Kids asleep as mom killed, sher­iff says

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Keri Blakinger

Crys­tal McDow­ell’s young chil­dren were asleep up­stairs in their beds when her ex-hus­band al­legedly stran­gled the Bay­town Re­al­tor in the home they shared, of­fi­cials say.

Crys­tal McDow­ell’s young chil­dren were asleep up­stairs in their beds when her ex-hus­band al­legedly stran­gled the pop­u­lar Bay­town Re­al­tor in the home they shared, ac­cord­ing to Cham­bers County Sher­iff Brian Hawthorne.

De­tails of the case emerged dur­ing a tearful con­fes­sion by Steve McDow­ell, who was ar­rested Satur­day in the death of his exwife, Hawthorne said.

Crys­tal McDow­ell van­ished on the eve of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, set­ting off a two-week hunt that ended when Steve McDow­ell, 44, led au­thor­i­ties to her de­com­pos­ing body in Cham­bers County.

Months ear­lier, Crys­tal claimed in court pa­pers that he had threat­ened to kill them both along with their chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to a law en­force­ment source with knowl­edge of the case.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, Crys­tal called po­lice al­leg­ing he had threat­ened to harm him­self and the chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to Bay­town po­lice spokesman Steve Dor­ris.

Her pan­icked call came af­ter one of the chil­dren failed to show up for school.

“We tried lo­cat­ing him but didn’t have any luck,” Dor­ris said. “But the next day, he brought the kids back.” No charges were filed. The cou­ple’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tion­ship ended in a di­vorce fi­nal­ized in June, records show.

Part­ing of ways

But even af­ter they parted ways legally, Crys­tal McDow­ell helped her ex buy a house and lived with him while her own town­home was be­ing re­mod­eled, of­fi­cials said.

And she moved on in life, dat­ing lo­cal jew­eler Paul Har­grave.

Not long be­fore she dis­ap­peared, Hawthorne said, Crys­tal McDow­ell broke the news to her ex that he wouldn’t be go­ing along on a cruise she had planned; she would take her new beau in­stead.

She told one long­time friend through a Face­book mes­sage that she was “get­ting a lit­tle scared” of the fa­ther of her chil­dren.

Yet her ef­fu­sive Face­book posts in the days be­fore the storm didn’t hint at any prob­lems.

“I’ve never been hap­pier in my whole life than I am right now,” she wrote two days be­fore she van­ished. “God is so good.”

Har­grave could not im­me­di­ately be reached for comment.

On the morn­ing of Aug. 25, Crys­tal McDow­ell headed over to her ex’s house to pick up the kids, ages 5 and 8, of­fi­cials said. Her ex ini­tially claimed she never made it, ac­cord­ing to Hawthorne.

The fol­low­ing day, her wor­ried fam­ily re­ported her miss­ing.

Then, af­ter a two-week search ham­pered by the wa­ter­logged roads and in­tense flood­ing, au­thor­i­ties brought in Steve McDow­ell for ques­tion­ing Satur­day and he con­fessed, Hawthorne said.

On the day of Crys­tal’s dis­ap­pear­ance — be­fore the chil­dren woke up — the McDow­ells fought and Steven stran­gled his ex-wife in­side the home, he later told in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

He stashed her body overnight and dis­posed of it the next morn­ing, along with her cell­phone and car, he said.

“We don’t be­lieve the kids saw the body,” Hawthorne said.

Emo­tional con­fes­sion

Au­thor­i­ties tracked down a fi­nal ping from the cell­phone in a marshy part of Bay­town and found the miss­ing woman’s flooded car days later at a Mo­tel 6 near In­ter­state 10. McDow­ell led in­ves­ti­ga­tors to the body af­ter his weep­ing ad­mis­sion.

The day be­fore McDow­ell’s con­fes­sion and ar­rest, the De­part­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices pre­emp­tively re­moved the chil­dren from the home.

“There was some his­tory there of pos­si­bly putting the kids in harm’s way,” Hawthorne said.

Now, both chil­dren are stay­ing with Crys­tal’s aunt, who lives in the area.

McDow­ell made his first court ap­pear­ance Tues­day, when a judge as­signed him an at­tor­ney and kept bail at $500,000.

McDow­ell’s lawyer did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for comment, and an au­to­mated mes­sage said that his voice mail was full.

Au­thor­i­ties tracked down a fi­nal ping from the cell­phone in a marshy part of Bay­town and found the miss­ing woman’s flooded car days later at a Mo­tel 6 near In­ter­state 10. McDow­ell led in­ves­ti­ga­tors to the body af­ter his weep­ing ad­mis­sion.

Crys­tal McDow­ell wor­ried that her ex-hus­band, Steve, would harm their two chil­dren.

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