Michael Wolf pleads responsible to homicide

MCMINNVILLE — The man accused of kidnapping and killing a Salem woman and her 3-year-old son pleaded guilty Friday to murdering them.

Michael Wolfe’s change of plea took the death penalty off the table. Under the stipulated agreement, agreed to by the court, he will serve life in prison with a chance of parole after 30 years.

Wolfe is scheduled to be formally sentenced on July 20.

It’s been 1,131 days since Karrisa Fretwell, 25, and her son, Billy, vanished from their West Salem apartment.

Billy’s biological father, Wolfe, 55, of Gaston, was arrested and charged with their kidnapping and murders.

Michael Wolfe sits behind his lawyer, Jack Sweeney, at his change of plea hearing, at the Yamill County Courthouse on Friday, June 17, 2022, in McMinnville, Ore.

For the first time in years, Wolfe appeared in person — not by video — at Yamhill County Circuit Court.

The man at the bench was almost a different person from the mug shot and driver’s license photo shared by police during the search for Karissa and Billy.

He looked older. His hair was longer, and his clean-shaven face was replaced by a full, graying beard.

The Salem Police Department in late May 2019 announce Michael John Wolfe, Billy Fretwell's biological father, was a person of interest in the disappearance of Karissa and Billy Fretwell.

Deputies led Wolfe into the courtroom shackled and wearing a suit. The shackles on his hands were removed after he was seated at the table, but the restraints on his legs remained.

Three members of Karissa and Billy’s family sat in the front row with a victim advocate during the five-minute proceeding. They were immediately escorted out of the courtroom and unavailable for comment. Family will have an opportunity to give impact statements during the sentencing.

The defendant’s side of the courtroom was empty save for one woman. She wouldn’t give her name but said she was related to Wolfe’s ex-wife.

Wolfe responded to multiple questions from the judge with barely audible, single-word answers, yes, no and guilty. His defense attorney, Patrick John Sweeney, sat to his right and obscured the view for photographers.

Judge Eric Bergstrom addresses Michael Wolfe and counsel during a change of plea hearing at Yamhill County Courthouse in McMinnville, Oregon on Friday, June 17, 2022.

His plea comes more than three years after Karissa and Billy’s disappearance and subsequent deaths gripped the Willamette Valley community.

Wolfe had been scheduled to stand trial in June 2023.

Read more about Karissa and Billy:Chapter I: Karissa overcomes troubled teen years, hopes to be a teacher

Chapter 2: 3 days after winning child support case, Karissa and Billy disappear

Chapter 3: Karissa’s and Billy’s bodies found in a remote Oregon forest

Chapter 5: Karissa tackles life as a single mom to her ‘darling boy’

Violence follows single mother’s decision to seek child support

Fretwell survived her troubled teen years to commit wholely to raising her son while working part-time jobs and attending Western Oregon University. When she eventually sought financial support from Wolfe, who was married at the time of Billy’s birth, it may have cost them their lives.

In April 2019, the court ordered Wolfe to pay Karissa $904 a month. A judge signed the order May 10. Three days later, she and Billy disappeared.

Tiny photographs of Karissa Fretwell beaming and holding her son, Billy, with purple ribbons attached to safety pins, were handed out at their July 7, 2019 celebration of life.  Purple was Karissa's favorite color.

Salem Police detectives interviewed several friends who told officers Karissa had recently been in court against Billy’s father.

Wolfe and Karissa had met while she worked delivering sandwiches. He called Jimmy John’s almost every day for delivery, asking specifically for Karissa to deliver his food.

She was in her early 20s. He was in his late 40s and married.

He worked in security at Cascade Steel Rolling Mills, Inc., a manufacturing facility that takes recycled metal and turns it into finished steel products such as rebar. He helped Karissa get a job there in April 2015 as a part-time security guard. she was 21

Wolfe was reportedly not happy when Karissa got pregnant, and their relationship ended.

Flowers are placed on Karissa Fretwell's SUV outside her apartment in West Salem on June 14, 2019.

Police questioned Wolfe on May 18 at his house in Gaston. Wolfe acknowledged having an intimate relationship with Karissa about four years prior but said he hadn’t seen her since a child support hearing on April 15, 2019.

