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From DNA testing to the Dixie Mafia, we bring you new stories of true crime in American history. Join writer & host Benjamin Morris for exclusive interviews with authors from Arcadia Publishing, writing the hottest books on the most chilling stories of our country’s past.

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The Cold Case Murder of Fred Wilkerson: An interview with author Clay Bryant

The Cold Case Murder of Fred Wilkerson: An interview with author Clay Bryant

Nearly two decades after the fact, tragedy meets justice. One day in 1987, Fred Wilkerson up and vanished in Troup County, Georgia. It was a mystery beset with suspicious circumstances, but the evidence never led anywhere, and the case went cold, Wilkerson's whereabouts unknown. That is, until a remarkable set of circumstances allowed author and investigator Clay Bryant to breathe life back into the case nearly two decades later. Diving into what had previously been overlooked, Bryant was able to locate and recover Wilkerson's remains and successfully prosecute the killer, who'd crafted a calculating plot to take everything the victim had and murder him to keep it. The story concludes with the Wilkerson Family finally getting closure and the killer getting sentenced to life in prison. Join Byrant as he unravels this West Georgia cold case.

Lewis Clayton (Clay) Bryant was born and raised in Troup County, Georgia, and began his career in law enforcement in 1973 as a radio operator with the Georgia State Patrol. In 1976, at twenty-one, he became the youngest trooper on the Georgia State Patrol. In 1980, he became police chief of Hogansville and stayed in that position for twelve years until resigning in 1992 and entering the private sector. He has been recognized as the most prolific cold case investigator in the United States for single-event homicides. His cases have been chronicled on 48 Hours Investigates, Bill Curtis's Cold Case Files, and Discovery ID Murder Book and featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as well as articles in many local and regional newspapers.

Buy the book HERE.

Swell AI Transcript: CC_Clay 1

Benjamin Morris: (00:01)

Clay, welcome to Crime Capsule. We are so glad to have you with us.

Clay: (00:06)

Thank you, Al. Enjoy the opportunity to be with you tonight.

Benjamin Morris: (00:13)

So let me start off by saying congratulations first on the publication of this volume, as well as I understand that you were recently inducted into a Hall of Fame back home thereabouts. Can you tell us about that particular experience?

Clay: (00:33)

Well, Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in Eatonton, Georgia, I got an invitation to come over there and make a presentation about my book. And it's for sale and listed over there in their work, which was an honor to me and I appreciated that opportunity.

Benjamin Morris: (00:52)

Well, I hope they had a barrel full of champagne waiting for you when you got there.

Clay: (00:59)

Well, it was nice. The event was there. There was about, I guess, probably close to 100 people there. It was a question and answer thing about my book and about my background and so forth and so on. It was, I think they had the thing captioned as wine and crime.

Benjamin Morris: (01:18)

Wine and crime. We love it. We love it.

Clay: (01:20)

It was a good experience. The people were very nice to me.

Benjamin Morris: (01:24)

Yeah. Usually, usually the wine goes before the crime. In this case, it kind of nicely came after it, didn't it? Yes, it did.

Clay: (01:34)

It did.

Benjamin Morris: (01:37)

Well, let me ask you. First, right off the bat, you have a long time career in law enforcement, and it is so special for us to get to have our authors on who have actually been directly involved in the cases that they write about. Sometimes we've had judges, such as Johnny Primomo, you know, writing about the sniper killings down in Texas. Sometimes we've had Folks like Rita Shuler, who was a, you know, detective investigator down in South Carolina. But it's rare for us, Clay, and we're especially delighted to have such an expert opinion on there. Would you tell us just a little bit about your background in law enforcement and the fact that it started, as you said, kind of on the front seat of your daddy's patrol car?

Clay: (02:26)

Well, that's the truth. My father was a chief of police in a small town of Hogan for Georgia. and basically I was raised on the seat of the police car. He was kind of advanced for an old small town police chief. He went to the Southern Police Institute in Louisville, Kentucky.

