The inmate’s tale
Behind bars, Christopher Wilson maintains innocence in Mackenzie Cowell’s murder
Saturday, November 17, 2012
CLALLAM BAY — Christopher Scott Wilson looks down at his skin and contemplates what to do about the murderer staring back at him.
Hannibal Lecter glowers from his forearm, restrained by a faceguard. The uncolored tattoo is 10 years old, inked there while Wilson lived for a time with his grandparents in Palm Desert, Calif.
That tattoo was one element that came to define Wilson after he was arrested in the 2010 murder of Mackenzie Cowell, a 17-year-old Wenatchee High School student found bludgeoned, stabbed and strangled along the Columbia River shore. Wilson was the killer, police said, and his motive was “a fascination with death, dead bodies, and serial killers.”
Wilson, 32, is now a medium-security prisoner at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, six months after pleading guilty to manslaughter in Cowell’s death. In the prison’s visiting room, he’s asked if he’s thought about getting rid of the fictional serial killer on his arm.
“Many, many times,” he says. “I’ve wanted to get it removed. I looked into getting Wrecking Balm, that ointment you can put on that extracts tattoos. A lot of different things — it’s just time and money are a huge factor.”
It will have to wait until he’s released — probably in 2023, assuming he doesn’t misstep while in prison or come up against other criminal charges. In Washington’s penitentiaries, altering tattoos is an infraction.
“A lot of people are identified by their tattoos,” he says. “So if you’re altering them, it’s a security risk.”
A lot of people can identify Christopher Wilson by sight now. On Nov. 10, an estimated 6 million viewers watched CBS News’ “48 Hours” segment about the murder of Cowell — found dead on the Crescent Bar shoreline Feb. 13, 2010, four days after she disappeared from her studies at Wenatchee’s Academy of Hair Design. The episode, built from about two years of research and interviews, followed the case from Cowell’s vanishing to Wilson’s arrest and eventual plea on the eve of trial.
Despite that plea, Wilson maintained — in letters, phone calls, the “48 Hours” program and a five-hour interview with The Wenatchee World last week — that he did not kill Mackenzie Cowell.
The news program reinforced doubts that echoed around the case: Whether Wilson acted alone or could feasibly have transported Cowell’s body; whether two longtime drug offenders actually committed the murder and recorded it on video; how Cowell’s blood could have wound up soaked into the carpet of Wilson’s apartment, and how DNA resembling his could be found near Cowell’s body, if he was innocent.
“48 Hours” was the highest-rated program of that Saturday evening, and Wilson and his supporters hope to build on that attention. An online petition began circulating Monday, asking Gov. Chris Gregoire or her successor, Jay Inslee, to “Re-open Christopher Wilson’s case and charge the RIGHT people.” (A little-invoked state law allows the governor to assign the attorney general to investigate local criminal cases.) A Facebook group, “Free Christopher Wilson,” launched Oct. 23 with similar goals. His family has asked a new attorney to look at the case, seeking grounds for Wilson to withdraw his guilty plea.
Those grounds are limited, because a guilty plea surrenders the right to a straightforward appeal to a higher court. Wilson would have to convince a judge of factors such as misconduct in the prosecution of his case or ineffective performance by his own attorneys — led by famed criminal lawyer John Henry Browne — or unlawful exclusion or manipulation of evidence by police.
The Mackenzie Cowell Task Force, the multi-agency police group assembled after the recovery of Cowell’s body, has long said it had more than enough legitimate evidence to convict Wilson of her killing. Key was the discovery of genetic material that matched Wilson’s Y-STR profile — possessed by one in 1,047 white males — on duct tape spattered with Cowell’s blood found near her body; and blood in Wilson’s apartment carpet that was a direct genetic match for Cowell.
Today, Wilson questions the way that evidence was collected and processed. He denies that’s his genetic material on the duct tape. He wants to know whether two men eliminated as suspects before his arrest were acting as police drug informants. He finds fault with Browne, saying he was inattentive to his case — perhaps distracted by mass murder charges against another client, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of slaughtering 16 civilians in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Chris Foreman, head of the Columbia River Drug Task Force, said the group does not identify informants working for it. By email, Browne said he and his staff spent hundreds of hours on Wilson's case, and Browne personally reviewed all the discovery.
"The DNA in his carpet was an insurmountable fact, unless we could seriously convince a jury it was planted," Browne wrote.
"... We did a great job and all know that. It is time for Chris to stop fighting and start accepting."
But if that’s Mackenzie Cowell’s blood on his carpet fabric, Wilson says, he has no idea how it got there.
“It wasn’t placed there by me, or anybody I know. ... There’s no possible way it could’ve been in my apartment.”
If convicted of first-degree murder at trial, Wilson could have faced 26 to 30 years in prison. He says he took the plea, with a term of just over 14 years in prison, in large part because of Browne’s seeming unpreparedness and a jury pool that appeared ready to convict him even before being empaneled. About 80 percent of potential jurors surveyed in written questionnaires seemed to lean toward Wilson’s guilt. The picture painted of him in police affidavits — dark, tattooed with a madman’s face, planning to kill — had taken root in the public mind.
“Until I really saw it there and heard it from the jurors and saw it in the questionnaires, I didn’t know how bad it really was,” Wilson says. “I thought that some of the things you started reporting would’ve gotten through, would’ve made people ask questions, and it didn’t seem — it seemed like it was too late at that point. Obviously, it didn’t make that big of a dent in the opinion that was already formed.”
The plea agreement struck May 23 was the second one offered to Wilson. The first would have given him just under seven years in prison for first-degree manslaughter and unrelated charge of assault, allegedly carried out against a woman a few months prior to Cowell’s death. He rejected that offer.
“I did not want to plead to something I didn’t do. I didn’t want to take six years. ... I wouldn’t have taken six months at the time. I was extremely convinced that if I were to get a fair trial, everything that could’ve come out would’ve proved that I had nothing to do with this. And it wasn’t until I read the jury questionnaires from two different panels, and each panel, 85 percent of the jurors said, ‘Oh, he’s guilty,’ y’know, ‘forget it.’”
At his final plea hearing, Wilson answered “Yes” when Chelan County Superior Court Judge Bridges asked if he caused Mackenzie Cowell’s death by strangling and stabbing her. But first, he paused.
“I wanted to say ‘no’ so bad,” he says now. “I wanted to look Mr. Cowell and Wendy Cowell in the eye and tell them that, ‘I did not do this to your daughter. I did not do this to your sister.’ But at that point, we were — it was done.”
An interview with Christopher Scott Wilson
What follows are sections of a five-hour interview with Christopher Scott Wilson, conducted Nov. 14 at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. The sections are posted as two audio clips, with accompanying transcript.
In August 2010, Christopher Scott Wilson was asked to be interviewed by police probing the February murder of Mackenzie Cowell. He did not know he had been named in a letter from a former friend, Theo Keyes, as someone to be investigated in the crime. At the interview, he gave a DNA sample that would later connect him to the 17-year-old’s death.
Christopher Scott Wilson, Part 1
The Wenatchee World: What did they tell you in that August meeting?
Christopher Scott Wilson: I was interviewed by Tim Scott, and he said — well, I got a phone call, first of all, and he just said that, “Hey, we’re going through the list of students,” and my name came up, would I be willing to come down and give a DNA swab and a statement. I said yeah, no problem. So I went down to East Wenatchee, I believe it was at the sheriff’s office?
It’s like that little bunker building, about two or three stories, I guess?
Yeah, yeah. So I went in there, and it was one of their little interrogation rooms. I gave a voluntary swab, and talked for about 25 minutes, half an hour, and that was it.
Did Detective Scott give you any reason to think they were looking at you as a suspect?
Not at all. He just said that they were going through a list of students. And so I didn’t have any reason to believe otherwise.
Did you have any trepidation about giving the DNA swab?
Not at all. I said absolutely, that’s fine, I don’t have anything to hide.
And so the process as I recall is just like a Q-tip inside your mouth?
Yeah, he did I think several of them, they swabbed my cheek, the inside of my cheek.
And you’d never been arrested for anything before. Your DNA wouldn’t have been in any system, I guess.
And you’d never had a DNA sample taken at any other time, to your knowledge?
If you thought about it now — I mean, you had the option to refuse, what would you do?
I’d still do it. I still don’t have anything to hide. I just wish I would have had an attorney present or something. I guess that really wouldn’t have made a difference; I still would have given one. But ... yeah, I guess I still would’ve given one.