He told them the hearing “did not go well.”

Wolfe was interviewed again at the Salem Police Department after being advised of his Miranda rights. He maintained he hadn’t seen Karissa.

Cascade Steel video surveillance and AT&T phone records contradicted his claims, placing him near Karissa’s apartment on the last day she was seen alive and her phone near his home the same day, according to court records.

Many of the details were outlined by Salem Police Detective Anthony VanDekupplung in the probable cause statement used to obtain a warrant for Wolfe’s arrest.

“Based on the interviews of Karissa’s family and friends, I believe the only known person who would benefit from the disappearance or criminal homicide of Karissa and William is Michael (Wolfe),” VanDekupplung wrote in the affidavit.

Timeline: The Disappearance of Karissa, William Fretwell

During the investigation, Wolfe also disappeared briefly. Salem police listed him as a wanted man.

They searched his rural home in Gaston and another property near Hopewell on May 23. Wolfe was taken into custody the next day at Blue Star Donuts in Portland.

He was charged with Karissa’s and Billy’s murders while they were still missing.

On June 15, 2019, the bodies of a boy and a young woman were discovered 10 miles west of Yamhill on heavily-wooded property owned by the timber company Weyerhaeuser. They were identified as Karissa and Billy.

The bodies of Karissa Fretwell, 25, and her son Billy, 3, were discovered June 15 on land owned by Weyerhaeuser in Yamhill County.  Michael Wolfe, who is charged with their murders, was known to recreate in the heavily-wooded property.  Photo taken Dec.  6, 2021.

Investigators knew Wolfe was familiar with the area and had a permit to cut firewood there.

An autopsy determined Karissa died of a single gunshot to the head and her death was ruled a homicide.

The cause of Billy’s death was undetermined in the autopsy. Officials have never publicly released information about whether additional testing helped determine the cause.

When the Statesman Journal asked about Billy’s cause of death after the hearing, Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry said it was undetermined.

“That’s how it will remain,” Berry said. “Nothing about that will change.”

Threat of death penalty leads to trial delays

Wolfe’s trial was delayed numerous times, primarily due to a technical legal fight over how a new state law impacted the county’s ability to seek the death penalty.

Friends and family expressed frustration at the slow-turning wheels of justice.

Wolfe initially faced an aggravated murder charge for Karissa’s death. It was dismissed and replaced with counts of first-degree murder and first-degree murder constituting domestic violence following the 2019 passage of Senate Bill 1013 — a law narrowing the scope of the death penalty.

Prosecutors pushed forward on charging Wolfe with aggravated murder for Billy’s death. If convicted, a jury could have considered sentencing Wolfe to death.

More:After years of delays, trial set in murder of Salem mom and 3-year-old son

Last year, Wolfe’s attorneys unsuccessfully appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court to dismiss the charge for Billy. Attorneys took it a step further and filed an appeal in January with the US Supreme Court.

On Feb. 28, the high court denied Wolfe’s petition, sending the case back to Yamhill County Circuit Court to continue proceedings.

A settlement conference led to a plea hearing being scheduled for Friday.

Thirteen members of law enforcement, including from the Salem Police Department, and the Yamhill District Attorney’s Office lined the back row of the courtroom Friday.

Detectives from Salem Police were relentless during the investigation, working around the clock and collaborating with counterparts from the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office. The case was heartbreaking for them. Some had children about Billy’s age and tacked photos of the boy and his mom above their desks.

Berry lauded the work of investigators, highlighting the Salem Police and Yamhill County.

“This has been a case that the community has been very involved in,” he said.

Yamhill District Attorney Brad Berry answers questions from media after a change of plea hearing for Michael Wolfe at Yamhill County Courthouse in McMinnville, Oregon on Friday, June 17, 2022.

He said it had been a “long three years” leading to the guilty plea, and he was happy for Karissa’s and Billy’s family and the community.

“We’re pleased for the family that this is coming to a close,” Berry said. “I don’t think you really have closure on these kinds of cases for the family, but it does end a chapter.”

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at [email protected], call 503-910-6616 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth

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