He was in the first 1966 class of the Georgia Police Academy. He well educated himself and he was a people's person and he was probably the best investigator that I ever knew. And he taught me that, you know, it's about people in relationships and people having faith in you, and they'll talk to you and tell you what you need to know. And it has served me well.

And you mentioned that about being the investigator and writing the book, it gives you a different perspective, I think. I think that it allows You know, people will tell you, you know, you don't ever get emotionally involved in the case that you work on. I can tell you this, if the case is 20 years old and you don't get emotionally involved in it, you're not going to get very far. You know, first thing I generally do is I get to the survivors, the people who've lost the victim, the people who were close, their friends, their family.

You know, and they've, in these cases that I've had, you know, some of them have been carrying that baggage for 20 years. And I try to get to know them and feel a little bit of the feelings of abandonment and so forth that they feel, pick up some of that baggage. And it helps me stay focused and try to find justice for these folks.

Benjamin Morris: (04:16)

Yeah, keeps you grounded, too, because, you know, we remember that these are not just cases to be studied. They are real people with real loss in their lives, and they are struggling to come to terms with that. Now, how did you in particular get your start as law enforcement?

Clay: (04:35)

I started with the Georgia State Patrol the day after I got out of high school as a radio operator at 18 years old. And I stayed with the patrol at that till I was 21. And at 21, I was promoted to trooper. And for a while, I was the youngest trooper in the state and stayed with the state patrol for the next nine years. And my father passed away of a heart attack at 46 years old. And the city offered me his police chief job. It was, you know, it was at home and it was about the same money. I guess for all the wrong reasons, I took the job.

But I enjoyed it. It was at home and, you know, it was, uh, I stayed there and ran the police department for about 12 years. And, uh, then I got out of police work for a while. I started a tire business and, uh, never was really satisfied. You know, it was, I had, it was in my blood. I felt like the district attorney had contacted me and he, uh, You know, I have a law degree, and he knew that he needed an investigator. And he asked me to apply to the job, and I did. The rest was history. I spent the rest of my time working for the district attorney's office.

Benjamin Morris: (05:59)

And which county in Georgia was this?

Clay: (06:02)

Actually, it was in the Coweta Circuit, which is a five county circuit. It's Troot, Carroll, Merriweather, Heard, and Troot, Carroll, Merriweather, Heard. And, uh, those five counties. And, uh, uh, I worked with the district attorney with, you know, the ADAs in all five counties and, uh, but mostly in, uh, troop and herd counties. But, uh, I had a good relationship with the folks and worked for a good guy. His name was Pete Scandalakis. And he's the head now of the, uh, Georgia Prosecuting Attorney Council. But, uh, it was through him and the opportunities that he gave me, I was able to do what I did and I appreciate it.

Benjamin Morris: (06:49)

Well, Pete figures prominently in your book, of course, and he's got a big old role to play, you know, once you get down into the the details of the case. Let me ask you this real quick. How many, when you were serving as an investigator in that, in that role, about how many cases were y'all turning over a year with this five county circuit? I mean, y'all must have been cranking them out, huh?

Clay: (07:13)

Well, three of the counties we were, we would have somewhere around a thousand criminal cases per county. Coweta, Troop, and Carroll. were the big counties with populations, you know, 75 to 100,000. And they were, we stayed pretty busy. And the cold cases I worked on, they were on top, they were on top of the cases that we did every day. We just kind of stumbled into these and we had a tremendous amount of luck with them. As a matter of fact, I got invited to a seminar in Charleston. I had a case or two where I had some involvement with the NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigator Service. And after them coming for me or with me, they invited me to Charleston and to a seminar.

