Michael Robotham’s BLEED FOR ME, which Booklist called “crime fiction of the highest order” in a starred review, is now available in paperback in bookstores everywhere. Join the celebration with the below guest post by Michael Robotham on the chilling, real-life inspiration for the novel’s villain.
Villains are more fun to write than heroes. They get to wear cooler clothes and stroke cats and have monkey paws or steel hooks instead of hands. They also get to date dirty girls with names like Pussy Galore, Solitaire, Honey Rider and Mary Goodnight.
I have always taken a lot of care with the villains I write. None of them are evil because I don’t think evil exists. They do terrible things, but they have reasons. Mitigating circumstances. Nothing excuses their behaviour, but I do attempt to explain it.
In my new novel BLEED FOR ME I have created a number of villains but by far the most interesting are those who seem completely normal. Better than normal. Nice. Charismatic. Handsome. Popular. Loved.
We often assume that we would recognize a true psychopath. We see photographs of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and we think, ‘Yeah, they look like bad’uns,’ but the truth is, until their crimes were revealed we could have walked past any of these people in the street and not looked twice. They could have been living next-door, or working at the local garage, or teaching our kids piano.
My first experience of this dissonance between perception and reality occurred more almost thirty years ago when I was a young journalist working on an afternoon newspaper in Sydney. I was sent cover a committal hearing at a local magistrate’s court. A man called Christopher Wilder was appearing, charged with the sexual assault of two schoolgirls.
Wilder had grown up in Australia, the son of an American naval officer and his Australian bride. He was educated at good schools and given every opportunity in life, but found trouble in his teens when he pleaded guilty to the gang rape of a girl on a Sydney beach and was given probation.
He married at the age of twenty-three, but the union lasted only a few days. His new bride complained of sexual abuse and found photographs of naked women in Wilder’s briefcase, as well as items of underwear that weren’t her own. In 1969 Wilder avoided prison again after blackmailing a student nurse into having sex with him by taking compromising photographs. She complained to the police, but the charges were dropped when she refused to testify in court.
Wilder’s father told him he should go to America and start afresh with a clean slate in a new country. He moved to Boynton Beach in Florida and found his calling as an electrical contractor and construction engineer, making millions from the property boom. By his mid-thirties he was worth millions with a luxurious bachelor pad and a string of sports cars.
He had two public passions – photography and fast cars. His condo had a private photo studio and he was a keen amateur racing driver at tracks like Daytona. His hidden passion was forcing women to have sex with him. He would pose as a fashion photographer and lure them to his studio.
Despite guilty pleas to soliciting women and forcing a high school student to perform oral sex, Wilder escaped any formal charge until June 1980 when he pleaded guilty to the sexual battery of a teenage girl who he lured to a remote area and raped after promising her a modelling job. He was given five years probation and ordered to undergo therapy.
It was after this in late 1982, that Chris Wilder returned to Australia to visit his Mum and Dad, who were living in a small coastal town midway between Sydney and Brisbane. Stopping off in Sydney, Wilder took his camera gear and his business cards to Manly beach and approached two 15-year-old girls, offering them work in the fashion industry. He forced them to pose nude before sexually assaulting them. Police traced him through his rental car.
This is where I came to this story. I sat at the press bench at Manly Magistrate’s Court and watched Wilder being committed for trial. What struck me most was his charisma and charm. He didn’t seem concerned by the charges. It was all a misunderstanding, a mistake that would soon be sorted out. He was beautifully dressed in expensive clothes. Well-spoken. Confident. His parents posted bail, which seemed like a formality, although the amount – $400,000 – seemed high. The prosecutor argued that Wilder lived in the US and might not return to Australia for the trial.
The hearing was set for April 1984 and I put the date in my diary – interested to see more of Christopher Wilder. When that date finally passed, the man in question was dead after triggering one of the biggest manhunts in American history.
It began on February 6, 1984, when Rosario Gonzalez, 20, disappeared from her job at the Miami Grand Prix. Chris Wilder was driving as a contestant that day and a witness saw Gonzalez getting into his car. Her body has never been found. Detectives interviewed Wilder but no warning bells were sounded. Within three weeks another woman had disappeared, a local schoolteacher, Elizabeth Kenyon, 23. She was seen that afternoon, with Wilder, at a local petrol station. His name was found in her address book. Elizabeth Kenyon has never been found.
Three days later, Christopher Wilder packed his car, put his dogs into a kennel and drove north towards Georgia. On March 19, Terry Ferguson, 21, vanished from a local shopping mall. Four date later her body was pulled from a canal in Polk County.
A day later, Wilder abducted a university student from a shopping mall in Tallahassee, driving her across the state line to Bainbridge, Georgia, where he booked a hotel room and raped her repeatedly, smearing her eyelids with super glue and torturing her with electric shocks. He fled after the student locked herself in a bathroom and screamed for help.
I’m not going to give all the details of Wilder’s crimes, suffice to say that over the next five weeks he abducted, raped or killed seven women. Labelled ‘the Beauty Queen Killer’ he was hunted across ten states, spreading fear and panic.
The manhunt made headlines around the world, including in Australia where I was still working for The Sun newspaper. I managed to track down Wilder’s parents, who lived in Sawtell on the NSW North Coast. I interviewed them about Christopher and they were angry with how many doctors, judges, therapists and police had ignored the warning signs.
Christopher could have been saved they said. The victims could have been spared.
My interview with them formed a three-part series plotting the life and times of Christopher Wilder – from troubled young teenager to serial killer. But what struck me always was my memory of him in the courtroom.
He didn’t look like a killer. He didn’t look evil.
I talked to a criminal psychologist who explained that Wilder was one of a rare breed of ‘successful psychopaths’ who had learned how to display empathy and show concern. He had run businesses and maintained friendships, even as he acted out his darker fantasies.
When I sat down to write BLEED FOR ME, I wanted to create a villain like this – someone handsome, popular, charismatic and utterly believable. Someone who could live within a small community and be the last person anyone suspected of a dark secret.
Christopher Wilder didn’t stand trial for sexually assaulting the Sydney schoolgirls. On April 13, 1984 he was cornered by two state troopers and shot himself.
I wrote many stories as a journalist, but that one brief meeting in a courtroom stayed with me. I don’t want to know what Wilder did to the poor women he raped, tortured and killed, but for his parents’ sake and the families of his victims I’d like to know where he left the bodies.
There is another chilling postscript. Wilder is now considered the prime suspect in one of Australia’s greatest unsolved crimes – the murder of two teenage girls on Wanda Beach in Sydney in 1965. With his death, the truth might never be known.