Emilie Morris turned on the digital recorder wedged into her sports bra. She pulled her SUV into the Saint Louis Galleria mall parking lot, where a high school running coach named Jim Wilder waited. The device picked up some rustling, a Rihanna ballad on the car stereo, a deep breath, and Emilie’s voice: “Let’s hope this goes well.”
It did, at least from the perspective of the St. Louis County Police Department, the owner of Emilie’s recorder. Seven weeks later, police arrested Wilder based on the contents of the tape: an 87-minute conversation in Wilder’s car centered around their sexual activities in the mid-90s, when Emilie was a 16-year-old cross-country star at Lindbergh High School, and he was her 29-year-old coach. Wilder was charged with six counts of statutory sodomy, each one punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Before the charges came, though — before she even gave police the recording — Emilie drove to her parents’ suburban home and wept. It had taken her more than 15 years to get there. At age 33, she’d pulled herself from a thicket of self-loathing and depression, bulimia and alcoholism, to come forward and report Wilder. Now she wanted him to pay for what he’d done. Wilder had been arrested once before, based on an allegation of sexual contact with another student, though he evaded charges due to lack of evidence.
But Wilder wouldn’t go to trial in Emilie’s case, either. Emilie was found dead in her apartment in November 2014, more than a year after the secretly recorded conversation, while her case against Wilder was ongoing. Without the victim alive to testify, prosecutors dropped the charges, leaving Emilie’s grieving family bewildered and furious. They had a tape of a man admitting to crimes that they say propelled a young woman into a downward spiral. It was evidence they felt couldn’t be ignored. None of that mattered.
When provided a detailed letter outlining the allegations in this story, Wilder referred BuzzFeed News to an attorney, who did not respond to requests for comment.
This January, as they watched the victims of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar tell their stories en masse, the Morris family felt furious all over again. Their Emilie never had the chance to confront Wilder in court. Just as sporting officials failed to act on allegations against Nassar, Emilie’s family says Lindbergh school officials failed her. In 1996, Lindbergh’s principal conducted a “complete investigation” of possible inappropriate behavior between Wilder and Emilie and found only that Wilder was a “positive influence on his athletes.”
In 1996, according to state experts on child abuse, that principal was required by law to notify authorities — namely the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division — of any suspected abuse. If authorities were notified, the Morrises never heard about it. Had the system worked, what would the rest of Emilie’s life have looked like?
That’s what Emilie’s mother, Joan Morris, and sister, Andrea, have been wondering. “What could have been different for her if Lindbergh officials had properly investigated when these warning signs first started?” said Andrea.
In response to what happened in 1996, Lindbergh Schools said it had no record of whether the information concerning Wilder and Emilie was reported to social services. The district further said its “responsibility is to keep students safe at all times,” and that outside of the principal’s investigation and Wilder’s two subsequent arrests, it didn’t receive any other complaints from parents or students during Wilder’s 22 years of employment. The principal, David Skillman, who left Lindbergh High in 2001 and has since retired, did not respond to requests for comment.
Every state has laws that require “mandatory reporters” — usually teachers, doctors, and law enforcement officers — to report suspected child abuse to authorities. In recent years these laws have tightened, particularly in response to the scandal involving Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was seen raping a boy in a campus shower by another assistant coach. Under the Pennsylvania law in effect at the time, the witness only had to report what he’d seen to his boss, not to authorities. This February, largely in response to the Nassar scandal, President Trump signed the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act — the federal government’s latest attempt to force sports organizations to report any suspected abuse of child athletes.
Nassar’s bounty of victims may have faced years of abuse and silencing by a powerful man within a powerful institution, but in the end, the justice system worked for them. Nassar was found guilty and effectively sentenced to life in prison. Yet the same system made Emilie’s case disappear, allowing the man who admitted to sex acts with a minor to walk free, and holding no one accountable.
Emilie’s case may be an unusual one, but it’s one that reveals deep cracks in the system — crack after crack that she fell through. Since her death, her family has been left staring at them, wondering whether they’ll ever be filled.
