“The world is so unpredictable. Things happen suddenly, unexpectedly. We want to feel we’re in control of our own existence. In some ways we are, in some ways we’re not. We are ruled by the forces of chance and coincidence.” – Paul Auster
When something horrific happens, we want justice, we want answers, we want a conclusion. So what happens when justice creates more questions, and the answers create more confusion?
Wenatchee Washington is a quaint city known as the “Apple Capital of the World”. It was also the home of Mackenzie Cowell.
On February 9, 2010, Mackenzie Cowell was a 17-year-old student at the Academy of Hair Design. She was a driven, ambitious, and very well liked girl, who loved dancing, make-up, and all things girly. She lived with her father Reid, and her step-mother Sandy. Mackenzie was on her way to reaching her goals and having a very bright future.
On the afternoon of the 9th, around 3 p.m., Mackenzie said she needed to leave the school for about 15 minutes to run an errand. She’s seen on surveillance footage walking out of the door of the Academy and heading to her car.
15 minutes comes and goes, but Mackenzie doesn’t come back. By the time the school closed at 5 p.m., Mackenzie had not returned. Mackenzie didn’t arrive home either. Her father, Reid, realizing she should have been home by now started calling her, but he doesn’t get an answer. Reid kept calling Mackenzie and leaving her messages to call him. When her phone went straight to voicemail he panicked. That wasn’t like Mackenzie.
Two hours later, police got a call about an abandoned car found by a rancher in Pilcher Canyon. The canyon is a dark and deserted place, not somewhere Mackenzie would or should have been. Police arrived at the scene and ran the plates on the car, which came back to Reid because the car was registered to him. When law enforcement contacted Reid about the car, he asked if they had Mackenzie, they did not.
When Reid arrived at the scene, he was taken aback by the visual of Mackenzie’s little red car surrounded by police and flashing lights. His heart sank even more once he saw her purse still inside the car. She never went anywhere without it.
Law enforcement was fairly certain foul play was involved so they hit the ground running with the investigation. Four days later on the 13th, Mackenzie’s body was found 30 miles away on the side of the Columbia River in Crescent Bar.
The autopsy results showed the extent of the brutal nature of Mackenzie’s death. She had duct tape around her mouth. She was beaten, struck in the head, strangled, stabbed multiple times, and her throat was slit. The knife used to stab her was still in her shoulder, in such a way like an attacker was trying to dismember her, but gave up. There was NO sign of sexual assault. She was still wearing her uniform from school. The medical examiner puts Mackenzie’s time of death between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m. on the day she went missing.
Evidence collected for forensic testing included: the duct tape, the knife, swabs from inside Mackenzie’s car, a cigarette butt, and material under Mackenzie’s fingernails.
Who would have had this much anger towards a girl no one had anything bad to say about? Oddly enough, the investigators were not short on suspects. You always want to start close to the victim and work your way out, so the first people who investigators looked at were family.
Mackenzie’s mother Wendy had remarried a man named Joey Fisher, and he and Mackenzie did not get along. Joey reportedly had a drinking problem, which I’m sure led to a lot of aggression. It was also reported that there was a fight between Mackenzie and Joey the night before she went missing. She ultimately told her mother to choose between him and her. At the very least, it makes you wonder what kind of person could make such a sweet-natured girl so unnerved. In the end, Joey had a solid alibi that was verified. He was ruled out.
Mackenzie’s boyfriend at the time did fail a polygraph he volunteered to take, but his alibi was confirmed and cleared him as a possible suspect.
Investigators discovered another possible suspect who was seen on surveillance footage leaving the Academy of Hair Design just minutes after Mackenzie, also early for the day. Christopher Scott Wilson was a 30-year-old student at the Academy learning the needed skills to take over his mother’s hair salon. Christopher had dyed black hair, a tattoo of Hannibal Lector on his arm, and regularly wore eyeliner, he wasn’t the typical student you come across at the school. Investigators started receiving anonymous tips regarding the likelihood of the attacker being Christopher.
