Case made for murder in the first degree

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Throughout the first eight days of the Christopher Collings' murder trial, the team of Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox and Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bock put over 20 witnesses on the stand and introduced a stream of crime scene photographs and bags of evidence as well as expert testimony to support the prosecution's case for murder in the first degree.

The testimony included a videotape of Collings' own confession as well as the presentation of partial DNA and trace evidence analysis conducted by criminologists and forensic examiners at the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., and the Missouri State Highway Patrol Lab in Jefferson City.

The confession

For nearly three hours on Friday, March 16, jurors watched and listened as Collings told about the night he raped and murdered 9-year-old Rowan Ford.

Collings' confession was captured on videotape during two interviews conducted at the Barry County Sheriff's Department in Cassville on Nov. 9, 2007, the day Rowan's body was found in the bottom of a cave and the day Collings finally confessed to the crime.

In the opening minutes of the tape, Collings, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "BIG" on the front, appears nervous but then speaks calmly as officers ask for details about Rowan's kidnapping, rape and murder. As the interview progresses, Collings becomes more emotional, putting his head in his hands and crying, laughing nervously and showing flashes of anger when officers continue to press him for answers.

When asked when he decided he was going to have sex with Rowan, Collings is vague and shies away from the question, finally telling Barry County detective Robert Evenson and Wheaton Police Chief Clint Clark, who conducted the first interview, that he made the decision sometime on the way back to his trailer in Wheaton after he had already taken Rowan from her home in Stella.

"To this day, I still don't know why I did it," said Collings. "I picked her up, carried her out to the truck, laid her on the seat and took her back to my house."

Collings said the rape lasted about five minutes, and Rowan didn't struggle much but did begin to cry.

"It was quick," said Collings. "It was over before I realized it had happened."

Collings also had trouble clearly explaining what he was thinking when he decided to have sex with Rowan.

"It was like . . . it felt like something was burning in my chest. I don't know what it was," said Collings in stops and starts. "I could feel it, but I couldn't tell you what it was . . . because I'd never felt it before."

In contrast, the reason why Collings strangled Rowan was very clear -- Collings feared Rowan could identify him as her attacker.

"When I got outside with her, there was moonlight and she turned around and she looked at me," said Collings. "I started freaking. 'Oh my God she knows who I am. What am I going to do now?'

"There was a piece of nylon cord laying on the truck beside me. I grabbed it and wrapped it around her neck and started pulling real hard until she quit moving."

After killing Rowan, Collings said he picked up her body, put it in the back of his pickup and "took off."

"I started to head to Muncie Chapel, but I thought that wasn't the place to be going because it's in the wide open," explained Collings. "I circled around to Rocky Comfort and remembered the cave - the sinkhole or whatever the hell it is."

Once at Fox Cave, Collings said he "tossed" Rowan "in the hole" and drove back to Wheaton. When Collings walked back into the small camper trailer and turned on the lights, he saw blood on his mattress and all over his clothes.

To hide the evidence, Collings said he burned his clothes, the mattress, the rope he used to strangle Rowan and Rowan's pants and panties in a stove outside his trailer and in another 55-gallon barrel in a calf barn on his property.

"Then I went inside and laid down on the floor because I had no mattress," said Collings. "I laid there and stared at the ceiling until the sun came up."

More questions

In a second taped interview, which the defense introduced during their cross examination of Evenson, Barry County detective Brian Martin, Evenson and eventually Clark return to the interview room and begin asking Collings repeated questions about Spears' involvement in the crime.

Evenson testified that the second interview was conducted after he received a call from Newton County Chief Deputy Chris Jennings that Spears had also confessed to the rape and murder of Rowan and the details of the incident he was sharing in Newton County were strikingly similar to Collings' account.

Over and over again, Collings adamantly tells officers he was alone in his trailer when he raped Rowan and alone when he strangled her and dumped her body in Fox Cave.

When Martin and Evenson tell Collings that Spears is telling officers in Newton County that he participated in the rape of his stepdaughter and helped Collings dispose of the body, Collings expresses disbelief.

"Oh my God, why would he do that?" asks Collings.

At one point in the interview, Collings suggests that maybe Spears is confessing to the crime so he will be brought to the Barry County Jail where he would have the opportunity to kill Collings for murdering his stepdaughter.

Collings also wonders outloud if Spears feels guilty about leaving his stepdaughter alone, and because of his guilt, his mind is playing tricks on him.

Evenson explains to Collings that Spears is telling the Newton County deputies exactly the same information that Collings just shared in Barry County.

