Police seeking Gaston man for questioning in Salem mom’s disappearance

Michael J. Wolfe, 52, of Gaston. (Salem Police Department photo)

The search for a missing Salem woman and her 3-year-old son took a dramatic turn Thursday as police announced they were searching for the father of the boy for questioning while searching two rural properties northwest of Salem in Yamhill County.

The Salem Police Department and the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office announced Thursday afternoon they were seeking Michael J. Wolfe, 52, of Gaston for questioning. They described him as a “person of interest” in the missing person case of Karissa A. Fretwell, 25, and her son, William.

Police have asked anyone with information about Wolfe call the Salem police tip line at 503-588-8477.

Police have been searching his Gaston property since Sunday.

Polk County court records from a paternity case last year show that Wolfe is the boy’s father.

Police said Fretwell and her son were last seen May 13 and a relative reported them missing four days later, but police have provided no details on what triggered the announcement. Fretwell lives in an apartment in West Salem.

Outside her apartment, a green Mercury Mountaineer on Thursday afternoon had doors sealed with red evidence tape. A search warrant listing Wolfe as a suspect in her disappearance was visible on the driver’s seat, signed Tuesday, May 21, by a Polk County judge.

Technicians collected DNA swabs and other items from the car, those papers said.

Early Thursday, police continued a search of Wolfe’s home, about a mile outside of the rural community of Gaston and approximately 40 miles from Salem. Police said that search triggered a second search on rural property about 30 miles south in Hopewell. The searches were still underway Thursday evening.

Police search the Gaston-area home of Michael J. Wolfe on Thursday, May 22. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

The Wolfe home sits in the hills south of Gaston, about two miles up winding Phillips Road. The 100-yard driveway to the home slopes down to a ranch-style home surrounded by a handful of buildings, including an old red barn that police walked in and out of through the afternoon.

Police came and went as a gaggle of TV reporters gathered across the street to shoot live shots for the 5 p.m. news.

Salem police wouldn’t say how the investigation traveled from Wolfe’s home to Hopewell, but Lt. Treven Upkes said about 25 people from various law enforcement agencies searched an area of about a quarter mile of fields.

The search team used a nearby bed-and-breakfast as a staging area. Upkes said the bed-and-breakfast was not the target of the search, but was close to the fields that were. Efforts to search the area remained underway into the evening.

“Our next step is hopefully the public will help us out,” said Upkes. “And we can find out where Karissa and William are. It’s vital that we work together so Karissa and William can get home safe and sound.”

At the Wolfe home, police remain staged in the driveway for the search work there, including six police cars, a mobile command center and a Sprinter-style police van.

The area has vistas of rolling hills adorned with tall pine trees.

Neighbor Randy Ruggles said he moved to his house about 20 years ago, and saw Wolfe and his wife driving down the road over the years, but didn’t have an impression of them.

“You just don’t know who your neighbors are,” Ruggles said.

He said he noticed the command center set up Sunday at about 9 p.m. The next day he noticed a fleet of police vehicles – Oregon State Police, FBI, county sheriff and local police. He said there were about 14 police cars lining the road, and the driveway was packed with more. They’ve been there ever since, Ruggles said, including an state police forensic team earlier in the week.

In West Salem, the porch light outside Fretwell’s apartment was still on Thursday afternoon, and her exterior storm door was covered in what appeared to be fingerprint powder.

Her Facebook page said she was a native of North Dakota, graduated high school in Dallas, before attending Chemeketa Community College.

There, she earned an associate’s degree in 2016. She’s currently a student at Western Oregon University, a spokeswoman confirmed, but hasn’t been seen in class since May 13.

According to her Facebook page, Fretwell has worked at McDonald’s, as a delivery driver, and as a security guard at a McMinnville steel plant. Court records showed she was living in McMinnville in 2017.

Polk County records showed that her son was conceived in 2015, but his actual birthdate wasn’t disclosed. With the help of the Polk County District Attorney’s Office, she asked for a court order in June 2018 to establish paternity, citing Wolfe as the father.

According to a sworn statement by the testing company in August, Wolfe was confirmed as the father and the district attorney’s office moved to force him to pay child support.

Records of the Polk County Circuit Court show Wolfe contested an original assessment for child support, leading to a court hearing on April 15. A judge’s order setting his support obligation at $904 was filed May 17 — four days after Fretwell’s disappearance.

Police evidence tape marks a car belonging to Karissa Fretwell on Thursday, May 22, in Salem. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Karissa Fretwell’s car remains parked outside her Salem home on Thursday, May 22, in Salem. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A receipt for a police search rests inside a car belonging to Karissa Fretwell on Thursday, May 22, in Salem. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Police continue to search the Gaston-area home of Michael J. Wolfe on Thursday, May 22. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Police continue to search the Gaston-area home of Michael J. Wolfe on Thursday, May 22. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Police continue to search the Gaston-area home of Michael J. Wolfe on Thursday, May 22. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Recent photos of Karissa Fretwell and her son William, released by Salem police to enlist public help in finding them.

Police used a rural fire station in Hopewell as a staging area to brief reporters on Thursday, May 22. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Reporter Troy Brynelson: [email protected] or 503-575-9930.

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