Handsome and charming, surfer Christopher Wilder had the world at his fingertips.
But the Sydney-born son of a naval hero became a serial killer. He ended up heading to America where he slaughtered at least 16 young women.
According to journalist and author Andrew Byrne, Wilder remains the prime suspect in the infamous Australian Wanda Beach murders.
Byrne has just written a book documenting Wilder’s extraordinary evil life: The Pretty Girl Killer.
He chats to The Starfish:
Who was Christopher Wilder?
In my view, one of the most dangerous men Australia has ever produced. He was the result of a wartime romance between the daughter of a Sydney tram conductor and a decorated US naval hero on shore leave. Christopher was born in Sydney following his parent’s wedding in Ryde and spent the next fifteen years with his mother and ultimately three brothers following his father around America and Asia moving from naval base to naval base every couple of years. His schooling was badly affected; he made very few if any friends and started sexually abusing girls around the age of eleven. By the time his father retired and the family returned to Australia , Wilder was 15-years-old and a sexual deviant – he wore his mother’s lingerie when he fantasised about her breasts and before sneaking out to peep into neighbourhood windows he would creep to his parents’ bedroom and watch his mother get undressed. Within a year he had committed his first rape, and three years later it’s the belief of senior police that he was responsible for the Wanda Beach murders of two schoolgirls.
How did you first learn about him and what inspired you to delve into his sick world?
While looking for stories to commission for a TV crime show I became aware of Christopher Wilder. I was immediately interested and fascinated why he wasn’t more widely known about, only to then discover that Wilder spent his teenage years in an idyllic family home amongst towering gum trees overlooking the Lane Cove River – very close to where I lived and raised my kids. I drove past the entrance to the cul de sac where the Wilder house was situated twice a day and became obsessed with how such a family-friendly environment could produce such an evil entity as Wilder.
Why was he so ‘successful’ as a serial killer?
Wilder was not your stereotypical psychopathic killer who operated in the shadows and came out at night to prey on, stalk and grab his victims off the street. He was handsome, successful and very popular with women – he was never without a girlfriend. Behind this facade of a perfect gentleman, who wined and dined his dates in fancy restaurants and then dancing in plush nightclubs. Wilder was extremely cunning and knew pretty young women felt far less threatened during the daytime. So he targeted his victims on crowded beaches, in busy shopping centres and at beauty pageants, and would often approach them when they were with their parents. Well dressed and confident, he fooled everyone for two decades – family and friends, work colleagues and even judges and magistrates. He deliberately made friends with the wife of a sheriffs officer so he could spend hours in the couple’s home chatting and picking up information about crimes for which he was responsible. The experienced homicide officer counted Wilder as a friend and had no suspicions about him. Wilder was that good.
You’ve said he’s the scariest person you’ve ever researched. How so?
Because he appeared so incredibly normal. I interviewed so many women who still find it difficult to believe Wilder was a monster, responsible for at least 12 and possibly as many as 20 murders. One very successful Sydney businesswoman today was a 16-year-old when Wilder approached her by Manly Beach and lured her away to his car. She described in chilling detail how within five minutes of meeting Wilder she was completely under his spell and would have done anything he told her to do. She was from a very good home and knew the dangers. Wilder could impose himself on these young girls, he knew exactly what to tell them to hook them in.
What’s one of the most chilling things you learned about Wilder during your research?
Wilder was a sadistic torturer who could only achieve sexual gratification by inflicting pain on his victim. He carried a homemade electric shock device in his briefcase and enjoyed shocking his terrified victims if they didn’t carry out his every command immediately. When one victim begged him not to use it on her because she was pregnant it didn’t make him stop. In fact, he dubbed her his ‘Little MaMa’ and deliberately tried to shock her fetus. When he decided to kill her, he stabbed her in the belly.
Do you believe he was probably behind Australia’s unsolved ‘Wanda Beach Killings’ and if so, why?
