Kentuckian shakes attention but not suspicion in Florida case

Edition: FinalOLYMPIA -- For Keith Allen Wilson, a truck driver with Bath County roots, Punta Gorda, Fla., was a high-paying, sun-soaked paradise.

That changed in February 1999, when 4-year-old Pilar Rodriguez disappeared from the Gulf Coast community while in the care of Wilson's then-girlfriend, Fleming County native Melissa Cooper.

One year later, Rodriguez is still missing. She's presumed dead.

And Wilson -- named as the killer of the child both by Cooper and in a civil lawsuit, and still considered a prime suspect by Florida police -- has returned to his roots.

"It ain't fun" being a suspect, said Wilson, who vehemently denies killing the girl.

With a cloud of suspicion hovering over him in Florida, where the case has received massive publicity, Wilson found it easier to find TV camera crews than job offers.

"You get up every day, try to do oddball work and you've got to fight to stay away from the media that's trying to hound you and aggravate your friends," he said.

So late last year, Wilson, 28, retreated to Olympia, a small Bath County community 960 miles north of Punta Gorda, as the investigation continues. The move back to his native Eastern Kentucky has substantially lessened his infamy.

Wilson lives in his grandmother's white, one-story, 70-year-old house on the edge of the mountains.

The 1-acre spread is in Olympia, an unincorporated spot along Ky. 36 with a grocery store, a church, a post office, a few cedar trees and not much else.

Two dogs, a Dalmatian named Spot and a dog-pound puppy named Blackey, keep Wilson company.

He dates a woman who works at an area Wal-Mart, and he drives a red and white Chevy pickup. He works wherever he can.

Speaking through his locked front door last week, Wilson said he has a message for the folks in Florida:

"I'm innocent of all charges. I don't know who did it," he said. "I didn't have anything to do with the little girl disappearing. I don't know what happened. If I did, I'd let them know."

While there are many people back in Florida who doubt those words, things are more friendly for Wilson in the rural county of 10,000.

"Everybody around here knows me. They know how I am," Wilson said.

Police say they've never had any trouble with him, except for a couple of speeding tickets.

At Copher's Chevron, they say Wilson was always a good worker. "I think he's a good person, honestly," said operator Lacy Copher.

Bath County High School staffers say Wilson wasn't a stellar student while there in the late 1980s, but that he was well-behaved.

Wilson was a member of Future Farmers of America, and took auto-mechanic classes at the vocational school before dropping out midway through his junior year to take a job in Florida in January 1989.

"I always liked Keith. He sure was pleasant," said high school secretary Patsy Gudgell. "He was friendly, he was always smiling."

Melanie Erwin, 26, a former classmate, says Wilson never seemed angry. "He was real quiet and he seemed like he was real laid-back," she said.

Candace Williamson, 18, who works at a McDonald's in Owingsville, about 5 miles north of Olympia, said Wilson was a regular customer in 1998.

"He was a practical joker," Williamson said. "He was never mean. He was always nice."

Wilson was a volunteer firefighter and hung out at the New Spot Roller Rink in nearby Salt Lick, Williamson said. "He's mostly like a big kid, basically. He seems ... like he never left the high school era."

Wilson dated a couple of Williamson's co-workers at McDonald's. One of them, Melissa Cooper, now 23, eventually moved with him to Florida.

She soon found a job as a baby sitter for Pilar, the daughter of Marco Rodriguez, whose work took him away for weeks at a time.

After the girl disappeared, Wilson and Cooper's relationship quickly fizzled.

Investigators think girl dead

Cooper fled to Wisconsin, where her sister lives. At first, she told investigators she wasn't sure about the child's whereabouts. Under questioning, she changed her story -- and accused Wilson of beating the child to death, wrapping the body in a garbage bag and disposing of it.

Investigators, who have pursued leads as far as Washington state, think the girl is dead and even drained a pond looking for her remains. No body has been found, and no one has been charged in the case.

But prominent Florida litigator Ellis Rubin, who represents Cooper and Marco Rodriguez, has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wilson. Rubin portrays Wilson as a hot-tempered and abusive bully, and says Cooper initially lied to investigators about Pilar's fate because Wilson had threatened her.

Cooper and Wilson both remain suspects, police say, and the case may go to a grand jury. Cooper remains in Wisconsin, where she works at a McDonald's.

That's fine with Wilson.

"I wish I hadn't have met her," he said.

As for Pilar, "She's just a little girl. I really never got to spend much time with her because I was driving a truck. I was working 16-, 17-hour days and I'd come in and take a shower and go to bed, so I only got to see her for about an hour or two a day."

Wilson says he never had any trouble with children, including Pilar.

"I get along fine with kids. I haven't had a kid yet that wouldn't come up to me and play with me," he said.

If authorities want to know Wilson's whereabouts at the time of Pilar's disappearance, they can look at his truck's logbooks, he said.

"As far as I know, the little girl is still alive," Wilson said. "Once they find her, I'm going to start suing."