In August of 2010, investigators received an anonymous letter painting a very dark picture of Christopher. The letter described a deep fascination with death, serial killers, dead bodies, and the show “Dexter”. The letter went on to detail an event where Christopher choked a female friend, not joking about it, scaring the bejeezus out of her. Then he just stopped like nothing happened and didn’t speak of it.
Investigators also on to found out that Christopher once worked for a funeral home, but was subsequently fired once the owner became uncomfortable with him. There are no details as to what made him so uncomfortable, I’m sure the investigators know, however.
Even though Christopher was looking like a pretty viable suspect, investigators still needed to establish more facts, so they went to the Academy and interviewed their classmates. Students stated that Christopher and Mackenzie did talk to each other and that he possibly had feelings for her. However, these are all unsubstantiated claims because there was no actual proof the two of them talked. Cell phone records showed no communication between the two at all. Christopher went on to deny any association whatsoever with Mackenzie.
Here is where things with this case get confusing.
A woman named Liz Reid came forward telling investigators she knew what happened to Mackenzie. Liz claimed two men, Sam Cuevas, and Emmanuel Cerros showed her a snuff film of Mackenzie’s murder and she gave investigators details of the location the body was taken to. Liz stated the motive was the men, who are known drug dealers, mistook Mackenzie for an informant or narc. Liz went on to state that the men had to choke Mackenzie twice because she wasn’t dead the first time.
Liz was also a long time informant, with a past and present history of drug involvement.
Investigators spent precious time trying to track down the supposed snuff film with no success. Investigators needed a little more to go on, so they brought Liz back in and she recanted her entire statement saying she lied. It was hard to just cast aside her statement, given the amount of detail, especially once she showed back up with a ring she claimed was Mackenzie’s. It did look similar to a ring Mackenzie had on in pictures, however, her family didn’t recognize it.
Liz was unreliable, but it was still hard to dismiss her story. When investigators questioned the men, they were confused, not defensive. They ultimately checked out and were cleared.
Investigators went back to Christopher Wilson, after all, he was their best lead. Christopher was very cooperative with investigators and even agreed to a DNA sample. The mood in the interrogation room quickly shifted once investigators told Christopher his DNA sample matched one of the profiles found on the duct tape. They weren’t lying, and he immediately stopped talking and requested a lawyer.
So let’s talk about the results of all of the evidence tested.
This information came from an affidavit filed with the Chelan County Superior Court.
The duct tape came back with two male DNA profiles. One was positive for Christopher, one being an unidentified male. When multiple profiles are suspected, or the sample is low, Y-STR testing is used. The accuracy of this testing is 1:2,700 compared to the more complex testing that will give an accuracy of billion or trillion. A white male has a 1 in 1,047 chance of sharing Wilson’s Y-STR profile, according to the affidavit.
The cigarette butt came back with an unidentified female profile.
The knife handle came back with three DNA profiles, none of which were Christopher. One came back to a latent print analyst, and one was possible for another detective. The third profile was from an unidentified male. The knife was also a unique knife from a particular set, which was not able to be tied to Christopher.
Evidence from under Mackenzie’s fingernails came back as an unidentified male profile. Probably from trying to fight off her attacker.
Swabs of Mackenzie’s car came back with an unidentified male profile found on the steering wheel. The affidavit states this item is labeled as “F”. It’s unclear if this profile is different from the other unidentified male profiles found.
Are you good and confused yet?
Since Christopher was the only genetic match they had, they obviously completed a thorough search of two address he lived at, as well as his mother’s salon. There was no forensic or other sign of Mackenzie in the salon.
In Christopher’s apartment, however, they found a really weird video that was made just four days before. The video appeared to be documentation purposes for his security deposit. A female friend, Tessa Schuyleman, helped Christopher make the video. The video took an unsettling turn when the camera focused on a spot in the carpet that had a stain. You can hear Christopher talking quite confidently about how clean the apartment was, and then you hear Tessa say “yeah considering what hap..” Could be a random and innocent coincidence, but it was disturbing to investigators nonetheless.