Actually they used a couple of my cases that they taught the class with. And they came up with a thing called the element of solvability. NCIS has the largest cold case squad in the world because they deal with naval bases and marine bases and the transient people, you know, transient population there. So they have a lot of cases that go cold. And Anyway, this element of solvability, they took a case and they give numerical values to like the age of the case, the fact that witnesses are gone or how much physical evidence is no longer there. And they came up with that and they applied it to my cases. And they said that during the time that I operated, that I was the most prolific cold case investigator and single event homicides in the country to their knowledge. That was kind of shocking. They didn't send a check for it, though.

Benjamin Morris: (09:19)

Well, that was their oversight, you know.

Clay: (09:24)

We'll forgive them that, but only just. It was quite an honor. That's cool. There's nothing in the world that gives me any more pleasure or pride than to be able to right a longstanding wrong, especially to the degree that these were. And it's just, it's fulfilling to say the least.

Benjamin Morris: (09:50)

Well, it's hard for us to be able to express how much we appreciate your efforts. Here we are coming on long after the fact, but we sure are grateful. Now, you've written two books. The one we're going to be talking mostly about today, about Fred Wilkerson, is your second book. Give us just a quick sketch of your first one, which came out not too long ago.

Clay: (10:12)

The first book written was a lady. Her body was in a well as well, but it was found quickly. Uh, she was, it was the longest, the worst case of spousal abuse you could ever imagine. Uh, 1970.

And the irony of this was, uh, it happened just outside the city limits of Hogan'sville, Georgia. And, uh, everybody in the world knew that, uh, pretty much the story about what was going on in the house and the things that happened. And, you know, the woman, she, Her husband literally stomped a child out of her at one point in the early sixties. And, uh, it was just, it was, there's no words to describe, but anyway, uh, my dad got a call from the sheriff's office and said, Hey, we need to, would you go out there and take some photographs for us back in the Polaroid days, you know?

And, uh, I was in the police department with him. He said, do you want to ride out there with me? And it was, it was to the, Junior Turner had found the lady in the well they'd been looking for since the night before. He'd actually had hid under his house to get away from her husband, who had just beaten her.

And her name was Gwendolyn Moore. And there were some shenanigans went on about the case, the investigation, and basically they didn't want to solve the case. The case was solved. And for whatever reason, the man just got Scott free away with it. And in 19, I guess 2002, I'd been, I'd been at work, my daddy had some really strong feelings about this case. Every time he'd see it, he'd say, you know, he ought to be on death row in Tattnall County for what he did.

And, but you know, inch as good as a mile. And it was literally a stone's throw outside the city. And he had no jurisdiction there. 30 years later, 33 years later, I went to work for the DA's office. And I've been to work about 10 days.

And investigator called me and said, Clay, do you remember a case where a lady was in a well in Hoganville, just outside of town. And as crazy as it seems, I said, not only do I remember that I was standing there when she came out of the well, a niece had found a death certificate for this woman, for an aunt she didn't even know she had. And it's clearly marked on there about the the injury she had, the cause of death. And it was for whatever reason, it was just swept under the rug. And yeah, I picked the case back up and the DA got involved and we were able to, we did a skeletal autopsy and the highway process was broken. So we were able to arrest him and prove strangulation.

Benjamin Morris: (13:32)

Absolutely. That telltale.

Clay: (13:36)

But she'd been down for 30, 33 years. And it was kind of strange in the autopsy, you know, all her bones were black as ebony. And I didn't realize that. And I asked the pathologist, why was that? And he said, because it was tannic acid from the clippings in the cemetery. And then, you know, the old coffin, it was full of water, the vault was, and he said, Those clippings in the tannic acid just bleached everything, just like I said, black as ebony, but everything was well preserved. How about that? It was something. It was something.

Benjamin Morris: (14:15)

Learn something new, even from the deceased, you know? I mean, that is really something else. Well, I know you did your daddy proud in bringing that one to justice, and I'm sure he was smiling down on you that day.

