Woman Accused Former Coach of Sexually Abusing Her as a Teen – and She Was Found Dead Soon After
In October 2014, Emilie Morris seemed on top of the world for the first time in years.
“She was doing better than I had ever seen her,” says Christine Lieber, who last saw her longtime friend at an event they attended Oct. 26, 2014, with their children and parents. “She was in a really good spot.”
Since she was 16, Morris had been living with a dark secret. She alleged that her cross-country coach, James Wilder III, had begun sexually abusing her when she was a popular star athlete at Lindbergh High School in St. Louis, Missouri.
After years of battling depression and alcoholism to cope with the pain she felt, in July 2013 Morris worked up the courage to go to the police about what Wilder had allegedly done to her all those years ago – something she captured him talking about in a secretly recorded conversation.
In August 2013, Wilder, now 54, was arrested and charged with six counts of statutory sodomy, to which he pleaded not guilty. (His lawyer did not respond to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.)
Lieber was happy to finally see Morris doing so well. “The trial was coming to fruition and she was happy that there was finally going to be some justice,” she says.
But Morris would never get the justice she sought. On Nov. 4, 2014, she suddenly died – as did her case, when prosecutors said they needed her testimony to continue (the case was dismissed).
“It was devastating,” her mother, Joan Morris, tells PEOPLE.
An autopsy ruled that she died of asphyxiation. Morris' manner of death — whether accidental, suicide or homicide — was undetermined.
The Case Died with Her, based on reporting from BuzzFeed News and airing Dec. 6 on Oxygen at 7/6 CST, explores Morris’ allegations against Wilder and how her death put an end to the investigation.
“This woman who was so strong and so resilient (was) holding onto that secret for so many years,” says former prosecutor and legal commentator Loni Coombs, who is featured in the special.
“She finally had the strength to come forward and just as she is about to have her chance at justice, she dies in this really tragic and strange way," she says. "It was a gut punch to hear the ending of that story like that. And I was like, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What's going on here? This just doesn't seem right.”
Joan, along with Morris' younger sister, Andrea Morris, 35, hopes the special sheds light on what she went through.
For more on Emilie Morris' tragic story, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
“I would blame her failure to thrive on this alleged, early sexual abuse,” says Joan.
“I wish that I could've seen what kind of person she would turn out to be had this not interrupted her life at the time that it did,” Andrea says.
“And the problem is, it sort of never stopped. That person was always an influence on her. It seems like it just gnawed away at her, her entire life until she decided to finally do something about it.
“And then, to have it just cut off at the knees like that when she passed away,” she says. “It was just unbelievable to wrap your mind around.”
The Case Died with Her, based on reporting from BuzzFeed News, airs Dec. 6 on Oxygen at 7 EST/6 CST.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.
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