SHELBY – Shari Lynne Ball's naked, badly decomposed body was found by a hunter nearly 34 years ago along Route 63 in Orleans County, in a soggy wildlife refuge known to locals as the Alabama Swamps.
But for more than three decades, no one knew who she was. She was listed in police reports as an unidentified "Jane Doe."
Then, in 2014, State Police had her body exhumed from the grave. A DNA sample was taken and compared with a national database. That enabled police to identify the victim as Ball, who had left her Florida home in 1983 at age 20 in hopes of pursuing a career as a fashion model.
And now, there is a growing belief that Ball may have been murdered by a suspected serial killer named Christopher Wilder, who struck up friendships with attractive young women, offered to help them find modeling jobs, and then raped and killed them.
"It's a possibility that absolutely cannot be ruled out, and it is very intriguing to us," said Christopher Weber, a senior investigator with the Troop A Major Crimes Squad in Batavia. "It certainly matches Wilder's method of operations. He portrayed himself as a professional photographer. He befriended pretty girls and promised them all kinds of things."
According to police, one of the women whom Wilder allegedly killed was a Lockport native, Elizabeth Kenyon, 23.
A Florida school teacher who worked with emotionally disturbed children and was a former contestant in the Miss Florida beauty contest, Kenyon vanished in 1983. Her body was never found.
She had dated Wilder. Authorities said the last time Kenyon was seen alive, she was with a man answering Wilder's description.
Wilder "is at the top of our list of suspects right now" in the Ball case, said Weber, who is working on the cold case with Investigator Michael Sims. "But we don't have blinders on. We are definitely open to other possibilities. The State Police will continue to investigate this case until we find out what happened."
Wilder is not around to help State Police solve the mystery. The Australian native, who is believed to have killed at least eight American women during a 1983 killing spree, was fatally shot with his own gun while struggling with a New Hampshire police officer in April 1984. Police believe Wilder shot himself and the officer who struggled with him. The officer survived.
Police said they have no definitive proof that Wilder ever spent time in Western New York, but a Medina businesswoman told The Buffalo News she is "absolutely certain" that she met Wilder in Lockport on July 1, 1983 – which would have been right around the time when Shari Lynne Ball was murdered and her body was left in the swamp off Route 63.
"I am absolutely certain that the man I met was Christopher Wilder," said the businesswoman, Shane Kurz Sia. "I was having a yard sale at my home in Lockport and he came zooming up in a flourish in a sports car with out-of-state plates. He hung around for about half an hour. He told me I was attractive, gave me his business card and told me he could help me get modeling jobs."
Sia said she threw away the business card after the encounter, but recalled the name on the card to be "Christopher Wilder."
"At one point, I kind of laughed at him and said, 'You're going to yard sales to find models?' " Sia said. "He got upset, went to his car and came back and showed me a big portfolio with all kinds of photos of pretty young women."
Sia said she found the encounter "kind of odd" and unsettling, but never gave it too much thought until about April 1984, when the FBI held a nationally televised news conference to announce that Wilder was a suspected serial killer and that he had been added to the agency's list of "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives."
"I said, 'That's the guy who came to the yard sale,' " Sia recalled.
Fast forward 30 years to 2014, when State Police announced that they had identified the body of Shari Lynne Ball. Sia read a news story in which troopers described Ball as a young woman who had left her home in Palm Beach County, Fla., to head north to pursue a career in fashion modeling.
"That's when it all clicked for me. This woman was killed by Christopher Wilder, and it must have happened a day or two before I met him back in 1983," said Sia, now 68. "It's very chilling to me that I met this serial killer, and that he offered to help me get into modeling."
Sims, the State Police investigator, has interviewed Sia. He does not discount her story. He said she seems very credible, and added that police believe it is possible that Wilder – who traveled extensively in the Northeast during his murder spree – was the man who met her. But both Sims and Weber added that police have found no solid evidence so far to prove that Wilder ever visited Western New York.
Police said they do have information that Wilder spent time in Central New York – not too far from Shelby – in 1984. He is believed to have kidnapped and murdered Beth Dodge, 33, of Phelps, whose body was found in the Town of Victor in April 1984. Police said they also believe Wilder kidnapped Dawnette Sue Wilt, 16, in her home state of Indiana, and drove her to the Town of Penn Yan, where she was stabbed and seriously injured in April 1984. Buffalo FBI agents were involved in the investigations into those attacks.
Victor is 70 miles east of Shelby and Penn Yan is 107 miles east of Shelby.
"We continue to investigate," Weber said. He asked that anyone with any information about Wilder or Ball contact State Police in Batavia at (585) 344-6210.
Called the "Beauty Queen Killer" in many news reports, Wilder would have been 38 when he passed through Western New York. He was described by police as a balding man with brown hair and mustache, of average height and build.
At the time of her disappearance, Shari Lynne Ball was described by police as 20 years old, a white female, 5 feet 4 inches tall, about 100 pounds, with hazel eyes and blonde hair. She was also known to use the last name of Timmerman. A hunter found her body in Orleans County in October 1983. The body was found in Shelby, about 45 miles northeast of Buffalo. The body was so badly decomposed that authorities could never specify a cause of death.
Sims and Weber recalled the sad day in 2014 when they drove to a small town in Tennessee to notify Ball's mother, Nancy Ball, that her daughter's body – after more than 30 years – had been identified.
"She broke down," Weber said. "At first, she was excited that there was finally some new information, but also very upset – going through every emotion you can imagine."
Due to legal complications, it took a long time to arrange to have Ball's remains sent to her mother, and that was very upsetting to Nancy Ball, Weber said.
Sia said she has often thought about the ordeal Nancy Ball has been through.
"I'm a mother, too," Sia said. "It makes me very sad to think of what it was like for her, not knowing what happened to Shari for all those years. I also think about Shari. This was a young girl from a poor family who went looking for a dream and wound up as a victim."
One person who has an understanding of what Nancy Ball has gone through is William "Bill" Kenyon II of Lockport. He is Beth Kenyon's older brother. His family has been convinced since 1983 that Wilder killed Beth, but they have no definitive proof. Beth's body has not been found.
"My parents hired a private investigator almost immediately after Beth disappeared, and we learned that Beth was last seen at a gas station with a man we are sure was Wilder," recalled the 61-year-old Kenyon. "We knew they were together … Wilder was an evil man, but he must have had some kind of charm to get the trust of these beautiful young women."
Kenyon said his parents, William Sr. and Dolores Kenyon, both died in the 1990s, never finding out for sure what happened to their beloved daughter.
"My dad was very distraught the rest of his life, and I am sure that the stress is what killed my mother," Bill Kenyon said.
Why do police continue to investigate crimes linked to Wilder, a man who has been dead for decades?
"Mostly, you do it for the families," Weber said. "Mike and I will continue to follow up on this case. If we never get it nailed down by the time we retire, it will be assigned to other troopers after we're gone."
"As we say in the world of prosecutors, murder is different. You never stop trying to solve a murder," said Orleans County District Attorney Joseph V. Cardone.
And if it ever turns out that Wilder was not the man who killed Shari Lynne Ball, Cardone said, "then we need to find out who did."
Cold Case Files