Facts unfold in capital murder trial

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It was a day of testimony from law enforcement officers as the prosecution began laying out the evidence in its capital murder case against Christopher Collings, the man from Wheaton accused of raping and murdering 9-year-old Rowan Ford back in November of 2007.

On Tuesday in Rolla, Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox and Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bock put sheriff's deputies from Newton County, McDonald County and Barry County on the stand as well as three different FBI special agents who assisted with the search for Rowan when she was reported missing on Nov 3, 2007.

The most riveting testimony of the day was provided by FBI Special Agent Andrew Alvey, who serves as the senior team leader for the FBI's evidence response team (ERT). Alvey said he was deployed to Newton County on Nov. 7, 2007, to help with the search for Rowan.

After conducting field searches and wooded searches in rural areas surrounding Stella, Alvey said he and his team were called to the Fox Cave near Powell on the morning of Nov. 9 after McDonald County Sheriff's deputies Michael Hall and Jacob Bowles discovered a body in the bottom of the cave.

Upon arriving at the scene, Alvey said he quickly realized the only way down into the cave opening was going to require the use of a 12-foot-long telescoping ladder. After donning a Ty-Vac suit to preserve forensic evidence, Alvey went down into the cave, which he estimated was over 20 feet deep. When he got to the bottom, Alvey said he observed a body laying off to the side.

The prosecution then admitted into evidence a photo of Rowan's body as Alvey discovered it. Bock projected the image onto a large screen in the courtroom, prompting Rowan Ford's mother, Colleen Munson, to leave the courtroom abruptly.

The photo showed Rowan's body partially hidden by leaves. The little girl was wearing a bright red top and was naked from the waist down except for one sock. Alvey said he also noticed a mark on her neck consistent with strangling.

Alvey told the court that he and his team processed the scene, both inside the cave and out, and then requested that a body bag be sent down into the cave.

"I laid it alongside Rowan's body, and I got two small paper bags and put one on each of her hands and taped them," said Alvey.

Then Alvey and another agent carefully rolled Rowan onto the body bag and zipped it up. A rope was dropped into the hole and tied to two of the bag's carrying strings, then hoisted vertically out of the opening of the cave.

Testimony was also provided by James B. Stinnett, Jr., a special agent with the FBI who was assigned to assist with the case of a missing 9-year-old girl in Stella on Nov. 5, 2007.

Stinnett testified that he and Special Agent Dirk Tarkley drove down from the FBI office in Kansas City together and visited Stella and the Spears' residence on the night of Nov. 5 "to get a lay of the land." Stinnett said it was dark when they arrived, and as they pulled up to the Spears' home, their car lights illuminated the front of the house, prompting Colleen Spears and Collings, who happened to be visiting, to come outside.

It was then that Stinnett said he first talked to Collings about Rowan's disappearance. Because Collings was one of the last people to see Rowan alive, Stinnett said he was interested in finding out more about the timeline of events from Collings.

Stinnett said Collings was willing to talk to him and he described his demeanor as "fine, no issues at all with talking to me."

Collings told Stinnett that he knew Rowan and that Rowan called him "Uncle Chris." Collings also told Stinnett that he had babysat for Rowan a couple of times and helped her with her math homework when he lived with the Spears family for three months. Stinnett said he thought Collings moved out of the Spears' home to live in a travel trailer on his dad's property about a week before Rowan disappeared.

On the night of Nov. 2, which is the last time anyone saw Rowan, Collings told Stinnett that Rowan played upstairs and downstairs in the house in Stella while Collings, David Spears and Nathan Mahurin drank alcohol and played pool in the basement. At around 9 or 9:30 p.m., Collings said Rowan came downstairs to tell the men she was going to bed. Collings said Rowan was wearing "blue jeans with a flower print" the last time he saw her.

Near the end of the discussion on Nov. 5, Stinnett asked Collins if he'd been in touch with David Spears, and Collings said he had contact with him at around 10 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4. Collings said he asked David Spears, "What did you do? Where did you go?"

Collings said he thought David Spears was involved in Rowan's disappearance, and Collings and Stinnett even discussed the possibility of Collings wearing a wire the next time he talked to Spears.

Stinnett said Collings also gave him two different places to search for Rowan, including Jolly Mill, where David Spears liked to go drink, and Longview, where Spears grew up.

In a second interview at the Newton County Sheriff's Department on Nov. 7, Stinnett said Collings continued to deny his involvement in Rowan's disappearance. And in cross examination, Stinnett said Collings eventually told him and FBI Special Agent Richard Stonecipher that if they continued to accuse him of being involved, Collings wasn't going to talk to them anymore.

Agent Stonecipher was also called to testify on Tuesday, and he offered additional information about the interview with Collings on Nov. 7.

According to Stonecipher, when he asked Collings questions about Rowan Ford, Collings would pause and become more nervous.

"He clearly became more upset," said Stonecipher. "Because of those factors, I felt he was not being completely truthful with me.

"I also asked him if he felt alcohol would justify any action that would cause the disappearance of Rowan Ford, and his response was 'no,'" Stonecipher added.

The prosecution will continue presenting its case tomorrow (Wednesday). Phelps County Judge Mary Sheffield has cleared her calendar through March 23 for the trial.

Editor Lisa Schlichtman will continue offering trial updates on The Monett Times' Facebook page throughout the testimony. "Like" the page and follow the trial as it unfolds.

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