Left and Center: Pilar circa, 1999
Right: Age Progressed to age 11
Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance
Missing Since: January 30, 1999
Missing From: Hollywood, Charlotte County, Florida
Classification: Endangered Missing
Date Of Birth: February 5, 1995
Age: 3 years old
Height and Weight: 3’0″ and 35 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: Hispanic Female, Black hair, Brown eyes, Pilar has a red birthmark on the ridge of her nose in between her eyebrows
NCMEC Number: 860724
Details of Disappearance
Pilar was last seen in Hollywood, Florida on January 30th 1999. At the time of her disappearance, Pilar was in the custody of her father, Marco Rodriguez, and he gave permission to the child’s babysitter, Melissa Cooper, to take her on vacation for two weeks. She never returned the child to her father and Pilar has never been seen or heard from again.
Marco filed a missing child report on Pilar on February 22nd 1999. According to reports, Cooper took Pilar to the Trail Apartments in Punta Gorda, Florida which is approximately 135 miles away from her home in Hollywood. The apartment belonged to Coopers on-off boyfriend, Keith Allen Wilson.
After Pilar’s disappearance was reported, investigators discovered that neither Wilson nor Cooper had her in their company. They both made various claims as to how the child disappeared. It was at one point claimed that Marco actually picked Pilar up from the apartment but this is not true and Marco hasn’t seen his daughter since January 30th.
Wilson also claimed he saw evidence that Pilar was physically abused before she came to the apartment. Marco was extensively investigated by authorities regarding his daughters case but no evidence was found to indicate he was involved in her disappearance. They also found no evidence that he abused her. He did have a criminal record which included battery and a DUI but he is not considered a suspect in her disappearance
Wilson later changed the story of events and said that Cooper who is diabetic and dependent on insulin, collapsed inside of a store and was hospitalized as a result. When she returned to the room, Pilar was gone. Cooper denies Wilson’s statement and says it’s untrue. Cooper didn’t return to Southern Florida, instead she traveled to Wisconsin where an aunt lived.
Cooper was located at her aunts home. She told investigators that she fled the apartment after Wilson became physically abusive towards her and Pilar. According to Cooper, Pilar’s last few weeks living with them was filled with abuse which started after Cooper told Wilson that Marco appeared to direct sexual advances towards her before she left with Pilar.
According to reports, Wilson did not want Pilar in his home and would subject her to cruel and unjustified punishments. He would force her to stay awake through nights by making her stand up and she would sleep inside of a closet when this wasn’t occurring. He also made her wear a dog collar and leash which he would tie to the bed frame. Wilson also cut Pilars hair to a shorter length so she looked like a boy.
Wilson also allegedly sexually abused Pilar during her time in the apartment. He allegedly sexually assaulted her just a few days before her alleged murder. On February 12th or 13th, Wilson became angry and punched Pilar with a closed fist which caused her to hit her head on either the floor or the wall of the room. She apparently complained of headaches and would have convulsions and diarrhea before she died the next day.
Wilson came home from work and decided to dispose of the body. It hasn’t been found. Wilson denied Coopers statements and implicated her in the child’s presumed death. Cooper claimed she didn’t seek medical attention for Pilar because she feared Wilson. He also didn’t seek medical attention since they would’ve seen the noticeable signs of abuse he caused upon Pilar.
Cadaver dogs were brought to the apartment and reacted to the sofa, the floor of his home, and the trunk of his car. Investigators also discovered traces of blood near the bathroom which were compared to Pilar’s parents and matched. However, due to the varying statements made from Cooper and Wilson and the lack of evidence, neither of them were initially charged in the case.
Cooper claimed that Wilson physically and mentally abused her for many years and he also allegedly tortured her dog. He would reportedly choke, beat, and forcibly have sexual intercourse with her. She broke up with him and moved to her mothers home in Hollywood. That’s when she started babysitting Pilar.
Investigators were determined to locate the remains of Pilar and bring closure to her case. Her disappearance caused sadness in the area and many searches took place when she originally disappeared but none uncovered any evidence of her whereabouts.
In early November 1999, investigators drained Preachers Lake. The man made lake was a popular swimming/fishing area in Charlotte County, Florida and it was known for its dense population of alligators. It was a several hundred yard body of water which came to authorities attention after two teenagers reported they saw a small skeletal hand poking out of the murky waters.
The sighting occurred the previous March but investigators hoped they’d find something. Wilson knew the area and drove by the lake normally to visit a relative. Investigators discovered a few child sized t-shirts and a torn out page from a Winnie Pooh book. One of the t-shirts found resembles one owned by Pilar as it had a picture of Winnie Pooh and she also had a book about Winnie, who was her favorite Disney character.
Investigators also found unspecified matter which they believe is a trace of Pilar’s body. After this, the investigation was reclassified as a probable homicide and is continually investigated as such. The Peace River in Charlotte County was also searched for Pilar’s remains in 2001 but nothing was found. Her case went cold for years after that.
The investigation into Pilar’s disappearance was reopened in 2009 and in late August of 2010, investigators made an arrest in Pilar’s presumed death. They arrested Cooper who was by then known as Melissa Harding-Jones and charged her with 1st degree aggravated manslaughter in the child’s death. The warrant for her arrest stated that Cooper failed to protect Pilar from injury at the hands of another person which causing her death through “culpable negligence.”
She was living in Washington state at the time of her arrest and waived extradition to Charlotte County to be prosecuted for her role in Pilar’s death. In July of 2013, however, Cooper reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in which she will plead guilty as an accessory to murder in exchange for her testimony against Keith Wilson.
Wilson was considered the primary suspect in Pilar’s disappearance for many years. He was arrested on July 16th 2013 and charged with murder in Pilar’s case. His arrest came after new information led to him being implicated in her death. Wilson’s stepfather, Jesse Clapham, claimed that he saw Pilar’s body wrapped in a pink blanket in the back of Wilson’s car with her foot sticking out.
Wilson said it was Pilar’s body and he subsequently told Clapham that investigators would never find Pilar’s remains since he allegedly dumped them in a septic tank. It’s also possible he buried her body in a black trash bag in an open field. He was charged with second degree murder. He was tried for the crime in October of 2017.
Marco, Cooper, and Clapham all testified against him and he was eventually found guilty of second degree murder after the jury deliberated for 3 hours. He was sentenced to life in prison for killing Pilar. Cooper is facing 30 years in prison for her role in the child’s death.Investigators hope to find Pilar’s remains and bring closure to her family. She remains missing and foul play is highly suspected in her case.
If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:
Charlotte County Sheriffs Office 941-639-2101