In the murder of Mackenzie Cowell, two troubled tipsters aimed police toward Christopher Wilson
Saturday, April 16, 2011
WENATCHEE Theo Keyes was in trouble, and he had something important to say.
In April 2010 Theodore Aaron Keyes, 30, had exposed himself to a female barista at a drive-through coffeestand in Springfield, Ore. Local prosecutors pursued charges. The Wenatchee Valley native was arrested in July, and spent 18 days in the Springfield city jail.
While there, Keyes wrote a letter.
The February murder in his hometown of 17-year-old Mackenzie Cowell had preyed on his mind. In his letter, received by the multi-agency Mackenzie Cowell Task Force in August, he gave a name: Christopher Scott Wilson.
“He had given previous tips during the course of this investigation that did not lead anywhere,” Wenatchee Police Sgt. John Kruse wrote in an October 2010 affidavit seeking a search warrant. “... He related a story from a yet to be identified female friend who told Keyes that Wilson had walked up behind her this year in his apartment. Without any warning Wilson began choking her around the neck. He stopped a short time later and acted as if nothing had happened. Keyes also said Wilson has an obsession with death, dead bodies and serial killers.”
The “female friend” was Shawna Novak, now 20, who largely verified Keyes’s account in an interview with police. She was questioned by Douglas County Sheriff’s Detective Steve Groseclose on Oct. 8, the day after Wilson, now 30, was charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Cowell. That charge was upped last week, to first-degree murder.
Superior Court Judge John Bridges now must decide whether Novak’s testimony, about an unrelated assault that went unreported to police until after Cowell’s murder, can be used at trial. Novak appears on a preliminary witness list filed April 4 by Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen, and her story could help Riesen convince a jury that Wilson had a motive to murder Cowell.
“If this gets admitted, it opens up a whole cascade of other evidence that (Riesen) wants to present,” said N. Smith “Smitty” Hagopian, the special defense counsel assigned to argue against Novak’s testimony.
Wilson and Cowell were both students at the Academy of Hair Design in downtown Wenatchee at the time of her killing. Cowell disappeared after driving away from the academy on the afternoon of Feb. 9, 2010. Her body was found on the banks of Crescent Bar four days later. The Wenatchee High School senior had suffered a blow to the head, manual strangulation, and a stab wound to her neck.
Wilson is accused of killing Cowell in his apartment at the Burke Hill complex, 119 Okanogan Ave., where police say her blood was found soaked into the living-room carpet. Forensic investigators said they found Cowell’s blood on a length of duct tape found near her body, as well as genetic material matching Wilson’s paternal DNA type.
Novak’s witness status caused a ripple as the case moves toward its May 31 trial date. Chelan County Public Defender Keith Howard, representing Wilson, cited a conflict and removed himself from handling Novak’s testimony. Bridges appointed Hagopian as “conflict counsel” for the defense.
Police believe Wilson assaulted Novak sometime in January 2010. At the time, she told detectives, she was living “just out on the street.”
Riesen submitted her transcribed police interview to the court on Tuesday, as part of a memo arguing for her inclusion as a witness. He included an affidavit signed by Novak’s mother, saying Novak called her around the time she met with Wilson “in case I didn’t hear from her or she came up missing.” Novak also told her mother Wilson had choked her, according to the document.
Riesen’s memo to the court on Novak’s testimony calls it “relevant evidence” under state court rules, demonstrating that it’s more probable that Wilson acted similarly against Cowell. Evidence of past wrongs separate from the crime on trial is inadmissible in Washington, except where it may prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.”
“We’re asking the court to decide that her evidence is admissible to prove planning, preparation, motive,” Riesen said last week.
Court documents show Novak has struggled with mental health and substance abuse in the past. Hagopian said that’s likely to become an issue as he argues to exclude her testimony.
“The court has to make a finding that the evidence is more probably true than not,” he said. “So the question is, is she a reliable witness? Given her mental health history, that’s a factor.”
“That’ll be up to the court — what the court will allow as far as background on any witness,” Riesen said.
The first courtroom arguments are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Monday.
Neither Keyes nor Novak responded to requests for comment for this article. Messages left with Keyes through Twitter, email, his blog and his last known cell number went unreturned; Wenatchee Valley relatives said he no longer lives in the area.
Novak did not reply to a message left at her family’s home, and an email to her only known account bounced back. Her last known cellphone number was disconnected.
