Journey of Terror

It was a warm, sunny Sunday morning on the cusp of spring when Teresa Ferguson set out from her home in Indian Harbor Beach, Fla. for the shopping mall nearby. Terry, 21, stepdaughter of the local police captain, was an attractive woman with long, dark hair who worked in a factory that specialized in silk-screened T-shirts while she waited for the fulfillment of her life’s ambition: to become a model. That morning at the mall she met a man with the promises she wanted to hear.

Two days later, on March 20, 300 miles northwest in Tallahassee, a blond, 19-year-old Florida State student disappeared from a shopping mall near the campus with a man who offered her a modeling assignment. When she demurred, he forced her into his car, beat her, bound and gagged her and forced her into a sleeping bag, which he stuffed into the trunk of his car. At some point during the agony of sexual sadism that followed, the man tried to seal her eyes shut with glue. Next morning outside Bainbridge, Ga. the woman, identified only as “Jane Doe,” managed to escape and contact authorities.

Terry Ferguson was not so lucky. It was in the middle of the night, the day after Jane Doe told her harrowing story to the FBI, that Capt. Don Ferguson’s dispatcher informed him that a body had been discovered in a swamp about 100 miles to the east. They had found Terry. She was the first confirmed victim.

It was the most intensive FBI manhunt since the 1968 dragnet for Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, and by the time Christopher Wilder, 39, was killed with his own gun in a Colebrook, N.H. gas station on April 13, he had murdered at least four women—and probably four others whose bodies had yet to be found—in a six-week rampage that stretched from Florida to California to New England. All of his victims were pretty, young women, most of them modeling hopefuls lured by his pitch that he was a photographer with a job just for them. Most of them were sexually assaulted and tortured. There were some 500 FBI agents on the Wilder case by its end, and the portrait they drew of their quarry was eerily familiar—not unlike John Wayne Gacy of Chicago, under whose house authorities found 27 bodies of young men and boys in 1979; not unlike the Hillside Strangler or the Boston Strangler; and very similar indeed to the smooth-talking ex-law student Ted Bundy, who is believed to have killed and sexually tortured some 36 young women in the 1970s.

Like Bundy, Wilder had a most credible exterior. An affluent builder, sportsman and man-about-town, he seemed to be a character out of a John D. MacDonald novel. At his home in the eastern Florida coastal town of Boynton Beach, there was a speedboat at his dock, several cars in the driveway, including a customized Porsche and an Eldorado, and a sauna next to his bed. His screened-in swimming pool had a map of his native Australia on the bottom, and the surrounding tiles sported pictures of koala bears. An animal lover, he shared his house with three show-quality English setters, made donations to Save the Whales and the Seal Rescue Fund and was known to brake for turtles crossing the road. His neighbors, shocked at the charges against him, described him as unfailingly polite. They thought it only a little curious that he had so many girlfriends and that the drapes in his house were always closed.

A sometime race-car driver, he competed at the Miami Grand Prix not long before his killing spree began, and some thought that his 17th-place finish could have set him off. But what drove Wilder to murder must have been festering in him for years. He had a long history of violent sex offenses—one that, by the law of common sense, should have taken him out of circulation years ago. In that too Wilder’s is a familiar story.

The FBI has drawn the veil on the most graphic details of his assaults. “Unfortunately,” says Assistant Director O.B. “Buck” Revell, “the more bizarre the act the more likely you are to find copycats. And inevitably there are going to be more Wilders out there.” But the FBI and others who worked on the case consider it a classic cautionary tale of how, after all the advice about never getting into cars with strangers, our dreams make us vulnerable to a nightmare like Christopher Wilder—and how, despite the long arm of the law, which had Wilder in its grasp a half-dozen times before the murders began, justice can be so tragically confounded.

The day after Terry Ferguson’s body was found and more than 800 miles west in Beaumont, Texas, Terry Diane Walden, 24, packed her 4-year-old daughter, Mindy, into the family’s newly purchased 1981 Cougar and headed for a local day-care center. A nursing student, she planned to do some studying with a friend, maybe pick up a few things at the shopping mall and be home by 1:30. At 5 p.m. the day-care center called her husband, John David, a machine operator on the night shift at the Goodyear’s Chemical Plant, to say Terry hadn’t picked up Mindy. And indeed no one had seen her since she left Mindy that morning.

Three days later, on March 26, Terry’s body was found floating face-down in a canal in Beaumont. She had been bruised, knifed and bound; there were rope burns on her ankles and wrists.

