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July 18, 2011
An excerpt from Peter Manso’s recently published book Reasonable Doubt: The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod, and the Trial of Chris McCowen.
by Peter Manso
The American murder trial as a metaphor for the nation as a whole has become, in recent years, almost a cliché. Our best writers have seized upon it as a vehicle of self-expression. Academics argue over its myths and realities. The producers of TV series capitalize on its imagery, earning the networks heady profits second only to those raked in by Oprah. At some point or another, almost every American, rich or poor, white or black, has confronted the American justice system and its complexities—with pride, skepticism, awe, revulsion, or a combination of all these.
I began this project with the assumption that the Christa Worthington murder would be the basis for my “trial book” (every journalist wants to do a trial book), that it would take only 18 months to complete, and that my involvement as the author would be no different from my involvement in the half-dozen other books I’ve written, even though I’d known Christa Worthington, my neighbor in the town of Truro on the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for more than a dozen years.
Like so many assumptions, these proved false, largely because of what I found while digging into the crime, its investigation by the Massachusetts State Police, and the trial I’d planned to cover in the style of the late Dominick Dunne, notebook in hand, memorializing courtroom events in a so-called objective manner. Instead, I wound up lending assistance to the defense team and soon found myself in a great deal of trouble—specifically (not to say surreally), hauled into court, where I was indicted on a series of felonies after voicing my belief, both in print and as a guest commentator on Court TV, that the Cape and Islands district attorney in charge of the case (and also the case against me) was an ambitious, racially insensitive politico who’d cut corners in the courtroom and during the three and a half years he’d supervised the police investigation. My run-in with the lawman, however, is a story for another time.
I began the project in spring 2005, shortly after the arrest of Christopher McCowen, 34, a black trashman with a borderline IQ. A layman, I lacked any close familiarity with the law or the courts. It did not take long to learn that the typical criminal trial is a deeply flawed process. Narrative and storytelling, not evidence, determine many a trial’s outcome. The art of jury selection—voir dire, as it is called—is also critical, more so than most people would imagine. Experienced practitioners know that jurors, ordinary Americans of ordinary intelligence, have a way, as Harper Lee put it, of “carrying their resentments right into the jury box.” The best trial lawyers also know that judges, the vast majority of whom are white, must be educated as much as possible, within the limits of protocol, when the defendant is black; the court should never be allowed to sidestep the issue of race, although most judges will try.
None of this should come as a surprise. The principal figures in every jury trial are ego-driven mortals, each with his own agenda: DAs want to win in order to get reelected (and perhaps slake a native bloodlust); expert defense lawyers work out authority issues while running high-profile, publicity-generating cases; and, again, jurors are not self-sacrificing citizens driven by common sense most will vote in a way that reinforces who they are, what they believe in, what they value the most.
The jury room is a stage, a pulpit, as the Oscar-nominated film 12 Angry Men illustrated more than 50 years ago. Even judges with tenured appointments are part of this food chain. Bound by precedent, they rule on evidentiary questions with the record ever in mind, and those who aspire to an appellate bench or to political office have every reason to interpret the facts of the case narrowly, to preserve the status quo. Even when their choices are blatant and obvious, judges are the most protected element in our court system, rarely questioned.
There are, of course, dedicated lawyers and truly disinterested jurists, just as there are prosecutors who can see their way to dropping a case against a defendant wrongly charged. But recent history has forced such folks to work overtime. The Vietnam War, the Wall Street financial scandals originating in the early ’80s, the callow adventurism of the Bushes, Sr. and Jr., at home and abroad (made worse by the mainstream press’s failure to expose them), all have had a lasting effect. Lying, bending the rules, and a growing readiness to abandon constitutional safeguards have invaded the popular culture and courts alike, sanctioned by the events of September 11, 2001, and their progeny.
