tv 2020 ABC May 21, 2016 10:00pm-11:01pm PDT
>> reporter: tonight on "20/20" -- a young mother has gone missing, and her husband has gone on camera, their infant daughter in his arms, pleading for her return. >> and we have a daughter together. i mean, we have life together. we need you, we love you. please just come. >> her husband believes she may be struggling with postpartum depression. >> reporter: her car turns up at the airport, and this woman believes she knows what happened. >> i turned around to my husband and i said, "she ran. i know she ran." >> reporter: the mystery of shelby wilkie's disappearance has everybody on edge, and ironically it all began with a party.
>> five, four, three, two, one. >> reporter: news year's eve, a time for new beginnings and new hope. >> happy new year! >> reporter: in the first moments of 2012, while these revelers throng times square, 38-year-old shelby wilkie is having a much quieter evening in a much quieter place -- 700 miles south in asheville, north carolina. >> all of new year's day and into the evening was wonderful . we were together and we were happy. and just, it just was a great time. >> reporter: at the stroke of midnight, shelby is at home with her husband michael. that's them sharing a tender moment in this home video. they'd connected on an online dating site. he was tall dark and handsome. >> she was excited about this guy.
he was a great catch, right? >> oh, yeah. and i think she called him prince charming at one time. she goes, "it's like a prince charming. look at all he does for me. and he's great." >> reporter: a portrait of stability, wilkie's held down the same job for 16 years in manufacturing. he owns a home -- a regular guy who loves the atlanta falcons and fantasy football. >> yeah. she goes, "he's gotta be a great guy." >> reporter: they live in this two-bedroom ranch in a cul-de-sac on moody street, where christmas had come early. baby sydney is born, the daughter shelby had always wanted. >> carried her everywhere. wanted to be with her. regretted really having to go to work. she missed her so much. and she just was in love with sydney. >> she wanted to be married, she wanted a family. that was her whole goal in life. >> reporter: shelby has met that goal and surpassed it. while building a family, she is also building a career as a business manager at 96.5 asheville radio group.
>> good morning, it's tax -- tammy and dax with you. >> reporter: what was she like as a business manager? >> she was very professional. and she could be stern. she didn't take slack from anybody. she was a very strong person. >> reporter: shelby's parents, jan and bill sprowls, say she's been that way since she was in diapers. >> you knew she was in the room. >> reporter: a force of nature. >> yes, absolutely. >> reporter: shelby liked to be in charge. here she is leading the singing at her own birthday party. ♪ happy birthday to you >> reporter: your parents describe your sister as the cruise director. >> yeah, she kept things organized, kept things on task. she had everything set up and all we had to do was show up, basically. >> reporter: new year's day is a sunday and the oregon ducks are playing the wisconsin badgers in the rose bowl while jan sprowls texts shelby, checking in on her daughter and the new baby. >> i texted her and said, "are you okay?" and a text came back, "yes." >> reporter: it is the last time they will ever hear from her. >> good evening.
welcome to "20/20" saturday. i'm elizabeth vargas. >> and i have david muir. as you just saw, that single word to that text, yes, will come back to have meaning tonight. >> what would cause her to leave her husband and baby and even go so far as to set up an elaborate getaway plan? that question will finally get its chilling answer when the lights go off literally. once again, matt gutman. >> reporter: it is now 10:30 on sunday night, and shelby's mother has still heard nothing from her daughter but a deafening silence. >> sunday into monday, i was just calling and calling. i got into a panic. why she wouldn't pick up, it's not like her. i hear from her all the time. >> reporter: the swelling anxiety turns the minutes into hours. >> i couldn't get through to her cell phone anymore because it had been turned off. i had a very, very bad instinct that something had happened to shelby.