"He's telling details only you or whoever else was there would know," said Evenson. "He's putting himself in the story with you."

"I'm not capable of saying David was a part of it when I know for a fact he was not," continued Collings. "I'm not covering up. The evidence will tell the truth, when they find my DNA and not his."

Autopsy results

On Monday, March 19, Dr. Keith Norton provided the details of the physical injuries Rowan suffered before she died and identified her cause of death as "ligature strangulation."

In addition to the ligature marks around her neck, Rowan had damage inflicted to her mouth and teeth, Norton said. Her four upper front teeth had been pushed up and out, causing injury and bleeding to the gums. Her upper jaw bone was also broken.

When asked if these injuries occurred before or after her death, Norton said it could have been either.

"They could have been caused pre-death or during the fall into the cave," said Norton.

The pathologist also described a "tearing of the flesh" in the girl's vaginal area. Norton said the laceration was more than three-fourths of an inch long and was an injury "consistent with blunt force injury to the tissue" caused by something cylindrical "like an adult male penis."

The injury caused bleeding from the vagina that spread to the outer sides of both legs and into the buttocks area. According to Norton, the injury was inflicted before Rowan's death and would have been "very painful."

When questioned more about Rowan's cause of death, Norton explained that ligature strangulation cuts off the blood flow to the victim's brain. He estimated that Rowan would have been unconscious within 10 seconds of a rope being tightened around her neck.

"She would have stopped breathing in two or three minutes," said Norton. "She would have been brain dead after 12 minutes."

Norton also described for the jury the greenish discoloration found on Rowan's neck, face and legs, which he said was caused by decomposition.

According to Collings' confession, Rowan was killed sometime after midnight on Nov. 3, 2007, and her body was not discovered until almost a week later on Nov. 9, 2007, in Fox Cave near Powell.

Expert testimony

Nick Gerhardt, a trace evidence criminologist with the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Lab, and Stacy Bollinger, a DNA criminalist with the state crime lab, both testified on Monday afternoon.

Gerhardt analyzed evidence from a variety of items seized at the Collings' property, including items taken from the suspect's white pickup truck.

In particular, Gerhardt testified about hairs he found of "potential evidentiary value," including one longer hair discovered in the bed of Collings' truck. He said the hair was light to medium brown in color and measured over seven inches in length. The hair also had a root, which could be analyzed for DNA, Gerhardt said.

Bollinger attempted to explain to the jury the complicated process of extracting DNA evidence. She told the jury that she analyzed the vaginal and rectal swabs taken as part of the sexual assault kit performed on Rowan.

"There was an insufficient amount of DNA to perform further testing," said Bollinger.

She added that there were "indications" that sperm and semen were both present on the swabs, but again, there was insufficient DNA present in the samples.

When asked by Cox what 3ffect a vasectomy could have on DNA evidence, Bollinger answered that performing a vasectomy removes sperm cells from ejaculate and it is sperm cells that contain DNA.

In his taped confession, Collings told Barry County detective Rob Evenson that he had a vasectomy.

The long piece of hair that Gerhardt testified to finding in the bed of Collings' pickup was also tested for DNA by Bollinger. She said she was able to get a partial DNA profile from the root of the hair, and it contained "female gender characteristics" and was "consistent" with a known sample of Rowan's.

On Tuesday, Cox called Karen Korsberg-Lowe to testify as his final witness. Korsberg-Lowe is a forensic examiner in the trace evidence division of the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., who examined several items collected in the Rowan Ford case.

Cox asked Korsberg-Lowe about analysis she conducted on hairs found in a pubic area lift taken from Rowan Ford's body during her autopsy.

Korsberg-Lowe testified that she found hairs consistent with Rowan Ford in the pubic lift as well as two other hairs, which were not Rowan's, that she identified as "pubic region hairs."

For comparison, Korsberg-Lowe said she requested known samples of pubic hair from both Collings and David Spears and compared those hair samples with the two "unknown" hairs found on Rowan.

When asked about her findings by Cox, Korsberg-Lowe said she determined the pubic region hair found in Rowan's public area lift were "microscopically similar" to Collings' sample.

"It's not an association, but they're similar," said Korsberg-Lowe, who went on to testify that the pubic region hairs were similar in color to Collings' known sample.

On cross examination, defense attorney Jan Zembles asked Korsberg-Lowe if the strongest statement she could make about the hair comparison was that they were "consistent with each other."

"That's right," answered Korsberg-Lowe.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: