Wilson's defense challenges key points
The defense in the murder case against Christopher Scott Wilson won’t seek to exclude DNA evidence cited by the state.
Genetic samples from Wilson’s apartment and from the scene where Mackenzie Cowell’s body was found tie him to the 17-year-old’s murder, according to police. A member of Wilson’s defense team said Wednesday they won’t ask to keep that evidence out of a jury’s hearing, but will use DNA experts of their own to challenge it.
Lawyer John Henry Browne and his team will also attack a claim that Wilson, now 31, behaved threateningly toward another woman prior to Mackenzie Cowell’s February 2010 killing — a claim Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen has used as a basis for the first-degree murder charge against Wilson.
Defense briefs in the case were due to be filed Friday. Emily Gause, an associate with Browne’s office, said those motions won’t include a call for a Frye hearing, in which a judge must decide the validity of forensic evidence.
Instead, the defense will provide rebuttal DNA analysts to question what the prosecution’s genetic evidence means. Police say a bloodstain soaked into the carpet and underpad in his apartment proved a direct match for Cowell’s DNA, and genetic material matching Wilson’s own DNA profile — shared by one in 1,047 white males —was found near her body.
Gause noted that the pool of potential donors of that same profile shrinks among other ethnicities. A defense brief filed in January 2011, before Browne’s firm came on the case, states the odds for the DNA profile attributed to Wilson being found in a Hispanic male are one in 355; for a Native American male, one in 40.
The motions will also attack Riesen’s wish to call Shawna Novak, a Wenatchee woman who told police Wilson choked her in an encounter in his apartment the month before Cowell went missing.
In an April 2011 court brief, Riesen argued Novak’s statement supports the “theory that the defendant’s motive in killing Mackenzie Cowell related to his fixation with death and particularly death by homicidal means.”
Gause said Novak’s claim has not been proven and amounts to character evidence, which is generally inadmissible in criminal proceedings.
“You can’t bring in evidence that something may have happened in the past just to show that someone may be the type of person to commit the type of crime that was committed here” in the Cowell case, Gause said.
Pretrial motions will be argued April 12-13 before Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges.
— Jefferson Robbins, World staff writer
WENATCHEE — For a time, the glint of metal in the dirt along Crescent Bar Road seemed like the key to a young woman’s murder.
Detectives probing the death of Mackenzie Cowell unearthed the clue on April 20, 2010. It was a distinctive silver ring, similar to one the 17-year-old Wenatchee High School senior was thought to have worn prior to her death that February.
Douglas County Sheriff’s Detectives Dave Helvey and Tim Scott found the ring thanks to directions from a trusted criminal informant. With the new evidence in hand, police conducted wiretaps, paid their informant and made major cash purchases, all in an effort to verify the informant’s most crucial claim: that two men had admitted killing Mackenzie Cowell.
Compelling as they were, those leads did not result in charges, and the multi-agency Mackenzie Cowell Task Force now says the informant misled their investigation.
By late summer, suspicion would turn to the man now charged with the murder: Christopher Scott Wilson, scheduled for trial May 22. But about 100 pages of newly unsealed warrants and police affidavits show the extraordinary measures investigators used to track leads early on.
Mackenzie Nicole Cowell studied hairstyling at the Academy of Hair Design in downtown Wenatchee — the last place she was seen before she disappeared Feb. 9, 2010.
Mackenzie left the beauty school about 3 p.m. According to one account detailed in police affidavits, she told a co-worker “she was just going out back to the parking lot to visit with ‘some guys from Tacoma’” to “make some plans for later that evening.”
A security video taken that day, and released for public view Feb. 18, showed Mackenzie walking to her parked car and driving away. She did not meet anyone in the parking lot.
About 7:45 p.m., her car turned up locked and abandoned along Pitcher Canyon Road outside Wenatchee. The search for the missing teen wouldn’t end until about 2 p.m. Feb. 13, when her body was found along the Columbia River shore on Crescent Bar.
Douglas County Superior Court Judge John Hotchkiss and Commissioner Judith McCauley granted multiple requests for search warrants in the case — and approved at least seven police requests to seal warrants and affidavits, hiding them from public view.
The law allows judicial sealing in part when disclosure risks “a substantial threat to effective law enforcement.”
According to the affidavits, unsealed March 16:
On April 5, 2010, Helvey was contacted by a fellow law officer on a western Washington drug task force. The officer said an informant, dubbed “CI1002” in Helvey’s court affidavits, had information about the Cowell case.
CI1002 had a record of drug convictions, the most recent dating to 2005, but had earned the trust of west-side police. The felon’s tips aided probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration into “four different narcotics trafficking groups,” and the federal drug agency had “independently corroborated all the information supplied to them by CI1002.”
The informant named two Wenatchee Valley men — one in his 30s, one in his 20s — and claimed they admitted in the informant’s presence to killing Mackenzie.
CI1002’s report said a total of four men were involved in abducting the victim. Three of them were named in Helvey’s affidavits; the fourth’s name was unknown. One man approached Mackenzie’s car to distract her while another forced his way into the vehicle. The other two men followed in a green Jeep Cherokee.