Clay: (14:29)

There was a bit of irony in that, too. I say irony is a circumstance. I wrote that book as I was investigating the case. I'd just come home at night. You know, heck, I knew I knew everybody involved in it. And I'd be on my mind. I couldn't sleep. And I'd go in and start writing. That book stayed on the shelf for 20 years. Never tried to get it published or anything. And I went to a dove shoot out at a friend of mine's house. And the professor of creative writing at LaGrange College was there and Dr. Williams, he just had a book published and he was talking about it. And I was done. It was a social dove shooting with afterwards, so you have pretty well figured out.

I looked at myself and held up. I wrote a book and he left. And he said, I'd like to read it. I took him a copy of it and he asked me, he said, have you ever done anything with this for getting it published? I said, Doc, I don't know anything about it. He said, well, I do. And he said, would you mind if I submitted it for you? And he did. And I didn't even know the process of it. And about a month later, a guy from Arcadia, the history press, called me and said, Mr. Bryant, we want to publish your book. Before that, I couldn't even spell author. Now I author one.

Benjamin Morris: (15:55)

And twice over, and twice over indeed. I love how that works out. This story had to be told, and it had to make its way to the light. I love it. Well, let's take a look at Fred Wilkerson. This book has had maybe not a 20-year journey to publication from the moment that you wrote it, but this book has had a long end winding journey itself, just with the history and the facts of the case. And I guess the first question that I want to ask you, Clay, is, some folks would accuse me here of asking you a philosophical question.

And I actually believe that what I'm about to ask you is not philosophical at all. It is a question that is very much based in reality, because you write time and time again. about the question of evil in this case. And I just think we need to go straight to the heart of it, right up front, because here you say in Cold Case Murder of Fred Wilkerson that you have never in all of your years as investigator and law enforcement officer encountered anyone or anything as evil as the lady who killed Now, why do you say that?

Clay: (17:29)

Well, it took, she involved herself in his life and she had a history of involving herself, especially in the financial dealings of other people. But this guy, if you look at the way that the things that it cost him and, uh, the lengths that she went to to cover this up. This was planned to, you know, you start talking about premeditation, this was, every step was planned.

After the man was in the well, less than 100 yards from where she laid her head every night, She wrote a check every six months for a life insurance policy that after she had him declared dead at seven years, she collected the life insurance policy she'd been paying on ever since that she killed him. What kind of evil, what's it take to do that? She didn't care anything about his children. the fact that everybody in the world had been looking for the man. He was killed in 1987.

We recovered his body in 2003. And family got to, and to the very end, she denied everything. And we had, once we put the case together, the case was just rock solid. And it was just, she was just inherently evil. And I don't know, is this is the only victim there ever was? There's some other questionable things that I wonder about. Yeah. And we'll come to some of those. That's in the book.

Benjamin Morris: (19:22)

Yeah, absolutely. There's one or two I want to ask you about for sure. It just struck me because I think sometimes when we start looking at criminal behavior, there are some rationalizations that are called for. Somebody acts out of desperation, say. Somebody feels like they're painted into a corner, whether it's financially or whatever, and they have no other means but to rob that bank or whatever it is. Every now and then, you find some accounts for what we call criminal behavior that sort of say, well, I can kind of put myself in that person's shoes, and I don't know what I would have done if I'd have been as down as out as they were. But then you get the flip side of that particular coin. Then you get the folks where you just say, I don't understand this at all. How could a person do this? What lengths would they go to from beginning to end to cause such suffering and harm? It just leaves you kind of troubled.

Clay: (20:22)

She was a very materialistic person. She was willing to go to any means necessary. to get anything that she wanted. And she did the same thing with her family. She did the same thing with other people that she had run different scams and schemes on. And I don't understand it myself. And I guess I'm glad I don't to a degree. I would hate to to think that way. But she was, at the time, she was probably the most evil, conniving person that I'd ever dealt with. Cold blooded.

