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Arrest in Cold Case Murder of Derby Wagner-Richardson

One family is closer to justice after years of asking.

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Former Texas prosecutor Kelly Siegler and Cold justice Longtime homicide investigator Steve Spingola joined the Racine Police Department in Spingola’s home state of Wisconsin to investigate the death of Derby Wagner-Richardson. HHer estranged husband was arrested 37 years after the working mother’s murder.

“She ran away from home at the age of 14 and married the wrong man young,” Siegler says. “But they had two beautiful daughters together, and she got divorced and started a new chapter of her life when it was all taken away from her.”

Detective Todd Lauer of the Racine Police Department, Deputy Chief Jessie Metoyer, Lt. Sarah Zupke and Detective Det. Tonya Scarvers worked with Siegler and Spingola to review the case.

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Who was Derby Wagner-Richardson?

Derby Wagner-Richardson, 28, was a mother of two who, according to Spingola, “did her very best” to raise her children. She worked three jobs, including weekdays at a nursing center in Kenosha and as an instructor at the YWCA in Racine. On weekends, Derby worked the third shift as a security guard at Racine’s Styberg Engineering company, from where she was kidnapped.

According to Lt. Lauer, the loving mother was described as having a difficult time in her teenage years. At 16, she found work as a dancer at a local bar owned by Fred Wagner-Richardson, the man she would later marry and with whom she shared two daughters.

“There was quite a history of abuse, both physical and mental,” Lauer told Cold Justice. “I think it was kind of a nightmare for her for a long time.”

What happened the night of the murder?

On March 22, 1987, Derby – who was supposed to check in at the time of her 12-hour shift at Styberg – failed to clock in at 1am. Her supervisor searched the premises and called police when he found no signs of the employee. However, it seemed a little strange in the building’s lunchroom and an adjoining office, where Derby regularly folded her children’s laundry.

Left behind included Derby’s jacket with the arms pulled through it and a broken clock.

“There were signs of a struggle at a nearby office where the door had actually been kicked in,” Spingola said. “It appears Derby was attacked and kidnapped in her own car.”

Police who arrived on the scene in 1987 found no trace of Derby or her Pontiac Sunbird. But within hours, they found a large number of the missing woman’s belongings in town, scattered along the side of the road away from Racine. Objects included Derby’s make-up bag, car keys and bloody clothing.

The next morning, around 8 a.m., an officer found Derby’s car parked in front of the Styberg Engineering building. The officer recognized blood dripping from the trunk of the vehicle.

Police found Derby’s unclothed body inside. The victim was wearing only one sock and had white duct tape still around her mouth. Her throat had been crudely slit and her wrists had been cut “to the bone,” Spingola said. The scene was described by Det. Lauer as ‘horrific’.

Nothing of physical value could be used as evidence, making it largely a circumstantial case.

“While we must always keep in mind that an unknown person could be responsible for the murder, Derby’s murder appears very personal,” Spingola said. “She only had one known enemy: her soon-to-be ex-husband.”

Fred Wagner-Richardson is suspected

Fred Wagner-Richardson was 18 years older than Derby and the father of her two daughters. According to Cold justice investigators, by the time Fred — who allegedly joined the U.S. military under an assumed name — was 30, he already had a lengthy criminal record for himself.

While in the military, he reportedly jumped out of the bushes and attacked and robbed someone, resulting in a prison sentence and a dishonorable discharge. After moving to Racine, he was convicted two more times of theft, but served only part of his fifteen-year sentence.

After his release from Leavenworth Prison, he opened the Racine bar, where he met Derby, then 16.

“Fred was a career criminal, but he was still able to own a bar and some low-income housing in town,” Siegler said. “He had a reputation for being ruthless in his business dealings and in his personal relationships.”

Derby left Fred in June 1986 and filed for divorce in December of the same year.

Physical abuse continued, with records showing an incident in January 1987 – just a few months before the murder – when Fred allegedly strangled Derby in front of their daughter to the point that the victim lost consciousness. Fred also hit his estranged wife with such force that he reportedly broke his hand.

That month, Derby was granted a temporary restraining order, which was found among her belongings around the time of the murder.

According to Victim Witness Specialist Barbara Smith, who helped Derby obtain the stay-away order, Derby said, “He’s going to kill me anyway.”

“She was the first victim to say that to me,” Smith said Cold justice.

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Why would Fred want Derby dead?

Tensions between the couple rose on March 21, 1987 – just 12 hours before Derby was attacked – when Derby and Fred met with their lawyers to finalize their divorce. Fred stood to lose a large portion of his income, including reportedly 50 percent of the property and 25 percent of the rent: amounts estimated to be around $250,000.

As he left the meeting, Fred seemed so visibly upset that Derby’s lawyer called the authorities and asked her for police protection.

“I don’t like getting hurt,” Fred reportedly said as he left the meeting.

Twelve hours later, Derby was kidnapped and murdered.

“He was the only person in the world who benefited from Derby’s death,” Spingola told Cold Justice. “But we have to prove that.”

Those closest to Derby, including her now-deceased mother, Ruth (who became an advocate for mothers of murdered children), seemed to think Fred was the most likely suspect. Her relatives, including Derby’s aunt, Ellie Schmidt, and Derby’s brother, Bryon Linder, didn’t think it made sense that anyone else would want to harm Derby.

“She was a really good mother,” Linder said of Derby. “She brought it all on herself, and I don’t think it was enough.”

Cold Justice conducted interviews with many of Derby’s friends and colleagues, including Kelly Williams Cherry, who was watching the Wagner-Richardson children the night of Derby’s murder. She was one of many people to whom Derby opened up about the abuse Fred faced.

“Every time she left the house, she would always say, ‘Please, under no circumstances — if he comes here, don’t open the door for (Fred),’” Cherry told Siegler and Scarvers. “I don’t want him near the girls.”

Fred would raise his daughters after Derby’s murder.

A theory of what happened

When they revisited the crime scene, investigators theorized that since there were no signs of forced entry, the attacker had likely followed Derby inside. Derby regularly brought her children’s clothes to work to be folded, and would back up her car to the lunchroom door to take laundry back and forth.

It was believed that the murderer entered while Derby was making one of the journeys.

Judging by the jacket with inside-out sleeves, it appeared someone tried to grab Derby from behind, although she managed to wriggle away and go to the nearby office. Markings on the door suggested Derby locked herself in the office before her killer forced his way in and attacked her.

“Right now Derby is probably unconscious,” Spingola speculated. “The suspect covered her mouth with white duct tape and carried her to the trunk of her car.”

The tape suggested the murder was premeditated and, according to Spingola, Derby’s personal items were strewn around the city “in an attempt to throw off investigators.” It was possible that the killer feared that they would be their prime suspect.

Investigators believed the killer took Derby to another location, stripped her naked and killed her before returning the car to her workplace, perhaps because the killer had to retrieve his vehicle.

There were no signs of sexual assault, despite Derby being unclothed.

“Since there are no signs of sexual assault, I believe this was actually done to torture or humiliate her after her body was found,” Spingola told Cold Justice. “Derby’s killer wanted her to suffer even after her death.”

A new look at Fred Wagner-Richardson

Cold justice visited Fred Wagner-Richardson, now 82 and wheelchair-bound, at his home. Based on the couple’s “volatile” meeting with their divorce attorneys in 1987, Fred’s history of abuse, and no other suspects who seemed to fit the picture, Fred was the prime suspect in the murder of his children’s mother.

Although Fred’s new wife let officers in, Fred reportedly said nothing.

Still, the team felt they had enough evidence to take the case to the district attorney, which they explained to Derby’s loved ones. According to Derby’s brother, Bryon Linder, their mother reportedly said, “Thank God.”

“There are not enough words of appreciation,” said Derby’s aunt, Ellie Schmidt. “I think for me it’s probably more closure for my sister. It was so wonderful to hear that she has not been forgotten. She can now rest peacefully.”

On March 24, 2024 – just over 37 years after the murder – Fred Wagner-Richardson was arrested for the 1987 murder of Derby Wagner-Richardson.

On Wednesday, April 10, 2024, the suspect pleaded not guilty to murder, according to the CBS Milwaukee affiliate WDJT TV. A status conference is scheduled for July.

He is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by law.

Watch all new episodes of Cold justiceairs Saturdays at 8/7c Oxygen.