Later the same day, 620 miles north, the body of Suzanne Logan, 20, was found by fishermen in a waterside park in Milford Lake, Kans. She had been beaten, knifed and bound with duct tape and nylon cord. She had disappeared the day before from a shopping mall in Oklahoma City. Three years before Logan had put together a portfolio of photographs in the hope of beginning a career as a model.

“My brother was a loner,” Stephen Wilder said last week. “This problem has been in his life for many, many years.”

So it seems. He was born on March 13, 1945, the son of a U.S. serviceman who had emigrated to Australia and gone into the construction business. Christopher, one of four sons, moved to the U.S. in 1970 at the age of 24—an avid surfer who became, in time, an equally avid businessman. With partner L.K. Kimbrell, he formed Sawtel Electric and Sawtel Construction five years ago, and he invested well in Florida real estate. Courthouse records in Florida suggest he was well-versed in relatively sophisticated land transactions, using balloon notes and quitclaim deeds to buy and sell property since the late 1970s. But according to partner Kimbrell, Wilder wasn’t much of a contractor. “I did the work,” he says. “Chris screwed around all day. Chris was no contractor. The s.o.b. didn’t know how to change a light bulb.”

Wilder’s first known sexual assault occurred in 1976. His victim was a 16-year-old girl whose parents had hired him as subcontractor on their Boca Raton home. What did she want to be after high school? he asked her that day. A secretary, she said. Would she like an interview for a job right now? Yes. She got into his truck and drove off with him, and when she got scared he slapped her around. To fend him off, she told him she had venereal disease, hoping her lie would save her life. She survived to press charges, but not before being sexually violated.

Before the trial Wilder was diagnosed as being psychotic and dangerous. “At this time,” Dr. D.G. Boozer told the court, “Wilder is not safe except in a structured environment and should be in a resident program geared to his needs. When left to his own resources and under stress, he disintegrates.” Another psychiatric expert, who thought institutionalization was unnecessary, recommended “structured and supervised treatment.” But the jury acquitted him, apparently discounting the girl’s story, and Wilder received no treatment.

Three years later he was caught again, charged with attempted rape of a 17-year-old girl after asking her to pose for a pizza ad. She was a vacationer from Tennessee to whom he introduced himself as “David Pierce,” agent for a Barbizon modeling school. He had her try on shorts and spike heels he got from a department store, then told her to act sexy while he evaluated her poses. He gave her a piece of pizza, which he had apparently laced with drugs, and told her to take a bite while he held it. “He told her to chew it real slowly so that he could see what it would be like,” Palm Beach Sheriff’s Det. Arthur Newcombe testified, adding that he told her, “My eyes are the camera.” Then Wilder took the girl into his pickup truck and forced her to have sex with him. “She kept asking why she had to do this,” said Newcombe, “and he would answer, ‘You want to be a Barbizon model, don’t you?’ ” Newcombe said Wilder admitted having “sexual problems [and said he] was seeing a psychiatrist. He told me his job was his whole life and when he was working he had no problem, but when the weekends rolled around something came over him….”

After pleading guilty to a lesser offense—attempted sexual battery—Wilder was sentenced to five years’ probation and required to see a sex-therapist twice a month, which he continued to do until his disappearance last month. “He wasn’t much different from a lot of other fellows I see every day,” says his probation officer, Kim Lalonde. “I never had the vaguest idea he would do anything like this. I’m not so sure there isn’t someone else out there just like him, and no one has any idea who he is.”

On March 29, four days after Suzanne Logan’s body was found, and more than 800 miles to the west, Sheryl Bonaventura, 18, of Grand Junction, Colo. packed her bags for a car trip to Aspen and dressed up for the long-awaited occasion: faded jeans, rust-colored, gold-toed cowboy boots, gold rings, gold bracelets and a white sweatshirt, which read “Cherokee” on the front. To her mother’s admonitions about careful driving, she replied with a breezy “Mom, you worry too much” and rushed off for a quick stop at the nearby shopping mall before meeting her traveling companion, best friend Kristal Cesario. Wilder was there that day asking for a “cowgirl type” for a modeling assignment. Kristal thinks Sheryl may have fallen for his pitch. “We were always dreaming of someone coming up and saying, ‘You’re found. You’re Vogue material.’ I would have done it.”

Two days after Sheryl’s disappearance there was a beauty contest at the Meadows Mall in Las Vegas sponsored by Seventeen magazine. Wilder was there—an amateur photographer snapped him standing in the background—and he was seen leaving with one of the finalists, Michelle Korfman, 17, the daughter of a casino chief executive officer. Michelle aspired to be a model, among other things. Says her mother, Linda: “She wanted to be President of the United States at 35.”

As of last week both she and Sheryl Bonaventura were still missing.