>> one of my coworkers walks into an office and she says, "shelby's missing." and i go, "stop kiddin' around. she's not missing." she goes, "no, really, her mom's been trying to get ahold of her and she says she can't reach her." well, that's bizarre. >> reporter: monday evening, still no word from shelby. so shelby's father and brother head over to the house on moody street to see what's up. >> i asked michael if he knew where shelby was because we hadn't heard from her all day which is strange. >> reporter: but the day started normally, says michael, who told them she drove to work that morning in her 2012 ford escape. >> so -- so he picked up his cell phone and called her work, saying, "yeah, i'm right here with bill. he's in the -- in the driveway lookin' for you." >> hey, honey, it's me. i'm standing in the yard with bill, and people are trying to get ahold of you and you're not returning any calls and stuff. just, uh, call somebody back and let's let 'em know something, okay? i love you, honey. >> reporter: actually he'd left a series of messages himself on
office voicemail. >> hey, honey, it's me. i can't wait to see you later. love you babe, bye. i was just calling to see how your day was going. i hadn't heard from you. hopefully you're not working too hard. >> he just said that they -- he -- that she'd run off and left. that she just went -- went to work and didn't come back home. >> reporter: after two more hours of radio silence, bill makes a call of his own. >> henderson county 911. >> yes, ma'am, my daughter's been missing since noon yesterday. >> reporter: shelby's car is gone. as is the tiffany's bracelet her mother recently gave her. she never left home without it. >> and we all were all out looking. i mean, just -- we just didn't know what else to do. >> henderson county authorities are searching for a woman who left home early yesterday morning and hasn't been seen since. >> reporter: of course the vanishing of shelby wilkie causes the cops to consider foul play. that's where detective sonya matthews enters the picture.
>> this was a true missing persons case. and my gut just said, no, this is really serious. >> reporter: you don't have to have seen the hit movie "gone girl" to know that when a wife goes missing, the cops' first questions are for the husband. >> we understand there are concerns about your wife. >> i don't know where my wife is. >> reporter: the patrol officer came here to check things out, didn't see anything. >> right. >> reporter: michael wilkie invites officers into the house. >> and then we asked him, "do you mind if we look around?" and he was fine with it. he said, "absolutely, no problem." >> reporter: he answers all their questions. >> little sydney was sitting on a -- on the coffee table in her car seat, and he invited us to sit down and talk to him right here in the front room. um, i remember he took little sydney out and was holding her. >> reporter: behavior in keeping with his reputation as a down-to-earth mountain man. >> he didn't drink, he didn't smoke, he didn't swear. good old country boy that had been here his whole life. >> reporter: that's why the sprowls embraced their new son-in-law.
here's the clan in happier times, opening presents on christmas day. >> perfect. i love it. >> reporter: family, husband, job, baby -- if shelby wilkie has it all right here in asheville, then where has she gone? michael now goes on tv desperate for answers. just like in "gone girl," he's the ben affleck pleading for his rosamund pike to come home. >> i love my wife so much. >> we have a daughter together. we have a life together. i mean, i just want her to come home. we need you. we love you. please, just come home. >> reporter: michael suggests the new mom had emotional problems after giving birth. >> her husband believes she may be struggling with postpartum depression. >> reporter: as detective matthews works the case, she learns that the mystery's first clues are to be found in moments not captured on home video. >> i'm probably such a mess
here. >> reporter: when they come to light, they reveal a young mother who had made a secret new year's resolution. and another woman convinced e knows why this girl had gone. >> i turned around to my husband and i said, "she ran. i know she ran." >> reporter: stay with us. what if there was another way to look at relapsing multiple sclerosis? this is tecfidera. tecfidera is not an injection. it's a pill for relapsing ms that has the power to cut relapses in half. imagine what you could do with fewer relapses. tecfidera may cause serious side effects, such as allergic reactions, pml, which is a rare brain infection that usually leads to death or severe disability, and decreases in your white blood cells. the most common side effects are flushing and stomach problems. tell your doctor about any low white blood cell counts,