This is no small matter, obviously. The normally staid New YorkTimes has pointed out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies have improperly obtained more than 8,500 telephone accounts from 2003 to 2006 without following legal procedures. Next to the financial sector, local representatives of the law-enforcement community have most taken this new value system to heart. “Testilying,” for example, has become common, police officers bending the truth while on the witness stand. Another form of police misconduct is the withholding of exculpatory evidence; the ACLU, the Innocence Project in New York City, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, and a rash of appellate court rulings across the country have shown that hundreds of criminal defendants have been set up by less-than honest cops. Equally alarming, the local courts have been loath to blow the whistle during this time of orange alerts and nationwide anxiety. Better we overlook the bad apples than risk besmirching the much-needed good guys.
Of course, there is another view. Conservatives such as Sean Hannity will argue that there is nothing new here, that what’s happening is just a Hobbist reassertion of the human condition, and, yes, we should all feel the more blessed for it. But before jumping into this little book of mine, I’d scarcely realized how bad, how dark, things had gotten on Cape Cod, my childhood summer home of art openings and clam bakes, until I had read through the Massachusetts State Police file, case number 02-102-0900-0007, Comm. v. McCowen; consisting of forensics, criminalistics, and surveillance reports, DNA screenings, polygraph results, police interviews, and internal memos.
The file was a journalistic gold mine, as were the minutes of the grand-jury proceedings since what both showed was a miasma of law enforcement shortcuts running through the case like mold on a particularly smelly blue cheese. The local legal community had become so ingrown, so incestuous, that the courts looked upon the cops as family, and given the pressure on police to find Christa’s killer, it seemed nobody and nothing was safe, least of all the Constitution.
It took no genius to see this to ferret it out since much of what the DA and the cops did was right out in the open. The official file showed, for example, that my own phone records had been grabbed without a subpoena or court order the day after Christa’s body was found; my wife, who is not a professional journalist protected as I am by the First Amendment, had her records pried out of Verizon and during the investigation the records of at least 45 others were obtained via demand letters to a compliant Verizon, as well.
My DNA was snatched, along with the DNA of a half-dozen other locals, swabbed from discarded cigarette butts and cast-off water bottles. We were not suspects but, rather, “persons of interest,” meaning that police felt no compunction about violating our privacy even as they couldn’t determine that any one of us was materially relevant to their probe, either.
If pressed, these investigators would probably defend their actions on the grounds of thoroughness. But that argument is limited. Time and again, while conducting my interviews, I heard locals speak of being confronted by plainclothes detectives banging on their doors, unannounced, at 9:30 p.m., which on off-season Cape Cod is the equivalent of midnight. One suspect, Christa’s onetime boyfriend Tim Arnold, was grilled for several hours while confined at a Cape-area psychiatric facility, in open defiance of his lawyer’s insistence that interviews be cleared in advance. Arnold was sedated at the time but that made no difference to detectives, who, apparently failed to consider that the Effexor and amnesia-inducing lorazepam Arnold was taking might render their truth-gathering efforts less than reliable, at best.
Then, too, on the third anniversary of Christa Worthington’s death, the frustrated investigators, after going to the FBI for pointers, conducted a DNA sweep of our sleepy little town of Truro wherein they intimidated reluctant donors by threatening to record license plate numbers on a “special list.” The ACLU and the Boston Globe called the sweep something just short of a fascist outrage; the story made USA Today and the New York Times, but what the public never learned was that the majority of the 150-odd swabs collected were never even turned in for analysis. Rather, the samples languished in DA Michael O’Keefe’s office until Christopher McCowen was arrested in April 2005, four months after the sweep, more than a year after McCowen’s DNA was collected. It, too, had sat on the shelf in O’Keefe’s corner office while Truro trembled.
In addition, the director of the Massachusetts State Police (MSP) crime lab was discharged after more than 25 DNA samples were misfiled, while five of the 13 fingerprints lifted from the Truro murder scene turned out to belong to local police and EMTs. Inexplicably, key evidence, including fibers and vaginal combings, were never tested.
But disorganization, incompetence, and a corrupted crime scene were business as usual. An MSP report dated December 10, 2002, “Blood Sample of Anthony R. Smith for Comparison in Worthington,” documented the nadir of police misconduct. Here, lead detective Christopher Mason reported that he’d requisitioned two vials of Smith’s blood from the coroner’s office and delivered it to the crime lab for analysis, without, it appears, a court order or family permission.
