Testimony begins in murder trial
Rowan Ford's brief glance back at the man who had just raped her was all the prompting Christopher Collings needed to strangle the 9-year-old with a rope outside his trailer in rural Wheaton in the early hours of Nov. 3, 2007.
This description of Rowan's final minutes of life was offered as part of the opening statement presented by Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox on Monday morning in the Phelps County Courthouse in Rolla.
The jury of five men and 11 women, who were transported to Rolla from Platte County north of Kansas City, listened attentively as Cox presented a time line of how the events surrounding the disappearance of Rowan unfolded during the week-long search for her body.
Cox also quoted Christopher Collings' own confession, stating that after a night of drinking, smoking pot and playing pool with friends Nathan Mahurin and David Spears, the defendant traveled back to Rowan's home in Stella and took the sleeping fourth grader from her bed to his travel trailer in Wheaton. There, Collings confessed he placed Rowan on his bed, took off her pajama bottoms and underwear and had sex with her "missionary style."
Cox then told the jurors that Collings led Rowan out the door of his trailer, and at some point outside, Collings said he believed she caught a glimpse of him and could therefore identify him.
"Christopher Collings then reached out and grabbed a cord -- a chicken house cord -- wrapped it around her throat and pulled it tight," said Cox. "He held it around her throat as she flopped around until she died. He then put her body in the bed of a pickup truck . . . and threw her body into Fox Cave sinkhole."
Upon returning home, Cox said Collings realized he had blood from Rowan on him, so he took his clothes and Rowan's clothes and the mattress and burned them all.
"After he'd burned everything, he said he went inside and stared at the ceiling," said Cox.
In the days after Rowan was reported missing, Collings twice returned to the home of Colleen and David Spears in Stella, offering to help Colleen search for her daughter.
"He indicated his willingness to do anything he can to find Rowan and help Mrs. Spears," said Cox.
But it wasn't until Nov. 9, the day law enforcement officers retrieved Rowan's dead body from the bottom of Fox Cave near Powell, that Collings confessed his crime to Wheaton Police Chief Clint Clark. Cox told the jurors how Collings and Clark met at the Muncy Bridge north of Wheaton, and Collings told Clark "what really happened."
Defense attorney Jan Zembles did not dispute Collings' confession in her opening statement. Instead, she spoke about Collings' frequent attempts to talk to Clark in the days after Rowan was first reported missing.
"As early as Monday, Nov. 5, Christopher Collings was seeking out Clint Clark who was a law enforcement officer and who Chris considered to be a good friend," said Zembles. "At that point, already, Chris was wanting to tell his good friend and law enforcement officer what Chris said was his version of what happened to Rowan Ford."
The statements made by Collings were also referenced by Zembles in her opening remarks. She noted that Collings consistently tells his interrogators when talking about Rowan's death that "I just flipped out. I freaked out. I was paranoid."
"He tells them he doesn't know why he went to David Spears' house to get Rowan Ford," said Zembles. "Mr. Collings consistently talks to the police in all these statements about how much he had to drink. He said he drank approximately 30 bottles of Smirnoff Ice and smoked a joint the size of his thumb."
Zembles also told the jurors how law enforcement officers pressed Collings about whether or not anyone else played a role in the rape and murder after David Spears confesses to Newton County authorities that he participated in the sexual assault and killing of his stepdaughter.
"In the second taped statement on Nov. 9, law enforcement expresses puzzlement. They're relentless in saying someone else was involved," said Zembles. "Then they begin telling Chris what is going on. That David Spears is telling almost the exact same story. Chris continues to insist he doesn't know what David Spears is doing. He is saying no one else is involved in this.
"Whoever actually killed Rowan Ford, and Christopher Collings said it was he . . . it was an intentional killing," continued Zembles. "We're arguing what was his state of mind? Was there clear reflection?"
Zembles ended her opening statement by telling the jurors that the defense would be asking them to return a verdict of murder in the second degree.
Cox is seeking a first degree murder conviction and the death penalty.
