Pamela Denise Durham, known as Denise to her friends, was a 16-year-old high school student at East Henderson High School. She lived in East Flat Rock, North Carolina. According to an article that ran in the February 15, 1981 edition of The Asheville Citizen Times, Denise Durham was a model student. She was the secretary of the student council, an honors program student, and a band member who played the clarinet. Her life was going smoothly, until Saturday, Feb. 7, 1981, when that life was cut short.
The body of Denise Durham was discovered by Henderson County deputies around 10:30 a.m. that Saturday, just a few miles from the Carl Sandburg Home. It was found in a residential area in the East Flat Rock area, off Treholm Road. The body was sprawled 150 feet away from her car, whose engine was running and had the doors wide open. Two gunshot wounds were found after further inspection of the body. Police reports indicate Denise was shot twice in her car at close range, and then she collapsed after getting out and running for help. She was face down on the ground and covered with a banket. The primary question investigators now had to piece together was, who did this and why? It turns out that the answer wasn’t hard to find. In fact, only four hours later, at 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 7, two men were arrested for her murder. Wilton Clary and Richard Amico. Wilton Clary was the gunman. Richard Amico, the accomplice.
Wilton Clary was 64 at the time of the arrest. He was a former Broadway star who had performed in “Oklahoma” and “The Desert Song” as well as “Three Wishes of Jamie.” Clary had moved with his wife to Hendersonville 10 years prior to the incident and was reported as being significantly involved with the community. He had shared his musical talents with the Hendersonville Symphony, and was active in the local humane society, where his wife served as the president. He used his musical theater background to open his vocal school, a school that Denise enrolled in as one of his first students. This is where the connection between the two was built. What’s interesting is that before this account, Clary’s record was spotless. It seemed not even a traffic ticket was linked to him before or during his time in Hendersonville. What could have led this well-liked former star to commit such an act on one of his students?
A Questionable Relationship
According to statements made by Wilton Clary after he was taken custody, the relationship between teacher and student had started to evolve. In Clary’s statement to the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), he referred to Denise as his “girlfriend.” A court file provided by Leonard Lowe, the District Attorney of Rutherfordton, NC, stated that Clary was worried about how this relationship would hurt his reputation and business if it was made public. This was plausible, but people who knew Clary, like Barbara Saunders, scorned the theory. Saunders was the manager of Flat Rock Playhouse, a local theater in town. She knew Clary well, as he often performed in the Playhouse theater. Saunders reported that only a few years prior Clary had built an expensive home. As a former Broadway star who owned an expensive house, performed free at events around the town and volunteered part-time at East Henderson High School, income wouldn’t be something that drove him to murder. So, the question of motive still stood.
Thirty-nine-year-old Richard Amico pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact in the murder of Denise. He told police that on February 7, he and Wilton Clary met Denise in the parking lot of Henderson County Memorial Hospital and followed her in a van to the Flat Rock area of the county. There, after putting on gloves, Clary shot Denise with a .38 caliber pistol while she sat behind the wheel of her car. Amico was hiding behind a seat in Clary’s van. He did not have the money to meet his $50,000 bail requirement.
Once Wilton Clary was arrested, a District Court Judge set his bond at $50,000. He and his wife Genie quickly posted bond by putting their house up for collateral. According to an article that ran in The Asheville Citizen-Times on February 15, 1981, tempers flared in the community once he was released. Petitions began circulating, asking that a person who was charged with first-degree murder not be released on bond. Thirty of Denise’s classmates protested in front of the courthouse. It wasn’t long before Clary was brought back to jail, because Denise’s father Robert had named Clary in a wrongful death lawsuit. This civil lawsuit had asked that Clary be held in jail in lieu of $500,000 bond until the trial. Richard Amico was not named in the suit. The clerk of court granted the bail request and Wilton Clary was sent back to jail after being out for about 48 hours.