Wilder’s probation apparently did not hinder his social life at all. He rarely stopped in at his company’s office, spending his days instead at a health club or at the beach, and his nights at pickup bars. A stream of women came and went from his house—some of them “street-type” girls, some of them looking like models, a few of them walking in with suitcases and staying for a week or two. By then his photography studio was fully equipped for fashion work, with special lighting, backdrops and cosmetics supplies, and his “fashion photographer” come-on appeared to work. “He often brought beautiful broads in here,” says the bartender at one of his hangouts. “But I was very surprised to hear about him. He was always well-behaved. And he was a great tipper—never left less than $1 a drink.”

Lisa Maxwell, 19, met him at the Banana Boat. “He sat down and started buying us drinks,” she recalls. “He was tan and good-looking and talked about the cars he raced and showed off his Rolex and the big gold chain he wore around his neck. The next thing I knew, my friend Lori left with him.”

Lori Barth, 21, remembers it well. “We enjoyed the afternoon, so I saw no reason not to [go with him],” she says. “He drove his Porsche 80 mph down the street. I was nervous, but I loved the interior of his car because it smelled like leather.” At his home, however, “it was weird,” she says. “He tried to impress me with material items”—the sauna, the pool, the cars, the speedboat. As they stood near the bed, Wilder made a pass. “He grabbed me and kissed me,” she says, “but I backed off and didn’t respond. None of them were French kisses.”

Lori Barth was lucky. An employee of the Boynton Beach Kmart’s photo department once mistakenly opened a package of the photos Wilder had brought in for developing and found pornographic pictures of women and prepubescent children—many of whom may have been rendered compliant by a fast-acting hypnotic drug that Wilder had admitted to using in the 1980 case.

In December 1982 Wilder violated his probation by flying to Australia. While in Sydney, he was charged with the kidnapping and indecent assault of two 15-year-old girls, whom he blindfolded and forced to pose for nude pictures. Arrested the day after the offense, he was released on $376,000 bail and later won a postponement of his trial, pleading “pressing business” in the U.S. “I didn’t really know the man,” says partner Kimbrell, “but we did talk about the rape charges. He told me he didn’t know the girls were only 15, he thought they were 20. I told him to throw the camera away and be more careful. I could relate to his wanting sex—after all, he was single.”

On his flight from the assault charges in Australia, he carried back with him gifts of koala bear place mats and napkins for Mrs. Dolores Kenyon, the mother of the one woman with whom he seemed to have a sincere relationship. “He always was a gentleman,” Mrs. Kenyon says. “Courteous, soft-spoken, polite, always rose when a lady came into the room.” Her daughter Beth, 23, was a real beauty: Once an Orange Bowl queen, she was a finalist in the 1982 Miss Florida contest. Wilder met her at that event. A serious young woman, she was a student teacher at a Coral Gables school for gifted children last year, and this year was teaching the mentally disturbed.

It was around the time of the Miami Grand Prix races that Beth Kenyon told Wilder firmly that she would not marry him, in part because of their 16-year age difference. Her parents believe that rejection sparked his killing rage. Whatever its cause, it apparently began at the Grand Prix that last weekend in February with the disappearance of Rosario Gonzalez, a 20-year-old would-be model who had come to the event to make a quick $400 passing out free samples of a new aspirin. Witnesses last saw her at the raceway in the uniform of the day—red short shorts and white T-shirt—with a man who looked like Wilder. She had met Wilder before. He had taken her picture in October 1982 “for the cover of a romance book,” her fiancé recalls, “but she had never seen the picture and had never heard from him again.” As of last week she had not been found.

A few days later, on March 3, Beth Kenyon also disappeared. A gas station attendant was the last to see her, and he told the Kenyons Wilder had been with her. When she didn’t turn up at home, a distraught William Kenyon called Wilder to account. “I would never do anything to hurt any of you,” Wilder told him, but Kenyon hired a $1,000-a-day private detective to check up on him. The family offered to pay for FBI surveillance of Wilder but the agency refused, the police said they had nothing to go on and, when the Kenyons’ detective confronted Wilder and suggested they go to the police together, he bolted. “We couldn’t understand why a man who broke probation four times couldn’t be tailed,” says Dolores Kenyon. “In our justice system the criminal has all the rights and that is why my daughter isn’t here tonight. If the system was different, all eight girls would be alive.”

Tina Marie Risico, a pretty but troubled 16-year-old, met Wilder on April 4 when she visited a dress shop in a mall near her Torrance, Calif. home to apply for a job. For the next three days he kept her bound and gagged, raped her and tortured her with the same 110-volt prod he had used on the others. By then he was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, and he made Tina watch all the TV coverage to show her how dangerous he was. Somehow, though, he could not bring himself to commit the final assault on Tina, and he made her his accomplice as he looped back across the country.

