that the young girl could help him to acquire other victims.

Tina was reported missing almost immediately.  The manager at the Hickory Farms in Torrance had seen Wilder loitering outside the store while she was inside; the manager identified Christopher Wilder from a mug shot.

By now, Wilder's image and dirty deeds were being reported on television and in the newspapers and the FBI had added him to their Ten Most Wanted list.  Knowing he had to get out of California, he headed east.  The two drove through Prescott, Arizona; Taos, New Mexico; Joplin, Missouri; and Chicago, Illinois.  In Merrillville, Indiana, he would spot his next victim.

Dawnette Wilt
Dawnette Wilt, like Tina Risico, was 16 years old and filling out a store application at the Southlake Mall when Tina approached her and, identifying herself as "Tina Marie Wilder," asked her to step outside the store to speak to the manager.  Wilder was waiting with his gun; he forced Dawnette into the car where, after putting tape on her eyes and mouth, he repeatedly assaulted her in the backseat while Tina drove east.   The trio would stop in Ohio for the night, where Wilder would terrorize Dawnette further, before driving across Pennsylvania and into New York the next day, stopping at Niagara Falls.  That night, Dawnette was once again repeatedly assaulted and both girls were threatened with death if they attempted to escape or make a sound.

It was while they were staying in the Niagara Falls area that Wilder saw a televised plea from Tina's mother for her daughter's safe return.  He bundled both his hostages in the car and directed Tina to drive to Penn Yan, stopping outside some woods.  He marched Dawnette into the woods, where he attempted to suffocate her but the girl struggled too much.  He then stabbed her once in the front and once in the back.  She pretended to be dead while he returned to the car and had Tina drive away.  Once she knew he was gone, she dragged herself to the roadside where a passing motorist saw her and called for help.

Dawnette Wilt told the police that Wilder was headed for the Canadian border in Terry Walden's car and had told her and Tina that he would not be taken alive.

Beth Dodge
Christopher Wilder, as always, was still hunting for victims.  On April 12, 1984 at Eastview Mall in Victor, New York, he laid eyes on 33 year old Beth Dodge, who was getting out of a gold Pontiac Trans-Am.  He had Tina persuade the woman to come over to their car, where he took her keys and forced her inside the Cougar.  He had Tina follow him in Beth Dodge's Trans-Am.

After a short drive, Wilder pulled in to a deserted gravel pit, where he had Beth get out of the vehicle and then shot her twice in the back.  The Mercury Cougar was then abandoned, with Wilder and Tina leaving the scene in Beth's car.

Wilder directed Tina to drive to Boston - - Logan Airport, more specifically where he told his captive that he was going to send her home.  After nine harrowing days, he bought Tina a ticket to Los Angeles and set her free.  So traumatized was the teen, she waited for him to shoot her in the back as she walked away to board the plane.  She told no one at the airport or on the plane of her ordeal. When she landed in L.A., she caught a cab to a boutique, where she purchased lingerie with money Wilder gave her.  She told the clerk that Wilder had cut her hair to resemble Jennifer Beals, the star of Flashdance.  She was spotted by friends, who took her to the police.  She told the police that Wilder had expressed a desire that she not be with him when he died.

Wilder, meanwhile, seemed to know that his time was running out.  After dropping off Tina Risico, he once again headed north toward Canada.

On Friday, April 13, Wilder attempted to grab another victim when he saw a 19 year old whose car had broken down on the side of the road.  He offered to give her a lift to a service station; when he began passing available service stations, she quickly realized what was up, threw open the door and leapt out of the car.  After she escaped, he threw out all of his belongings, including his camera and items of his victims' he had kept.  Then he drove into New Hampshire.

It was in Colebrook, about 12 miles from the Canadian border, that two state troopers spotted him at a service station.  They either recognized the car from BOLOs or Wilder's supposed erratic behavior.  His tan definitely indicated he was not from the area.  Although he had shaved off his beard, the troopers believed he resembled the FBI's wanted posters and so they pulled in.

New York Times article with photo of Wilder in death
When the troopers called out to him, Wilder dove into the Trans-Am, reaching for the .357 Magnum he kept handy.  A scuffle ensued with two shots ringing out.  Trooper Leo Jellison, who had jumped on Wilder's back, attempting to obtain the weapon, was hit as the first bullet passed through Wilder's body and into Jellison's chest.  The second shot decimated Christopher Wilder's heart, killing him instantly.  Leo Jellison would survive and recover.