Benjamin Morris: (21:17)

Well, and that makes us twice as grateful that you're the one that got her behind bars. Let's take a look at Fred. Let's talk about Fred for a second. Let's kind of start at the beginning. I mean, he was kind of the polar opposite. I mean, he was good and generous and kind and trusting and everybody that knew him, everybody that that worked with him, his own, you know, kids and his wife whom, you know, Connie, the murderer, I mean, she kind of broke up that home, you know, which you talk about. But Fred, Fred seemed to be just a walking saint, you know, just like an angel on the earth.

Clay: (21:53)

Well, you know, he fell victim to the wiles of a woman, I guess, that was willing to use any means necessary to get what she wanted. Fred Wilkerson, other than that weakness, he was a family guy. He was a little league baseball coach, the fire chief for the volunteer fire department in the little community. His son would tell you, you know, he was there for everything he did. His daughter, you know, he never missed a dance recital. He was just a really nice guy. Just a nice guy. Worked all his life. He and his wife were married, you know, 30 years there about, and all of a sudden, here came Hurricane Connie. She injected herself into his life, and it never was the same for her until she ended it for him.

Benjamin Morris: (22:55)

So what's interesting about this, of course, is that we can extol Fred's virtues, you know, all day long. But what's interesting about them, Clay, is that in this particular case, His personality became evidential, right? Because everybody knew him to be this type of guy, you know, dedicated to his family and, you know, trying to do the best he could by providing for them. Reliable workers showed up on time, you know, took new jobs, hard jobs to make ends meet, you know, that kind of stuff. When he disappeared, everybody knew something was wrong. He just wasn't the type of guy to just up and vanish, was he?

Clay: (23:38)

It, it was, it was totally 180 degrees away from his character. You know, and the thing that I never did understand early on, and I wasn't involved in the investigation in 1987, but I fell into this in 2002, uh, three. And, uh, if you took the time to get to know Fred, to know where he came from, to know how he was. There's no way in the world that I would have ever settled for the fact, well, he just got on a vehicle and drove off to a new life. It was no way that happened. And even when they found his vehicle, it had uncashed payroll checks in it. And if you're going to go start your new life, you don't hardly leave money on the table. But from a personality and It's in a psychological situation. There's no way in the world Fred Wilkerson walked away from his children. It just didn't happen. And I don't, I just don't understand how sometimes they came to that conclusion other than the fact that they were at a dead end and didn't, there were some things that I would, if I'd been doing an investigation early on, I'd have followed up on a little closer. And some of those things were the things that allowed us to locate Fred and let the family have a Christian burial for him.

Benjamin Morris: (25:10)

Yeah. You know, it's funny you should mention the start in a new life theory because our regular listeners will know we just had an author from Northern Ohio on Jane Terzillo, and she actually has a case which seems to match that description fairly closely of a police chief up there named Mel Wiley, who, well, he just up and vanished one day, but, you know, vanished very carefully and his car was found next to an Amtrak train station, and there's a strong speculation that he just got tired of doing what he was doing, and he went out west to California or went maybe down south to Florida and just left it all behind, because there was never any evidence of foul play, you know. But here, of course, we have strands of evidence that begin to point to a kind of foul play. Will you just tell us kind of what happened the night of that Thanksgiving dinner, kind of the last night that Fred Wilkerson was seen alive?

Clay: (26:10)

Fred, he ate Thanksgiving dinner with his family, his sisters. And after that, Connie Queedon said she had taken everything. He had bought property and he and she had went and got a building loan for the house and whatnot. He was part owner of everything until she told him that, you know, I want to, in her divorce, she said, I want to be able to have a better financial outlook. So, uh, I would like for you to deed all this over to me." He deeded 23 acres of land to her on the deed for love and affection. And as quick as the house was completely built, he had moved his son, Tim, in with him. They were living in the house as well. As quick as the house was built, she wanted a swimming pool.

So he couldn't, he was tapped out. He couldn't get enough money. From the bank, they wouldn't loan him anymore, but a friend of his signed a note with him, built a swimming pool. As quick as the house was in order the way she wanted it, she put he and his son out. and through means of having another man co-sign with her, she was able to buy the building loan out and put a mortgage on the house in her name solely. And it was all planned.

