WENATCHEE — Mackenzie Cowell told her beauty school classmates she would be gone for 15 minutes just before she walked to her car and drove off. Four days later, police found her body miles away on the edge of the Columbia River.
The 17-year-old high school senior had been struck in the head, strangled and stabbed to death.
Residents of this agricultural city, which bills itself as the “Apple Capital of the World,” were on edge for months until police arrested a beauty school classmate for the murder.
Prosecutors said Christopher Scott Wilson had a fascination with death when he killed Cowell in February 2010, comparing him to a serial-killing character from the television show “Dexter” and describing his arm tattoo of Hannibal Lecter, another fictional character who was a serial killer. They ultimately charged Wilson, 31, with first-degree murder.
The contrast of Wilson, who has no previous criminal record, with the popular girl who was a member of her school dance team known as the Apple-Ettes has drawn widespread media attention, and the spotlight is likely to continue to shine on Wenatchee when jury selection begins Monday.
Leading the defense team is John Henry Browne, the attorney who also represents the U.S. Army soldier charged in the killing of 17 Afghan villagers in March.
Reid Cowell, Mackenzie’s father, recalled a driven girl with an “unreal schedule,” juggling high school in the morning, beauty school in the afternoon and dance classes and dance team practice.
“She would never have gone with anyone she didn’t trust,” Cowell said. “The evidence tells me the chances are slim it wasn’t him.”
Wilson reportedly rejected a 10-year plea deal after the defense won all of the major pretrial motions.
Browne said there are some cases where he encourages clients to plead guilty, even if they’re 100 percent innocent, because the deal is too good to turn down.
“This was like that,” he said. “It’s a significant risk for Chris, but he’s maintaining his innocence, and I admire that in him.”
At the same time, he said, “I’m very worried that he’s turned down an offer that was very, very reasonable.”
Cowell was last seen leaving the Academy of Hair Design, where she studied on weekday afternoons, on Feb. 9, 2010. She told classmates she would only be gone 15 minutes, and surveillance video later showed her walking to her car and driving away.
Police found her abandoned vehicle 5 miles away on a rural road. Her purse was still in the car, but her keys and cellphone were missing.
Four days later, Cowell’s body was found on the edge of the Columbia River, some 20 miles south of Wenatchee. In addition to the fatal wounds, the coroner found that someone had tried to amputate one of her arms after she died.
Over the next seven months, police chased hundreds of leads and interviewed more than 800 people. Ultimately, Wilson was accused of murdering Cowell in his Wenatchee apartment.
Three people reported seeing a person, closely matching Wilson’s description, walking down the road near where Cowell’s car had been abandoned. DNA found on duct tape near Cowell’s body was linked to Wilson.
According to court documents, several people contacted police with concerns about Wilson after Cowell disappeared.
One person wrote a letter to police claiming Wilson was obsessed with dead bodies and serial killers. Another said Wilson told her he liked to “cut people up” when he was working at area funeral homes.
However, a judge barred prosecutors from introducing that work history — or mentioning his Hannibal Lecter tattoo — at trial, and ruled that the defense may introduce evidence of other suspects.
The television show “48 Hours” has been following the case for a future broadcast, and at a recent preliminary hearing, concerns were raised about finding a jury pool that hasn’t been tainted by media coverage over the past two years.
Prosecutors have declined to discuss the case leading up to trial. Browne said he has filed a motion for change of venue, but will wait to see if an unbiased jury can be seated.
His past clients include serial killer Ted Bundy and Colton Harris-Moore, who gained international attention for stealing airplanes, boats and cars during a two-year run from the law that left him known as the “Barefoot Bandit.”
“Wenatchee is a small town and there’s been a lot of publicity both ways,” he said.
If convicted, standard sentencing calls for Wilson to serve 20 to 26 years in prison, but the judge could impose a tougher sentence.