Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry on Monday evening, presenting a map of where Karissa and William Fretwell were found. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)
MCMINNVILLE — About 10 miles west of the bucolic town of Yamhill, Northwest Pike Road winds toward quiet streams and settings for a secluded picnic.
But somewhere beyond, where logging roads snake from the main artery, a crew from the McMinnville Fire Department recently solved some of the remaining mysteries around 25-year-old Salem woman Karissa Fretwell and her 3-year-old son William.
The Fretwells’ bodies were found hidden on private timberlands on Saturday. An autopsy Sunday revealed Karissa Fretwell died from a single gunshot to the head, while William’s cause of death remains under investigation.
The discovery ended a month of searching for the two, last seen May 13. Law enforcement officials believe the two, who lived in Salem, were dead by May 16, killed by William’s biological father, Michael J. Wolfe, 52.
Wolfe has been in custody since May 24, facing two counts of aggravated murder, two counts of kidnapping and one count of aggravated murder involving domestic violence.
At a Monday morning press briefing less than 24 hours after the autopsy, Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry told reporters that that area of the woods was sometimes traveled by Wolfe to fish and “things like that.”
“We were aware Mr. Wolfe is familiar with this area,” Berry said.
But many more details about Wolfe’s connection to that area, less than 20 miles from his Gaston residence, remain unknown. It also remains unclear why law enforcement focused there.
“It was just really good detective work,” Berry said. “Putting pieces together, going through to narrow the area they needed to look.”
The timberlands there can be accessed with permits through the landowner, Seattle-based Weyerhaeuser Company, Berry noted in the press conference.
“There are other areas within the Weyerhaeuser property that we believe he’s had permits before, to cut firewood, up in that area, we’re not exactly sure where that was,” Berry said. “But we were aware that he was familiar with the area.”
It’s a quiet area, neighbors say. Some go to be out in the woods, or visit a nearby county park with a creek and a footbridge, but most activity comes from commercial logging.
Detectives had searched the area two weeks ago, according to Yamhill County Sheriff Tim Svenson, and came within 800 yards of where the bodies lay, concealed. However, it wasn’t until days ago that they had a focused operation.
“The information leading them back to that spot has been gathered over time,” Berry said. “There’s really a lot more than that, but I can’t get into that part of the details of the investigation. That’s really, pretty sensitive stuff.”
On Saturday, a group of at least 40 embarked to find the bodies, Svenson said. Within two hours, they succeeded, finding both bodies together, hidden under debris that Berry described as not being “natural” to the area.
A gun has also been found, Berry said, but he couldn’t say when or whether investigators knew if it was connected to the murders.
Berry wouldn’t say if Wolfe has been cooperating in the search for the bodies. He also did not clarify how the searches – which started in May about 30 miles south in the town of Hopewell – had migrated.
However, he said finding the bodies makes a major difference in the criminal case.
“It’s a very different prosecution when we have the bodies than if we didn’t,” Berry said. “I felt we had sufficient evidence to endorse him being arrested on (murder charges), approaching a grand jury about it. But certainly without the bodies it was a very different case -- a tougher case.”
Wolfe is set to be arraigned Friday.
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TroyWB.
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