Both Keyes and Novak have dealt with psychiatric issues. Keyes was known to Wenatchee authorities, but mostly as a local musician and eccentric do-gooder: In 2006, he found a gun discarded in an alley by a suspect fleeing the scene of an attempted carjacking, and turned it over to police. It’s not known from existing court documents what previous tips he gave in the Cowell investigation.
“I worked with police regulating crime and putting bad guys in their place,” he wrote in a blog entry March 17 titled “The Call.” “I solved the Mackenzie Cowell homicide and I am very passionate about bringing justice where there is none.”
But there were problems, and according to Keyes, they were diagnosed.
“As an artist I have always been set apart in the way that I perceive and process reality,” Keyes wrote in the same entry. “Our limited and flawed understanding of psychology and the human spirit has named me schizo affective (sic) and bipolar, though I am not willing to accept these limitations.”
Novak’s troubles led her into conflict with police. In August 2008, a month shy of 18, she was arrested for alcohol possession and repeatedly kicking a Wenatchee police sergeant in the stomach, according to court papers. Once cuffed and locked in a police cruiser, she screamed and rammed her head against the car door. She continued to struggle with detention staff during her preliminary appearance in juvenile court.
Novak was released to her family under house arrest after six days. Chelan County Juvenile Prosecutor Ed Stevenson said a competency evaluation found Novak “suffered from a mental disorder and had deficits in communication,” although he would not disclose a specific diagnosis.
Charlene Woodward, president of the Wenatchee Valley chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the term “mental disorder” doesn’t necessarily relate to mental illness, and a person’s behavior three years ago may have no bearing on their later reliability as a witness.
“I think the simple answer is, if they are able to think clearly at the time that they are reporting something, then whatever happened in the past could have just been an illness that wasn’t treated,” Woodward said. “It doesn’t mean that they have memory problems or intelligence problems or anything else.”
Keyes, now 31, revisited Wenatchee last November, three months after pleading guilty and receiving a fine for his Oregon offense. While there, he began harassing a Wenatchee woman relentlessly, according to her petition for a protective order.
The woman wrote that Keyes texted her workplace “over 300 times with disturbing texts, filled my Facebook with threatening, disturbing texts claiming I was his passion, soulmate. Instant messaged me on Facebook saying he was writing songs and poetry that (had) violence toward himself and me in it. Got hold of personal cell number called and texted several times.”
The lyrics of one of the songs Keyes shared was “you’ll know the love in my heart, by the bloodsplatters on the wall,” according to the petition.
The woman has no connection to the Cowell murder, but in her petition she said she was advised to take out a protective order by two Wenatchee police investigators working the case — Sgt. John Kruse and Detective Edgar Reinfeld. “Detective Reinfield says he has mental illness and is unstable — also known for stopping meds,” she wrote.
Kruse had used information from Keyes to win at least two different search warrants against Wilson: for the Oct. 6 search of Salon Couture, 404 S. Chelan Ave., where Wilson lived in a basement apartment at the time of his arrest; and for cellular phone records. A third warrant granted access to Wilson’s Facebook profile, based in part on details Keyes provided to Reinfeld.
Wenatchee Police Capt. Doug Jones, spokesman for the Cowell task force, declined to provide a copy of Keyes’s original letter, or to arrange interviews with Kruse, Reinfeld, Groseclose and other task force members for this story.
The Wenatchee woman was granted a temporary restraining order Nov. 18. A note in the case file from Wenatchee Police Sgt. Cherie Smith said no one attempted to serve the paperwork because “we do not have an address for Keyes.”
In February, Wilson’s mother Kathleen Zornes said, Keyes began seeking her out at Salon Couture, which she owns. She asked him not to return, but in her own March 2 court petition she wrote, “He still comes into the salon looking for me — disrupting the clients, acting bizarre and has gotten angry with stylists when asked to leave i.e. throwing pens, screaming obscenities etc.”
On March 2, Keyes returned, she wrote. “When asked to leave he screamed that ‘Christopher Wilson is a murderer’ and threw a pen at the receptionist. Christopher Wilson is my son.”
This time, Reinfeld served the restraining paperwork on Keyes himself. On March 16, Chelan County District Court Judge Alicia Nakata barred Keyes from approaching the salon or Zornes’s home until March 2012. He did not appear for the hearing.
Although he was the first to finger Wilson as a suspect, Keyes is unlikely to be called as a witness at trial. Howard said last month Keyes is not a suspect in the Cowell murder. “They did send his DNA to the crime lab, and he’s been excluded,” Howard said.
On Oct. 11, the week after Wilson’s arrest, Keyes tweeted, “i will not rest till justice is served and all of the devil’s minions are dead.”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123
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