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Drug Dealers, Affairs, Police Informants — What Led to Kristen Wagner's Junkyard Death
Did Kristen Wagner, a young mother of three, hang herself? Investigators eventually uncovered a disturbing truth.
At 7:30 p.m. on June 2, 2011, first responders raced to the Christian Waste scrapyard in Stroudsburg, PA in response to a 911 call.
An employee reported finding the body of a coworker identified as Kristen Wagner in a refrigerated trailer. Wagner was hanging from the ceiling, with her feet just scraping the floor.
“She had a purple ligature mark around her neck,” emergency medical technician Alyssa Delfino told Accident, Suicide or Murder, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “It looked like she leaned into the ligature to have just suffocated herself,”
Police searched the scene and spoke with witnesses to confirm their suspicions of suicide. The 911 caller told them that he first contacted the company’s owner, James Bidwell, who told the employee he was in Philadelphia two hours away and directed him to call 911.
Who Was Kristen Wagner?
Investigators learned Kristen grew up outside Philadelphia in a home that wasn’t “always functional,” according to her brother, DJ Wagner. Despite that she was kind and loving. Kristen met her husband in high school, where she became pregnant in her senior year. She had three children and family was important to her.
But she struggled with personal demons including substance abuse issues and depression. She had previously attempted suicide with pills, her sister, Kimberly Ann Tucker, said. Kristen had seemed to have turned her life around and found solace in religion through Bidwell, however.
The autopsy concluded that the cause of death was hanging in the manner of death of suicide. Four days after the discovery of Kristen’s body, the case was closed.
James Bidwell's Arrest on Drug Charges Changes Case
But on June 9, Bidwell, a married father of two with a reputation as a pillar of the community, was arrested for narcotics distribution and possession.
Bidwell was charged with bringing drugs from the Philadelphia area to Stroudsburg — and police on Kristen’s case discovered that Kristen had secretly been informing narcotics investigators about Bidwell’s alleged drug dealing.
Investigations on both cases convened to share information on Bidwell.
Kristen met Bidwell through her father, Donald Wagner, who’d gone into business with him. She believed that Bidwell was a good influence, said Richard Luthcke, a former investigator with the Monroe County DA’s Office.
But local police suspected that Bidwell was a major player in moving drugs into the community. Authorities knew of Kristen’s relationship with Bidwell and recruited her as an informant.
In a recorded interview with police, Kristen said she feared that by snitching she could end up getting “in a lot of trouble," but she agreed to cooperate.
Soon after, she was found dead.
“The timing was just very, very suspect,” said Wendy Bentzoni Serfass, an investigator with the Monroe County DA’s Office. “There was no glaring reason that we were concerned, but it just felt like this evolving situation.”
On May 9, 2013, Bidwell was found guilty of a number of charges. His lawyer filed an appeal and Bidwell was released on $100,000 bail.
The drug case still had not revealed a clear connection between Bidwell's drug case and Kristen’s death.
Kristen Wagner and James Bidwell's Relationship Revealed
But on May 27, 2014, a man named Richard Gerber reached out to law enforcement. He said that he had been involved in a business with Bidwell that had various layers of illegality and the two had parted ways.
Gerber claimed that Bidwell and his wife, Jennifer, had split up over his alleged drug dealing and infidelity — and that Bidwell said he and Kristen had been romantically involved for a year before her death.
“During the interview with Richard Gerber, he disclosed that according to Bidwell, Kristen was sick of being the other woman,” Serfass said.
On the day of Kristen’s death, she had told him that she was going to confront his wife about their relationship, according to Luthcke.
“Jim Bidwell told him specifically that he lost control and he choked Kristen Wagner to the point where she died,” Luthcke added. “He took her and hung her postmortem to make it look like a suicide.”
Investigators said they took what Gerber said with a grain of salt. He had a history of criminal behavior and being less than truthful.
They then spoke to Tucker, who admitted Kristen had confided in her about her relationship with Bidwell, noting that after Kristen’s funeral she confronted Bidwell about it and he got very uncomfortable.
Tucker hacked into her sister’s email accounts. The communications revealed when Kristen and Bidwell’s relationship started and how it developed, investigators said. It also corroborated Gerber’s account.
Kristen had been cremated, so a second autopsy was done by forensic pathologist Dr. Marianne Hamel through photographs. She determined that Kristen may have been choked. The death was reclassified as undetermined.
Kristen Wagner's Case, Reopened
Kristen’s case was reopened. Police recognized two possible motives for her death: being an informant and the other woman making demands. But detectives needed physical evidence to bring charges against Bidwell.
They combed through photographs of the crime scene. Both the ligature and the fact that Kristen’s feet touched the floor raised red flags.
Another review of coroner’s autopsy photographs revealed lividity on Kristen’s lower back inconsistent with hanging.The cause of death was changed to homicide.
Investigators obtained a warrant for Bidwell’s cell phone records. They revealed that he had called and told his wife about Kristen’s death around 5:30 p.m. That was two hours before the Christian Waste employee called Bidwell to tell him about Kristen.
On August 8, 2016, Bidwell, who was already serving prison time for drug charges after his appeal was denied, was charged with murder. While he was held in jail, other witnesses came forward.
“[There was] one woman who told us that after sex Jim told her that he had killed Kristen Wagner,” said Luthcke.
Jennifer Bidwell divorced her husband while he was in jail, according to Accident, Suicide or Murder. She agreed to cooperate with investigators.
On February 18, the jury returned with a guilty verdict. On May 11, 2020, James Bidwell was sentenced to life in prison without parole.