A senior captain assigned to the Army’s intelligence schoolhouse at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, has yet to be found more than a year after he disappeared before his court-martial for sexually abusing his daughter.
According to recently published court documents, Capt. Christopher L. Wilkinson, who was working as a Captain’s Career Course instructor at the Arizona post, was sentenced to three years of confinement and a punitive dismissal from the service at his Feb. 1, 2021, trial. The judge overseeing the case found Wilkinson guilty of indecent exposure and abusive sexual contact against his daughter, though he dismissed a sexual assault charge.
But Wilkinson wasn’t there. He’d gone on leave to settle his affairs beginning Jan. 11, which his command granted due to his “history of professionalism and timeliness,” court records say.
While on leave, he disappeared. And despite a joint search effort from local law enforcement, military police, Border Patrol and U.S. Marshals, he still hasn’t been found.
Asking an appeals court to overturn the conviction, Wilkinson’s defense attorney argued that the officer may have died while hiking. An Army judge denied that appeal, saying that “there are a number of considerations which could lead a reasonable factfinder to conclude that [Wilkinson] voluntarily fled.”
How he got away
Wilkinson “was not assessed as a flight risk” and was required to physically check in daily with his unit during his leave, said command spokesperson Amy Stork in an emailed statement. She stressed that, at that time, Wilkinson had not yet been convicted.
The captain complied up until Jan. 23, which was the last time he scanned his ID at the gate, and he last spoke to his supervisor on Jan. 26, according to court records.
The following day, he spoke with his mother, who was traveling to Arizona later that week to testify in his trial. He told her he was hiking in the nearby Dragoon Mountains, and a license plate reader recorded his car driving away from the mountains and towards the installation that evening.
Wilkinson turned his phone off that night, and the final location it recorded was in the Whetstone Mountains, which the judge described as northwest of the installation.
It’s not certain what he did from Jan. 28 onward, though his incarcerated girlfriend’s landlord reported that Wilkinson’s car was at her house on Jan. 29. The reason for the girlfriend’s incarceration was not stated in court records. Her name was also not provided.
Someone also ran a wood chipper on the property the following day, and the officer’s pickup truck was found at her house with a bed full of wood chips, according to the court records.
Then on Monday morning, the intelligence officer didn’t show up to his court-martial. A massive search began, said command spokesperson Stork.
Wilkinson’s mother arrived in Arizona shortly after midday on Jan. 30, the day before the trial. She let his first sergeant and another soldier into his residence and said she did not see or speak with him after arriving in town, according to the appeal memorandum. It’s not clear why she didn’t.
The first sergeant, a counterintelligence agent, later testified that the home appeared “staged.”
“When it was found he was not at his residence, the local hospitals and jails were contacted,” said Stork. When Wilkinson still didn’t turn up, “the U.S. Government and law enforcement checked with [Border Patrol], FBI, airports, [and] hotels.”
On Feb. 2, his cell phone — which was still off — pinged on the same cell tower in the Whetstone Mountains that it had on Jan. 27.
An extensive search of the area with multiple law enforcement agencies featuring dogs, horses and aerial surveillance assets did not find Wilkinson or his phone. But a helicopter crew spotted his car about 10 miles north of the search area, abandoned in a remote location next to a fire pit.
According to court records, further investigation found an off-duty police officer who had spotted a car like Wilkinson’s white Subaru Forester parked alongside a white Ford Explorer
Around the same time, investigators combed through his girlfriend’s jail phone calls and discovered that she’d told another woman she believed that Wilkinson had fled, the appeal memo said.
The girlfriend noted she didn’t want to say anything “self-incriminating” on the recorded line, and the other woman on the call said she was “curious” if the detective’s version of events was the same as the one “he told us.”
The military judge overseeing Wilkinson’s trial considered these facts and declared the officer “voluntarily” absent from the court-martial. He ordered the officer tried in absentia on Feb. 5, which is when he was convicted.
Wilkinson hasn’t been found since, despite the involvement of multiple law enforcement agencies, a desertion warrant and a reward posted for information leading to his arrest. Fort Huachuca officials did not directly notify the public of his disappearance, either, instead relying on law enforcement channels.
Pre-trial restrictions in question
A military justice expert previously told Army Times that instituting and enforcing pre-trial restrictions against soldiers accused in the military justice system is difficult.
In the civilian system, suspects can be released on bail and ordered to wear GPS monitors. Those who violate their bail conditions often go back to jail to await trial.
But for military justice, explained NYU School of Law professor Eugene Fidell in a February interview, there is no such middle ground when it comes to pre-trial restrictions.
Commanders can impose restrictions on paper, as Wilkinson’s commander did with the order to report daily, but violations do not automatically result in an accused soldier being confined ahead of trial, as civilian bail condition violations do.
Pre-trial confinement is also a high legal bar to meet, and requires that commands prove that the measure is necessary to ensure the accused appears at trial or to prevent further misconduct. Wilkinson, legal documents noted, had a history of “professionalism and timeliness” while awaiting trial. That history led his commander to approve his leave.
An intermediate measure such as GPS monitoring, though, could have potentially prevented Wilkinson’s disappearance or made it easier to solve.
“The U.S. military justice system doesn’t have bail,” said Fidell. “Maybe it should.”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.