Joan kept everything that belonged to her daughter: all the papers, artwork, photo collages, and private journals that Emilie didn’t destroy or discard herself. She kept the quilt Emilie was tucked into when her lifeless body was found. She stored it in her basement, where the rabbit Emilie adopted the summer before her death also lives. Emilie named him Honey Bunny, but her 66-year-old mother calls him Big Bunny now.
As a kid, Joan said, Emilie was “crazy funny,” fast, and sharp. “She could have been a stand-up comedian. When she was on her game her timing was perfect.”
Emilie was an honor-roll student and an artist like her father, whose oil paintings of landscapes and still lifes speckle the walls of the Morrises’ living room. But she also had daredevil tendencies, whether on her bike or rollerblades or diving board or the trampoline in her backyard. In middle school, her math teacher — James Bliss Wilder III, then new to the school district — encouraged Emilie to channel that energy into cross-country running, Joan said. He coached the sport at Lindbergh High School.
Lindbergh was a public-schooling gem of St. Louis County, at one time the largest high school in the state. (In more recent years, it was named a National Blue Ribbon School, and ranked in Missouri’s top 10 best public high schools.) As coach of the Lindbergh Lady Flyers, Wilder was “Mr. Wonderful,” Joan recalled, dedicated to the team and personally invested in his athletes. “He was sincere. He would look you straight in the eye when he would talk to you.” With Wilder’s coaching, Emilie became an exceptionally good runner, often earning the best times on her team.
By the time Emilie entered her junior year at Lindbergh, in the fall of 1995, she and Wilder had developed a close mentor-mentee relationship. She had shoulder-length blonde hair, clear skin, and warm blue eyes, but she thought of herself as a nerd. She would open up to her then-29-year-old coach about boys and her social life, and he would give her advice.
The first time Wilder crossed a line, they were at a cross-country team practice at Bohrer Park, about two miles from Lindbergh High, Emilie told police. The team was playing capture the flag. Emilie was on the sidelines; she forgot her workout clothes that day. She approached Wilder, who was standing behind a tree, and began telling him about a boy at school who wanted her to play “chicken,” a supposedly playful test of how far he could go, or how far she’d let him go, running his hand up her leg.
Wilder then asked Emilie if she wanted to play chicken with him, she told police. He pulled his hand up her leg and stopped at her thigh, but when she called him a chicken, he went higher, placing his palm on her crotch, over her jeans, Emilie said. He pulled away when a boy on the team ran past them. After practice, Wilder drove Emilie home at her parents’ request. Emilie invited him into her empty house. On a blue ottoman in the living room, she said Wilder removed her pants and underwear and performed oral sex on her. After a few minutes, he asked if she wanted to stop. She did. They went to the backyard and jumped on the trampoline.
From that point on, Emilie performed oral sex or another sex act on Wilder about once a week, including on school property, she told police, though they never had intercourse. She was 16, one year under the age of consent in Missouri, and at the time she thought of their situation as a relationship, a top-secret affair — Wilder was married with a child. But they were reckless with their secret.
Once a passerby caught them in the men’s bathroom of a park. Another time, while they were driving around town together, Wilder saw a fellow teacher and told Emilie to get down, pushing her head into his lap, Emilie told police. They would meet in private in the wrestling room at Lindbergh, Emilie said, but occasionally another teacher or administrator would approach, and she’d jump into a box of uniforms to hide. At the state cross-country competition in Jefferson City during Emilie’s junior year, team members went to see the movie Seven. Emilie masturbated Wilder over his track pants while another coach sat on the other side of him, she said.
But the closest they came to getting caught was in March 1996, the spring of Emilie’s junior year, when Lindbergh’s principal, David Skillman, called Emilie’s parents to discuss information he said he’d received, and investigated, regarding inappropriate behavior between the coach and athlete. Joan recalled the way Skillman phrased it: “‘Emilie has been accused of having an affair with a teacher.’” She was incredulous. “Emilie has been accused. What?”
Emilie’s parents requested a meeting with the principal, Joan said. Emilie and Wilder were there, too — “stone-faced” for the duration of the roughly 30-minute meeting. They both swore nothing had happened. The adults concluded that the rumor had been invented by someone jealous of Emilie’s success on the cross-country team, Joan said. Joan asked Skillman for a letter exonerating her daughter, and she got one.