Within the week they made Merrillville, Ind., where Tina approached Dawnette Sue Wilt, 16, in a shopping mall and asked her if she wanted to be a model. When she went to Wilder’s car to sign a consent form he pulled a gun. Bound and gagged, she rode in the back seat while Wilder drove toward upstate New York.

On April 12 near Barrington, N. Y. he apparently tired of Dawnette. He stabbed her repeatedly and dumped her in the woods, thinking she was dead. But she managed to work her way free of the tape, then tied clothes around her chest to stanch the flow of blood and stumbled to a road where a farmer picked her up in his truck and drove her to the hospital. In the emergency room she gave the police enough information to set them hot on Wilder’s path. After surgery she described in grotesque detail what she had been through. Last weekend police stood guard over Dawnette to keep away the media and the curious. At her bedside was a Cabbage Patch doll, bought with donations from the sheriff’s deputies.

Risico stayed with Wilder until the day before his savage journey ended, even procuring his last victim—Beth Dodge, a 33-year-old working mother whom he killed for her car. She had stopped off at the mall in Victor, N.Y. on her lunch hour. “He had Tina approach Beth Dodge and bring her to his car,” says a source close to the investigation. “He had told [Tina] he would kill her if she did anything unusual. He drove the hostage’s car with the hostage and Tina followed in her car. For her to try to escape then would have been foolish. He had told her he was a race-car driver and could easily catch her.”

Wilder shot Beth Dodge at a gravel pit close by the mall—no torture, no tape or cord. Says Capt. H. Gerald Willower of the New York State Police: “Beth was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

That evening Wilder dropped Tina Risico at Boston’s Logan Airport, where she bought a ticket for Los Angeles with some of the money he had given her, a going-away present from the man whose horrors she had shared. Torrance police said later he had released Tina because “he didn’t want her to see him die.”

Once in L.A. she went first to Hermosa Beach, a strip of tourist shops, where she used the wad of cash in her pocket to buy several new sets of lingerie. Then she went to the house of a friend who later accompanied her to the police station to tell her tale.

A reporter who visited her house the next day was told by her mother, a pretty blonde in her 30s with a scorpion tattoo on her forearm and a silver ring on one toe, “Tina’s out partyin’. I’m going out partyin’ too.” A lawyer reportedly was trying to sell the rights to her story, but it was not clear whether Tina knew anything of that.

After dropping Risico off, Wilder headed north for the Canadian border. At mid-afternoon on Friday the 13th he arrived in Colebrook, N.H., a tiny place bordered in every direction by miles of forest. Either for gas or just for directions, he stopped at Vic Stanton’s Getty station. There he was spotted by State Police Det. Leo C. “Chuck” Jellison, who remembered a description he had heard of the latest car, Beth Dodge’s 1982 Firebird, being driven by that madman who was crisscrossing the country killing women. He pulled up behind Wilder’s car, jumped out and called, “Hold on, we want to talk to you.” Wilder scurried back to the driver’s seat, lunged for the glove compartment and Jellison went in after him. The 250-pound trooper had his quarry locked in a bear hug when the .357 Magnum went off, sending a bullet through Wilder’s chest that ripped out his heart and went through Jellison’s diaphragm. A second shot rang out, but by then Wilder was probably already dead.

The trooper, rightly acclaimed a hero, will recover. The death of Wilder, though, does not close the case. FBI agent Revell believes Wilder probably killed several, perhaps many, other women. “There may be some who lived alone who haven’t even been reported missing yet,” he says. “I’m satisfied he’s off the streets, but we would have liked to capture him to find out more about his motivation.” Captain Ferguson, Terry’s father, says bluntly: “I was extremely pleased that they killed him. With our judicial system today, I wasn’t looking forward to his being caught alive and watching him on TV smiling and grinning and enjoying life while he got all the notoriety and publicity. The only bad feelings I had were for the parents of those who will never know, those whose girls are still missing. He was the only one who had the answers, and they will go through living hell forever.”

Meanwhile, Captain Ferguson has taken to stopping young hitchhikers whenever he sees them. “These girls don’t understand what’s going on today,” he says. “This mass-murder type of thing is becoming an epidemic. All you have to do is look at TV—every night they’re picking up these crazies.”

Updated by David Chandler,
Linda Marx,

Linda is a longtime contributor to PEOPLE in entertainment, politics, sports, fashion, design, travel and business.

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