But that particular evening, Fred's friend had told him they were lifelong buddies and said, Fred, you know, the money is not the big thing. It's just, I just cannot tolerate that woman being able to get over on you like that. If you don't go, I'm going to send you up to my lawyer and I want you to sue him to sue her to try to get part of your money back. Well, Fred, under duress from his friend, went to see a lawyer, his friend's lawyer on Monday. And the lawyer did advise him. He said, you know, I think we do have a cause of action for you to recover some of your money. And at that point, he draws up a lawsuit and they file a lawsuit. And on Monday and on Tuesday, she served with the lawsuit. She was supposed to go to Florida with her family on Thursday.

She had already moved the ex-husband back in to the house that Fred built. And it's it's it's unbelievable. But anyway, She jumps up on Wednesday after I get in a lawsuit and she tells her husband, you and the boys, y'all go on down and see Uncle Rudy in Tampa or St. Petersburg. I'm going to stay here. I have to work. Well, that evening, what we supposed happened was after Fred got through with the supper, he was supposed to take a trip the next morning, he and his son were going to leave and go together. He had permission for his son to ride with him. I think we're going to Tennessee. They will work for fast food merchandisers. And Tim was going to take off with him because it was, you know, he didn't have to be in school or anything. And as it turned out, Fred never showed up. So what we surmised was was when Tim got home that night, He was, his dad was gone and they never did go anywhere.

The next morning they were supposed to leave at five, no dad. He never showed up, never heard anything totally out of character would have never Fred Wilkerson. If you knew him, that was beyond the pale for him. And, uh, as it turns out, uh, the next 17 years, Fred didn't show up and, oh, During that period of time, there are several things and red flags that I think should have that were raised. It should have led to a much quicker conclusion to this case, but for whatever reason, it distilled fallow. And it was kind of strange the way it came to us. We just saw the Moore case and it got a little notoriety. We had a storm and district attorney's vehicle got He just bought a new pickup truck and a tree fell on it and just demolished it. And Tim Wilkerson at that point owned a body shop. And so he asked me, where would I take it? Where do you think I don't take my truck? I said, I'll take the West Georgia Paint and Body.

We got up there and Tim was talking and he congratulated us on that case. He said, boy, I'd give you anything if somebody would look at my father's case again. And Pete asked me, that I would be interested in doing that. And I think, sure. And within about, I guess, within about a month, we had made a, uh, recovered a body and made an arrest. And it was, uh, worked out very nice.

Benjamin Morris: (32:45)

You know, it really is a remarkable part of the story. I mean, you credit that storm with all its unpredictability and kind of twists and turns. You say there's got to be some divine intervention there, and I hear you on that. I mean, it's almost improbable that you would encounter Tim Wilkerson, you know, in this context, and it would come right back up on the heels of your previous cold case, you know, solved and everything. It really is something. Now, let me ask you this.

Clay: (33:17)

Well, let me tell you something, too, that, you know, I said my dad had a tremendous interest in that case. To him, it was just an insult to justice what happened. I'd been to work at the district attorney's office. I went to work on the 15th day. of October. And the day they sent me the death certificate, this young lady showed up at the sheriff's office. He called me and he said, I'm gonna send you this death certificate, Clay. And he sent it to me. We faxed it over.

And as I was looking at it, I looked at the top of the fax page, and it was October 24th. That was my daddy's birthday. How about that? And even this case, that case, the Wilkerson case, and subsequent cases, there were things that I just cannot explain. And I don't, you know, I'm not big into the supernatural or anything like that, but I believe some things happen in God's time. And he uses folks to, you know, to find justice in his time.

Benjamin Morris: (34:27)

Get a little shiver down your spine sometimes. Yeah.

Clay: (34:29)

Yeah, it does. I literally get chills thinking about it sometimes.

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