Christopher Bernard Wilder became known as “The Beauty Queen Killer” during a frenzied 1984 spree, where he criss-crossed the U.S., luring young women into his fancy cars and dangling the clichéd promise of work as a model, if they would just allow him to take their photographs.
Some took the bait. Others, he took by force. On a murderous journey that took him from Florida to California and back east again, Wilder abducted and killed at least nine women, most of whom he violated sexually and sometimes tortured with electrocution, before beating, strangling, stabbing or shooting them. At least three young women escaped, one after being left for dead.
And that was just the tip of a very deep iceberg. “For his entire adult life, Wilder fooled everybody, from teachers to psychologists to policemen,” says Andrew Byrne, a Sydney-based journalist who in 2019 published “The Pretty Girl Killer,” an examination of Wilder’s suspected and known crimes committed over two decades—first in Australia, where he came of age, and then in the U.S.
Wilder’s bloody journey is all the more tragic, considering the missed opportunities to stop him over nearly 20 years. Before that final reign of terror, which had 500 FBI agents hunting him down, there had been run-ins with the law in Australia starting in the early 1960s, along with multiple occasions during the 1970s in Florida, where he had reinvented himself as a playboy real estate investor. In several assault cases, he was given a slap on the wrist, or set free after charges were dismissed.
“There were interrogation interviews [with] Wilder after various arrests, and he would hold his hand up straight away, and his story would be that he had a problem and he needed help. He [said he] was really thankful that he’d been arrested, because now he could get that help,” Byrne, a former news desk editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, tells A&E Real Crime. “Fast forward a few months to the court date, and he’s sitting there in his crisp white shirt, represented by an expensive lawyer,” Byrne says. “And the whole thing’s flipped. It’s a different story that’s coming out.”
Having repeatedly avoided jail time, Wilder had made his way onto the FBI’s Most Wanted list when he committed suicide on April 13, 1984, as authorities closed in on him in a New Hampshire village.
Link to an Infamous Australian Crime?
Wilder was born in 1945 to an American naval war hero, raised in the States and then brought back to Ryde, in Sydney’s northwest, as a teenager. His first significant crime came at 17, when he participated in the gang rape of a 13-year-old girl.
He was sentenced to one year’s probation, with counseling. There are suggestions, though no proof, that he was also prescribed electroshock therapy, then a trend in criminal “rehabilitation.”
In 1968, Wilder married Christine Paluch, whom he had met the year before on Sydney’s Palm Beach. Detectives investigating the sexual assault of a student nurse approached the couple on Valentine’s Day 1969, and Wilder owned up to the crime on the spot.
The victim refused to testify, and the case was dropped. But it ended the marriage. Paluch had found pictures of naked women among Wilder’s possessions, along with underwear that wasn’t hers. Less than a week after the admission, she and her mother came forward to Sydney police with their suspicion that Wilder could be the “Wanda Beach Killer.”
The unsolved Wanda Beach killings are a raw mark on Australia’s national psyche—when Australians say “Wanda,” they’re usually referring in shorthand to the violent January 11, 1965 deaths of schoolgirls Marianne Schmidt and Christine Sharrock. Since the slayings, Wilder has emerged as the prime suspect, since his physical description and psychological profile aligned with that of the perpetrator. He also lived near the victims, and was known to visit the shop where Christine worked.
A detective sent details of Paluch’s interview to the team investigating the deaths, but it was nine months before they sought to interview Wilder. By then, he had begun a new life.
A Move to Florida, and a Frenetic Killing Spree
In the 1970s, Wilder moved to Boynton Beach, Florida, and started a business as a home contractor, eventually employing dozens.
He was, says Byrne, “unfailingly charming and well-mannered,” a burgeoning playboy whose wardrobe prefigured Don Johnson’s pastel suits in Miami Vice. He “raced cars and had the same deep Florida tan, clipped beard and mustache as the actor,” Byrne says.
Wilder also continued to nurture his interest in “photography,” and it continued to get him in trouble.
Between 1971 and 1975, he faced several charges related to sexual misconduct, and eventually raped a vacationing teen he had drawn to his truck with the promise of shooting her for a modeling contract—later his tell-tale m.o. He was convicted, but never jailed for any of these crimes; there would be plea bargains, and more promises to obtain psychiatric care.
