McDowell to cop: `I shot her’
MEEKER – It was passion, it was jealousy, and it was fear of a family confrontation that led Chuck McDowell to drive into Glenwood Springs on the evening of Sept. 23, 1998, to shoot and kill his wife, Ruth Ann McDowell.
An hourlong taped confession and a pair of suicide notes presented to the jury Friday offered insight into McDowell’s motives for killing the woman he loved.
The murder trial will resume today with evidence from the defense.
The jury is expected to get the case for a decision Tuesday or Wednesday. It will be asked to decide whether to convict McDowell of first-degree murder, or of a lesser charge of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
On Friday, a light snow drifted down outside the Rio Blanco County courtroom.
It was nothing compared to the precipitation of sorrow shed by Chuck McDowell and his relatives, by blood and marriage, as they listened to the confession and a reading of the notes.
Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson, who has known McDowell for years as a fellow city employee, took the stand and offered a bit of testimony about McDowell’s behavior after Ruth Ann’s body was found at the Glenwood Springs Rite-Aid store.
“He was subdued, but at times he broke down and sobbed, asking me things like, `Why did this happen?’ But he understood everything I was asking him,” Wilson recalled.
Then District Attorney Mac Myers brought forward the taped confession, transferred to a CD, that Wilson pulled out of McDowell on the night of Sept. 25, 1998.
CBI investigators had already spent seven hours interviewing McDowell earlier that evening in a room at the Ramada Inn. As a familiar face and the city’s top law enforcement officer, Wilson was brought in as the “closer.”
What McDowell probably didn’t know was that he was up against a highly skilled interviewer. Wilson knew how to keep McDowell on edge, appeal to his ego, tap his emotions and test his veracity.
Myers fired up the CD player, and the jury listened intently to the interview. Within a few minutes of hearing the conversation again, 14 months later, McDowell began to weep in his seat at the defense table.
Behind him, Ruth Ann’s relatives and McDowell’s daughters wept as well.
“You’ve got to handle this like a man,” Wilson told McDowell on the recording, praising him for a lifetime of honesty and hard work and calling on him to come clean for the sake of his children and Ruth Ann’s family.
“They need to get this behind them. The only way they can do this is to know the truth. Otherwise, when they bury her, they’ll have a hole in their hearts,” Wilson said.
Their conversation focused at first on the details of the crime.
McDowell said he left an extra .38 caliber bullet in the store’s loft to put police on that track. He used another .38 bullet in his .357 magnum revolver to commit the crime.
“Leaving those things there, that was a part of you,” Wilson said. “You knew, deep down, that you needed to be caught.”
McDowell said he had second thoughts about his plan when he walked past the City Market store and saw two women he knew seated outside at the break table.
“I thought, `Shit.’ I walked around. I thought maybe I shouldn’t do it. I got in the truck and left the area, just exactly like I told you,” McDowell said. Then he explained how he returned, parked his truck in the Colorado Mountain College parking lot, walked back down to Rite-Aid and slipped into the store.
“I waited up in the loft till I heard the door slam,” he said, referring to the last person, other than Ruth Ann, to leave the store.
When Wilson asked about the empty whisky bottle found in the loft, McDowell said he drank about half of it. But he clearly said, “I wasn’t drunk.”
Wearing a ski mask and gloves, McDowell said he approached the computer room where she was reconciling the day’s receipts.
“I could kind of see her in the screen of the computer. I took a step up and shot her.
“When I shot her, she fell out of the chair exactly like she was. I stepped over her and took the money from the safe,” McDowell said. “I had to make it look like a robbery.”
Then McDowell explained how he drove back home to New Castle, hid the cash in a crawl space, put his jacket and pants in the washing machine and stowed his boots and ski mask in the garage.
“I knew I had to put my normal clothes back on to go back down there,” McDowell said. He had planned to arrive at the scene, go over to City Market and get a friend to go into the store with him, where they would discover the body.
Then Wilson shifted gears and pointedly asked McDowell why he did it.
“Pretty much over Barney. At times he was more important than I was,” McDowell said, referring to one of Ruth Ann’s co-workers.
McDowell talked about how hard he worked in his jobs for the city and as a courier for Rite-Aid and City Market.
“I’d come home and do things for her. She wouldn’t thank me. It would be, `Barney did this and Barney said that.’ I just wasn’t Barney,” McDowell said.
Wilson was assisted in the interview by CBI agent Steve Vaughan, and a few minutes later, Vaughan asked the same question. “Why’d you kill her? Was it revenge? Payback?”
“I don’t really know, other than I didn’t want to hear about Barney. I loved her. I didn’t want to lose her. I didn’t want to leave her, but I didn’t want to hear about Barney any more,” McDowell said.
Confessing, however, was deeply painful for McDowell.
“The thing I’m dealing with now is the embarrassment, and the hurt to everybody who loves me and cares about me,” he told Wilson, referring to Ruth Ann’s children and his daughters.
“Do you still love Ruth Ann?” Wilson asked him.
“Then you’ve got to believe they still love you.”
“But I killed their mother,” McDowell said.
In the afternoon, McDowell was advised of his right to take the witness stand, and his right to decline to testify, which he did.
If he had chosen to take the stand, he would have been subject to cross-examination by prosecutors. Jurors will be instructed not to weigh his decision not to testify against him in deliberations.
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