By then, though, the rumor was widespread. Emilie had confided in at least one teammate. Others were aware that something was going on, said Christine Lieber, a classmate who later became one of Emilie’s closest friends. “Everybody in high school knew what was going on. ... Parents and other cross-country people had seen them in the woods,” she said. But Wilder was young, handsome, and popular. “None of us thought there was anything wrong with that,” Lieber said. It was “what he’d always done.”
The rumor lingered for years, still circulating even by the time Emilie’s sister, Andrea — younger by six years — got to Lindbergh High and joined Wilder’s Lady Flyers team. Andrea said that among her classmates and teammates, it was like Emilie and Wilder were the “butt end of a joke” that she never quite understood. By the end of his first decade with the school district, Wilder had become such a beloved coach that he earned a special recognition from the Missouri House of Representatives, complete with a banquet thrown in his honor.
Emilie may have raised red flags about Wilder herself in her teenage journals, but they’re only red in retrospect. In a scrapbook she compiled in 1997, the year she graduated, Emilie wrote, “I admire Coach Wilder for his warm heart and compassionate ways. His ability to be both an incredible coach and a great friend.” She cut out pictures of the two of them at practice or meets and pasted them into the book. She wrote that her most “unforgettable” moment of high school was “Bohrer Park. Bawk bawk bawk baaawk! Between capture the flag. Chicken!?” Out of context, it reads like a harmless inside joke. In another secret notebook, Emilie wrote more cryptic poems about a torturous, unrequited, forbidden love — but so did a lot of other teenagers.
This was the problem Emilie’s family faced as they watched her deteriorate throughout high school: Was this normal teenage angst, or something more? Instead of the funny, carefree, and outgoing girl they knew, Emilie was becoming angry, secretive, and self-conscious, Joan said. She struggled to complete tasks. A former springboard diver, she now refused to be seen in a bathing suit. “I remember her crying and crying before she’d go to high school because her bangs weren't right,” said Andrea, now 32. “I wish that I had someone telling me or my mom at the time, ‘This is what's happening. She needs help.’”
Joan sent Emilie to therapy, she said, but she still wouldn’t open up. And it wasn’t just Emilie’s family who sensed her changing. A friend from high school told Emilie years later in a Facebook message that he “for sure noticed a change [in] high school. You were such a close friend then you fell away.” He said it was like a light switch. “Always wondered what had happened.”
Of all the dark periods in her short life, college would be Emilie’s darkest, marked by depression, suicidal thoughts, and increasingly severe bulimia. In conversations with police and friends years later, Emilie would trace her eating disorder back to Wilder’s criticism of her body. In high school, he once told her to get liposuction, she noted on the back of an official team photograph of herself in her Lady Flyers uniform.
Getting Emilie through college was “just a mess,” Joan said, but in 2001, she graduated from Lindenwood University with an English degree. By 2007, she was married with two children and happy, for the first time in years, her family said. Which is why, in December 2008, when Wilder was arrested based on a report that he had sexual contact with a current female student, Emilie stayed out of it. She’d poured herself into her marriage and babies and “she didn’t want to rock the boat,” Joan said.
Besides, the charge against Wilder didn’t stick. In February 2009, the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office announced it had no “credible evidence that any sexual contact had taken place” between Wilder and the anonymous minor. (The woman who brought the allegation against Wilder in 2008 declined to speak to BuzzFeed News for this story.) Cleared by prosecutors and social services, Wilder returned to his job, telling a reporter the experience was an “absolute nightmare.”
“You're just walking down the street and it comes out of the blue,” he said.
By the time Emilie decided to come forward with her own allegations against Wilder in 2013, she’d been struggling with alcoholism for at least three years. She and her husband divorced in 2012, and he was granted sole custody of their two children.
During these years, Emilie tried to get better — through therapy, rehabs, and medication — but her efforts never stuck. Her drinking broke her parents’ hearts and dominated their lives. But her drinking is also what finally brought Emilie’s high school secret to light. While drunk, she would tell her parents everything she’d done with Wilder. She’d blame them for not doing enough to stop it. Suddenly, Emilie’s life — that downward spiral — made more sense to Joan.
“Her drinking literally had everything to do with the fact that she hated herself. She hated who she was, she hated the things she had done,” Joan said. “She wanted to annihilate herself.”
In the summer of 2013, amid another effort to get better, Emilie told her parents she was thinking about going to the police, but she was hesitant. A part of Emilie thought she loved Wilder once, and she didn’t want to ruin his life.
“I said, ‘Emilie, he’s ruined your life,’” Joan recalled. She told Emilie to think of her own daughter, then 7, and imagine a teacher grooming and abusing her. “That just lit a torch.”
Emilie had other motivations, too. A therapist had encouraged her to report Wilder as a way to heal, she told police and friends. She also said she had a friend whose daughter played on a soccer team that Wilder helped train. Part of that training involved massaging the girls’ legs — that set off alarm bells for Emilie. But Emilie was also motivated by Wilder’s behavior toward her now. They’d kept up with each other since Emilie’s high school and college years, talking every few months about their lives and shared history. The last time they'd spoken, Wilder “was so ignorant and pleased” about what had happened between them when she was a teenager, Emilie wrote to a friend. “It just upset me.”
“Honestly it truly has taken me this long to have enough ‘guts’ to say something,” she wrote. “I've gone through a lot of personal things that were a spin off of this happening — really awful relationships, eating disorders, etc. — I just didn't care about myself. I finally have gotten to the point where I just can't do that anymore.”
Emilie wondered if she’d be believed. She was 33, recalling events from her teens. A decade or more is not an uncommon length of time for a victim of a childhood crime to wait to come forward; lawyers call it delayed disclosure. But waiting can cast an unfair shadow on a victim’s credibility. And, if she had waited 15 more years, under Missouri’s statute of limitations, Emilie could have missed her window to report Wilder.
But on June 17, 2013, she walked into her local police department. “I ‘asked’ them what might happen should I speak of what happened,” she later wrote to a friend. The next evening, two detectives from the St. Louis County Police Department came to Emilie’s apartment to interview her. She was emotional. They thought she might have been drinking. But they believed her.
Emilie got the recording of Wilder at the Galleria two weeks later, on July 2. For Wilder, it was summer break. He was still employed by Lindbergh Schools as a high school running coach and middle school P.E. teacher, going on two decades with the district. He also had a newer gig he described to Emilie as flipping houses.
When she first approached him, Emilie told Wilder that her new therapist had encouraged her to revisit their past. She wanted to have that conversation over the phone. But Wilder insisted on meeting in person. He was worried about government surveillance of phone calls — it had been just a month since the Edward Snowden disclosures. And, in the back of his mind, Wilder said on the tape, he was suspicious of her intentions.
Under the cops’ instructions, if Wilder wouldn’t talk on the phone, Emilie was supposed to set a date for a later meeting — somewhere detectives could set up a professional wire and stay nearby for her safety. Instead, Emilie put the recorder in her bra, bulldozing ahead.
Emilie and Wilder’s conversation that rainy Tuesday afternoon dipped in and out of the past and present. The police had encouraged Emilie to let Wilder lead the talk. They reminisced about Bohrer Park and the game of chicken (Wilder called it “electric”) and all the times they were nearly caught.
He denied “grooming” her, saying that Emilie was the “persuasive” one. He said that he’d “wanted everything to stop” and had felt “close to a heart attack” as his concerns grew over their relationship.
He also scoffed at the training videos that he — and the rest of the school staff — were required to watch annually, presumably to guard against misconduct. “It makes me almost throw up every fucking beginning of the school year. We have to watch those kinds of videos. It’s grooming and blah blah blah,” Wilder said. “I’ve been there, but I didn’t do that.” He argued what he did wasn’t illegal in other jurisdictions.