Ultimately, CI1002 said, two of the men collaborated in her murder, and later gave graphic details that mentioned both strangulation and a wound to the girl’s throat.
The causes of Cowell’s death had earlier been disclosed in a Wenatchee World article, drawn from her publicly-filed death certificate. That article specifically noted the victim died from manual strangulation and a stab wound to the neck, and suffered a blow to the head. The task force had asked the newspaper not to publish those details, fearing their effect on the case.
Helvey’s documents do not cite the informant mentioning the head injury, nor other details noted in medical examiner Dr. Gina Fino’s Feb. 17 autopsy. They also do not propose any motive for the murder.
Based on the informant’s story, police laid plans. The green Jeep Cherokee believed to have been involved in the murder was up for sale, and on April 9, an undercover task force officer purchased it. The amount paid is not stated in the affidavits; the vehicle was turned over to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Cheney.
After the sale, the informant said, the Jeep owner asked for help locating some jewelry he believed had been left in the vehicle. “We lost a ring from that night,” he said.
Later that month, another of the men named by the informant urged CI1002 to look for the ring at a specific site along Crescent Bar Road. The informant claimed to have found a silver-colored ring in the search, and told police where to find it.
This was the dangle ring recovered about 7:30 p.m. April 20 by Helvey and Tim Scott. They photographed it where it lay, “partially buried in the soil,” then bagged it for shipping to the crime lab.
The ring “appears similar to one Mackenzie Cowell is wearing on her left hand in a photograph we located on Mackenzie Cowell’s digital camera media card,” Helvey wrote.
The affidavits give no indication whether the ring was positively identified as belonging to the murdered girl. The recovered ring also does not match descriptions of two rings Mackenzie was thought to be wearing when she disappeared, both of which were missing when her body was found.
A schoolmate of Mackenzie’s, hearing a description of the ring, said it didn’t sound familiar. But, the friend told The Wenatchee World, “I do know she had a ton of jewelry. She never wore the same thing twice.”
Police attention focused on the two men CI1002 named as Mackenzie’s professed killers. But after the discovery of the ring on April 20, relations between the informant and the suspects began to disintegrate.
On April 22, the older of the two suspects confronted CI1002, saying his job was to stay close to the informant until they could meet with the second suspect later that day. The informant shook him off and phoned the Cowell task force, who escorted CI1002 out of Wenatchee later that day.
On April 27, Helvey won his first warrant from McCauley to secretly record calls between the informant and the suspects. At least one phone call was recorded the same day, in which the informant and the younger of the two suspects discussed the ring. The suspect discussed “asking CI1002 to look for the ring.” When the informant claimed to have the ring, the suspect “asked CI1002 how much CI1002 wanted” for it.
The older suspect had been arrested April 25 on a drug possession charge. In the phone call, the informant asked whether he “was arrested for killing another girl.” The younger suspect said no, and explained the drug arrest.
Helvey won several renewals of his warrant, extending the wiretap period to May 18. Only brief calls were recorded beyond the first, yielding little information, but CI1002 began receiving “threatening text messages” from one of the suspects.
While working with the task force, CI1002 received several payments from law enforcement. No total dollar amount is given in the papers, but the task force also “agreed to provide up to $4,000 to relocate” the informant after the suspects’ threats began. Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen and Douglas County Prosecutor Steve Clem agreed not to charge the informant with “crimes committed in CI1002’s presence or with CI1002’s knowledge,” within certain circumstances.
Warrants based on CI1002’s information apparently peter out after June 15. No further wiretapping results are found in the documents.
Both the male suspects were arrested in June 2010 on charges unrelated to the Cowell case — including drug possession and theft — and later convicted. One of the men was believed by police to be a longtime member of the Brick City street gang, racking up a series of arrests and convictions including assault, drug possession, drug conspiracy and unlawful weapons possession. The other had only prior misdemeanor convictions.
Those two weren’t the only early suspects. In February 2010, Helvey sought and received a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a truck driven by a male friend of Mackenzie’s family. The disclosed documents don’t reveal whether that plan was ever followed up.
In early August 2010, the Mackenzie Cowell Task Force received a letter from a frequent tipster, pointing them toward a new suspect. The investigators changed focus, and on Oct. 6, they arrested Christopher Scott Wilson on suspicion of murder.
The Douglas County warrant files were transferred to the Chelan County Superior Court Clerk in January 2011, but only unsealed with their formal filing March 16, more than a year later. Chelan County Prosecutor Riesen said he advised Superior Court Judge John Bridges, who’ll preside over Wilson’s trial, that the material should be filed publicly.
Helvey and task force director Robbin Wagg, Douglas County’s chief criminal deputy, declined a request for comment, forwarded through spokesman Capt. Doug Jones of the Wenatchee Police Department.
Shown one of the disclosed affidavits by email, Jones wrote, “I will say, however, that the intercept order you attached was based on information from an informant who ultimately proved to be untruthful.”
CI1002 has been interviewed by investigators for John Henry Browne, the Seattle attorney leading Wilson’s defense. Members of Wilson’s defense team said they will seek to introduce evidence concerning other suspects when his trial begins.