Investigators also searched Christopher’s computer where they discover photos of Tessa lying in the floor posed over the spot of the stain. Creepy. When investigators questioned Tessa, she says she just passed out in that spot.
The stain was no longer visible like it was in the video, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t DNA present. A sample came back positive for blood, and when the carpet was pulled up, it was obvious blood had been there. They used the more precise and accurate DNA testing on the blood sample and it came back positive for Mackenzie. Now Tessa was also a person of interest.
Investigators spoke with Tessa’s boyfriend who said the night of the murder Tessa called him and said something bad had happened. A former boyfriend of Tessa’s also said that she visited him on the 9th or 10th acting very strange. Investigators end up arresting Tessa on suspicion of helping Christopher after Mackenzie’s death but she was never charged. Her DNA profile was NOT a match to the female profile found on the cigarette butt.
With nothing further from Tessa, investigators went back to Christopher. They discovered he borrowed a friend’s car on the day of the murder between 4 and 5 p.m. Witnesses also described a man fitting Christopher’s description walking away from where Mackenzie’s car was found on the 9th.
Christopher Scott Wilson was charged with second-degree murder.
Even though there was evidence against Christopher, he had a rather large group of supporters, including his mother. His mother was quick to hire a rather notable attorney to defend her son, John Henry Browne. If that name rings a bell, he also represented Ted Bundy.
Things continued to get stranger still at Christopher’s trial. In the preliminary hearing, the prosecution offered Christopher an unbelievable plea deal. They offered him a plea of first-degree manslaughter and a 7-year sentence. Seven measly years for such brutal and heinous crime, are you kidding me? Did the prosecution not feel confident in meeting the burden of proof at trial? Did they not feel confident in their evidence since obvious contamination occurred with profiles coming back as detectives? I need some sort of explanation because when I heard that I just felt a very Kathleen Zellner-esque controlled rage. Seven years for brutally beating, stabbing, and attempting to dismember someone, that’s just not logical.
As much of a ridiculously lenient deal the prosecution was offering Christopher, he turned it down saying he was innocent.
Cell phone records did place Mackenzie near Christopher’s apartment, which was three miles from the Academy of Hair Design, or where her body was found. If she knew him and was going to his apartment where her blood was found, why wasn’t there communication between the two on phone records? Or was she driving in the direction of his apartment and he intercepted her somehow?
We also don’t know how much blood was actually found there. This wouldn’t really matter because she had no reason to be in his apartment anyway, but the prosecution claimed his fascination with Dexter probably led him to lay down plastic like in the show and that’s why there wasn’t more blood. When investigators discovered the blood in the apartment, they said it was obvious blood had been there once they pulled up the carpet. So was prosecution claiming the plastic leaked? Where was the plastic? I don’t know, but doesn’t it seem more logical to claim that he killed her elsewhere and tracked blood back to the apartment?
A pre-trial jury pool showed 85% of potential jurors already assumed Christopher’s guilt. I’m assuming this is what led John Henry Browne to advise Christopher to take a plea deal. The defense asked for the original plea deal, however, the prosecution offered a plea of guilty on first-degree manslaughter and kidnapping with a 14-year sentence and a written letter of confession. Christopher accepted.
A year after accepting the plea, Christopher went on to try to retract his plea claiming his innocence, but that’s not how plea deals work. If you take the plea, that’s it, you don’t get an appeal. He will serve at least the 14 years.
So what do you think? Did Christopher kill Mackenzie? Did he do it alone? What do you make of Liz?
I really don’t know how I feel about this one. I do think it was a crime of opportunity by someone who probably knew Mackenzie. I do feel like Christopher was involved somehow, but I believe we are still missing the biggest pieces to this puzzle. I don’t know how Christopher can explain also leaving school early, her blood in his apartment, and his DNA on the tape. Whoever the unidentified male is on the knife handle that was used to slit Mackenzie’s throat, and attempted to dismember her, that man is still out there. That fact we know and that fact is terrifying.
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