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Home Vacation Woman allegedly took luxury ‘mini-vacation’ to dump body in SF Bay

Woman allegedly took luxury ‘mini-vacation’ to dump body in SF Bay

by Staff

Caroline Herrling took a trip to San Francisco to dispose of the remains of Charles Wilding, federal prosecutors allege. They say this photo was taken on that trip.

U.S. Attorney’s Office/Handout

One Los Angeles Police Department detective’s investigation is unwinding in court like a TV drama, with allegations of incriminating Google searches, a body dumped in the San Francisco Bay and a crucial T-Mobile receipt. 

In a sworn affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Detective Mark O’Donnell said his journey began with an anonymous call in October 2021. The caller said they were worried that Charles Howard Wilding Jr., described as the neighborhood recluse on Kingswood Road in Sherman Oaks, was dead. The caller said people were covering up his death to keep extracting money from his accounts. They refused to identify themselves or the people allegedly covering up Wilding’s death. When O’Donnell pressed them for more information, they hung up. 

Intrigued, O’Donnell checked LAPD records for the man. He discovered a December 2020 incident report detailing a welfare check done on the Kingswood Road home. The report said the check was prompted by a neighbor, who called police to say he hadn’t seen Wilding, then 69 years old, in three months. Two police officers were dispatched to the home, where they were allegedly met by a woman in her 40s named Caroline Herrling. The woman said Wilding was alive and well in Carpinteria, where he was staying with friends “while she was working to get the house back in order, as it was in disarray and contained black mold.” She identified herself as a trustee of his estate. 

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When the officers canvassed the neighborhood, they found more residents worried about Wilding. Investigators learned he had lived his whole life on the affluent 3800 block of Kingswood Road. His father died in 1964, and his mother, June Wilding, worked as an elementary school teacher, traveling the world as an educator. She died in 2017 at age 90, leaving her only child, Charles Wilding, alone in the Sherman Oaks home. Neighbors told the Los Angeles Times that Wilding withdrew further after her death, spotted occasionally walking to Whole Foods but always declining rides. Residents told the Times that early in the pandemic, “Wilding put up signs around his home saying he had COVID and not to come near.” As far as anyone could tell, he hadn’t been seen since about September 2020.

According to the officers’ incident report, Herrling gave them Wilding’s phone number, but when they attempted to reach him, the number didn’t connect. The investigation petered out, and the officers never made face-to-face contact with Wilding. 

Sensing something was off, O’Donnell pressed forward. The detective said he too called the number provided by Herrling, but the person who picked up said the number didn’t belong to anyone named Charles Wilding. He then rang up Herrling, who was still claiming to be Wilding’s trustee, and told her that if she didn’t get him a working number for Wildling within the next few days, he would officially open a missing person investigation. Shortly after, he said Herrling called him back, proclaiming she had Wilding on the line with her. 

When O’Donnell asked the man for his California driver’s license or Social Security numbers, he couldn’t answer, deepening the detective’s suspicions. About a week later, O’Donnell dropped by Herrling’s Beverly Glen apartment for an in-person interview. While they talked, he noticed a receipt lying out in the open: It was for a prepaid cellphone from T-Mobile, O’Donnell said, and the phone number matched the one he’d been given for Wilding. 

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A look into Herrling’s background unraveled a startling portrait. She appeared to be ingratiating herself in the lives of multiple strangers, using forgery and deceit to take control of their finances. Investigators believed she used forged documents to sell the $1.5 million home of one man out from under him; that man later killed himself, police said. O’Donnell also found Herrling’s LinkedIn profile, which is still active under one of her alleged aliases, Caroline Phenix. She’s listed as the founder of Publicly Correct, which nebulously defines itself as a “full-service public relations firm that specializes in helping individuals and companies successfully navigate through negative situations they are faced with in everyday life.”

A search warrant obtained for Herrling’s properties resulted in the seizure of “numerous loaded guns,” “authentic looking federal law enforcement and Beverly Hills Police badges,” illegal drugs, stolen and counterfeit identities and documents that appeared to show Herrling practicing the signatures of her victims, court documents said. She was also apparently running a sober-living facility, but a romantic partner told police that Herrling regularly used methamphetamine in the building.

On her digital devices, investigators found searches for “millionaire” and “obituary,” “suggesting that she was looking for rich dead persons who would be good targets for her inheritance fraud scheme,” court documents said. One correspondence to a co-conspirator allegedly read: “Found a perfect match in Denver. Died suddenly in February, no heirs, owned property. It’s still in her name.”

But still, Charles Wilding was nowhere to be found. In June 2022, O’Donnell learned that Wilding had been served twice — in person — by a process server. The process server told the detective that Wilding was being sued by multiple banks for failing to pay his credit card balances. He met twice with a man claiming to be Wilding, “lying in bed,” at Herrling’s Beverly Glen address, O’Donnell said. The process server didn’t ask for identification either time, and the woman, whom O’Donnell believed to be Herrling, said she was Wilding’s daughter. Wilding had no children. 

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As far as any investigator can tell, Wilding is dead. In September 2020, the last call was made on the landline in his Sherman Oaks home, which matched up with the last reported sightings by neighbors. His possible fate was laid out in an incredibly gruesome sentencing memo filed by the federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office earlier this year.

According to prosecutors, Herrling was the ringleader of a gang of fraudsters, gaining her position as top dog because she was “organized, competent, and got things done.” They believe she fraudulently used the identities of at least 10 people, stealing the inheritances of at least five people in the process. Her then-boyfriend Matthew Jason Kroth found Wilding “and saw the potential for a big score. But he knew that only [Herrling] could make it a reality, and it was she who guided the conspiracy to the success that it had,” prosecutors wrote. 

Because Wilding’s body was never found, investigators will likely never know how he died. But they do believe Herrling allowed his body to “rot in the home, while Herrling assumed his identity and stole his family’s assets.” After a time, prosecutors say the remains became “an inconvenience” to Herrling, and she attempted to dissolve the body with lye, a caustic chemical. This attempt failed, and she opted to “violently” dismember the corpse to make it easier to transport, prosecutors say. They also claim Herrling ripped up the floorboards in Wilding’s home to obscure his cause of death.

When it came time to dispose of the dismembered remains, Herrling allegedly turned the trip to San Francisco Bay “into a mini-vacation.” Prosecutors say she rented “a muscle car” to drive to the Bay Area and asked a co-conspirator to find her a sailboat. While on this pleasure cruise around the bay, Herrling allegedly took selfies for Instagram while she was “scattering the dismembered body parts of their victim, showing a complete lack of reverence for their actions,” the sentencing memo reads. Once the horrific job was done, prosecutors say Herrling flew home on a private jet. 

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Herrling “was enjoying herself and the fruits of her fraud,” prosecutors wrote. “It takes an exceptionally ruthless person to turn the disposal of a victim of identity theft into a celebration.”

Herrling opted to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud last year. In a late January sentencing memo, the U.S. Attorney’s Office recommended she be sentenced to 20 years in prison. On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Maame Ewusi-Mensah Frimpong agreed: Herrling was given 20 years in prison and ordered to pay nearly $3.9 million in restitution. The judge told Herrling she thought of Wilding not as a person but as “a cash register.” Kroth, 50, of Tarzana pleaded guilty to both conspiracy to commit wire fraud and methamphetamine possession with intent to distribute; he faces 20 years in prison for the wire fraud charge and 40 years for the methamphetamine charge when he is sentenced in June.

Herrling is currently incarcerated at MDC Los Angeles. An investigation into Wilding’s fate is ongoing.

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