When Christopher Wilder left a victim for dead beside a country road in Barrington 25 years ago, it was the beginning of the end of his cross-country crime spree. Local people involved with the case recall those days in April 1984, when communication systems were different, but news still traveled at a fairly fast clip.
Twenty-five years ago, Yates County was thrust into the national spotlight when serial killer Christopher Wilder left one of several victims of his cross-country spree along the side of the road in Barrington.
“What kind of hick town is this?” was the reaction of a national news reporter who was sent to cover the shocking story.
In this rural area where people often say not much happens, residents were struck with fear that a serial killer could come so close. Many were still in shock over the recent murder of Elizabeth Barley of Dundee.
Her decapitated body was discovered March 10 on the railroad tracks on the Dundee-Glenora Road. Her husband, Henry Barley, Jr. was charged with the crime on March 22.
A killer’s story
Christopher Bernard Wilder was born in Australia on March 13, 1945 to a U.S. Naval officer and his Australian wife. He was a sickly child and almost died several times.
Wilder eventually moved to Florida permanently, where he quickly accumulated wealth in the real estate and contracting businesses. The bachelor was a “chick magnet,” attracting young women with a posh bachelor pad, fast sports cars and lots of money to throw around.
Before his final crime spree, Wilder was arrested several times for sex offenses and assault. He underwent psychiatric treatment, including shock treatment. In 1977, a psychologist deemed him unsafe except in a structured environment.
Wilder managed to stay one step ahead of the law, while luring young women by posing as a photographer.
Assuming the name of David Pierce, he approached girls on the beach, at shopping malls and other public places, offering to take their picture and make them famous. He would later earn the nickname “The Beauty Queen Killer.”
The second week in March 1984, teacher Elizabeth Kenyon, who was a 1982 Orange Bowl Princess and finalist for Miss Florida, disappeared. The week before, two Miami area girls had disappeared. The trail was beginning to form.
Eventually, ties to abductions and murders led to the identification of Wilder as a suspect. He traveled thousands of miles cross country to the western states and finally to the northeast. By April 8, Wilder made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
In California, on April 4, the smooth talker picked up 16-year-old Tina Marie Risico. It was Tina who approached 15-year-old Dawnette Sue Wilt in Gary, Ind. near a mall, offering her a modeling job on April 10.
Wilt was put in the car at gunpoint by Wilder and the horror spree continued.
After Wilder and Risico stopped and took pictures at Niagara Falls, the night was spent at the Exit 45 Motel near Rochester.
Learning he was a wanted man, Wilder took to the back roads. He left Wilt to die in Barrington after stabbing her in the chest once and the back twice. But she was alive and managed to get up and walk into the road where Charles Laursen found her and took her to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hospital in Penn Yan.
Wilt was treated for several days for severe trauma and blood loss. Despite her injuries, Wilt was able to give Yates County Sheriff’s Investigators and the FBI good information about Wilder and her days in captivity.
After leaving Wilt by the side of Welker Road, Wilder returned to the Rochester area, stopping at Eastview Mall to find a new car.
Again, it was Risico who lured Beth Dodge from her vehicle. Wilder took Dodge and ordered Risico to drive the other car. He shot Dodge to death in a near-by gravel pit.
Despite, the huge manhunt begun in New York State, Wilder managed to get to Boston, where he put Risico on a plane back to California, saying he wanted to die alone.
On Friday April 13, Wilder headed north, almost to the Canadian border, dropping some of his belongings and those of victims along the way. He stopped in another small town, Colebrook, N. H. where two state police officers recognized Wilder. In an ensuing struggle, Wilder was killed and a trooper wounded.
Sheriff Ron Spike’s Memories
“I will never forget that day,” Spike says.
On the morning of April 12, 1984 Spike, who was Chief Deputy at the time, was in Batavia with Dale Mitchell. The two were attending a conference on motorcycle gangs. While on break, Spike picked up a USA TODAY and read the story on 2A about Christopher Wilder, a serial killer, who was last seen in California.
“I thought, wow he’s something - a race car driver and living the life of luxury,” says Spike.
The FBI seemed to think he was moving fast. But the Yates County Office had not received any posters, as Wilder was put on the Most Wanted List. Spike says 25 years ago, communications were not what they are today.
As fate would have it, not 20 minutes later, the two officers received a call from Yates County dispatch. “You’d better get back here quick. A young girl was left to die by the side of the road in Barrington and was taken to S&S Hospital with stab wounds,” the office dispatcher informed them.
“I just knew it was that Wilder! A chill went down my spine,” recalls Spike.