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>> reporter: asheville, north carolina, where rolling emerald pastures give way to the foothills of the blue ridge mountains. it's consistently voted one of the best and happiest places to live in america. but for shelby wilkie's family, it has become a wasteland of worry. >> they want some answers regarding where shelby wilkie was headed. sheriff's detectives belief that wilkie left at 7:00 a.m. >> we were all out with fliers, missing, you know, can you -- and it was a picture of shelby and sydney and, you know, "can you help me find my mommy?" it was really hard on everybody. i mean, we all started getting really worried. >> reporter: police join them. choppers hunt the skies. scuba divers comb the riverbeds. >> i remember tapping every
resource we could -- the state highway police and their helicopter, cadaver dog. search and rescue teams were employed. >> reporter: the results, nothing. >> they say they need some leads to help find her. >> reporter: local news stations including our affiliate, wlos, elicit tips from the public. there are sightings of a brunette woman at the wheel of a black ford escape, a similar vehicle parked in front of this pawn shop, a woman matching shelby's description in the checkout line at wal-mart. >> we took all of them serious and we investigated all of them. >> reporter: 4:00 p.m., wednesday, january 4th, two days after shelby is reported missing, the black escape is found in the parking lot of the j&s cafeteria, across the road from the asheville regional airport. 90 miles away, in this woman's head, an alarm bell starts blaring. shelby has fled. >> they said that she might have flown out of the airport, so i think, oh, she really got away.
>> reporter: amanda casey was michael wilkie's wife before shelby. that marriage had produced a beautiful daughter and plenty of happy memories. >> you guys got dressed up, he's a confederate officer, you were a southern belle, looks like fun. >> it was. >> did you guys have laughs while you were doing this? >> sure. >> so he had a good sense of humor? >> definitely. mm-hm. very charismatic. >> reporter: but like the confederacy, amanda's marriage eventually became a lost cause. >> 'cause he was so good at masking. it was like jekyll and hyde, two personalities, and you didn't know which one you would get. >> how nice was the dr. jekyll? >> very nice. >> and mr. hyde? >> terrible. not somebody you'd want to meet. >> you guys had a pretty big argument when you were pregnant with the daughter you had with him? >> the argument escalated and he was physically abusive. >> what does that mean, "physically abusive"? >> he grabbed me around my throat and threw me around our bedroom and my shoulder went
through and made that hole in the sheet rock in the bedroom. >> reporter: she never filed charges and says the psychological abuse left a far bigger dent. one night she decided to flee, even though it meant leaving her 3-year-old daughter behind. >> reporter: the only way that you thought you could actually get away was if you didn't take your daughter. that must have been a gut wrenching decision. >> i had determined that i would let the court system take care of that and get her back that way. >> reporter: years later, amanda learned that michael was with shelby. did you wonder if she knew what you knew about this dark side? >> i had hoped -- i always try to think positive. and i had hoped that things had changed. >> reporter: well, the wife had changed, but the husband, unfortunately, well, he was pretty much the same. though michael had presented himself as a gentle dog lover on his online dating profile, his more unattractive personality
traits were revealed in this restraining order filed by shelby just two weeks into their marriage. shelby said michael "attempted to restrain me from leaving for work, tried to forcibly remove my wedding rings from my finger, broke my fingernail, door of car and scratched my arm." >> so she was beginning to see after marriage things that she had not seen before. >> reporter: still, shelby immediately dropped the charges and kept the abuse a secret. >> why did she go back? >> because shelby was a very loving, believing, trusting person. he had an ability to cry and to beg and to -- "i love you," you know. this was a mistake." >> and so he could turn his emotions on a dime? >> yes. just a master at manipulation. >> reporter: months into the marriage, the mood on moody street was growing grimmer by the day. the wilkie home was becoming shelby's two-bedroom hell. they fought about what everybody
fights about, money. >> he wanted to split the check with her when they went out to dinner as a married couple? >> yes. >> she had to pay half of his house payment, half of the utility bills. >> reporter: shelby hid the worst from her parents, but there were some things no amount of cover-up could hide. >> and i said, "where did you get the bruises on your neck?" and she said, "michael and i got in a fight and he grabbed me and he leaned me over a table. i think i passed out." "why didn't you call somebody?" she goes, "well, you know, i'm -- i'm okay. he didn't mean to." >> reporter: in truth, shelby was far from okay. and six months into the marriage, she called the cops again. the warrant says shelby had bruises and cuts on her face and hands. michael grabbed her and threw her down when she reached for an alarm keypad. this time michael was charged with assault. he avoided jail time by agreeing to attend anger management classes at mainstay, a domestic violence prevention agency. eight months later, they welcomed a new life, their