Police say genetic material matching a type that includes Wilson was found on duct tape near Mackenzie Cowell's body; and a stain on the carpet of Wilson’s Burke Hill apartment was residue of Mackenzie Cowell’s blood. This was key in the charge that Wilson murdered her in his home by strangulation and stabbing. A video taken by Wilson's friend Tessa Schuyleman, in which she zooms in on a discoloration in the carpet, was offered as evidence.
If in fact, Chris, they did find DNA matching your type, your 1 in 1,100 type, at the same place where Mackenzie’s body was, how do you think that DNA type would’ve gotten on that duct tape?
I don’t know. I know that it was inconclusive. That’s all I know. I know it’s not my DNA. I know that it would’ve been — it’s not. It’s impossible for that to be my DNA. I know that there’s DNA from two other males on the duct tape as well. But there’s no way it’s my DNA.
What is that stain in the old apartment?
There’s several different stains. If we’re talking about the one shown in the video that Tessa took where she recorded my entire kitchen, bedroom, floors, everything, there’s a bong stain, and there’s lightly colored carpet in the middle of my living room that she zoomed up on. That’s all it was, is a stain from bongwater. You might not know that bongwater smells extremely terrible, and I tried to remove it with Simple Green, and it discolored the carpet. And that was it. That’s all.
So what is that stain? Is that stain Mackenzie Cowell’s blood?
No. That stain is from Simple Green. It’s not even a stain, it’s light colored carpet, that’s it. That’s the only thing that was on my carpet.
So the crime lab was going to say Mackenzie Cowell’s blood turned up in this carpet.
They were going to say the piece of material that they received — because they never received my carpet — they received a piece of material, or two pieces of material, that were 4 centimeters in length. They were gonna say that Mackenzie Cowell’s blood was on those two pieces of material.
How’d that get there?
I have no idea. It wasn’t placed there by me, or anybody I know. I know that her blood — there’s no possible way it could’ve been in my apartment.
Who else had access to your apartment?
I don’t think anybody really had access as far as being there when I wasn’t there. Unless I gave the keys to somebody, but I don’t believe I did around that time, at all.
Wilson and his supporters say public opinion turned against him in part because of his appearance, taste in music, and interests. Prosecutors claimed an interest in death and serial murder was his motive for the crime.
Why do you think you?
Why do I think me? I don’t think it had so much to do with the way I looked, which I know has been suggested. I think that probably helped after my arrest — it helped cultivate this weird, I don’t know, image, I suppose. But I believe at the time, law enforcement was under public scrutiny. This is, what, eight months later, there hasn’t been an arrest, they were spending thousands and thousands of dollars on this investigation, this huge task force. All of a sudden they have DNA that I couldn’t necessarily be linked to but I couldn’t be ruled out from, and that’s it. That’s what they arrested me on, and went to the newspapers with, and said “Oh, we got our guy.” And it wasn’t like, “Well, we’re holding somebody who could possibly be involved. It’s “We got our guy,” that was it. They didn’t arrest me and do some investigating to see whether or not it would’ve even been possible. They just ran with it.
Did you ever want to kill somebody?
No, not at all, no.
No, I haven’t. (laughs)
I mean in theoretical sense. It’s not like I’ve sought to kill somebody, but ...
No, I’ve never been angry enough, or had any desire to hurt anybody at all.
Their characterization is it wouldn’t be a question of anger. It would be a question of, Chris Wilson is curious about death, and wants to act out a death, and this is the girl that he chose.
See, I volunteered to be — to talk to psychiatrists or whoever they want to throw at me. I don’t care, you know? I’m not obsessed with death, I’m not obsessed with murder, there’s nothing to indicate that I am. I mean, they used this Hannibal Lecter tattoo from 2002, and the fact that I worked at a funeral home for maybe a year and a half, and that’s it. There’s not a single image of violence or murder on my computer or anywhere in my apartment. I’m not talking to anybody about hurting anyone. I don’t understand how they can say this without backing it up with anything, except for an old tattoo and an old job.
Wilson was offered a term of roughly 6 1/2 years if he would plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter. He turned it down in favor of standing trial, but as jury selection began and multiple juror candidates admitted they already believed Wilson had committed the murder, he accepted a plea to first-degree manslaughter, first-degree robbery, and an unrelated second-degree assault on a woman named Shawna Novak. Police and prosecutors said Wilson attempted to choke Novak in the winter of 2010 as a dry run for the eventual murder of Cowell; Superior Court Judge John Bridges found no evidence to bring that claim forward at trial.