Why was Richard Amico even with Wilton Clary on that day? It seems like a case of unfortunate circumstances. A woman had purchased an antique trunk from the Woof n Purr Thrift Shop in Downtown Hendersonville, where Wilton Clary was working because it was connected to the Human Society. She asked that it be delivered to her house on the Saturday Denise was murdered. Clary secured a van from the thrift shop and asked Amico, who had once worked with him at a local business, to help him deliver the trunk. It was on the way to deliver the trunk that they met up with Denise. The trunk was never delivered and found in the van when police arrested Clary. Amico’s wife later told the media that her husband was innocent and that he had only been helping Clary to deliver the trunk from the thrift store.
On April 27, 1981, the trial of Wilton Clary commenced. He pled guilty to first-degree murder. The judge had authorized the use of one of his earliest statements in the prosecution, which he made during his arrest on February 7, the day of the murder. Clary told one of the officers on the scene “killing Denise was the only way out.” cementing his guilt. Henderson County Sheriff Albert Jackson testified that Clary admitted he shot Denise because she was “bugging the hell” out of him, and wanted Clary to leave his wife for her.
The Last Song
The judge sentenced Clary to life in prison, the motive solidified as one of romantic conflict. He shot her to get his freedom back, but ironically it caged him instead. Clary was transferred from Caledonia Prison to the Lawtey Correctional Institution for older felons in Florida, something that caused much controversy. The backlash from Denise’s friends and family was so intense that James Hunt, the Governor of North Carolina at the time, investigated the charges that Clary was given preferential treatment in prison. He found many serious errors with this transfer, however Rae McNamara, director of the state Bureau of Prisons interjected. She stated that the fast transfer from prison to prison was not because of any sort of corruption, but because of the age and heart problems of Wilton Clary. He was moved to the Florida institution to be closer to his wife.
These heart problems would soon lead to a dramatic end to this case. On August 25, 1985, Clary performed a singing solo for the other inmates during worship. He had just finished when he suddenly collapsed from a heart attack. He died that day, after only four years of imprisonment. It looks like Richard Amico might have been released from prison after serving only a few years.
Denise Durham was a bright high school student with her whole future ahead, but a conflict between her and her music teacher Wilton Clary would ultimately lead to her demise. Was this really the consequence of a tragic love story? Without Denise’s side of the story, we may never be sure. I had a few questions that ran through my mind when I read about this case. To my knowledge, Denise’s family has never spoken publicly about the murder of their daughter. Was there really a romantic relationship between Denise and Wilton? Did the man have a previous track record of being involved with his vocal students? What did his wife think of his arrest and confession? We may never know the answers to any of those questions.
What we do know is that something made Clary feel so trapped that he saw only one way to escape, by getting rid of Denise. Yet this didn’t lead to Clary’s freedom. He too met his demise and learned what it was truly like to be trapped.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a study put together by the U.S. Department of Justice stated that with men who have killed their wives, either threats of separation or actual separations were most often the precipitating events that lead to the murder. Unfortunately, the case of Shelby Sprowls Wilkie falls under that category.
Shelby Wilkie was a 38-year-old professional and mother of a three-month-old daughter living in the Hendersonville/Asheville area when she was reported missing by her husband Michael on January 2, 2012. He said she had left for work that morning and never returned. He even left several messages on her voicemail at Shelby’s office expressing his concern about not hearing from her all day.
But Shelby’s parents had grown concerned the day before she was officially reported missing, because Shelby was close to her mother, Barbara, and they talked on the phone almost daily. They had seen Shelby and her husband Michael, that weekend, but when she texted her daughter on the evening and asked if she was okay, only a one-word reply, “YES,” came back. Barbara later told the media that a one-word response was not something Shelby would typically send.
Shelby’s parents had reason to be concerned for their daughter. What the police would soon learn was that Shelby was secretly planning to leave her husband, and had even leased a house in nearby Black Mountain to move into with her infant daughter. Her father and brother were going to help her move her things while her husband was at work on a night shift. They knew she had been planning to tell Michael on New Year’s Day. She wouldn’t have left without trying to take her daughter Sydney.