daughter, sydney, and shelby hoped, a new start. but just 11 days after the birth, another call to police. this time the tables have turned. it's michael complaining about shelby. >> 911? >> um, yes, i was wondering if you can send someone here. my wife is drinking and she's acting crazy. i just want you to get her out of here. >> are you trying to say i've been drinking? >> you have been drinking. there's an empty bottle of champagne in the garbage. >> that is total crap. >> please, please hurry. >> reporter: is this a sign of postpartum depression or just a fight? in any event, shelby goes to an attorney, greg newman, so draw up a separation agreement. >> there was a plan to move her to an undisclosed home and they were going to do this around the first of the year. >> reporter: shelby even rents this secret safe house and
prepares to disappear when michael was at work. then, a couple of months before the vanishing, she makes a cryptic phone call to, of all people, michael's ex, amanda. >> and she said, "i just want to ask you some things about michael. is that okay?" and i said, "sure." and i said, "shelby, if there is anybody that knows what you are going through, it's me." i can't talk to you right now. i have got an appointment i have got to get to." but i said, "please call me back." i literally slept with my cell phone. >> reporter: that next call never comes. the next time amanda hears shelby's name it is on the tv news. >> 38-year-old shelby wilkie is a new mother. >> reporter: and her ex-husband's teary plea for shelby to come on home. >> we need you. i love you. just come home. >> and i just sit there and just sit there and looked, and -- >> did you think that maybe she got away? >> yeah. >> reporter: maybe she finally did it. amanda is convinced that history has repeated itself.
michael wilkie's abuse has driven another wife to flee at any cost, even if it means leaving a child behind. >> and i turned around to my husband, and i said, "she ran. i know she ran." >> reporter: but shelby hasn't turned up at that safe house or anywhere else for that matter. and now shelby's family and detective matthews see something scarier. take another look at michael's weepy press conference. >> i just want her to come home. >> reporter: do you see what they see? stay with us. applebee's now has trained meat-cutters slicing every steak by hand for the juiciest, most tender steak ever. don't believe us? ask the guy with the knife. ♪ only at applebee's remember that time your husband ripped out the kitchen stove and installed a wood fired grill to make you a steak seared to smoky oak perfection? oh wait, that was us. ♪ only at applebee's ♪jake reese, "day to feel alive"♪
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>> reporter: in the wilkie house on moody street, the dishes are unwashed, the laundry unfolded, and little baby sydney is without her mother. was this a postpartum meltdown? or perhaps she ran to escape a miserable marriage. the discovery of her car at the local airport had some people suspecting as much, but shelby's parents had been suspecting something much worse. >> i felt something was really wrong. and i went to bill and i said, "something's not right. something is really not right." >> reporter: that gnawing fear had begun back on sunday, new year's day, 24 hours before they reported her missing. and it was all because of those final text messages. >> i texted her and said, "are you okay?" and a text came back, "yes." and i -- the blood drained from
my body for some reason. i had the worst feeling i can ever imagine. >> why? >> because it was just "yes." she would never say just "yes." >> what would she write? >> she would either say, "i'll call you in a minute, love you." she would tell me more. >> reporter: the sprowls knew shelby's marriage to michael wilkie was on the rocks. they had even helped shelby set up that secret safe house. so when her phone went dark, they started to panic. if you felt something was so wrong, why not just go over there? >> up until this point we didn't -- there was not danger danger. i don't think normal people think, well, maybe he's, you know, really hurt her bad and she can't communicate. >> reporter: when bill finally did swing by the house monday,
michael had assured him that shelby had left for work safe and sound monday morning. he'd even left messages for her there. >> hey honey, it's me. i was just calling to see how your day was going. i hadn't heard from you. hopefully you're not working too hard. >> reporter: and he's cooperated fully with detective sonya matthews when she came out to the house on tuesday. >> so, it was just about noon when you drove down this street for the first time? >> yes. >> did you see anything suspicious? >> no. >> so you walked up here, he opened the door? >> he said, sure, come right in. >> reporter: michael's attitude is that of a bereft husband, the guy who wept on tv, baby sydney in arms, for the tv camera. but the detectives couldn't help but notice what the camera did, those scratch marks on michael's face. >> we see what appears to be scratch marks around his eyes and on his cheek and it's just -- >> indicative of a struggle maybe? >> quite possibly. it's just -- just too suspicious.
