Karissa Fretwell, 25, and her 3-year-old son William.

A Gaston man pleaded guilty Friday to murdering Karissa Fretwell and her 3-year-old son three years ago, giving up on years of legal fights to fend off the charges.

Michael J. Wolfe, 55, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and second-degree murder in Yamhill County Circuit Court, court records showed.

His is scheduled to be sentenced on July 20.

An autopsy established the 25-year-old single mother died from a gunshot to the head. The cause of her son’s death hasn’t been established.

Wolfe has been in the Yamhill County Jail since his arrest in Portland on May 24, 2019. Salem police at the time were still searching to find the Salem mother and the toddler, William Fretwell.

A McMinnville Fire Department crew found the Fretwells’ bodies hidden on private timberlands about 10 miles west of Yamhill on June 15, 2019, ending a month-long search for the two. They had last been seen May 13.

Karissa Fretwell’s Facebook page said she was a native of North Dakota and graduated high school in Dallas. She later attended Chemeketa Community Colelge, where she earned an associate’s degree in 2016. She was a student at Western Oregon University when she disappeared, a spokeswoman confirmed.

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. She sought a court order in June 2018 to establish paternity and cited Wolfe as the father.

Wolfe was confirmed as the father and the district attorney’s office moved to force him to pay child support, according to a sworn statement by the testing company in August 2019.

Polk County Circuit Court records show Wolfe contested an original assessment for child support, leading to a court hearing on April 15, 2019. A judge’s order setting his support obligation at $904 was filed May 17 — four days after Fretwell’s disappearance.

That same day, a family member arrived at Fretwell’s apartment in west Salem after not hearing from her for four days, according to a police affidavit filed in Yamhill County Circuit Court. The family member said it was “very concerning,” because she regularly checked in.

The relative found the door to Fretwell’s home unlocked and the television on. Several necessities were left behind, including her bank card, her Oregon Trail card for benefits and eyeglasses “she can’t be without.”

They were “items Karissa would need to take care of William," the affidavit said, and her two cars remained parked outside. Fretwell by then had missed three shifts at work.

One of the last people to see Fretwell was her babysitter, who told detectives Fretwell picked up her son about 4 p.m. that day.

Wolfe told police on May 18 that he’d had an intimate relationship with Karissa Fretwell about four years earlier. He said his last contact with her was the April child support hearing in Dallas, and that he hadn’t been to Salem in over a year, according to the affidavit.

After searchers discovered the Fretwells' bodies, Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry said that Wolfe was familiar with the area, less than 20 miles from his Gaston home, and sometimes traveled there to fish. 

The area is quiet, neighbors told Salem Reporter at the time. Some go to be out in the woods or visit a nearby county park with a creek and footbridge, but most activity comes from commercial logging.

Detectives had searched the area two weeks earlier and came within 800 yards of the concealed body, Yamhill County Sheriff Tim Svenson told Salem Reporter following the discovery.

A group of at least 40 set out to find the bodies June 15, 2019, and discovered them within two hours together, hidden under debris that Berry described as not being “natural” to the area.

A gun was also found, Berry said at the time, but he couldn’t say whether investigators knew if it was connected to the murders. 

The charges allege Wolfe killed the Fretwells by May 15. 

In 2019, after Wolfe had already been charged with aggravated murder in their deaths, the Legislature narrowed the crime’s definition.

Senate Bill 1013 significantly limited when prosecutors can charge someone with aggravated murder, the only charge in Oregon that can invoke the death penalty. Under the new law, only the killing a child younger than 14, killing two or more in a terrorist act, killing a police officer or if someone with an aggravated murder conviction murders again could be eligible for an aggravated murder charge.

A grand jury in Yamhill County returned an amended indictment on Oct. 25, 2019, charging Wolfe with aggravated murder, four counts of first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree kidnapping.

A judge granted a motion by Wolfe’s attorney to dismiss the aggravated murder charge, prompting the state to file an appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court concluded that the judge erred in dismissing the charge, reversed the order of dismissal and remanded the case back to the Yamhill County Circuit Court for further proceedings, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

PRIOR COVERAGE:

KARISSA FRETWELL: Bodies found in area where suspect Michael Wolfe often recreated, district attorney says

Friends plan Monday evening vigil for Karissa Fretwell and her son, still missing

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

KARISSA FRETWELL: Gaston man arrested for murder and kidnapping; pair still missing

KARISSA FRETWELL: Cell records trace Gaston man to Salem on night mother, son disappeared

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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