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Murder Trial Scheduled For Man Accused Of Killing Paramour, 3-Year-Old Son Who Were Found In Secluded Oregon Woods
Karissa Fretwell and her son Billy disappeared days after Michael Wolfe, a married man and Billy's father, was ordered to pay child support.
An Oregon man accused of murdering his paramour and their 3-year-old son three years ago will stand trial in their deaths.
The trial of Michael John Wolfe, 54, has faced several delays since a 2019 bill was passed in Oregon to redefine what constituted “aggravated circumstances,” according to the Statesman Journal. Additionally, a backlog of cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic was also considered when the parties agreed to a final trial date to take place in the summer of 2023.
Karissa Fretwell, 25, and her son, William “Billy” Fretwell, disappeared from their west Salem, Oregon, apartment on May 13, 2019, according to a probable cause affidavit. Relatives told Salem police officers they'd grown concerned when visiting the Fretwells’ unlocked residence, noting the television was still turned on. Karissa left her prescription eyewear, banks cards, and Billy’s belongings behind.
Karissa also failed to show up to work for three consecutive shifts. According to the Journal, she was a single mother who held several part-time jobs and attended Western Oregon University, where she aspired to become an English teacher one day.
Several agencies, including the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office and the Oregon State Police, worked to find the missing mother and son.
Police conducted several interviews with Wolfe, who was the father of Karissa’s son. During the first round of questioning on May 18, 2019, two days after the Fretwells were reported missing, the married 52-year-old from Gaston divulged he and Karissa had an intimate relationship about four years earlier.
“Michael stated his last contact with Karissa was when they had court on April 15, 2019, during a child support hearing. He also stated he had not been in Salem in over a year,” Det. Anthony VanDekoppel wrote in the affidavit. “Michael stated the hearing did not go well, and he was ordered to pay around $900 a month.”
The child support order was officially signed by a judge three days before the mother and son vanished, according to the Salem-based outlet.
Investigators gleaned from Billy’s babysitter that Karissa alleged Wolfe and his wife “had threatened Karissa that they were going to take William and get custody of him,” the affidavit stated. Karissa and the babysitter allegedly discussed this several times over three months.
Detectives later pieced together the location of Karissa’s phone on the night of May 13, which pinged near Wolfe’s Gaston residence and his job at the Cascade Steel Rolling Mills in McMinnville. Wolfe told investigators he worked his usual 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. shift from May 10 to May 13 and then took the next week off.
However, surveillance footage showed Wolfe driving a golf cart to a treeline behind a carpentry shop on the steel manufacturing property at 8:45 p.m. on May 13, authorities said. Hours later, at 2:52 a.m. into the next day, Wolfe returned, wearing different clothes and carrying a white trash bag.
“This would not be consistent with Michael’s above-described statement he was at work his whole shift,” wrote VanDekoppel.
In the hours between when Wolfe left his job and when he returned, authorities say they mapped his phone’s movements to show him leaving work and pinging off a tower near Karissa’s Salem residence. The phone then traveled north, passing the town of Keizer, before going back to the steel manufacturer.
“Based on the interviews of Karissa’s family and friends, I believe the only known person who would benefit from the disappearance or criminal homicide of Karissa and William is Michael,” VanDekoppel wrote in his probable cause statement.
Three days after Wolfe’s May 20 interview with authorities, police could no longer locate their suspect. The Salem Police Department circulated his wanted poster on social media, connecting him to the Fretwells’ disappearances. Wolfe was arrested the next day and charged with two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of kidnapping, police announced.
On June 15, 2019, multiple law enforcement agencies assisted in a two-hour search where they found the bodies of Karissa and Billy in a “heavily wooded and very remote area” about 10 miles west of the city of Yamhill, according to the Yamhill Police Department. It was determined Karissa died of a single gunshot wound to the head. Her death was ruled a homicide.
The cause of death for the 3-year-old child was undetermined.
Investigators said Wolfe frequented the area and had a permit to harvest timber, according to the Journal. A firearm was also recovered during the search, but it was not known if it was connected to the murder.
The murder charge for Billy’s death was later reduced to simple first-degree murder, which was the most significant factor in courtroom delays. The decision came after State Senate Bill 1013 was signed into legislation in September 2019, limiting what consists as “aggravating circumstances.” The bill, signed by Gov. Kate Brown, greatly reduced the number of executions in the state of Oregon.
The aggravated murder charge for Karissa’s death was dismissed but replaced with counts of first-degree murder and first-degree murder constituting domestic violence, ultimately taking the death penalty off the table.
Wolfe’s murder trial is now scheduled for June 26, 2023, and is expected to take place over a six-week period.