Forty-seven days after Rosario Gonzalez disappeared and twenty-six days after his cross country spree began, it was over.

Found in Wilder's possessions when he died was the .357 Magnum, which would kill him, rolls of duct tape, handcuffs, rope, the electrical cord he had designed to shock his victims, a sleeping bag, his business partner's credit card and a copy of the 1963 book The Collector.  Written by John Fowles, it tells the story of a man who captures and imprisons a pretty young girl, keeping her in his basement and believing that because he treats her well, he will eventually win her love and loyalty.  Wilder had been so obsessed with The Collector, he had practically memorized in in its entirety.

Christopher Wilder's body was returned to Florida, where it was cremated.  Many questions remained though.  Did Wilder commit suicide?  Was he trying to escape?  Where were his victims that had not been found?  And how many victims did he truly take?

On May 3, 1984, the body of Sheryl Bonaventura was discovered under a tree in Utah.

On May 11, 1984, the body of Michelle Korfman was discovered.  She was so badly decomposed that it took a month to make a firm identification.

At his death, Wilder left an estimate reported to be somewhere between $2 and $7 million.  In 1986, a court appointed arbitrator ruled that the balance of the estate, after taxes, was to be divided between the families of his victims.

Rosario Gonzalez and Beth Kenyon have never been found.

Marianne and Christine
Over the years, Wilder's name has been connected to cases of other missing and murdered women.  It's impossible to say how many disappearances and homicides he's responsible for but it's entirely likely that he could have begun killing before February of 1984.

On January 11, 1965, Marianne Schmidt and Christine Sharrock, both 15, were murdered at Wanda Beach in Sydney, Australia.  They were discovered the following day, partially buried in the sand.  The girls had been bludgeoned, stabbed and slashed and their killer had cut their clothing and attempted to rape both.  These murders came just over two years after Wilder had been charged in the gang rape.  He was one of three potential suspects in the killings and he closely resembled the sketch of the suspect.  The murders remain officially unsolved.

Mary Opitz
On January 16, 1981, 17 year old Mary Opitz went to the Edison Mall in Fort Myers, Florida with her mother and brother.  Growing tired, she had grabbed a bag of pretzels and headed to the parking lot, to wait in the car for her family.  Roughly an hour later, her mother returned to the car to discover packages Mary had been carrying, and the bag of pretzels, sitting on the trunk.   Police initially believed Mary to be a runaway, although her family disputed this from the beginning.

On February 11, 1981, Mary Elizabeth Hare, an 18 year old who eerily resembled Mary Opitz, disappeared from the same parking lot at the Edison Mall.  Like the case of Mary Opitz, no clues were left behind.  Mary Elizabeth Hare's car was undisturbed.

In June of 1981, Mary Elizabeth Hare's body was located in a field in a relatively undeveloped area of Lehigh Acres, Florida.  She was fully clothed and had been stabbed in the back.

The murder of Mary Elizabeth Hare remains unsolved and Mary Opitz is still missing.

In May of 1982, two sets of skeletal remains were unearthed in Loxahatchee, Florida.  The bodies, both females, were found close to property that Wilder owned in Palm Beach County.  One woman had been dead for several months at the time of discovery.  The other victim, found in a green nylon bag, had been dead for anywhere from one to three years and her fingertips were missing -- sliced off by her killer in a probable attempt to keep her from being identified.  It would take just over 30 years but in July of 2013, she was identified as 17 year old Tina Marie Beebe.

Shari Lynne Ball

On June 27, 1983, 20 year old Shari Lynne Ball left her home in Boca Raton, Florida, telling her mother she was going to New York to model.  Two days later, she called her boyfriend to say she was in Virginia.  That was the last contact Shari had with her friends and family.  On October 29, 1983 a decomposed female body, partially sunk in swamp water, was discovered in Shelby, New York.  No identification was found and cause of death could not be determined.  She was buried as a Jane Doe.  In 2014, after the body was exhumed to be tested against other missing woman, it was finally identified as Shari Lynne Ball.

