FORT HUACHUCA — A U.S. Army captain court-martialed in absentia at Fort Huachuca nearly three years ago for sex crimes against a child is still missing, and according to military sources it is unclear whether he fled to avoid trial or died during a purported wintertime mountain hiking trip a few days earlier.
Christopher L. Wilkinson was convicted by a military judge in February 2021 of two specifications of sexual abuse of a child, one specification of indecent exposure, and one specification of attempted indecent viewing. He was sentenced to three years confinement and dismissal from the Army.
Wilkinson, however, was not present for his court-martial, which took place after the judge ruled the captain was “voluntarily absent” from the proceedings. Wilkinson’s attorneys appealed the ruling, but it and the convictions and punishment were upheld by the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals in May 2022.
The upcoming three-year anniversary of the captain’s disappearance is drawing renewed attention to the fact a monetary tip line reward and the resources of the Army and the U.S. Marshals Service have failed to locate Wilkinson, now age 48, either dead or alive.
Meanwhile, a military desertion warrant order entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center in Wilkinson’s name in 2021 for being absent without leave has never been executed.
All of this raises the question of whether Wilkinson pulled off a great escape in 2021, possibly with help. Or, as his attorney suggested during the court-martial, the captain succumbed to the elements after getting lost or injured during a hike in the cold and snowy Whetstone Mountains a few days before the trial.
Another possibility suggested by a friend of Wilkinson’s is that the captain killed himself rather than face years of confinement if he was convicted of acts of sexual misconduct with a child, the whereabouts of his body unknown.
The Army notified Wilkinson in September 2019 that he stood accused of engaging in sexual and lewd acts with a female relative under the age of 16. The alleged offenses occurred between 2014 and 2016 when Wilkinson was stationed in South Carolina, but did not come to light until his transfer to Arizona.
When the specifications, or charges, were announced, Wilkinson had been in the military 21 years, having deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He was at Fort Huachuca to serve as an instructor of the Captain’s Career Course at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence.
Wilkinson was arraigned in January 2020 in advance of a general court-martial which he agreed would be decided by a military judge instead of a panel. He was advised the trial could take place even if he was voluntarily absent from the courtroom.
The language of the advisory is scripted for the judge to ensure a proper arraignment, according to military court records.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed Wilkinson’s court-martial, which was finally set for trial at Fort Huachuca on Feb. 1, 2021. Court records show the captain, who made more than $7,300 per month, was granted leave starting Jan. 11.
The Army does not utilize a traditional cash bail or secured bond system as seen in civilian courts; nor are ankle monitors or GPS location devices required. As a result, Wilkinson’s only requirement was to check in daily with a supervisor leading up to his trial.
But as Army officials would soon learn, Wilkinson never made it to the trial. And if he is alive, it means a convicted child molester is out and about, perhaps living under another identity.
Army personnel began looking for Wilkinson around 8:45 a.m. Feb. 1 when he was not present for the court-martial. Over the next few days, military and civilian law enforcement agencies searched for Wilkinson with dogs, by foot, by helicopters, and even by horseback.
A timeline was also created by Army investigators for Col. Robert Felrath, the court-martial judge, disputing suggestions by Wilkinson’s attorneys that some type of accident had caused the failure to appear. Instead, Felrath went forward with the court-martial after ruling the captain was aware of the consequences of being absent.
The timeline shows Wilkinson’s Army I.D. card was last scanned at Fort Huachuca on Jan. 23. His last known contact with anyone connected to the Army was a Jan. 26 phone call with a supervisor.
A search of Wilkinson’s home on Feb. 1 found several expensive watches, his Ford Mustang, his Harley Davidson motorcycle, and his Ducati motorcycle. Missing, however, was Wilkinson’s cellphone, wallet, an old GMC truck, and a white Subaru.
If Wilkinson owned any personal firearms, it is not Army policy for its members to declare such items unless they wish to bring the weapon onto Fort Huachuca. This means investigators cannot be certain if a particular firearm was missing from Wilkinson’s home.
