UPDATE: The Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education is responding to a 5 On Your Side Cover Story about a former Lindbergh cross country coach caught on a secret recording confessing to sex crimes against a student.
That confession came nearly twenty years after former coach James Wilder had sexual contact with Emilie Morris who was 16 at the time.
Because of the recording, Wilder was arrested and charged but when Emilie passed away before he went to trial his case was dropped.
Wilder resigned from Lindbergh when the district said police turned over “new evidence” of the incident. But he was able to keep his state teaching license.
A Lindbergh spokesperson said the license is the responsibility of the state, and a state official said because Wilder’s license was not revoked because he was never convicted.
However, 5 On Your Side has found a state statute that says a teacher can be disciplined or a certificate “not renewed” if there is “evidence of incompetence, immorality, or neglect of duty by the certificate holder.”
“She very much wanted him to lose his teaching license and at the very least wanted him labeled as a sex offender and none of that has happened,” said Emilie’s mother Joan Morris.
5 On Your Side will follow up with the state of Missouri and Lindbergh and update this story.
ST. LOUIS COUNTY — He was a trusted high school coach, and she was his star runner. But there were rumors that they were more than student and teacher. And allegations of sex crimes. Nearly twenty years later, there is a secret audio recording that her family believes proves it.
The Galleria mall parking lot is where what was always whispered was recorded.
"You're not wired are you?" James Wilder is heard asking when he and Emilie Morris met in the front seat of his car.
It had taken Morris nearly two decades to confront Wilder and the story they shared.
Her family says it started when Emilie was, at most, 16-years-old. Wilder, 29, was her cross country coach at Lindbergh High School. They say their relationship started with Wilder as her mentor.
"She was very innocent and thought life was fun," recalls Emilie's mother Joan Morris.
Emilie was good at cross country. And, Wilder, good at coaching, "loved" and "revered" Emilie, her family recalled.
But as the pair spent more time together after practice, on out-of-town team trips, the rumors spread.
"This kind of stuff if we were the same age would have been no problem. Now I had no idea... I felt like a fluttery little kid," Wilder is heard recalling on the recordings.
"There were times I did not want to do anything because I just didn't think it was what we should do but we'd do it anyway...It wasn't like it hurt. I did enjoy the end result," he told Emilie as she secretly recorded him.
Her family says back when she was in high school, running for Coach Wilder, a student saw Emilie and Wilder in the woods after practice and reported it. They said Lindbergh administrators investigated, found Emilie had done nothing wrong and dropped it.
Wilder kept coaching and Emilie kept quiet.
Her mother says she sees now there were signs the stories were true.
"It was as though somebody had turned off who she was and substituted a person I didn't know," says Joan Morris.
The rumors became a running joke around school. Emilie's sister would hear the same stories six years later.
"It was their responsibility to report this to the police and have it investigated and as far as we know they did not," says Andrea Morris.
Her family and friends say Emilie's life spiraled into alcohol and depression. And they blame the relationship with her coach.
"I can say that most of her turmoil throughout life started because of this," says Emilie's friend and classmate Christine Lieber.
In 2013, it was the story of another friend's daughter, also coached by Wilder, that finally made Emilie want to come forward.
"The daughter came home and told her mom that she didn't like the way that Coach Wilder had touched her today...and Emily at that point said I can't let this happen to anyone else," recalls Lieber.
Emilie went to police. Police gave Emilie the recorder. And Wilder gave them the evidence they needed for an arrest.
"I actually haven't been able to listen to the whole thing," says Emilie's mother Joan.
"It makes me sick to my stomach."
"So, yeah, it would have been kick-ass just to have had a non-sexual relationship at that time," Wilder says on the tape. "Now. Was it electric at times? Heck yeah."
"I want you to know that I was there to protect you not to harm you. Like that time you were on that medicine and you were naked, I could have done anything I wanted," Wilder recalled.
"When was this?" Emilie asked.
"At your house," said Wilder.
A month after the recording, and nearly 20 years after their relationship, prosecutors charged Wilder with six counts of second-degree sodomy. But, Emilie would never get the chance to testify in court.
Just as her case was about to go to trial, Emilie was found dead in her apartment, rolled up in a blanket with her head in a trash can. The medical examiner said she choked on the trash bag. How that happened could not be determined.
She was found next to an empty bottle of vodka, but tests showed she had less than the legal limit in her system.
"There was a bottle of vodka in her room and I think they saw that and it was case closed," says Andrea.
And without Emilie's testimony, the case against Wilder closed, too.
"As soon as she passed away they dropped the case," said Andrea. "Which was stunning to me because the evidence they were able to use to charge him we still have."
St. Louis County prosecutors declined to go on camera. But a spokesman told us that "due to the fact that the victim is deceased" they "can no longer proceed" with the case. Beyond that, he said he could not discuss it because it is closed.
But, it seems the tapes did cost Wilder his job at Lindbergh.
Lindbergh suspended Wilder when he was charged, and negotiated his resignation after his case was closed when "new evidence" came to light said spokesperson Beth Johnston.
Wilder's resignation came nearly 20 years after a student first reported seeing him in the Woods with Emilie.
"I can't speak to how things were handled 20 years ago and I can't talk about an investigation," said Johnston. "I can tell you that in the recent years...given the information that has been shared with administrators and the evidence...our administrators have moved swiftly and decisively."
But for Emilie's family, nothing has moved fast enough since she found the courage in that car to record her old coach.
"She very much wanted him to lose his teaching license and at the very least wanted him labeled as a sex offender and none of that has happened," says Joan Morris.
State records show Wilder is not currently employed as an educator but he still has a Missouri teaching license.
"We did something that wasn't right according to our laws these days, right? But, you know I'm not a creeper," he said to Emilie on the recording.