Opening arguments have begun in the murder trial of 46-year-old Steven McDowell, who has confessed to strangling his ex-wife, local realtor Crystal McDowell, on the same day Hurricane Harvey blew along the Gulf Coast. 

Because of the heavy publicity connected with the case, the trial is being held in the Constitutional Courtroom of the Galveston County Justice Center. Judge Chap B. Cain III of the 253rd District Court in Chambers County is presiding. 

Judge Cain asked Steven McDowell how did he plead, and after hesitating, he asked if he was pleading to the indictment as read. Cain told him he was and Steven McDowell said, “Not guilty, because that is not what happened.”

Chambers County District Attorney Cheryl Lieck said Crystal McDowell’s life began as tragically as it ended. 

“Crystal was born to drug-addicted parents and named after crystal methamphetamine. Her parents died when she was in her early teens, she was left an orphan, passed around by family members, where she was sexually abused, sent to Oklahoma, abducted raped, and kept in a cage,” Lieck said. 

Lieck said later when Crystal McDowell moved to Baytown, she met Steven McDowell, the man who would eventually confess to murdering her. 

“She wanted a husband, a home, children, to be loved and give and receive love like she had never given or received love before in her life,” Lieck said. 

After having two children, and 10 years of marriage, the couple would go back and forth separating and making up, Lieck said. 

“The defendant would threaten to harm himself, so Crystal would come back,” Lieck said. “Time and time again until finally, she had enough of the manipulation, so she divorced him. Then, he started to threaten to harm her and the kids and himself. She was beginning to be more afraid, and apparently, her fears came true. On August 25, 2017, he made good on those threats and choked her to death in front of their 5-year-old daughter.”

McDowell’s attorney, Keaton Kirkwood of Liberty, declined to give an opening statement. 

Paul Hargrave, the man Crystal McDowell began dating at the time of her death, was the first witness called. He described how he met her at his jewelry store, Robson’s Diamond Jewelers, when she came in to have a ring remounted. He also talked about the day she disappeared.

“The last time I saw her was that Friday when she left at 8 a.m.,” Hargrave said.

Hargrave said he was sure about the exact time since it was on security video footage taken at his home. Crystal McDowell had spent the night there and was going to pick up her two children. The plan was for everyone to head to Dallas to escape the storm. However, he never saw her alive again. 

Hargrave was also asked about a planned cruise with him, Crystal and her two kids, specifically, if he knew Steven McDowell was supposed to go along. Hargrave said he did not know. 

Later, testimony from Texas Ranger Steve Jeter revealed Steven McDowell had told him during an interview he was originally supposed to go on the cruise, but Crystal changed her mind and was going to have Hargrave go instead. Later, Texas Ranger James Holland said when questioned by Kirkwood, Steven McDowell believed they were going to renew their wedding vows but felt like Hargrave was going to take his place. 

Holland also testified saying Steven McDowell said in a confession his ex-wife showed up at the house early the morning of Aug. 25, 2017. Although divorced, she was living in the Legend’s Bay home with Steven McDowell and the two children while her townhome was being renovated. When he asked her where she had been, she said it was none of his business before revealing she had been with another man, Holland said. 

“She told him she never loved him, and he needed to get this through his head,” Holland said. “He then choked her out with his arms.”

Holland said Steven McDowell told him Crystal’s last words were: “You’re scaring me.”  

The murder happened in the downstairs bedroom, Holland said Steven McDowell confessed to him. Holland said afterward, he put a Target bag over Crystal’s head because he “didn’t want to see her face.” Her body was then put into a fetal position, tied up in industrial garbage bags and put into the trunk of her black Mercedes C-Class, Holland said. This was done quickly since a repair worker was scheduled to show up soon. 

Steven McDowell discarded the black dress Crystal McDowell was wearing the next night while he was driving the car to a Motel 6 at Interstate 10 and Highway 146, where he abandoned the vehicle. Video from the motel and a nearby gas station later revealed Steven McDowell was at the location when he dumped Crystal McDowell’s vehicle in hopes of it being flooded to destroy evidence or stolen.   

Holland also testified Steven McDowell said the 5-year-old daughter was not in the room when the murder occurred, contradicting the opening statement. 

Holland and Jeter went into graphic detail on the condition of Crystal McDowell’s body upon discovery after Steven McDowell confessed and led authorities to the remains. Her body was dumped off Needlepoint Road, and it took two entries into the woods to find her, the Rangers said. Holland said Steven McDowell did not go all the way with them on the second approach, leaving the Rangers to instead finally locate her because of the smell of Crystal McDowell’s decaying corpse.  

Holland said all Steven McDowell would say when the body was discovered was “it’s her.” 

A video of Steven McDowell’s tearful confession was shown to the jury of four women and eight men. He asked for the death penalty to be taken off the table in exchange for helping to find Crystal McDowell’s body. Lieck agreed. He is now facing life in prison. 

Testimony will continue in the trial today and is expected to last through the week. 

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