Christopher Scott Wilson, Part 2
You were offered at least one other plea deal prior to the one that you accepted.
And that one was going to translate to about 6 1/2, 6 3/4 years.
What happened to that deal? That was gonna be a manslaughter plea ...
... to first degree, which was the same as what you eventually plead to, right?
It was. I —
Or was it second degree manslaughter? I can’t remember.
I believe it was first degree manslaughter with ... a weapon enhancement? Or something like that. I did not want to plead to something I didn’t do. I didn’t want to take six years, or as I’m sure you saw my mom say on 48 Hours, I told her I didn’t want to take -- I wouldn’t have taken six months at the time. I was extremely convinced that if I were to get a fair trail, everything that could’ve come out ... excuse me ... would’ve proved that I had nothing to do with this. And it wasn’t until I read the jury questionnaires from two different panels, and each panel, 85 percent of the jurors said “Oh, he’s guilty, y’know, forget it.” And —
You saw these questionnaires yourself?
My lawyer showed me, yeah. They just said really weird things. I mean — I don’t know if you were there or not, but there was this guy when we called jurors in individually to ask them about some of their responses to the questions, one guy said I was “diabolical.” And then you had this husband who came in and said his wife’s on the jury panel as well, and he said he wouldn’t be able to be unbiased because his wife has such a strong opinion about me. So they brought his wife in, and his wife totally lied about knowing anything about the case, or knowing anything about me. And so when you see jurors lying to get on the jury panel, or potential jurors lying to get on the jury panel, and even the judge is pulling my attorney aside and saying “Look, you might want to talk to your client about taking a deal, look what this says, look what this says, look what this says” — it’s like, there’s no hope. There’s no chance, you know?
What did you think about that revelation — that you were facing people who might be on a jury panel who already had a real solid idea about guilt or innocence?
I didn’t know what to think at first. I don’t have access to, or I didn’t have access to the Internet or what was being said online about me or anything like that, and family and friends aren’t going to tell you every terrible detail or every terrible thing that’s being said. So I didn’t know what to expect. And after seeing people come in and reading what they had to say, it blew me away that people are so trusting of everything they read or so trusting of their law enforcement, when there’s so many contradictions that even an idiot could pick out or understand, you know? And it’s like it was just being ignored or swept under the rug. So that was extremely — I don’t know the word is for it. It’s pretty shocking I guess. It was depressing. It was, I guess, really disappointing.
When you accepted your plea, and you were asked by the judge to essentially restate your plea, publicly, in your own words — he read you the statement on plea of guilty, which said “I caused the death of Mackenzie Cowell, I stole a ring, I attacked Shawna Novak.” He said that, and he said, “Is that your statement?” And you said “Yes.”
Pretty promptly. And then he asked, “Is that what you did?” Which is not something that I expected him to do. That’s not something that’s in the usual routine of what judges do. He said, “Is that what you did?” And you gave this little pause, and then you said “Yes.” It was probably about — that long. And that’s always kind of troubled me. So I sort of wanted to ask what was happening in your mind when you paused before saying yes.
I wanted to say no. “No, I didn’t do this.” And at that point with both the jury questionnaires that I’d read and what I believe John Henry Browne’s ... I don’t think he was up to speed on my case, and that was something we discussed the first day of jury selection. I think the combination of the two is what led me to take it. And I wanted to say no, so bad. I wanted to look Mr. Cowell and Wendy Cowell in the eye and tell them that, “I did not do this to your daughter. I did not do this to your sister.” But at that point, we were ... it was done.
Do you wish you’d taken that six- to seven-year plea deal now?
Yes and no. I wish I would’ve gone to trial. Even if I was convicted, at least everything would be out there, and it would be a lot easier to appeal, and I think that would’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes, just hearing the facts come out in court. Whether I was found guilty or not, I think it would’ve been a good thing to have all that out there. So to answer your question, do I wish I would’ve taken it? Some days I do. But more often than not, I wish I would’ve gone to trial.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123
MORE LIKE THIS
Tuesday, May 21
Chelan County PUD Auditorium, 327 N. Wenatchee Ave., 7 a.m.
Tuesday, May 21
Alzheimer's Association Caregiver Support Group
Lake Chelan Community Hospital, 1:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 21
Alzheimer's Association Caregiver Support Group
Lake Chelan Community Hospital, 1:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 21
Memory Lane Coffee Hour
Mountain Meadows Assisited Living, 2:30 p.m.