WENATCHEE — A jury may hear evidence that Mackenzie Cowell was murdered by two men other than Christopher Scott Wilson, under radically different circumstances from those asserted by police and prosecutors.
Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges ruled Thursday that Wilson’s defense team showed “a trail of facts or circumstances” that point to two known offenders, Samuel Cuevas and Emmanuel “Buddha” Cerros Sanchez, as likely suspects in the February 2010 murder.
As to whether that trail of facts is believable, Bridges said, “I think it’s up to the jury to make that call, not me.”
Wilson and Cowell were fellow students at the Academy of Hair Design in Wenatchee when the 17-year-old went missing Feb. 9, 2010. Her body was found four days later along the Columbia River shore on Crescent Bar, killed by strangulation and a stab wound to her neck. She also suffered a blow to the head.
Wilson is accused of murdering Cowell in his Wenatchee apartment, where a bloodstain soaked into the carpet and underpad proved a direct match for Cowell’s DNA, according to police. Genetic material matching Wilson’s own DNA profile — shared by one in 1,047 white males — was found on a length of duct tape near her body.
Wilson’s defense team, headed by Seattle lawyer John Henry Browne, has long sought to introduce evidence of other suspects, pointing to early leads in the investigation that seemed to implicate Cuevas, 31, and Cerros, 26.
In April 2010, a confidential informant claimed the two men had admitted in her presence to murdering Cowell, and related graphic details of the crime. The multi-agency Mackenzie Cowell Task Force wiretapped phone calls to Cuevas and Cerros, and even secretly purchased Cuevas’s green Jeep Cherokee to comb it for evidence, believing it might have been used in abducting the victim.
A hair that resembled Cowell’s was recovered from the Jeep, said Emily Gause, an associate attorney with Browne’s office, but no followup testing was done.
The two men admitted killing Cowell “because she was a snitch,” Gause told the judge. “Because she told on the wrong person.”
Later, the informant led police to a dangle ring partially buried in the dirt on Crescent Bar Road, which she claimed belonged to Cowell and had been lost during the murder. Cigarette butts scattered near the site of the ring’s discovery yielded DNA that matched that of Cuevas, Gause said.
The ring appeared similar to one worn in a photo Cowell took of herself. But her family didn’t recognize the ring, which did not have recoverable DNA on its surface, and police said they began to mistrust the informant after she admitted lying about aspects of her tips — such as having a viewed a videotape of Cowell being murdered.
Cuevas and Cerros were interviewed by police and denied involvement. Each provided alibis, including witness statements and cellphone records, that put them elsewhere for most of Feb. 9, 2010.
Riesen called the informant’s statements “nothing but direct, blatant hearsay.”
“Is there any evidence here, actual evidence, that ties Mr. Cuevas to this crime?” he said. “There isn’t any.”
Bridges’ ruling means Cuevas and Cerros may be sought to testify in the case, along with the informant, who’s now cooperating with Browne’s office.
Cuevas was sentenced to a year in prison in August 2010 for possession of methamphetamine and heroin; he remains on probation. Cerros was sentenced in 2011 to nine months on electronic home monitoring for conspiracy to deliver Oxycontin and methadone. Both are in the Spokane area, according to the state Department of Corrections.
In the same hearing, Bridges disallowed testimony or evidence concerning a third man, a friend of Cowell’s family, who was also investigated at length.
“I cannot find that there is a clear nexus between (the friend) and the actual crime here,” Bridges said.
The judge also ruled out any testimony by Shawna Novak, who told police Wilson squeezed or choked her in his Wenatchee apartment about a month prior to Cowell’s Feb. 9, 2010 disappearance and murder. Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen had sought to use Novak’s claim to show Wilson had a propensity for killing by strangulation.
“The state’s submitting this is really a dry run for Mr. Wilson,” Riesen told the judge. “This is a practice run. He doesn’t really do anything that damages Ms. Novak, but it’s close. She’s scared, she can’t breathe, he almost chokes her out.”
But Bridges ruled the circumstances were different. Novak said Wilson embraced her from the side with one arm after she spent a night in his apartment, squeezing her tightly and causing a loss of breath, before releasing her and showing her out.
“I really cannot conclude that Ms. Novak was strangled,” Bridges said. “Not in the sense that applies to Ms. Cowell.”
The judge went on to exclude several other areas of evidence. When trial begins May 22:
◼ Prosecutors may not introduce Wilson’s work history at two Wenatchee Valley funeral homes, where some coworkers said he showed a morbid curiosity about body preparation.
◼ They may not bring up Wilson’s tattoo of fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter, which he got in Los Angeles in 2002, nor statements that a coworker attributed to him: “He wanted to be notorious like Hannibal Lecter. … He always wanted to know what it was like to kill somebody, and what it would be like to cut them up and skin them.”
◼ They may not refer to physical comparisons between Wilson and the Ice Truck Killer character from the Showtime series “Dexter,” which Wenatchee Police Detective Edgar Reinfeld outlined in one of his reports.
◼ They may not introduce Wilson’s activity on websites DeviantArt.com or skcentral.com, where he posted images and comments. They may also not refer to Wilson’s photos of papier-mache “body parts” taken outside the Ellensburg Goodwill where he worked in 2007, which he uploaded to DeviantArt.
The exclusions did away with much of Riesen’s efforts to fix motive to the crime.
“The state’s really alleging the motive in this case is Mr. Wilson’s fascination with death, with serial killers, with the tools of the trade, with the pattern that goes along with this kind of murder,” Riesen said.
But defense attorney Emma Scanlan argued by focusing on such areas of Wilson’s character, “We’re building this image of a person who in this community would be odd, who would be strange, who would be different.”
Scanlan said such evidence had no value “except to paint my client as creepy. That’s what it’s offered for: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Wilson has a tattoo on his arm of Hannibal Lecter, and that makes him a person who would kill her.’”
Trial law bars testimony about a defendant’s character under most circumstances. Bridges said much of the excluded evidence, such as Wilson’s tattoo, dealt less with his culpability in the murder than his character prior to it.
“I’m not prepared to cross what I perceive to be that particular line,” the judge said.
Wilson, 31, wrote occasional notes to his lawyers at the defense table — only able to use the lower fourth of a legal pad because his wrists were manacled to his waist.
John Henry Browne did not attend the hearing. In March he took on the case of Robert Bales, the Joint Base Lewis-McChord staff sergeant accused of murdering 17 civilians in Afghanistan.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123