Details of Disappearance
Pilar's father, Marco Rodriguez, was her custodial parent in 1999. He permitted Pilar's babysitter, Melissa Cooper (often referred to in media accounts by her later married name, Melissa Jones or Harding-Jones), to take the child on vacation for two weeks on January 30, 1999.
Cooper took Pilar to the Trail Apartments in Punta Gorda, Florida, located approximately 135 miles from the Rodriguez home in Hollywood, Florida. Cooper's former boyfriend, a truck driver named Keith Allen Wilson, accompanied them. Photos of Marco, Wilson and Cooper are posted with this case summary.
Marco called the authorities when Cooper and Pilar did not return by February 22, 1999. Cooper and Wilson did not have the child, and they initially claimed that Marco had picked her up. Wilson also said he had seen evidence that Marco had physically abused Pilar.
Police investigated Marco thoroughly but found no evidence that he was involved in his daughter's disappearance or that he abused her, though he does have a criminal record for battery and driving under the influence. Pilar has never been seen again.
Wilson later changed his story and claimed Cooper, an insulin-dependent diabetic, collapsed in a store and was hospitalized, and when she arrived back at the hotel room she shared with Pilar and Wilson, the child was missing. Cooper denied that any of this had actually happened.
Cooper was located at a her aunt's home in Wisconsin shortly after Marco filed a report with law enforcement. Cooper claimed that she fled from the vacation home she shared with Pilar and Wilson after her boyfriend became physically abusive towards her and the child.
Cooper said that Wilson punched Pilar with a closed fist and knocked her head into a wall. She turned blue and had convulsions, but Wilson refused to get medical attention for her because she had visible bruises from prior abuse and he was afraid he would get into trouble.
After Pilar died, he he put her body in a black trash bag and disposed of the child's remains in an unknown location.
Wilson denied Cooper's allegations and said she herself was responsible for Pilar's death.
Cooper took a polygraph exam shortly afterwards, but the results were inconclusive. She stated Wilson had been physically and mentally abusing her for years and also tortured her dog. She claimed didn't attempt summon a doctor or the police after Pilar was injured because she was afraid.
Officials drained Preacher's Lake, a popular swimming place in Charlotte County, Florida which is inhabited by alligators, in November 1999 after receiving a tip from fishermen. They found some unspecified biological matter which they believe is a trace of Pilar's remains. After the discovery, they announced that they were investigating her case as a homicide.
Police also found several child-size t-shirts in the lake, including one with a picture of the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh printed on it. Marco said Pilar had such a shirt with her when she left with Cooper. Nothing else of evidentiary value was found in the lake, however. The Peace River in Charlotte County was searched in February 2001, but no evidence was located.
Wilson was considered the prime suspect in Pilar's disappearance for years, but it was Cooper who was charged with aggravated manslaughter in Pilar's case in August 2010. She lived in Washington state at the time. The arrest warrant alleged that Cooper failed to protect Pilar from injury at the hands of someone else, thereby causing her death through "culpable negligence."
In July 2013, Cooper reached a plea agreement with prosecutors: she pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to murder, and agreed to testify against Wilson. He was arrested in Kentucky and charged with first-degree murder.
Wilson was tried for Pilar's murder in the autumn of 2017. He, Cooper and Marco all testified, as did another witness, Jesse Clapham, who said he saw Pilar's body wrapped in a blanket in the trunk of a car, with her foot sticking out. Clapham stated Wilson subsequently told him the police would never find Pilar's body because he'd placed it in a septic tank.
In October, after the jury deliberated for three hours, he was convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. Cooper faces up to 30 years in prison for being an accessory after the fact.
Pilar's body has never been found. Foul play is suspected due to the circumstances involved.