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Emilie Morris was once a bright, athletic student, but in her later years, she would struggle with alcohol abuse and depression. In 2013, she broke her silence and accused her former cross-country coach of sexually abusing her as a teenager — but she wasn’t the first person to make such claims about the teacher.
Five years before Morris brought her allegations to police, in 2008, another student told police Wilder had sexual contact with her as a current student at Lindbergh High School.
Wilder was arrested for second-degree sodomy in that case, but he was never formally charged and went on to keep teaching for years.
Oxygen’s “The Case Died With Her” dives into Morris’ attempts to seek justice in 2013 — approximately 18 years after she said Wilder had sexually abused her in the 1990s while serving as her cross-country coach. Morris died in 2014 and the case against Wilder based on her allegations was dropped.
Former prosecutor Loni Coombs recreates the case against Wilder in “The Case Died With Her” through Morris’ high school journals, police reports, and interviews with her parents, sister, and the police investigator who was working her case — but less is known about Wilder’s first public accuser.
The unidentified 15-year-old female’s claims first came to light in 2008 after she and a friend had sought out a science teacher at their school for advice about what to do if someone was involved in an inappropriate relationship.
Around the same time, the teen’s grandparents had also reached out to her teachers — including the science teacher — to ask whether the teen had been behaving differently in class.
“She has been acting very differently at home and we are trying to figure out the problem,” the concerned grandparents wrote in the message, according to “The Case Died With Her.” “She won’t talk to us so we are seeing if maybe it has something to do with the school.”
The science teacher reached out to a guidance counselor at the school and the teacher’s concerns made their way to the school’s principal, who called the teen into his office on Nov. 4, 2008.
Jessica Testa, a former reporter with BuzzFeed News who profiled Morris’ case in 2018, explained to producers, that according to police reports, the girl told administrators she had been “inappropriately touched and had inappropriately touched” Wilder.
The girl claimed the inappropriate relationship began during the eighth grade when she would stay after school at Sperreng Middle School, where Wilder taught.
Wilder, who also coached at the nearby high school, often massaged the young girl’s knee during this time, she claimed. During their afterschool talks, the two struck up a friendship — even exchanging phone numbers with one another.
“This 15-year-old girl was able to give quite a few specific details about Coach Wilder,” Coombs said in the special, referencing police records. “She talked about conversations they had where he talked about his marriage and his relationship with his wife and his penis size.”
The girl later told police that the two had regular conversations on the phone, sometimes at night while Wilder was at his home.
Wilder initially denied ever calling the teen, but investigators discovered phone records that showed otherwise, according to the special.
“He said that he had never called her and yet the investigator actually pulled the phone records and there were phone calls going back and forth between the coach and this young girl,” Coombs said.
The alleged relationship escalated in the fall of 2008. The teenager told police that she had been at her boyfriend’s house when Wilder called her, picked her up, and took her back to the high school wrestling office, according to a police report obtained by Coombs and Testa.
“She tensed up during a massage and Wilder wanted her to relax,” Testa read from the report. “He stated, ‘If you have an orgasm, your body will relax,’ and then he starts laughing and says, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I am doing this.’”
Wilder allegedly locked the door to the office and placed a box in front of it during this encounter, according to the report.
When the teen said she wanted to stop because her “muscles [were] too sore,” Wilder allegedly suggested they switch and she touch him.
“He laid on his back and pulled his shorts off with just his underwear on and then he guided her in how to touch him and brush up against his penis and at that time she noticed that he was erect,” Coombs said the girl alleged.
The girl later told police that Wilder had touched her vagina and she had touched his penis “several times” during their relationship and was able to provide a distinctive detail about his groin area.
“The girl saw Wilder’s groin and she noticed that there was a knot/bump in the right groin area about the size of a quarter or smaller from an accident,” Testa said.
The teen also reported that Wilder was circumcised and often wore boxer briefs.
“The police got a warrant to be able to view his private parts and they said he was circumcised, apparently he did wear boxer briefs, and while they didn’t see a bump on the right side of his groin, they saw what they described as a crescent-shaped swelling on the right side of his groin,” Coombs said.
Wilder was arrested at the middle school on Dec. 9, 2008, but just months later the St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch would decide not to pursue a case against Wilder, citing a “lack of any credible evidence that any sexual contact had taken place,” The South County Times reported in 2009.
The young teen’s credibility came into question.
“Teachers, including Wilder, called the young girl troubled and a difficult child. She was accused of making up lies,” Coombs said, adding that a separate investigation by the school found the claims to be “baseless.”
Wilder’s attorney Richard Sindel told the local paper that Wilder had been “totally exonerated” from the allegations.
Wilder is never identified by name in the article but is referred to as a Sperreng Middle School teacher.
“Other teachers would tell you that this student was not trustworthy at all,” Sindel said. “There were a lot of situations where she had given teachers false information. She had made false claims of sexual assault in the past and claims of other kinds of physical abuse in the past that did not check out.”
Wilder was allowed to return to the middle school and was back in the classroom by March 2009.
“Things have been more normal than I could have ever imagined,” he told The South County Times of his return to teaching after the arrest.
Wilder also described the allegations as an “absolute nightmare.”
“I feel shaky right now just having to talk about it,” he said.
Throughout the months-long investigation, Wilder said his wife and children’s support had never wavered.
"A lot of good has come out of this," he said. "Our perspectives have changed. I use to worry about what windows to buy for the house or how the kids were going to do at the state meet. Then something like this smacks you. You're just walking down the street and it comes out of the blue. Your perspective on what's important in life really changes."
Many in the community believed the teen had been lying.
“My perception was she was really damaged by the character assassination that happened,” Testa said.
But five years after the teen reported the abuse, Wilder came to police with her own eerily similar story of sexual abuse.
“Based on the police reports, there are a number of similarities between the 2008 case and Emilie’s case,” Coombs said in the special. “Both girls were students at Sperreng Middle School where James Wilder was a teacher. Both girls were runners.”
Wilder also allegedly gave both teens his personal phone number and was seen as a mentor to the girls.
“We also have a wrestling room office being used on both girls and in both cases Wilder appeared to have befriended them to such an extent that they each expressed concern over what would happen to him once they came forward,” Coombs said.
Wilder was arrested again in August 2013 in connection with Morris’ case, but the charges were dropped after Morris died.
Although Wilder was never convicted, the Lindbergh School District voted in 2015 to uphold the termination of his contract in a negotiated settlement — two years after he had been placed on paid administrative leave, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the time. He’s prohibited from ever applying to work in the district again.
The teen who went to police in 2008 declined to participate in “The Case Died With Her,” but did tell Morris’ mother through a text message that she was “sorry (Emilie) just didn’t get to see the justice she deserved.”
For more on this case, watch "The Case Died With Her," streaming on Oxygen.com.
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