When the Mask Slips
Shelby Sprowls had met Michael Wilkie a few years earlier through a dating website. The divorced father of a young daughter impressed her with his chivalrous manners and responsible attitude—he was born and raised in Western North Carolina and had worked at the same manufacturing plant for most of his adult life and owned his own home. Shelby had a bubbly personality and truly believed in the institution of marriage, according to her family. After only a few months of dating, Michael proposed to Shelby and they were married on October 10, 2010. But according to court records and interviews with her family, Michael’s true personality came out once they were married. During an argument, he blocked her from leaving the house, damaged her car door, and tried to yank her wedding rings off her finger. Shaken, she filed a restraining order against him the next day, but according to her family, he begged for her forgiveness until she agreed to drop the charges.
But Shelby’s friends and family knew things weren’t getting any better. They could tell her husband was trying to isolate her. He refused to set up a joint bank account and even insisted she pay for her own food when they went out for meals. Shelby came into work at the Asheville Radio Group, where she was an assistant business manager, with bruises she tried to hide. According to an article than ran in the Times-News in Hendersonville, the couple had another serious fight about six months into their marriage where he tried to restrain her from leaving the house and took the phone away from her to prevent Shelby from calling 911. She filed another restraining order, but ultimately made the decision to drop that one too because she had discovered she was pregnant and wanted to make the marriage work for the sake of their child.
Not long after Sydney was born, Shelby had to face facts that Michael was not the man she thought he was, and she could not live with his volatile temper and mood swings. She hired an attorney to draw up a separation agreement and secretly leased the home in Black Mountain in November 2011. She quietly continued to live with Michael, go to work, and raise Sydney until she could tell him she was leaving at the first of the year.
But Shelby Wilkie disappeared right around the time she was planning to share the news with Michael. And she had told him, according to her mother. But he obviously tried to change her mind, possibly citing their young daughter, or maybe even threatening to fight her for full custody, and she told her mom on New Year’s Day that she would try and work things out with Michael yet again. However, later that night, she texted Barbara, saying “Thing have taken a turn for the worst. He’s trying to steal my rings. I am trying to keep things calm. I still need Dad and the boys to move me out.” After that text, no one in her family could reach her, and the strange one-word text response came from Shelby’s phone. Michael tried to tell police and her family that she had gone to work on January 2. But that day was a designed holiday for the Asheville Radio Group, so she wouldn’t have been going into work. When she didn’t show up for work on January 3, concerned co-workers called Shelby’s family.
Michael Wilkie told police she had been suffering from postpartum depression and that he was worried for her safety. Michael even went on the local news, begging for Shelby to return, but if you look closely at the footage, he wouldn’t make eye contact with the camera and there were visible scratches on his face.
A few days after she was reported missing, Shelby’s car, a black 2012 Ford Escape, was found in the parking lot of the J&S Cafeteria, across from the Asheville Regional Airport. By that time, the five radio Stations belonging to the Asheville Radio Group were running announcements about Shelby’s disappearance and asking listeners to keep an eye out for her. The local Sheriff’s Office asked the Henderson County Rescue Squad to search a park nearby for Shelby, along with the French Broad River, and Westfeldt River Park. These searches turned up no sign of Shelby.
But police were already zeroing in on Michael Wilkie knowing more about his wife’s disappearance than he was letting on. Neighbors of the couple reported that they had returned home late on the night of January 1 to see a concerning fire raging in a burn barrel in the Wilkies’ backyard. They saw a man with a flashlight tending to the fire and making multiple trips back and forth from the house to place things in the fire. They assumed the man was Michael and since he was keeping an eye on the fire, they went on about their evening. Investigators executed a search warrant on the Wilkie home on January 4, 2012.
