Motive, a volatile history and a child’s recollection of painful memories resulted in a stunning second day during the trial of Steven McDowell, who is accused of murdering of his ex-wife, Crystal.
Chambers County District Attorney Cheryl Lieck called Mandy Avalos, an aerospace worker currently living in Las Vegas, to the stand. Avalos said she had been a friend with Crystal McDowell’s since she was 16. Avalos has custody of the McDowell’s son and daughter at the wish of Crystal.
Avalos testified she knew Crystal McDowell when she lived with her grandmother in Baytown and they spent a lot of time together and were even “intimate.”
Avalos recounted the day she heard about Crystal’s disappearance on a Friday in August 2018.
“I got a Facebook IM (instant message) from Melissa Cherry (Crystal’s cousin) on Saturday, the next day after Crystal disappeared,” Avalos said. “I panicked. I knew something was wrong.”
Avalos said she had spoken to Crystal McDowell days before, and was planning to take a trip with her new boyfriend, Paul Hargrave.
“I was concerned,” Avalos said. “I asked if Steven had found out about Paul and she texted saying he knew. I thought, of course he knew, because he had looked at her texts.”
Avalos said Crystal McDowell was living in a condominium on Ward Road, but was having it remodeled. In the meantime, she was staying during the week at a home in Legends Bay in Chambers County with Steven McDowell and the two children despite being divorced from him.
“He was living upstairs,” Avalos said. “Crystal was the breadwinner. She complained that Steven spent too much money on games and toys. She had put the money up for the home. She bought the furniture. She did this because she wanted the kids to have a good home.”
Avalos said she has been in custody of the children since October 2017, two months after the murder. One day in December of that year, Avalos said the daughter, who was 5-years-old at the time, wanted to talk to her.
“She said I am ready to tell my secret,” Avalos said. “She knew what happened to her mother.”
Avalos said the daughter told her she woke up that morning, Aug. 25, 2017, and heard her mom and dad arguing. She went through a bathroom to their bedroom.
“She said Crystal said something to Steven and he pushed her on the bed and placed his hands over her nose and mouth,” Avalos said. “She said she was standing next to the bed and Steven kept doing what he was doing to Crystal and that Crystal also looked at her. When she stopped breathing, that is when she said Steven stopped.”
Avalos said the girl was told by Steven McDowell to go upstairs and not to tell anyone. Avalos relayed the conversation to the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office. The daughter is currently receiving counseling.
Upon cross-examination by Steven McDowell’s attorney, Keaton Kirkwood, Avalos said the children continued to talk to their father after their mother’s murder.
Avalos also said a Las Vegas counselor named Joan Black said the daughter made an outcry to her about what she saw that day. The daughter drew a picture of what happened, and Black was concerned.
Melissa Cherry, Crystal McDowell’s cousin, testified about the daughter saying something to her and Jeff Walters, the late realtor’s uncle and co-worker. Cherry said she helped Crystal McDowell move away from Steven McDowell and would then help move her back in with him after he would threaten to harm himself if she didn’t come back.
Cherry said Crystal McDowell was acting scared the week she disappeared.
“She was terrified,” Cherry said. “I told her I have helped you move out and you’ve moved back in. He was suicidal. He would mope around and not eat. She was with him because she didn’t want him to hurt himself. She felt sorry for him.”
The day after Crystal McDowell disappeared, Cherry and Walters went to the Mont Belvieu home, to find Steven McDowell working on a dishwasher delivered by a company.
“He was shaking and pacing around,” Cherry said, choking through tears.
Cherry said the daughter “popped” out of the pantry while they were in the kitchen. When asked if she had seen her mother, the child shook both adults to the core.
“She said, ‘Yes, last night,’” Cherry said. “She shook a black dress in a closet and said, ‘evil spirits took her.’”
Walters said he had to go as Cherry described herself as panicked to the point of calmness.
“I asked Steven if he had seen Crystal and he said he hadn’t in two or three weeks,” Cherry said.
Cherry said she went outside and met Walters down the street and saw Steven McDowell trying to leave with the kids. They called the police.
Cherry said the police told her the kids could only go with them if Steven McDowell gave them permission.
Testimony during the day also focused on the McDowell’s relationship.
Chambers County Det. Shane Arredondo testified about text messages between Crystal and Steven McDowell. Some texts were about a cruise Crystal McDowell had planned to take with Steven McDowell and the kids as one final family vacation before separating for good. After arguing over money issues, Crystal McDowell said she had taken Steven McDowell “off the vacation already.”
Cherry also testified about the planned cruise.
“It was part of the things he was making her do,” Cherry said. “It was his idea.”
Cherry said at first, Crystal McDowell was happy to do it for the kids.
“But she said part of the agreement was he could not have any ‘crazy talk,’ threats of hurting himself, her or the kids,” Cherry said. “If he did, she would break her end of the bargain. But by the end of the week, she had taken Steven off and added Paul (Hargrave, her boyfriend at the time).”
Cherry also testified Crystal McDowell thought her ex-husband would use the cruise as an attempt at reconciliation.
Prosecutors also called witnesses that gave testimony about Steven McDowell’s frame of mind.
Charles Raven of Cove testified he knew Steven McDowell when they worked at Exel Logistics, a shipping and distribution company in Cedar Crossing. He said around Spring Break of 2017, Steven McDowell called his wife and said he and his kids were heading to Galveston and wanted to hook up. After arriving at their hotel, Raven said they talked about their kids and go-carts. But then, Raven said Steven McDowell said he was upset over his wife.
“He said he was upset over her seeing other men,” Raven said. He didn’t say they were divorced, just that she had several boyfriends. He said he had thoughts about killing her and then himself.”
Kirkwood asked Raven if he had been drinking and he said he had a few beers.
“But I do not think I would’ve missed that,” Raven said.
Around the same time, Baytown Police Officer Jose Gonzalez testified Crystal McDowell came to the station and filed a report on her ex-husband, saying he had taken off with the kids and she had not heard from him. Gonzalez said she told him Steven McDowell had threatened her, the children and himself.
“She said he was stressed over the divorce and had lost weight, about 10 pounds,” Gonzalez said. “She said he had tried to be intimate with her and she said no.”
The officer said Steven McDowell showed up with the kids, angry that Crystal McDowell had called the police.
Thursday’s testimony included a jailhouse confession. A Chambers County inmate, Easton Isaacks, testified that Steven McDowell told him how he killed Crystal McDowell.
“He said he killed her because he found a text message from a man on her phone and thought she was cheating on him,” Isaacks said. “He said he used zip ties to tie her hands after she was dead.”
Dr. Paula Brumit, a forensic odontology consultant, testified that the remains found in the wooded area off of Needlepoint Road matched the dental records of Crystal McDowell, who had just had her teeth cleaned a couple of days before she was killed. As the graphic photos were shown in court, Steven McDowell never looked up, keeping his head bowed the entire time.
Testimony continues today with recordings of the McDowell’s children.