Tammy Lynn Leppert
On July 6, 1983, 18 year old Tammy Lynn Leppert disappeared some time after 11:30 a.m. from Cocoa Beach, Florida, after getting into a heated argument with a male friend.  Tammy was already an established model and an actress, having appeared in such films as Little Darlings, Scarface, and Spring Break.  It was after shooting of Spring Break had concluded and she had gone to a weekend party by herself that she returned home "different."  She left the set of Scarface unexpectedly after four days and was reportedly fearful for her life in the days leading up to her disappearance, as well as possibly pregnant.  Tammy's mother, a modeling agent, filed a wrongful death suit against Wilder before his death; she later dropped the case, citing that she never truly believed her daughter was Wilder's victim.  Tammy has never been found and remains missing.

Broward County Jane Doe
On February 18, 1984, the body of a young woman was found face-down in a canal in Broward County, Florida.  She was somewhere between the ages of 18 and 35, had curly blonde or strawberry blonde hair, hazel eyes and a gap between her front teeth.  It was estimated she was strangled to death around February 16, 1984.  She remains unidentified today, known only as "Broward County Jane Doe."

Colleen Orsborn
On March 15, 1984, 15 year old Colleen Orsborn left her Daytona Beach home and vanished.  Wilder was staying in a motel in Daytona Beach on the same day.  Despite intense searches, Colleen could not be located.  In 2001, Colleen's brother received an anonymous letter detailing where her body could be found.  The letter was postmarked from Manchester, N.H.  No body was found where instructed and the lead turned out to be a dead end.  In 2007, there was a DNA match on a body that had been discovered in April of 1984 in Orange County, Florida.  The body, which had been partially buried near a lake, had been unidentified for more than thirty years before it was determined that Colleen had been found.

Wilder, at the Meadows Mall in Las Vegas, immediately prior to abducting Michelle Korfman

After Wilder had gone on the run, some of his employees in Florida came forward to say that he was the best boss they ever had - - a nice, understanding man who always paid his employees on time and what they were worth.  It's hard to marry the image of a kind, generous business owner with a vicious rapist, torturer and murderer but it appears that Christopher Wilder had two sides to his personality.  Even Beth Kenyon, who went missing in March of 1984, after dating Wilder and turning down his marriage proposal, had told her parents that he was a real gentleman.

Christopher Wilder, unlike other killers, including Ted Bundy, did not have the same sense of self-preservation.  Many, including Officer Leo Jellison who attempted to apprehend Wilder and was shot in the process, believe that the killer took his own life rather than face prison time and/or the death penalty.  Others believe that Wilder was going for the gun to shoot his way out of the situation and would have fled.  Tina Risico's statements seems to indicate that Wilder knew his freedom was coming to an end and he was going to choose how he would end his story.  Controlling to the very last.

His death, while sparing many from a public trial in which their daughters and loved ones' last moments would be painfully rehashed, also kept other families from knowing where their daughters were.   Had Wilder been taken alive, would he have talked?  I think it's possible that he would have been like Bundy, discussing his crimes, if at all, in a vague third person account before possibly disclosing details only when his own life hung in the balance.

Christopher Wilder is an enigma.  Like Ted Bundy, he was attractive to women, charming, intelligent, and successful.  He managed to sweet talk his victims exactly where he wanted them; appearing well-dressed and congenial, like Bundy, they trusted him until the monster awoke.

Wilder traveled great distances; although Bundy did so to widen his victim pool, Wilder took to the road because he knew authorities were on his trail.

He seemed to have multiple methods of death -- he would bludgeon, strangle, shoot, and stab -- although his victim type rarely waivered.  Some of his victims were taken due to proximity, opportunity and appearance; some, like Beth Dodge, merely as a means to an end (in her case, for her vehicle.)

Unlike Bundy, who once he had a victim firmly in his grasp, under his control and assaulted, he never intentionally let go, Christopher Wilder not only kept one -- Tina Risico -- alive but gave her spending money and put her on a plane back home.  Why?  Why demonstrate near compassion for one victim and show only cold, cruel brutality to others?  Was it her non-reaction to his assaults and promises of being killed?  Or did he see something in Tina that he recognized in himself?  A painful childhood or a question of where to fit in and belong?  Only Wilder could know, if he was even capable of recognizing it.

Did something happen to Wilder when he was forced to undergo shock treatments, which merged sexual desire and violence?  Did it start much earlier -- when he was having convulsions at three or a near drowning at two?  Or was he simply born void of conscience?

Headlines after Wilder's death; the male figure in the far left of the picture was Wilder
Photo:  Murderpedia

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