Spike says they ran red lights and sirens all the way back to Penn Yan and reflects, “And the funny thing is we may have crossed paths with Wilder, who was heading for Victor.” An All Points Bulletin was issued.
Spike says he was immediately involved in a news conference. “I ended up holding up the Wanted Poster for all the major networks and many publications. We had a living witness to Wilder’s crimes.”
According to Spike, Wilt was guarded around the clock during her week’s stay at S&S. It was mostly to protect her from the media. Few people were aware that Dr. Robert Jensen had his son come and sneak Dawnette out for a little ride, just to get her away for a while. The staff doctors were very protective of Wilt and limited questioning until she was stable.
“I literally spent hours with Wilt, along with FBI agents doing a criminal profile of Wilder,” recalls Spike. Sheriff Jan Scofield was in charge and everyone in the department was pressed into service from investigating the crime scene to hospital vigil.
Following the abduction and murder of Dodge in Victor, the New York State Police became more involved.
On April 13 Spike remembers being at Troop E Headquarters for a joint news conference. He was talking with authorities in Torrance. Calif. where Risico had just been found. Captain Gerald Willower of Troop E was also on the phone, receiving news that Wilder was dead.
Spike says he kept in touch with Wilt for a while. Then the letters stopped. He still wonders why Wilder let Risico go and how Wilder happened to pick Yates County.
Laursen found her
“It was pure luck,” says Charles Laursen. While working for DelRossa Ford, he went to the wrong Martin farm on Welker Road. When he turned his vehicle around he saw Dawnette Wilt on the side of the road where she had come out of the woods.
Laursen said he quickly covered her up with his coat. “I didn’t know what happened but she was bleeding. She didn’t talk much on the way to the hospital.” He surmised she was in shock, but conscious.
Laursen found out the attacker had returned to the scene once, so he told her to get down. “It didn’t take long to get her to the hospital,” he says.
Laursen said he was quickly taken back to the scene by the sheriff, so officers could begin gathering evidence.
Laursen said he was glad to help. He received a plaque as Kiwanis “Man of the Year,” presented by his uncle, Floyd Tillman. He has never had any further contact with Wilt. “It was a long time ago and just as well to leave it alone. I’m just glad I got lost that day,” Laursen says.
Thoughts from Jack Gleason
“I remember being one of the first to question Dawn Wilt. It was a while before the doctors allowed us to talk to her. She knew the man’s name was Chris, but not his last name,” recalls Undersheriff Jack Gleason, an investigator at the time.
“When an FBI agent and I talked to her, we asked if there was anything distinguishable or unusual about him. She recalled a long scar on his leg. Wilder’s description included a seven inch scar on one leg,” he says.
Gleason also worked on the crime scene in Barrington. Investigators took footprints of a pointed toe and a distinctive heel. When a picture of the deceased killer was wired back on April 13, there was a leg sticking out of the car, wearing a pointed-toe cowboy boot.
Gleason remembers working with an FBI agent named Jordan. In a southern drawl Jordan asked him, “You all ever have a media blitz here before? Well you’re going to have one now!”
Gregg Morris, publisher of The Chronicle -Express in the 1990s, was general manager of the Berlin, N.H. newspaper in 1984. He was one of the first members of the media to descend on the small town of Colebrook, N.H. (pop. 2323) to cover the serial killer’s demise on that fateful Friday the 13th.
But Morris says he doesn’t recall specific details about the scene of the shooting.
Words from the Editor
At the time Loree (Martin) MacKerchar was editor of The Chronicle-Express. In an editorial she wrote about how the big time media went to any means to gain access to Wilt.
She remembers the community being fearful, but then stepping up to help Wilt and her family. Press conferences included many large newspapers.
“It has been reported that some TV reporters rented a delivery van and used phony vouchers to attempt to enter the hospital through the kitchen area. A national tabloid reporter actually blasted the entire community in The Chronicle-Express office, simply because he was not granted an interview. Still others offered her monetary compensation,” she wrote.
In a second editorial, she thanked Wilt for leading police to Wilder, law enforcement for their work, and the community for their outpouring of love for the victim.
At least eight murders were directly attributed to Wilder.
Several others remain unsolved. He was also a strong suspect in the Wanda Beach murders of two girls in Australia in 1965.
He was the subject of a book, movie and TV program.
A 1986 made-for-television movie starred Gerald McRaney as Wilder.
Christopher Wilder is always included in lists of America’s most notorious serial killers .
And for a brief time, he put Penn Yan in the spotlight.