Throughout both opening statements, Collings, dressed in a lavender button-down shirt and tie, listened without expression.
The trial continued in the afternoon with the prosecution's first three witnesses.
Cox put Rowan's mother, Colleen Spears, who now goes by Colleen Munson, on the stand first. At times crying, Munson recounted the night before Rowan disappeared, the week-long search for her daughter and the day she was told Rowan's body had been discovered in a nearby cave.
Munson said she left for her overnight shift at Walmart in Jane at around 8:30 p.m. on the night of Nov 2. Cox asked Munson how Rowan responded when Munson left for work that night.
"She came down the stairs and gave me a hug and a kiss and said 'I love you mommy,'" said Munson, choking back tears.
It wasn't until the next morning when Munson came home from work and her daughter was not there to greet her that Munson realized her daughter was missing. Munson said she found her husband, David Spears, asleep on the couch, and when asked where Rowan was, Spears said she probably went to a friend's house.
After searching parts of the neighborhood by foot and calling friends and teachers, Munson said David Spears finally called the Newton County Sheriff's Department to report Rowan missing at around 5:45 p.m.
When asked why she didn't call earlier, Munson said David Spears wouldn't let her use the phone.
Munson also testified that Spears never again spent another night in their home in Stella after Munson discovered he had left Rowan at home alone to take Collings back to his trailer in Wheaton. Munson later divorced Spears.
During the days leading up to the discovery of Rowan's body, Munson said she sat outside her home in the front yard on a chair "waiting for Rowan to come home." Munson said she was sitting outside when law enforcement officers arrived to inform her that Rowan's body had been found.
On cross examination, Zembles asked Munson if she had any reason to be concerned about leaving for work and leaving Rowan in the company of Spears, Collings and Mahurin.
"No" was Munson's one-word response.
Mahurin was the prosecution's second witness. A childhood friend of David Spears and a more recent acquaintance of Collings, Mahurin testified to partying with both men in the hours leading up to Rowan's rape and murder.
Mahurin told about meeting Spears and Collings at their work place between 5 and 6 p.m. on Nov. 2 and going with them to buy a goat. After delivering the goat to Collings' trailer in Wheaton, the threesome drove in Mahurin's car to Spears' house in Stella, stopping on the way to buy two or three six packs of Smirnoff Ice, a malt beverage.
The friends proceeded to play pool and drink in Spears' basement. At some point, Colleen Spears left for work, and Collings and Mahurin went to a convenience store in Stella and bought more alcohol.
Sometime later, Mahurin said Collings asked him to take him home to Wheaton, and he and Collings talked Spears into going with them, leaving Rowan alone in the house.
After stopping to buy another six pack of Smirnoff Ice, the three men went back to Collings' trailer and continued drinking and began smoking pot. At around 11:30 p.m., Mahurin said he needed to get home, and he and Spears left Collings' trailer together.
Mahurin said he was afraid of getting stopped by law enforcement so he took back roads from Wheaton to Stella. After dropping Spears back at home, Mahurin arrived at his house in Rocky Comfort at around midnight.
Based on Collings' confession, it was during Mahurin's back-road route home that Collings was able to drive straight along Highway A to the Spears' home and grab Rowan before Spears and Mahurin got there.
The final witness of the day was Chief Deputy Chris Jennings with the Newton County Sheriff's Department. The 31-year law enforcement veteran described receiving a call from David Spears on the evening of Nov. 3 reporting that his stepdaughter Rowan Ford was missing. Jennings also detailed the initial search process and how the FBI became involved in the investigation.
Jennings also testified about an informal interview he and other officers had with Collings in the parking lot of the Wheaton Cafe on Nov. 4.
Cox asked how Collings reacted when he was told Rowan was missing.
"He seemed concerned," said Jennings. "He was polite. He acted like he'd like to help if he could but he had no information."
Just before Judge Mary Sheffield adjourned the trial for the day, Jennings spoke about meeting with Collings, Clint Clark and two Barry County deputies at the Wheaton Police Department. At that time, Collings confessed to Rowan's rape and murder.
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