Stepfather and friend formally charged in Barry County court
By Lisa Schlichtman
Horrific and unhuman are two of the words being used by law enforcement officials and a grieving and disbelieving community to describe the rape and murder of 9-year-old Rowan Ford, of Stella.
On Tuesday, Ford's accused murderers were arraigned in Barry County Circuit Court and formally charged with first degree murder, forcible rape and statutory rape.
One of the men is David Spears, Ford's 25-year-old stepfather, who just days earlier gave television news crews a tearful apology for leaving his stepdaughter alone in their home while he went out with friends. The other is Chris Collings, a 32-year-old friend of both David Spears and Ford's mother, Colleen Spears.
On Friday, seven days after Ford was first reported missing, the little girl's body was discovered in a sink hole near Powell in McDonald County. The actual rape and murder occurred in a travel trailer on Farm Road 1015 east of Wheaton about 10 miles away from where Ford's body was dumped.
According to an affidavit of probable cause statement filed by Barry County Detective Robert Evenson, Collings travelled to the Spears' residence in Stella on the night of Nov. 2 and took Rowan from her home. When Collings arrived at the residence, Rowan was alone and asleep.
Collings then allegedly took Rowan to his trailer in Wheaton where he forcibly had sexual intercourse with her. After raping Ford, Collings confessed to leading Ford outside and wrapping a rope around her neck and pulling it taut until she died. The rope he strangled Ford with was like the one used to tether goats outside his dilapidated trailer.
According to Evenson's signed probable cause statement, Collings loaded Ford's body into his pickup truck and dumped it into a sinkhole.
A probable cause affidavit filed by Chris Jennings with the Newton County Sheriff's Department states that Spears confessed that he participated in the sexual assault of his 9-year-old stepdaughter after arriving at Collings' trailer and catching him in the act of raping Ford. Spears also admitted to taking a cord and wrapping it around Ford's neck after he raped her.
Jennings writes in his probable cause affidavit that Spears said he stood directly over the child, wrapped a curtain cord around her neck and choked her while she was facing him.
According to Spears' confession, he and Collings put Ford's body into a Chevy Suburban owned by Spears' mother and drove to a cave in McDonald County. Spears told officers that he watched Collings take Ford's body into the cave and return without the child.
Collings and Spears were arrested on Friday evening, Nov. 9. Both men confessed their crimes to area law enforcement officers at roughly the same time. Collings made his confession to Wheaton Police Chief Clint Clark while FBI officers and Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly were present. Spears' confession was made to officers with the Newton County Sheriff's Office.
Spears claims he was in a blackout state when the crime occurred and it took him awhile to remember what he had done on the night his stepdaughter disappeared.
"There was quite a bit of alcohol involved in this case," said Epperly. "They went to the liquor store a couple of times that night and we also found some drugs, but right now, just marijuana."
Ford's body was retrieved from the sinkhole near Powell by a McDonald County Sheriff's Deputy on Friday, Nov. 9. The officer said the girl was naked from the waist down and dried blood could be seen on her legs. According to Sheriff Epperly, this deputy had received information from a friend of Spears who suggested the sinkhole near Powell would be a good place to look for the body.
Epperly also said that Collings told officers he was first going to dump Ford's body at Muncy but then decided on the sinkhole instead. He allegedly travelled with Ford's body to Muncy first before ending up near Powell.
The sheriff said there are discrepancies between Spears' and Collings' confessions and his officers are working to track down the truth.
Once Collings confessed, Sheriff Epperly said he took a team of 18 FBI agents to the crime scene in Wheaton where it was thoroughly processed.
"The FBI took quite a lot of evidence," said Epperly. "They flew their evidence to the FBI lab in Virginia and the lab results should be back by the end of the week."
Prior to confessing, Collings spoke to Police Chief Clark on several occasions while the search for Ford was underway.
"It appears what he did was bothering him and eating at his conscience," said Epperly. "Clint knew him for a number of years and I think Collings trusted Clint as someone he could talk to."
An autopsy was performed on Ford's body on Saturday. The cause of death was listed as strangulation. Epperly said evidence was collected from the little girl's body and sent to the FBI crime lab.
The rape and murder of Ford is not only disturbing but challenging as well because three different counties have been involved in the case. The girl disappeared from her home in Newton County, was murdered in Barry County and her body was discovered in McDonald County.
"It's been a three-county case, which is unusual in itself," said Epperly. "From the point the girl was reported missing, all three agencies worked good together and worked good with the FBI.
"This is the worst case I've ever worked, and it's been real tough on all of us," Epperly added. "I hope I never have another case like it. I just want justice for this little girl and that's what my officers want. They're working diligently on this case, and I'm proud of them."
Increased security is now a concern that Epperly must consider because both Collings and Spears are being held without bond in the Barry County Jail.
In preparation for Tuesday's arraignment, Epperly called in the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Cassville Police Department and most of his officers to help transport the prisoners from the jail to the Barry County Judicial Center and back again. Spears and Collings are being held in separate cells away from the general jail population.
Tuesday's arraignment was attended by several members of the Seven Valleys Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) Chapter, who filled two rows in the circuit courtroom.
"We're here to support the mother," said Two Dog, president of the local BACA chapter who lives near Butterfield. "We're not here to make a statement but it's quite evident that this case has a lot to do with child abuse. My wife and I knew the mother and are here today for her."
Spears and Collings are due back in court on Nov. 27 at 9 a.m. Both men, who were arraigned together, will seek representation through the public defender's office. Barry County Associate Circuit Court Judge Victor Head indicated his intention to set dates for the men's preliminary hearings as quickly as possible.
Rowan Ford's funeral was scheduled to be held today (Wednesday) at 2 p.m. at Gospel Lighthouse Church in Neosho. A complete obituary for Ford appears in this week's Cassville Democrat.