Anthony Smith was the son of a stubborn defense witness who would insist to the end that he’d seen a truck or van speeding out of Christa’s driveway the day before her body was found; the driver was white, not black like Christopher McCowen. Mason was covering all bases, as he usually did, since he is a very thorough man. But he ran roughshod over the Fourth Amendment in the process, displaying utter insensitivity to a parent’s grief. Smith, who lived with his father, the witness, had recently taken his own life.
The rationale for this official act of quasi-vampirism made it worse, however, for the cops were relying on an unverified telephone hotline tip that Smith “lived in the area of the murder and perhaps committed suicide after committing the murder,” according to Mason’s report of May 16, 2003.
Nothing tied the young man to the murder. Nothing. But beyond the blindness of such efforts, the file also revealed a world of drug-dealer snitches protected by police, and a particularly self-invested DA. The new off-season Cape Cod was made up of single welfare mothers, wild-eyed alcoholic wife abusers, “wash-ashore” laborers living on food stamps while waiting for the tourist restaurants to reopen in May, and an ever-growing horde of teenagers dragged into court up and down the Cape, their OxyContin-fueled lifestyles combining with post-9/11 jitters to empower the cops like nothing anyone had ever seen before.
It was after plowing through the official file that I began interviewing people on both sides of the law. Almost all interviews were face-to-face, not on the telephone, and often the drama that accompanied these encounters were as illuminating as the words, for once again I found myself on a Cape Cod I’d only heard about. The former director of the Cape NAACP, for example, insisted on coming to my house for our meeting, then excused himself when it was only mid-afternoon, apologizing that it wasn’t wise for a lone black man to drive the Truro-Orleans stretch of Route 6, the “gauntlet,” as he put it, after dark.
Soon, a white drug dealer, a Truro-Wellfleet townie with deep local connections, told me that at night he always drove with his interior lights on. Why? So the “federales,” he explained, would know who was behind the wheel, not pull him over. Combined with the NAACP man’s behavior, this was enough to remind me that the Cape is only an hour and a half’s drive from Charlestown, home of Boston’s infamous busing crisis, and that the situation wasn’t helped any by the fact that African-Americans make up only 1.6 percent of the Cape’s population, but a miniscule fraction of the 13.5 percent national average.
My interviews continued right through the trial, which was a David-and-Goliath proposition from the start. The DA threw his full staff onto the case the way Rommel used his tanks to overrun France. Day after day, a dozen or more of his lawyers, researchers, interns, and secretaries filled the lawyers’ dock on the left side of the courtroom, just as the Commonwealth had the resources of the State Police and state crime lab.
Attorney Robert George, by contrast, was flying solo. George fought the good fight, but in the end, he lost. Most reporters covering the trial felt his client deserved a hung jury, at least; according to nearly 40 percent of those responding to a Cape Cod Times poll conducted after the verdict, the defendant’s color made the difference.
It is an open question whether any defense lawyer—even Clarence Darrow or Perry Mason—could have won the case in that courtroom, with that judge, that jury.
I openly sided with the defense—supplying research, feedback, and editorial contributions to briefs and motions—out of the belief that the trial’s racist subtext was substantive and real. As I told the Boston Globe, it would take moral impotence to miss prosecutor Robert Welsh’s strategy: playing to jurors’ biases while simultaneously insisting that race had nothing to do with the proceedings.
A black garbageman charged with the rape and murder of a white Vassar grad? And on traditionally conservative Cape Cod where even JFK had not gotten the local vote? Whom did Welsh think he was fooling?
Republican governor Mitt Romney’s announcement of prosecutor Welsh’s appointment to a district court judgeship at the start of deliberations was another not so small outrage. Few people on Cape Cod, white or black, did not know that during the past century, local judgeships had been held by the prosecutor’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father. Still another Welsh ran the court clerk’s office in the Cape’s outermost district court. The nepotism was offensive, but Romney’s timing was worse.