Likewise, court records make no mention of whether Wilkinson had a passport at the time the specifications were filed in 2019, and if so, whether his commanding officers required it to be surrendered as is common in prosecutions in state court.
The timeline also noted a snowstorm hit across much of Cochise County on Jan. 25 and 26, leaving nighttime temperatures well below freezing, particularly at higher elevations.
On Jan. 27, Wilkinson spoke by phone with his mother about her upcoming arrival in Sierra Vista to be a defense witness at the trial. The mother told investigators her son said he was hiking in the mountains as they were talking.
The same day, Wilkinson had a phone conversation with a woman he knew. The woman was in the Cochise County jail so the call was recorded per jail policy, according to court documents.
The timeline notes Wilkinson told the woman about hiking that day in the Dragoon Mountains. If true, he did so with snow still in the area and a daytime high temperature which only reached the high 30s.
Wilkinson’s attorneys have argued the captain’s acquaintances reported he had only recently expressed an interest in hiking. The working assumption, at least by his defense attorney, was that Wilkison was an inexperienced hiker who may not have been prepared to hike alone in winter weather.
Investigators quickly obtained evidence showing Wilkinson – or at least his white Subaru – could have been in the Dragoon Mountains on Jan. 27. The evidence came from a law enforcement surveillance camera along westbound Interstate 10 which captured the Subaru’s license plate just east of Benson around 6 p.m.
The quickest route from the Dragoons to Sierra Vista would be westbound I-10 to State Route 90, the attorneys noted.
Wilkinson’s cell phone carrier also provided critical data in the search immediately after his failure to appear for trial.
The data included that someone “actively” (intentionally) powered off his phone the evening of Jan. 27. This meant Wilkinson’s phone did not simply shut down that night due to running out of power, investigators were told.
The carrier also advised the phone’s location when it was shut off was “in the vicinity” of North Sands Ranch Road by the Whetstone Mountains, miles from the Dragoon Mountains. However, Wilkinson would have driven past the Whetstones en route to Sierra Vista once he turned off I-10 and onto SR90.
Court records make no reference to sightings of or communications with Wilkinson on Jan. 28. However, a neighbor of Wilkinson’s friend who was in jail told investigators he saw Wilkinson’s Subaru at the woman’s house Jan. 29. This was not unusual, the neighbor said, although he did not recall actually seeing anyone there that day.
Wilkinson’s mother then arrived in Sierra Vista the afternoon of Jan. 30. However, investigators noted she claimed to have not spoken with her son after their Jan. 27 phone call nor had she seen him after her arrival.
Meanwhile, the neighbor of Wilkinson’s incarcerated friend also said he heard what sounded like a woodchipper being operated at the woman’s property on Jan. 30. Once again he had not seen anyone, but a search on Feb. 1 turned up Wilkinson’s GMC truck at the property.
Its bed was full of wood chips, according to court documents.
Other documents show the Feb. 1 search at Wilkinson’s home revealed a recently executed power of attorney document in the name of Wilkinson’s mother. The mother told Army officials she was unaware her son named her as power of attorney, which would be needed by someone to handle Wilkinson’s personal affairs if he was convicted and confined — or, after he vanished.
JAIL CALL #2
Wilkinson’s attorney sought postponement of the court-martial based on an assumption the captain experienced some sort of calamity while hiking in the mountains between Jan. 27 and Jan. 31.
The attorney argued his client had months “to flee” but never bothered to empty out his bank accounts or liquidate his personal belongings into cash if that was Wilkinson’s master plan.
Court records show another recorded call at the Cochise County jail suggests at least one person claimed to know something about Wilkinson’s plans.
According to those records, the captain’s incarcerated friend had a jail call with a female acquaintance the evening of Feb. 1 after both women were interviewed about Wilkinson’s whereabouts.
The women discussed whether Wilkinson “fled,” after which the inmate noted she did not want to say more, as “it’s going to be self-incriminating.” She recently told the Herald/Review it was her belief Wilkinson killed himself. She also noted never being questioned again by investigators after her release from jail in March 2021.
Then around 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 2, Wilkinson’s cell phone provider reported another ping near North Sands Ranch Road.
The court-martial judge would later hear testimony that the second ping did not prove anyone turned the phone back on, as it was a common feature for some phones to periodically ping the nearest tower even when powered off. In addition, being in the mountains could interfere with pings being recorded, the judge was told.
A search and rescue helicopter located Wilkinson’s Subaru hours later on Feb. 2 in the Whetstone Mountains near French Joe Canyon, a popular recreation area for hikers and ATVers. Wilkinson’s phone was not in the vehicle, the records show.
The timeline shows the vehicle was a few miles north of the last two ping locations and parked in a spot which required traversing a very steep and severe road. A local hunter told authorities he saw the Subaru parked in the same location earlier in the day.
Wilkinson was convicted during his court-martial on Feb. 5, 2021, nine days after his last publicly known contact with anyone. But the timeline contains what could be a major twist or could simply be a matter of mistaken identity.
According to the court-martial records, a police officer who learned of the search for Wilkinson reported seeing what could have been the captain’s white Subaru on Jan. 31. This occurred when the witness was off-duty hiking in the Whetstone Mountains.
The Subaru, if that was the type of vehicle the officer saw, appeared to be parked next to a white Ford Explorer in the area of Dry Canyon, a few miles as the crow flies from French Joe Canyon.
The possible sighting suggests someone could have been meeting up with Wilkinson to transport him out of the area after the Subaru was left somewhere it was likely to be found. This could mean the captain arranged to intentionally flee the jurisdiction and tried to establish a theory that he died during a hiking accident.
But without more details it is entirely supposition, as are the suggestions Wilkinson killed himself or actually suffered an injury while hiking, according to an experienced homicide investigator familiar with the case.
The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, which was involved in the search for Wilkinson and his Subaru in early February 2021, has never received a follow-up request from any agency to search French Joe Canyon for human remains, spokeswoman Carol Capas says.
Neither has there been any publicity effort by the Army or other federal agency for help locating Wilkinson or to better define his activities prior to disappearing.
Amy Stork, Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence at Fort Huachuca, recently told the Herald/Review that once Wilkinson’s court-martial was over and he was not immediately located, then his activities would have been looked into by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID).
Details of CID’s investigation are not publicly available, nor are they mentioned in court documents appealing Wilkinson’s conviction. It is assumed if Army investigators or any other agency obtained new information about Wilkinson from around the time of his trial then the appeal would have highlighted those updated facts.
However, Stork assured the public the Fort Huachuca Military Police Investigations Sections, which serves as the installation’s AWOL/Deserter Apprehension team has an active case related to Wilkinson. In addition, she noted the nationwide warrant issued in 2021 does not expire until it is executed or the captain is confirmed deceased.
“Christopher Wilkinson will be listed as a U.S. Army deserter until he is either apprehended or his remains are located,” she explained. “There have been cases where these orders are active for decades and eventually they get the person they are looking for.”
Stork’s comments are backed up by Colleen Grayman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Arizona.
“The investigation into the whereabouts of Christopher Wilkinson continues and will not cease until he is brought to justice for his crimes,” she noted in an email to the Herald/Review on Friday.
However, Grayman declined to discuss what actions, if any, the USMS has taken in trying to locate Wilkinson.
“This case is still ongoing,” Grayman noted. “As a result, the US Marshals Service cannot release information related to investigative techniques or deeds as that knowledge has the potential to undermine future endeavors in the investigation.”
Anyone with information about Wilkinson’s case can be submitted to the Fort Huachuca Law Enforcement Division at (520) 533-3000. Tips about the captain can also be submitted to the U.S. Marshals Service at 313-202-6458.
According to Grayman and Stork, the only available photograph of Wilkinson is one shown on an 88-CRIME flier issued by the Pima County Attorney’s Office to an Army Times reporter in 2022.