“[In] 90% of the world, 15’s legal. So if I go over and boff a 15-year-old in Spain, I can do it all day in the streets — whatever — and nothing would happen.” (In 2015, two years after this conversation, Spain raised its age of consent from 13 to 16.) “You touch a 16-year-old and you go to jail here,” he said.
Wilder admitted to Emilie that “we did something that wasn’t right according to our laws these days.” But, he added, “You know I'm not a creeper. I didn't creep.” For him, it was all about the decisions they made together. Emilie, by now, knew that as a child, she’d had no choice in the matter at all.
“I always want you to know,” Wilder told her, “that I was there to protect you, not to harm you.”
Emilie gave the tape to a detective later that day.
Nov. 2, 2014, was the last day anyone heard from Emilie — exactly 16 months after that afternoon in the mall parking lot. So much had happened since then, and yet so little. In August 2013, Wilder was arrested. The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s office went forward with his six second-degree sodomy charges, and Wilder was released on bond while awaiting trial. For more than a year afterward, court hearings had been set and then delayed and delayed again. But in the weeks before her death, Emilie believed the case was nearing its close. She told her family and friends that she believed Wilder and prosecutors were negotiating a plea deal.
Her case against Wilder motivated Emilie. She’d gotten a job as a server at Buffalo Wild Wings. She was spending more time with her kids and friends and working out regularly — she was still able to do “flawless” back layouts on her family’s trampoline, Joan said. Joan kept a monthly pocketbook calendar tracking Emilie’s drinking. Good days were marked with a green pen, bad with red. Throughout 2014, there were more green-day streaks than ever before.
Everyone thought she was doing better. And everyone was shocked when, on the morning of Nov. 4, Emilie’s father went to her apartment to check on her and found her in her pajamas, face down on the bedroom floor with a large trash can pulled over her head, down to her shoulders. Her father picked up the trash can. Emilie’s body was cold. There was vomit in the plastic lining of the trash can, and around Emilie’s face and head. On the floor next to her body was her phone and some stray snacks. She was tucked into a blanket, her family said.
Emilie’s father called Joan. When officers from the Ballwin Police Department arrived, Joan was next to Emilie’s body, calling her name. “I sat down next to her, crying and playing with her hair, because Emilie loved having you play with her hair. That was her favorite thing of all.” Emilie’s father, in shock, had been cleaning up the messy apartment. Andrea was the last to arrive. “It looked like a bomb went off,” she said.
Emilie’s cause of death was asphyxiation from the plastic bag lining the trash can, but her manner of death was left undetermined by the county medical examiner. The police report listed her death as “suspicious,” noting that one of her apartment doors was unlocked. No one knew how she got into the position in which she was found, a blanket swaddling her lower body while a trash can, about 16 inches at its widest, constricted her upper body. Her family recognized her general state — on the floor with her phone and food — as her “camping out” during a tough detox.
From one standpoint, it looked as if Emilie had at last drunk herself to death; there was an empty bottle of vodka in her bedroom. But her family refused to accept that, and toxicology results later showed Emilie’s blood-alcohol concentration was less than .05%. (The legal limit to drive is .08%.) Her family didn’t believe that she accidentally or purposefully asphyxiated herself, either. She was claustrophobic, they said, and would have hated being tucked into that trash can.
Ballwin Police officially closed the investigation in January 2015, two months after Emilie’s body was found. No suspects were named.
Emilie’s daughter, now 12, recently asked Joan how her mother died. “Boy, that one caught me flat-footed,” Joan said. “I said, ‘I can tell you she did not commit suicide and she did not die because she was drinking. When you're older, I'll tell you more.’”
At Emilie’s funeral, days after her death, her family learned from a detective that the sodomy charges against Wilder had been dropped. They didn’t even know that was a possibility. Emilie had a court date coming up in a few days; she told her friends and family it was an important one. Andrea called it a “one-two punch.”
“It was too much to take. What do you mean? We have the evidence. They were about to finish this,” she said.
More than three years later, it still “makes me mad,” Joan said. She can get through hours of talking about Emilie without crying, but then an unexpected image will hit her. The pile of greeting cards that Emilie kept from her dad. Her gravestone, a black marble slab with her photo printed in a small oval above her name: Emilie Alison.
“Most of the time it just makes me mad,” Joan said again. “It makes me furious.”
When asked why the charges against Wilder had been dropped, assistant St. Louis County prosecutor Sheila Whirley told BuzzFeed News that once Emilie died, her office couldn’t move forward.
“Based on the evidence we had, we would need her testimony to prove her case,” Whirley said. The major evidence Emilie left behind was the 87-minute recording of her and Wilder, plus a videotaped interview she gave to a detective about the recording afterward. When asked why this wasn’t enough to prosecute, Whirley declined to speak specifically about the case, which she said she hadn’t reviewed in years. But speaking generally, “a defendant has a right to confrontation,” she said.
That right, the Confrontation Clause, is laid out in the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution, granting those accused of crimes the right to confront (and cross-examine) witnesses. In 2004, the Supreme Court made it harder, under the Confrontation Clause, for out-of-court statements (such as Emilie’s interview with police) to be admissible in court.
Not all cases are thrown out when victims are unavailable to testify. Last year, a San Diego jury found a man guilty of kidnapping and raping an exchange student in a case that went forward despite the victim’s refusal to testify. In 2016, that same district attorney’s office successfully prosecuted a man for the 2003 rape of a woman who died four years later, in 2007. Prosecutors make these decisions on a case-by-case basis, depending on the quality and volume of evidence. Emilie may have had that tape, and she may have gone to extraordinary and risky lengths to get it, but because she didn’t report Wilder as a teenager in 1996, she didn’t have DNA or forensic evidence — the kind of evidence that sways juries. The deceased victim in San Diego had been properly DNA-tested following her attack.
When the charges against him were dropped, Wilder’s court records were also sealed. This has troubled the Morris family. “He’s been arrested twice for statutory sodomy, by two different women. And if you look up his criminal record today, it’s completely clear. This is someone who still has their teaching license, and that seems wrong,” Andrea said. The Morrises accepted that they couldn’t change the prosecutor’s mind about dropping Wilder’s charges, but they’ve been fighting ever since to obtain any records from the court case — transcripts, for instance, or a docket that would tell them exactly how far the case had progressed before it was dropped.
Wilder’s Google results will be the longest-lasting record of his alleged misconduct — though his departure from Lindbergh Schools in May 2015, after nearly two years of paid administrative leave, also briefly made the news. It happened two weeks after a strongly worded letter from the Morrises to the school district called the decision to “still [allow] Wilder to continue to draw a salary … absolutely beyond belief.”
When asked why Wilder was put on paid leave for a year and eight months following his 2013 arrest — and kept on staff following his first arrest in 2008 — a spokeswoman for Lindbergh Schools said “we must make decisions based on the information we have.” She said that as soon as the district “received new evidence” from the police in 2015, “immediate action” was taken to terminate Wilder’s contract. However, the school didn’t fire Wilder. He resigned. And as part of the termination of his contract following his resignation, he was paid nearly two months of his salary ($69,100 annually, as of 2012) in severance, plus $5,000. While the agreement made no mention of why Wilder left, it forbade him from applying for a job with the district again.
By all accounts, Emilie wanted that. It’s the only thing she wanted that she got, and it happened after her death, at her parents’ urging. According to those who knew her, she also wanted Wilder to have to register as a sex offender, and for the state to take his teaching license away. That license is still active, and Wilder is not a registered sex offender.
Yet for all her unfinished business — all the anxiety and temptation to drink that came with each hearing and each delay of the last 16 months of her life — working on the case fulfilled Emilie in a way she hadn’t felt before.
“It has been awful,” she wrote to a friend in August 2013, “but at the same time I feel as though I have been finding ME again. I truly feel as though I am gaining my dignity, my SELF, and the love for who I am back …
“At first I doubted myself and was scared to death, but I now realize I'm not only freeing myself but saving other girls. It’s a blessing and I know I've done the right thing.”
While she lived, Emilie had hope. “He WILL be convicted.” ●
Additional reporting by Katie J.M. Baker.
Emilie’s daughter is now 12 years old. A previous version of this article misstated her age.