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Trash man goes on trial in slaying of fashion writer

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV
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BARNSTABLE, Massachusetts (Court TV) -- When Christa Worthington, a fashion writer from a wealthy Cape Cod family, was murdered in her seaside cottage four years ago, there was no shortage of suspects.

There was the married man who fathered Worthington's toddler and then fought with her over paternity and child support.

There was the neighbor, an emotionally fragile children's book author, whom she had dated and cast off.

And, there was her father, a 73-year-old former prosecutor, who earned her enmity by dating an ex-prostitute and drug addict half his age.

There were other men, too, and in her liaisons, investigators searched for clues.

But in a trial set to begin Monday, prosecutors will assert that, in the end, Worthington's murder was unrelated to her character or choice of lovers or family disputes. Ultimately, prosecutors are expected to tell jurors, the only role Worthington played in her own death was paying a disposal company to pick up her trash each week.

Christopher McCowen, 34, is accused of murder, aggravated rape and armed burglary. If convicted by a jury in Barnstable Superior Court, he faces a sentence of life in prison without parole.

A pool of jurors from throughout Cape Cod are to report to the historic courthouse on Monday. The defense asking to move the trial to another county where jurors haven't been exposed to as much media coverage. If the judge denies that motion, opening statements could begin as early as Wednesday.

Victim didn't know alleged killer

Authorities say McCowen, a convicted felon with a long history of violent and threatening behavior toward women, did not know about Worthington's reputation or the glamorous career that had taken her to Paris, London and New York. The only thing he knew when he allegedly broke down her front door, forced himself on her and plunged a kitchen knife in her chest was her street address, prosecutors say.

"They were not personal acquaintances. They were not friends in any way," Michael O'Keefe, the Cape and Islands District Attorney, said after McCowen's arrest.

"It was a person who knew Christa only in the sense that [he was] familiar with her comings and goings," the prosecutor said.

On the cape, with its insularity and low crime rate, the Worthington murder has been the subject of intense interest. The idyllic locale, mystery novel-esque circumstances and long and controversial investigation also made it a national story, complete with a best-selling book and two movie deals.

McCowen, a muscular former high school football star, has pleaded not guilty. His defense lawyer has said that incriminating statements he made to authorities were coerced, and he has hinted that DNA linking McCowen to the scene may be proof only of consensual sex with the victim.

"Mr. McCowen was an easy target and a scapegoat for an investigation that has been flawed since the discovery of Christa Worthington's body," the lawyer, Robert George, told Court TV.

McCowen was on investigators' radar within a few months of the murder because of his criminal record and contact, however minimal, with the victim. But he remained on the periphery for three years because detectives were focused on suspects with a stronger connection to Worthington.

'Mommy fell down'

A neighbor trying to return a flashlight found Worthington lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen hall of West Wind, her cottage in the town of Truro, on January 6, 2002. Her 2-1/2 year-old daughter, Ava, was sitting near her mother's body.

"Mommy fell down," the toddler said.

Worthington was naked below the waist and there were cuts and bruises on her arms, face, legs and chest. A pathologist would later determine she had died from a single stab wound that had pierced her left lung. She had been dead for a day or two.

There were signs of a struggle inside and outside the house. The front door appeared to have been kicked in. Some of Worthington's belongings, including her eyeglasses and a barrette, were scattered across her driveway. There were blades of grass in Worthington's brown hair. Her wallet was gone, as was her cordless phone. Her cell phone was in the house, and someone had dialed the number "9" as if starting to call for help.

Investigators did not have to look far for people to interview about Worthington. Her cousin Jan was among the rescue workers on the scene, and the neighbor who had found her, Tim Arnold, was a former boyfriend.

They sketched out Worthington's story. Her family had deep roots on the cape, but she had left, first for college and then for a career writing about fashion for women's magazines, including Vogue, Elle and Harper's Bazaar. She was the Paris bureau chief of Women's Wear Daily. She had returned to the cape in 1998 to help care for her dying mother and to enjoy a slower pace of life.

Many relationships, no suspects

After her mother died, she became pregnant by Tony Jackett, the local shellfish constable and a married father of six. She decided to raise her daughter by herself, but when Ava was a year old, asked Jackett to acknowledge the child and contribute financially. After some arguments, Jackett grudgingly told his wife about his affair and his daughter. They remained married, and the Jacketts saw Ava from time to time.

Investigators also learned that Worthington had ended her relationship with Arnold and that she reportedly had changed her will to exclude him about two months before the murder.

Other friends and acquaintances told detectives about her frustration with her father, Christopher, a former state attorney general, and his new girlfriend, a 29-year-old heroin addict who had worked as a call girl. Worthington felt he was squandering the family fortune.

Forensic tests found semen on Worthington's body, and DNA analysis isolated an individual genetic profile. Investigators initially focused on Jackett, Arnold and other men that Worthington had dated, but none of their DNA matched.

As they pressed Jackett and Arnold, detectives also questioned others who knew Worthington less well, including her mailman and McCowen. In an interview at the trash company office three months after the murder, McCowen told troopers that Worthington sometimes waved to him as he picked up her garbage, but that he knew her only "as a customer."

Detectives asked if he would be willing to give fingerprint and DNA samples. He said he was, but they did not collect them.

In January 2004, frustrated investigators asked every man in Truro for a DNA sample to be tested against the profile. The move was criticized by civil liberties groups, but authorities emphasized that it was voluntary. About 175 samples were taken, but there was a backlog at the state crime lab, and authorities could only send five samples per month for testing.

History of problems with women

At about the same time, McCowen was convicted of threatening to kill the mother of one of his two daughters.

He was no stranger to the criminal justice system. A native of Oklahoma, McCowen had moved to the cape when he was released from a Florida prison, where he had spent several years on grand theft auto and burglary convictions.

He wanted to join the mother of his daughter, a Cape Cod native. Their relationship soon fell apart, but he remained there, dating a series of women and fathering a second child. During that time, at least five different women sought restraining orders against him for violent behavior.

While meeting with a parole officer in the spring of 2004, McCowen gave detectives working the Worthington case a swab of DNA from his cheek. Because of the backlog at the state lab, it took a year for the results. McCowen matched the profile.

They arrested him in April 2005. Initially, he told troopers he did not know Worthington and had never been in her house. He talked about having sex with other women on his garbage route, but insisted he had never talked to her. According to an affidavit by the troopers, when confronted with a report about the DNA, "McCowen read it and said, 'It could have been me.'"

At the trial, the defense is expected to attack the reliability of the confession. McCowent's lawyer has has hired Richard Ofshe, the country's foremost expert on false confessions. Ofshe contends that coercive questioning by police can result in an innocent person admitting involvement in a crime.


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