In December 1982, he returned to Australia to visit his parents. While there, he was charged with sexual offenses against two 15-year-old girls, whom he blindfolded and forced to pose nude. His parents posted bail, and he was allowed to return to Florida to attend to “pressing business” while awaiting trial. He was dead when the first hearing date arrived, two years on.
Police say Wilder began his murder spree on February 26, 1984, when Rosario Gonzales, who was working on promotions for a sponsor of the Miami Grand Prix, went missing. A week later, Elizabeth Kenyon of Coral Gables, a “Miss Florida” finalist, also disappeared.
In the ensuing weeks, Wilder roamed the country, using his camera and natural charms to attract women wherever he could find them. He was armed, Byrne said, with fake or stolen business cards that described him as a fashion photographer or modeling agent.
The toll climbed. Still in Florida, he abducted Theresa Wait Ferguson, 21, from a mall and left her body in Canaveral Groves. In Tallahassee, he lured Linda Grover, 19, to his car, knocked her unconscious and raped her in a Georgia hotel. Though he shocked her with electrical wires and glued her eyes shut, she broke free. Wilder fled when he feared her screams would draw attention.
Authorities believe Wilder also killed Daytona Beach eighth-grader Colleen Orsborn, 15, around the same time. Orsborn’s body was discovered days after her disappearance, but wasn’t identified until a quarter-century later. The FBI had said in 1984 that Wilder was the prime suspect in her missing person’s case.
Next were murders in Texas, Kansas and Utah: Terry Walden, who multiple reports say was either 23 or 24, Suzanne Logan, 21 and Sheryl Bonaventura, 18. On April 1, he abducted and later killed Michelle Korfman in Las Vegas, where the aspiring model was attending a Seventeen magazine cover model competition.
Just as suddenly, his pattern changed.
In Torrance, California, Wilder abducted and assaulted Tina Marie Risico, 16, but kept her alive, believing she might be able to help him draw in other victims. They headed east, back through Arizona, Missouri and Illinois.
In Indiana, Risico aided Wilder in kidnapping Dawnette Wilt, who was 15 or 16. Wilder raped Wilt repeatedly as the trio drove toward Central New York. He suffocated and stabbed Wilt in the woods, leaving her for dead, but she was saved by a passerby.
South of Rochester, Wilder abducted Beth Dodge, 33, then shot and killed her, instructing Risico to follow him in Dodge’s Pontiac Firebird. Then, Wilder drove Risico to Logan International Airport in Boston and bought her a ticket home to California. He also gave her a wad of bills, for necessities.
Nine days after her abduction, Risico arrived home. She stopped to buy lingerie and visit a friend. Then, she went to police headquarters in Torrance. She was always considered, and treated like, a victim.
Captured and Killed in New Hampshire
Wilder, who had driven more than 8,000 miles during his 23 days on the run, by then was headed for Canada, knowing that every law-enforcement agent in the U.S. was looking for him.
A little before 2 p.m. on April 13, 1984, two state troopers spotted murder victim Dodge’s gold sports car at a Getty gas station in Colebrook, New Hampshire, 10 miles south of the Canadian border. Wilder was nearby.
Officer Leo Jellison approached, and Wilder broke for a .357 magnum in his glove box. When Jellison tried to subdue him, Wilder fired two shots at himself. The first bullet entered his stomach, exited through his back and lodged beneath one of Jellison’s ribs. The second was fatal.
“There are so many questions to ask him,” said Miami FBI Agent-in-Charge Joseph Corless, who coordinated the manhunt. “But the one person who could answer all of them is dead.”
Days later, Wilder’s family across the Pacific professed shock at the accusations against him. He was “the perfect gentleman,” said Valerie Wilder, his sister-in-law. “My kids adored him.” Meanwhile, the families of Wilder’s victims filed millions in claims against his $7 million estate, although the Internal Revenue Service would get most of it.
A 1986 made-for-TV movie, “Easy Prey,” dramatized the relationship between Wilder and Risico, suggesting it had a “Stockholm Syndrome”-like element. Risico sold her story to the producers, but never visited the set.
Wilder’s body was cremated and his ashes returned to Australia. Among the details that would surface shortly after his death: Wilder was traveling with a marked-up copy of John Fowles’ book, The Collector, about a man who kidnaps a student and keeps her locked in his cellar. He had also made arrangements with kennels to care for his three English setters.