Theresa Wiltse pleads guilty to murder and kidnapping charges
A former corrections officer will spend the rest of her life behind bars after admitting Monday she kidnapped a Kennewick grandmother from her home, then killed the woman and left her body along a rural road.
Theresa L. Wiltse’s guilty plea came two weeks before she was supposed to face a Benton County Superior Court jury on charges of aggravated first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping.
Wiltse, 50, pleaded as charged and will face the same sentence as if she had been convicted of the premeditated killing of Sandra Harris at trial — life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“With her pleading guilty today to that charge, it means she is going to die in prison,” Prosecutor Andy Miller told the court.
Randy Harris was joined by family and friends in court Monday. He had celebrated 30 years of marriage to Sandra Harris just two days before she was abducted on Nov. 18, 2016.
“I’m very pleased with how the Prosecutor Andy (Miller) and everybody took care of things,” Randy Harris said after court.
He was happy that Wiltse spared them from having to go through an emotional trial, noting that it would have been “horrible for everyone.”
Wiltse’s charges include the aggravating circumstances that the murder was committed in the furtherance of a kidnapping, and that she used a gun in the crimes.
The Herald received copies of case reports, photographs, and audio and video files through a public records request to the Kennewick Police Department.
Documents show that one shot was fired inside the Harris’ East 41st Place home before Sandra was taken. Her purse was missing, but both expensive jewelry and cash remained untouched.
She was a retired accountant, having worked for 40 years with Boise Cascade.
Through phone calls and text messages using Sandra’s cellphone, the kidnapper demanded $250,000 from Randy Harris, who owns Ace Jewelry & Loan in Kennewick.
Wiltse used a voice modulator to distort her voice.
Randy Harris can be heard on the chilling calls begging the kidnapper for time to come up with the money and asking for assurances that his wife was OK.
“Are you OK, sweetheart? Please talk to me,” Randy Harris said on one call as Kennewick detectives listened in. “I don’t know if I can get the full amount, but most of it I’m sure I could. You’re worth every cent of it. I would do anything to make you safe again.”
He had called police immediately after getting the first ransom request while at his shop.
The kidnapper continued to give short orders during another call, telling the husband “Time up,” “Money,” “Go to car,” and “Text message.”
Randy Harris questioned why his family was targeted: “What did I do? What did I do to you? Why are you doing this to me?”
Sandra Harris, sounding in pain and distressed, said “Hello” to her husband, then passed on to her abductor that he was having difficulty hearing her.
“I’m so scared,” Randy Harris replied, asking for his wife to be let go. “I need to see a picture. I need proof.”
That call ended with the kidnapper twice saying, “No more time.”
Kennewick police, with assistance from other Tri-City agencies and federal agents, tracked the cellphone’s movement, at one point showing she may have been over the state line around Hermiston.
The initial ransom drop spot was near Pendleton and Interstate 84, but Wiltse changed it to the Country Mercantile’s Pasco location.
A couple officers had been stationed at Coffin Road and I-82 just in case Wiltse’s passed by in her rental Ford Edge as she drove back into Washington.
Police reports show that as she drove back through Kennewick, she occasionally turned off Highway 395, stopping at Walmart and later at a fast-food restaurant farther down the highway.
Instead of crossing the blue bridge into Pasco, she drove west on Highway 240 toward Richland, then Interstate 182 east to Highway 395 on her way to get the ransom.
It is not clear in documents when Sandra Harris was killed and left on the shoulder of Coffin Road. Her body was not discovered until 48 hours after she had been kidnapped.
After grabbing the ransom, Wiltse got back onto the highway and traveled north to the Eltopia exit. A tracker that police had placed with the money was thrown out the window while she was driving.
That’s when law enforcement surrounded the SUV and arrested Wiltse. The cash, a gun, ammunition and blood were discovered in her rental car, and the ammunition was later found to be consistent with the bullets used to kill Harris.
Wiltse, of Connell, worked as a corrections officer in Walla Walla’s Washington State Penitentiary for two years. She no longer worked because of medical issues, and reportedly was addicted to methadone as a painkiller.
Her husband, Michael Wiltse, told investigators his wife was supposed to travel to Seattle on Nov. 18, 2016, to sign settlement paperwork with an attorney. She had told her family she was getting $50,000 because of another lawyer’s failure to do his job in a prior worker’s compensation case.
Theresa Wiltse got a rental car for the long trip, and in one call told her husband she would be late getting back to the Tri-Cities because she had been stuck behind a crash on the freeway and got lost.
Michael Wiltse said he last spoke with his wife about 9:15 p.m. and she sounded frazzled, saying she was in Othello and they would have to return the rental the following day. She was arrested about 10 p.m.
No motive has been given for why Theresa Wiltse kidnapped Sandra Harris and demanded money from the husband.
Randy said he did not encourage that woman in any way.
Kennewick police reports
Randy Harris told detectives that Wiltse had been a customer at his pawn shop for about four or five years, according to police reports. He said he gave the same courtesy to Wiltse that he did to many other regular customers, extending the time allowed to claim items kept in pawn, if needed.
Detective John Davis asked if Wiltse might have had romantic feelings for him. Harris said it was possible, explaining that he had introduced his wife to Wiltse once in the store “to reinforce the fact that they were very happy together.”
“Wiltse did nothing specific to give him that feeling. Wiltse told Randy once that his wife was fortunate to have a husband like him,” police reports said. “Randy said he did not encourage that woman in any way.”
Wiltse called the pawn shop on Nov. 16, 2016, two days before kidnapping Sandra Harris. She claimed she was about to get a settlement and would come by the store that Friday, Nov. 18, to get her long-held items.
A witness called police a few days after Wiltse was arrested to say he recognized the suspect pictured in the news.
Theresa L. Wiltse is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 23 in Benton County Superior Court.
The man, Jose Rodriguez, said he pulled up to his Entiat Avenue business on Nov. 16, 2016, and saw a person in an SUV watching Ace Jewelry & Loan with binoculars. When he parked next to the vehicle, the blond woman rolled down her window and “flashed” a badge.
Rodriguez said the woman, later identified as Wiltse, told him “something was going to happen and happen soon,” so he left thinking police were working some case.
Wiltse wrote in her plea statement that she abducted Harris “with intent to hold her for ransom while being armed with a handgun,” then shot the woman, causing her death.
Last May, during a video visit at the jail, a friend of Wiltse’s told the woman she should take the case to trial because a life sentence is “so ruthless.”
The woman said Wiltse could claim insanity because she snapped.
“I did,” Wiltse replied, according to the transcript in police reports. “Ya know what, it wasn’t like it was, uh … premeditated or anything like that.”
Since Miller declined to pursue the death penalty early in the case, Judge Cameron Mitchell will have no option but to send Wiltse to prison for life at sentencing on Feb. 23.