McDowell trial: Rocky marriage preceded slaying
MEEKER – Ballistics tests, boot prints on a dusty floor, marital troubles, and the odd behavior of Chuck McDowell after his wife was murdered were the focus of evidence in McDowell’s murder trial Thursday.McDowell, 56, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated robbery in the Sept. 23, 1998, shooting death of his wife, Ruth Ann McDowell, while she tallied the day’s receipts at the Glenwood Springs Rite-Aid store.In opening statements on Wednesday, McDowell’s attorney admitted that his client committed the killing, but argued that he should be convicted of a lesser charge.Meanwhile, prosecutors made a pre-emptive strike Thursday against a possible motive for the killing – that Ruth Ann McDowell was having a romantic affair with a co-worker.Ruth Ann McDowell’s two daughters-in-law, who lived on her street in New Castle, said they never saw any evidence of an affair. Co-workers offered the same observations during testimony on Wednesday.And the co-worker in question, Barney Higgins, testified Thursday that Ruth Ann McDowell was a close and longtime friend and a wonderful person, but that he loved her “as a sister.” He denied, under oath, that he had ever had an affair with her. A troubled marriage While the couple worked hard and owned a nice home in New Castle, along with a boat, four-wheelers and a motorhome, they frequently argued, according to Ruth Ann’s daughters-in-law, Michelle James and Stacey James.Chuck McDowell had confided to Michelle James that he did not love his wife, she testified.The two had become close during the McDowell’s seven-year marriage, and one day Michelle James was griping to McDowell about something her husband had done to make her mad.”But then I said that even though he makes me mad, I’m very much in love with him,” Michelle James said of her husband, Jeff. “And [McDowell] said he did not have that love, that he did not love Ruth Ann. I was shocked by that.”James said McDowell described his marriage as a companionship of two friends working together to build a nest egg for retirement.But when James found a less stressful job for her mother-in-law at City Market, McDowell objected because Ruth Ann would have to take a pay cut.Their biggest problem, however, was the tense relationship between Ruth Ann and McDowell’s two daughters from an earlier marriage.The daughters live in Southern California. But daughter Tonya Lane and her boyfriend made frequent trips to New Castle.Ruth Ann felt Chuck was putting his daughters “in front of her,” Stacey James said.Michelle James said she thought that Chuck would leave the marriage because he and Ruth Ann fought.McDowell told her that he felt Ruth Ann would never change her attitude about his daughters. But he told James he wouldn’t leave the marriage over his daughters; he would “leave on his own terms,” she said.Ballistics and boot printsOn the morning of Sept. 24, hours after Ruth Ann McDowell was found dead of a gunshot wound at the Rite-Aid store, Colorado Bureau of Investigation investigators arrived at the scene of the crime.Their job was to search for and verify physical evidence that would identify the murderer.CBI Agent Wayne Bryant described how he searched the tile floor of the computer room for footprints in the dust. He turned off the lights and then used a strong flashlight to light up dust particles.Bryant found 17 prints, and captured them by laying a piece of black plastic film, mounted on a metal plate and charged with static electricity, on the floor. He lifted up the dust and took the print samples back to CBI’s Montrose laboratory to be photographed.He them compared the images with prints taken from boots found in McDowell’s garage. Five sets of prints were a consistent match, he testified.”So those boots were possibly the source of all those prints?” asked District Attorney Mac Myers in questioning Bryant.”Yes,” the agent said.Under cross-examination by Public Defender Greg Greer, Bryant said he could not pin a date or time on the prints, and he admitted that he did not know that McDowell worked as a part-time courier for the Rite-Aid store.Bryant reached the same result in his ballistics test.He said the general characteristics of grooves etched into the .38 caliber bullet matched those that McDowell’s .357 magnum Smith & Wesson revolver would have created.But the bullet was sufficiently damaged and lacked enough individualized markings so that Bryant could not be absolutely sure it was fired from McDowell’s gun.Sweating bulletsPeople in Chuck McDowell’s life noticed several pieces of odd behavior before and after the killing.Trey Holt, who owns Farnum Holt Funeral Home in Glenwood Springs, said Chuck McDowell had worked with him on about 100 burials at the city’s Rosebud Cemetery. Part of McDowell’s duties for his job with the city’s public works department was digging and refilling graves.But on Sept. 22, as they lowered a casket into a grave, Holt said McDowell asked, “Is that a lady’s casket?” And he remarked about how nice it was, Holt said.After Ruth Ann’s death, McDowell chose the same casket style for her burial, Holt testified.The day after the killing, family members gathered at the home of Greg and Stacey James, Ruth Ann’s son and daughter-in-law.Stacey James testified that McDowell showed little emotion after the killing.What she noticed most that night was that he was sweating profusely.The grieving continued the next day at her home, but McDowell’s behavior was odd.”He wasn’t crying. He was sweating terribly. He wasn’t like we were,” she said, noting that McDowell had to change his shirt several times that day.
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