>> reporter: so the cops comb the house, looking for anything incriminating. they look in drains for blood or cleaning fluid, in closets, in storage containers. >> we looked everywhere that a human body could be. we didn't see anything suspicious. >> reporter: but now the detective is starting to think michael's relationship with the truth is as troubled as his relationship with shelby. for starters, his story about shelby going to work on monday, that was january 2nd, the new year's holiday. >> it did not hold water when we looked into it, because that was a holiday. it was a scheduled holiday for shelby's place of employment. there would have been no reason for shelby to go into the office. >> reporter: as for the theory that shelby may have fled to escape her crumbling marriage? well, immediately after leaving the house on moody street, matthews checks shelby's bank and phone records. >> there had been absolutely no activity on her cell phone since sunday evening. and there had been no other activity on her bank account. that tells us she really didn't plan on doing anything, because
she hadn't prepared for it or had the means to travel anywhere. >> reporter: and while it's true, shelby's ford escape is found wednesday near the airport, police also find this. >> after we observed what we thought was shelby's car turn into the parking lot within approximately a minute's time, we see this figure continue to walk purposefully. >> that figure is impossible to identify, but it sure isn't shelby. >> we picked up a different camera. we see them approach the side of the taxi and get into the last taxi in the row. and shortly thereafter that taxi leaves and exits the airport. >> reporter: michael voluntarily accepts a request to come in for a polygraph. he fails miserably. >> i could not give michael a grade on his polygraph, but i would say that based on the fact that he showed clear signs of deception when he took the polygraph, we knew that he was hiding something from us. >> reporter: and yet, when a cadaver dog sniffs through shelby's car and michael's truck, nothing. there is still no sign of the missing mom, dead or alive. >> and at that time, we did not find anything significant.
>> reporter: by wednesday afternoon, the team is back at the wilkie home with a search warrant and again, mirroring the movie "gone girl," they've brought luminol, the chemical solution which can detect the presence of blood even after its been cleaned up. >> when you turned out the lights, you sprayed everything with luminol, what did you see? >> we saw a line that looked like something had been squirted along the wall and would actually run down. and there was enough of -- enough of it that it had run down the wall. and about right in here, there was actually the silhouette of a human body as if someone had slumped, kind of like that, what we took to be in death.
>> reporter: by thursday, cops still haven't found shelby wilkie. but they sure have more questions for michael wilkie. >> he had done something with her and our goal at that point was to try to figure out exactly what he did. >> reporter: when we come back, michael wilkie in the box and on the hot seat. turning on the water works once again, and -- >> you're not the only one we're looking at, okay? >> reporter: is another suspect about to emerge. >> he told me if i ever told anybody about that, that he would kill me. >> reporter: stay with us. jean! i am so sorry. this personal essay is way harder than i thought. it's just not in my nature to brag on myself. not even a backdoor brag? what's a backdoor brag? sneaking something wonderful about yourself into everyday conversation, like when i tell people i can't watch musicals 'cause i have perfect pitch.
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detectives sure suspect michael wilkie murdered her, but there's no body and they aren't ready to arrest him. so now comes the moment of truth. >> first of all, thanks for coming in and chatting with me. >> reporter: at 4:11 in the afternoon, thursday january 5th, michael wilkie volunteers to come into the henderson county sheriff's office and submit to what will be six hours of questioning from sergeant andrew anderson. he's a master interrogator. >> he wanted to be there. it seemed like he was ready to talk. >> reporter: up to now wilkie has been so cooperative. maybe he really is innocent. or is he just convinced he can talk his way out of the quicksand? legal analyst nancy grace has studied this case. >> michael wilkie is painting himself into a corner with his own words. okay? >> are you a baseball fan? >> i'm a braves fan. >> good, man i'm a freak, man i'm a freak. >> reporter: the interrogation begins with some ice-breaking small talk.
>> but i love, absolutely love the atlanta braves. i've been a baseball fan and a braves fan my whole life. >> i was creating a bond with him. i wanted him to be comfortable enough to be able to tell me the truth what happened to his wife. >> obviously we need to find your wife. >> i know that. >> there's no doubt, we need to find her. >> reporter: detective sonya matthews is watching from down the hall as anderson reveals to wilkie the cops have pretty much eliminated the runaway theory. >> her cell phone ended on january 1st. >> what do you mean ended? >> there's no activity. there's been no activity with her three bank accounts, that we know of. found her car, haven't found her. doesn't look good. >> reporter: but he assures wilkie, he is not the only suspect. >> you're not the only one we're looking at, okay? >> reporter: and michael immediately offers up someone else. >> i'm not trying to be mean or anything, but do you know about her mom's problem? >> no, tell me about her mom. >> he thinks if he can just keep talking, he can outwit everybody. he starts pointing the finger at her own parents. >> reporter: he claims jan had some legal trouble, and bill
demanded he keep his mouth shut. >> he come over there and he told me if i ever sit there and tell anybody about it that he would kill me. >> so her dad threatened you? >> yeah. >> reporter: the parents say it was absurd to say they threatened michael. >> he's trying to pass the blame to someone else and i let him do that. >> reporter: but anderson returns the focus to wilkie, zeroing in now on that key question everyone wants answered: how did he get those scratches on his face? >> this is the hallway, the master bedroom is back in this area, and there's like a half bath? >> reporter: they go through new years day hour by hour, drawing where shelby and michael were in the house. and slowly, andersen gets wilkie to abandon the theory that shelby ran off. >> well, it actually started in the kitchen. >> reporter: wilkie begins describing an argument in that kitchen that moves to the bathroom and then to the bedroom. >> he admits to a physical altercation, he admitted to that. >> reporter: first wilkie says shelby hit him. >> what did she do?
you're showing me with your hands. tell me what she did. >> she clawed, it was like she was trying to claw my eyes out. >> and that's how you got the scratches and the one on the side? >> yeah. >> reporter: but there's more. anderson extracting the truth like sap from a north carolina maple. for the first time, wilkie admits he hit shelby. >> i mean i pushed her back. p and i'm just kind of like, just stop, you know? and then shes like, oh i think my nose is bleeding and all. >> when people start admitting things such as ok, well, she had a bloody nose, they feel like they're not incriminating themselves, but you know the truth. >> reporter: the closer to the truth, the more emotional wilkie gets. >> just let it go. just let it go. >> reporter: he weeps and yelps. but still denies killing shelby. he has no idea where she is. >> the weight of the world is on your shoulders. >> i didn't kill her. >> how did she die? >> i didn't kill her. >> how did she die? how did she die? what happened in there?
tell me, tell me. >> reporter: but he is about to learn just how much evidence the detectives have already. for example, remember that luminol? the chemical that, just like in the movie shows blood splatter even after it's been cleaned up? >> i'm telling you what's been found there last night, on this wall there is basically an outline of a human body that had been on their knees, up against the wall, and human blood. no bloody nose causes that! can you not tell that we know exactly what happened? >> i didn't take and kill her. >> you didn't take and kill her. >> no, i didn't. >> reporter: so, where did all that blood come from then? >> there's a hail mary. he says she committed suicide. >> and then she took a razor, like the old, and she cut. >> a straight razor? >> she cut her wrists, right there in the bathroom! she was like this. >> this is all strictly a show. >> i'm the reason she's dead,
but i didn't kill her. >> reporter: so why didn't he call 911? why didn't he try to help shelby? his story isn't adding up, especially in light of this molotov cocktail of a revelation. >> reporter: so you guys came out here and one of the guys noticed this big black patch right there. >> right. right about where that birdfeeder's at is where they saw this perfect rectangle that had been burned in the yard. >> reporter: but they still don't know where wilkie disposed of the ashes from that fire. >> basically over there you notice something that makes you stop and think for a second? >> correct. >> reporter: but now, 5:00 p.m. that afternoon, just a few miles from where wilkie is answering questions at the sheriff's office, the investigation now heads to his parents home. where detective scott galloway is walking up a winding gravel drive in the blue ridge foothills, searching for the
remains of wilkie's bonfire. he's texting detective anderson every step of the way, particularly what he sees as he turns the corner. >> when we come on down the driveway here, we see what looks to us like fresh tire tracks cutting down the field. >> reporter: the lone tire tracks in lead the detectives to a 55 gallon barrel in the woods. >> inside the barrel? >> um, some of them were dumped out. >> ashes, some small fragments of bone? >> yes. reporter: suspicious to say the least. but the fire has burned off all dna traces. there's no way to identify whose bones these were. >> let me tell you what's happened while i've been gone. >> reporter: back in the interrogation room, detective anderson reveals what's been found. but instead of a confession, the mountain man spins his tallest tale. he says he granted his beloved wife her final wish. >> shelby always said she wanted to be cremated. >> reporter: it's hard to hear. but even harder to believe. he says he cremated her body
after the "suicide," then cleaned up to preserve her memory. >> how is she in the burning barrel? tell me. >> the barrel is just whatever was things didn't take and burn. >> ok. that is wrong on so many levels i hardly know where to start. >> reporter: his oscar worthy performance is rewarded with twin bracelets. >> charging you with one count of murder. >> reporter: 9:00 p.m. thursday night, four days after shelby vanishes, michael wilkie is arrested and cuffed. but the case is no lay-up. >> there was -- there was no body. we had no murder weapon. we really don't know how the homicide occurred. >> reporter: what would a jury make of all this at trial? is that why michael wilkie is smiling? even giving the thumbs up after the verdict? stay with us.
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>> he's charged with killing his wife and burning her body. >> investigators aren't saying exactly what they think happened. >> reporter: the arrest of michael wilkie for the gruesome murder of his wife shelby, a new mother, was a stunner to his friends. >> it was a shock. it was a total surprise to me. >> reporter: and anguish for her family. >> it kind of confirmed our worst fears, and uh, we were all devastated. >> reporter: but if the arrest came quickly, the trial did not. three years passed before michael wilkie's day in court arrived. >> the trial of a man accused of killing his wife in henderson county started today. >> reporter: greg newman prosecuted the case. >> have you ever seen a case >> i have not. >> reporter: as fate would have it, newman had played a previous role in this story. remember back when she was hatching her plan to ditch michael and escape to that "safe house?" he was the divorce lawyer she'd gone to see about drawing up papers. >> she actually came to you just
a few days before she was killed. >> well, this was a lady that clearly needed help. >> reporter: now despite an avalanche of circumstantial evidence, the prosecution lacked concrete proof. >> there was no body, no murder weapon, no dna whatsoever. >> reporter: remember, michael never confessed to the murder and those ashes and bones found on his parents' property were never identified as shelby's remains. but then -- >> we were called in shortly before the trial by greg newman and he pulled out a charred bracelet and asked if we recognized it. right away i did. it's what i gave shelby. >> reporter: that beloved tiffany bracelet, shelby never took it off. >> it was the only shred of proof really connecting shelby to the remains. >> yes.
>> how significant was linking the bracelet to the murder? >> very significant because in this day and age juries expect and want to see some type of forensic proof. >> reporter: now armed with that proof, newman lays out the story of what really happened to shelby wilkie. january 1st, shelby's new year's resolution to leave michael, taking baby sydney with her leads to a physical altercation and the scratches on his face. michael wilkie savagely killed his wife while baby sydney was in the room. it's actually michael texting replies on her phone. >> i especially love it when defendants get ahold of their victim's cell phone and text in their place. >> reporter: that night he drags his dead wife through the house, out to the back yard where he incinerates her body inhat
suspicious bonfire. >> clearly to burn a body where there's little to nothing left, it would have to be a fire of some impressive size. >> reporter: to cover up the crime, he scrubs the house spotless and later drives a barrel of charred remains to the back of his parents' property. but he still has to explain shelby's disappearance, so he concocts the runaway theory by driving shelby's car to the airport early monday morning. that's him in the security camera footage. >> you see a figure right here approaching the taxi cab stand. >> reporter: to mask his role in shelby's vanishing, wilkie then leaves those concerned voice mails at her office on monday. >> people are trying to get ahold of you and you're not returning any calls and stuff. just call somebody back and let somebody know something. >> reporter: the performance capped off by those crock adial tears. baby sydney front and center, wilkie pushes the runaway theory
to the public. >> if she doesn't feel like reaching out to somebody, then nobody can help her if there's something going on. >> when you look at the clip of wilkie begging for his wife's safe return and you see his hands on her little baby, sydney, to think those murdererous hands holding that little baby, it made my skin crawl. >> reporter: as for the defense's case, wilkie's lawyer stuck to the improbable theory that wilkie tried to sell during his interrogation after cops had literally reduced the runaway theory to anxious, shelby committed suicide. >> she slit her wrist. >> the jury returned with a verdict in just 32 minutes, finding michael wilkie guilty of first degree murder. >> michael wilkie was sentenced to life without parole. >> reporter: and then michael wilkie does something
inexplicable. he gives the thumb's up sign as he goes off to spend the rest of his life in prison. >> we felt very satisfied to get this conviction. we felt we had achieved justice for shelby and that we brought some mesh of closure for this really wonderful family. >> there was a feeling of joy and happiness that he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. >> reporter: the family has now focused on the welfare of little sydney, inspired by a heartbreaking note they discovered, shelby writing her newborn daughter. >> i have been dreaming of holding you for a long time. and now my dreams have come true. you are the most beautiful little girl i've ever seen, and you are my precious angel. >> reporter: sydney is in the process of being adopted by shelby's brother bill. >> i love you, daddy.
>> i love you too. >> reporter: and his wife stacy. they have no plans to take her for a visit with her father in prison. >> he doesn't deserve to ever see her beautiful face. to have her is the easiest, greatest thing in the world. >> shelby referred to her as her angel, and we all feel she really is a little angel because she's kept our family together and given us reason to smile. what to look at relapsing way multiple sclerosis? this is tecfidera.
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that little girl, sydney, is now 4 years old and has been officially adopted by shelby's brother and his wife. she starts preschool this fall. >> a welcome outcome to this story but a grim reminder that every year there are some 1500 domestic violence homicides across this country. >> if you've been the victim of domestic violence or know someone who has, go to our website right now, abcnews.com/"20/20" for resources that can help. in the meantime, thanks so much for watching tonight. i'm elizabeth vargas. >> i'm david muir. for all of us here at "20/20," have a great weekend. we'll see you next week.
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