The senior police officer handpicked by the Commissioner to review cold cases using new scientific techniques is convinced Wilder is the Wanda Beach killer and I very much agree. He was nineteen at the time, the eyewitness description is very similar to how he looked then. He had a car and spent a lot of time at Cronulla and Wanda Beach. He was already a convicted rapist and for the next 20 years, Wilder on many occasions targeted two girls together on beaches, etc. The other person convinced Wilder was the killer of Christine Sharrock and Marianne Schmidt is his ex-wife Christine. She went to police with her mother and sister and all three women told detectives they believed Wilder, who brutalised his wife night after night, was responsible. They all gave signed statements but incredibly it took eight months for Wanda detectives to knock on the door of Wilder’s parents looking for him. They missed him by six months – he had fled to the US to start a new life and carry on killing.
How many years was he on the run, and how did he finally get caught? (Or do we have to read the book to find out?)
Wilder went on the run in America after coming under suspicion for the murders of two young models. Pursued by 500 FBI agents and hundreds of police officers across multiple states, it remains the largest manhunt in US history. For weeks the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency failed to catch him despite naming Wilder America’s most wanted criminal, putting his photograph on the front page of every newspaper and on every news bulletin in the nation. They never got their man. Wilder’s regime of terror was ended by an alert state trooper in a sleepy little town just a handful of km’s from the Canadian border. What happened next is quite remarkable, and you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Are there lessons learned regarding this killer, that taught homicide cops how to be better at their job?
Many lessons have been learned from the debacle of the investigations into Wilder both here and in the US. Wilder’s case is still one of the most prominent taught at the FBI training course at Quantico. Wilder could have been arrested for breaking his parole conditions, he could then have been grilled about the whereabouts of the two models he had been seen with shortly before each of them disappeared. Instead, two different police departments in the same state did not liaise and compare notes, both separately took the decision their cases were not strong enough against Wilder and that arresting him would be an infringement of his rights. They were slow to act and let him get away to continue killing. Together, if they had cooperated, they would have reached the threshold to arrest him. Wilder had been arrested and charged previously, in both the US and Australia, but expensive lawyers aggressively questioned victims in court who were forced to give evidence just a few feet from Wilder. In Australia, it is staggering to think that police took the decision not to arrest him for the Wanda Beach killings when they had the chance. Even when he was arrested years later for raping two girls he lured off a beach, in exactly the same circumstances as Wanda, they decided they would wait until that case finished before arresting him. Wilder then applied for and got bail, fly immediately back to the US and never returned.
Was it easy to switch off, or did you find yourself having nightmares while you wrote this?
Not nightmares, but with each piece of information, I felt enormous frustration that so many girls had needlessly lost their lives, so many families had been destroyed because police and the courts had not done their jobs properly.
How did you manage to find new material on Wilding; what did you do, where did you go?
I researched and tracked down the police officers, in the US and here in Australia, who investigated Wilder. I went to the US and interviewed at length the retired FBI agent who led the manhunt for Wilder. I found and interviewed one of only two women who escaped from Wilder after being abducted. After more than 30 years she told her story for the very first time. The mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of many of Wilder’s victims agreed to be interviewed, as did four of Wanda Beach victim Marianne Schmidt’s siblings who were on the beach with her the day she was murdered. I obtained the psychiatric and psychological reports on Wilder, as well as the statements of his sex counsellor he treated him for four years leading up to his death.
During your research, were you able to establish he was pretty normal as a kid? When were there first signs that he was a scary individual?
The nature versus nurture debate is a fascinating one. Wilder came from a stable, not a dysfunctional family. However, as I was to discover, it was a family with dark secrets. Wilder’s mother knew her son was a sexual deviant, she privately arranged for him as a teenager to receive electroconvulsive shock treatment at a nearby psychiatric hospital. It wasn’t long after the two harrowing sessions that the Wanda Beach murders took place. Wilder was angry about the treatment and blamed his mother. Two decades later, on the run in America abducting, raping and killing a string of beautiful girls, he would spray the bed with his mother’s favourite perfume before abusing them then torturing them with his electric shock device.
You’ve got extensive TV experience; are we going to see a documentary about him?
The TV story about Wilder went to air last year and rated very well on Channel Seven.
Are you already working on your next book? If so, what is it about?
The next book is a project that has been on the go for several years and is edging nearer completion. It’s about the teenage survivor of husband and wife serial killers.
The Pretty Girl Killer by Andrew Byrne (Penguin Viking) is out now.