Evidence of Violence
Although on the surface everything looked normal in the home, forensics tests using luminol and phenolphthalein were positive for a large amount of blood in the home, including extensive blood spatter, pooling, and drag marks.” In fact, they were shocked to see what appeared to be a silhouette of a human body slumped and leaning against the wall. Shelby’s wedding rings were found on top of the refrigerator. They also found a large burned area in the backyard. On January 5, after an additional search in the surrounding woods at the home of Michael’s parents in Hendersonville, police discovered a 55-gallon barrel with ashes they believed to be the remains of Shelby Wilkie.
When confronted with this information, Michael Wilkie quickly changed his story, claiming Shelby had killed herself in their home using Ambien and that he had watched her cut her own wrists in their bathtub. He said he didn’t call police because of the past incidents of domestic violence with his previous wife and instead, he decided to give her the cremation she had wanted instead of calling 911. He was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. His trial began in January of 2015.
At the trial, even more horrifying details of what Shelby’s like with Michael was came out. Just nine days after their wedding in 2010, Michael took Shelby’s dog and left him on the side of Highway 25. The fight that followed that revelation was the one that resulted in Shelby’s first attempt at a restraining order. He was charged with assault on a female five months later after another argument where he tried to prevent her from calling 911. He was ordered to attend a program for anger management. Following another argument after their daughter Sydney was born, Shelby once again tried to leave the home, but he wouldn’t let her have the baby. She called her brother for help, but when he arrived, Michael wouldn’t let Shelby have their daughter. He called 911 and told the dispatch that Shelby was intoxicated and trying to take their daughter.
When police came to the home, a Breathalyzer showed that she was not intoxicated, and she was allowed to leave the home with Sydney and her brother. When she went to the courthouse to file another restraining order the next day, her request was denied. She tried to call the anger management program Michael had just completed to tell them about what had happened, but it didn’t help. This was when Shelby knew she had no choice but to quietly take action. She had planned to pawn the wedding rings Michael was always trying to take off her finger to get some extra cash.
His second wife, Amanda, had also experienced a similar pattern of behavior with Michael and left their home secretly in 1995 just like Shelby had been planning on doing. She shared her story on the episode of 20/20 that aired about Shelby’s case a few years ago. Michael had also abused Amanda while she was pregnant with their daughter. Shelby tried to call Melissa shortly before she went missing, saying she wanted to ask a few questions about her marriage to Michael. Melissa told Shelby that she would be happy to talk to her, but she had been on her way to an appointment and asked Shelby to call her back. That call never came, and the next thing she knew, Michael was on the news asking for help in finding Shelby. In fact, she said when she first heard about Shelby going missing, she assumed the woman had secretly left Michael as well.
Michael must have figured out Shelby was planning to leave him, because he requested emergency vacation time from his employer in Fletcher on Dec. 30, before Shelby had talked to him about the separation. He had plans to be off until January 11, and it appears Shelby had not known about that leave since she was planning to move out of the home while she was at work. Michael was caught on surveillance video at the Asheville Airport dropping Shelby’s car off in the parking lot across the street and getting into a cab. It was Shelby’s father who first went to the police to report his daughter missing, and when they went out to the Wilkie home to do a safety check, Michael told them she had gone to work and not returned home.
Forensic testing was never able to conclusively determine whether the contents of the 55-gallon drum found on the property of Michael’s parents contained Shelby’s DNA. They did find the charred remains of a Tiffany bracelet Shelby’s mom identified as one she had given Shelby along with Shelby’s sister-in-law.
Another interesting fact about this case was that the Hendersonville District Attorney, Greg Newman, was personally familiar with Shelby Wilkie before he prosecuted this case. She had hired him, while he was still in private practice, to help facilitate her separation. So he was fully aware of the environment Shelby had been living in and why she had grown so fearful of her husband.
In late January 2015, a jury deliberated only 30 minutes before finding Michael Wilkie guilty of the first-degree murder of Shelby Wilkie. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Shelby’s family told the news media they wanted to participate in the 20/20 episode about her, titled “New Year’s Day,” because they wanted to help spread awareness about how quickly domestic violence can escalate.
Making a Plan to Leave Safely
When hearing about a case like this, it’s easy for someone on the outside looking in to say, “why did she stay all that time? Why didn’t she just leave?” Michael Wilkie was very manipulative and knew how to say the right things to Shelby to make her stay. His second wife Amanda confirmed the same thing. Shelby and Michael had a child together, and he used that child to threaten Shelby and convince her to stay even before Sydney was born. This statement from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence helps shed light on what Shelby was going through:
A victim’s reasons for staying with their abusers are extremely complex, and in most cases, are based on the reality that their abuser will follow through with the threats they have used to keep them trapped: the abuser will hurt or kill them, they will hurt or kill the kids, they will win custody of the children, they will harm or kill pets or others, they will ruin their victim financially—the list goes on.
The website offers the following tips for victims of domestic violence who are seeking support suggest creating a personalized safety plan, because although you can’t control an abuser’s use of violence, you can plan how you will respond to future abusive or violent incidents, prepare for the possibility of an incident happening, and plan how to get safety. It is your decision if and when you tell others that you have been abused, or that you are still at risk. Friends, family, and coworkers can help with your safety plan if they are aware of the situation and want to help. Visit www.ncadv.org/personalized-safety-plan to learn more.
This young mother of five went missing from Greensboro, North Carolina under suspicious circumstances on January 24 of this year and her family is still searching for her. I had seen this story on multiple news outlets, including national ones, so I wanted to share it in today’s episode.
The 25-year-old had spent the night out at a nightclub in downtown Greensboro when she called 911 from an Exxon gas station on East Market Street at around 3:40 am. Marissa said the person she was with told her to go into the store to buy some items, and while she was inside, they threw her things out of the car and left. However, her cell phone remained in the car. She told 911 she wasn’t sure where in Greensboro she was at. Around 40 minutes later, when a police officer arrived at the gas station to check on her, she was gone. The store clerk said she had gotten a ride with someone else. This leads me to believe maybe the people she was with came back for her, but I’m not positive on that. There is a missing persons flyer being distributed by Marissa’s family that has photos of two men they think Marissa was with around the time she went missing. I won’t name them here but if you search on social media for her name, you’ll see the flyer.
Her mother Sara doesn’t believe her daughter, who has five children under the age of 10, one of whom has special needs would disappear on her own. Marissa was last seen wearing a white T-shirt with a large colorful flower on the front, light blue jeans, and yellow Spongebob Nike sneakers. She was wearing hoop hearings and has her hear in black and blonde braids. She is a biracial female with brown eyes, stands five feet four inches tall, and weighs around two hundred and thirty pounds.
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Marissa Carmichael is asked to call the Greensboro/Guilford Crime Stoppers at 336-373-1000.
Feb. 11, 1981, The Charlotte Observer
“Purchase of Trunk Drew Woman into Tragedy”
Feb. 16, 1981, Asheville Citizen-Times
“Hendersonville Mood: Anger and Frustration”
Feb. 19, 1981, The Charlotte Observer
April 28, 1981, The Charlotte Observer
“Voice Teacher Pleads Guilty in Girl’s Death”
April 28, 1981, The Asheville Citizen-Times
“Clary Draws Life Term in Girl’s Death”
May 3, 1981, Greensboro News and Record
Sept. 17, 1981, The Charlotte Observer
“Amico Pleads Guilty in Death of 16-Year-Old”
Aug. 15, 1982, Greensboro News & Record
“Hunt Orders Clary Probe”
Aug. 25, 1981, Asheville Citizen-Times
“Clary Moved to Rowan Prison Unit”
Aug. 26, 1985, Asheville Citizen-Times
“Wilton Clary Dies After Singing Solo”
January 5, 2012
Missing woman’s vehicle located
Asheville Citizen Times
January 6, 2012
River, home, targeted in search for woman
Asheville Citizen Times
January 1, 2013
Husband charged in wife’s death
Asheville Citizen Times
January 21, 2015
Wilkie trial begins; man accused of killing wife
Asheville Citizen Times
April 17, 2015
Hendersonville murder case to be focus of show