Welsh, with his Plain Jane suits and humorless, rubbery face, was a Babbitt ready-made for skewering,a smug Tea Party Republican who thought he could get away with anything. I do not exaggerate. Halfway through trial, our prosecutor cum newly appointed judge had the audacity to claim he did not to have the probation file on one of his major witnesses. He did have that file; he had to. Yet he got away with his lie, as has been documented in the defense’s brief to the Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest tribunal.
Given the importance of injecting some balance into all of this, I also made it a point to share all research with the court and the prosecution. This was de rigueur. One of George’s motions, charging the prosecution with withholding exculpatory evidence, announced my contributions in its opening pages in order to send the message that nothing underhanded was going on. Even so, a Harvard journalism professor queried by the Boston Globe alleged that my “loss of objectivity” called into question anything I might write about the trial, which,then as now, I answer by saying that the prof didn’t recognize alternative reportorial strategies.
Aside from the access it got me, my alignment with the defense became so widely known that even a year after the verdict I was sought out by one juror’s relative, a black woman in her seventies, who claimed that her nephew had been racist since the age of 15 and lied during the jury-selection process meant to sift out bias. On this, I notified the court, and the woman was called as a witness at a post-verdict hearing.
The disparity between the prosecution and defense arsenals was a constant, and if my participation would help level the playing field, so be it. Black people too often get screwed in America, and on that issue I have never been, nor will I ever be, prepared to brook debate even when it’s coming from Harvard.
Did all of this affect my ability to report the trial fairly? Unlikely. My involvement provided a unique vantage point, not to say access to materials that I would not otherwise have had. Robert George and I talked daily during the trial process and then throughout three years of postverdict motions and appeals.
Did I talk to the other side? After speaking with Michael O’Keefe before trial, I then approached the DA, Welsh, and lead detectives on multiple occasions; I was rebuffed, orally and in writing, as were all other reporters I know of who requested one-on-ones with the prosecutor. This is the DA who storms out of press conferences, snapping, “You must be kidding” or “Grow up,” when he doesn’t like reporters’ questions.
Some will fault George’s defense as understaffed, sometimes under researched, and underfunded, and perhaps worse yet for my involvement. I say that without Robert George’s energy and commitment, the sheer loudness of his pugnaciousness, Chris McCowen would have disappeared like so many other uneducated, marginally functioning defendants in courts across the country. McCowen would have been swept through the process with no one the wiser, another casualty of our lopsided justice system.
Innocent or guilty, the vast majority of indigent defendants do suffer that fate. The corridors of local courthouses across the country are filled with attorneys looking for cases, ready to be court-appointed and step in at a moment’s notice. Their prep work is nil. They cop plea bargains. They neither test the system nor challenge prosecutors nor protect the rights of the individuals they claim to defend.
McCowen’s trial was expected to take two weeks, not five. Day to day, George stuck, a high-priced criminal defense lawyer stepping into William Kunstler or Charlie Garry country. He didn’t have the politics (perhaps a plus), but he had something out of the ordinary, something genuine, even if he overly enjoyed being surrounded by reporters. Maybe he realized that this was the case of his career, that rare shot that lawyers, like athletes, get but once or twice in a lifetime. Or maybe it was nothing more than the sentiment he expressed after the verdict, while wrestling with whether he could afford to take on the appeal. “Now my kids won’t think I just represent bad guys,” he said. “Maybe they’ll understand that defense lawyers can do something that’s useful and important.”
His work was useful. The system I’d observed over the previous months was too ready to do what it shouldn’t. George challenged that, stamped his foot. His resolve had as much to do with prosecutorial irregularities and bad calls from the bench as with McCowen’s innocence or guilt, as well it should. That’s what we have defense lawyers for.
Readers will draw their own conclusions. My account of the trial relies on the official transcript of 3,878 pages. I’ve condensed that record, using ellipses and paraphrasing, ever mindful of remaining faithful to the content of all testimony, sidebar exchanges, and rulings from the bench. Readability was a major consideration, but I consciously erred on the side of inclusiveness and accuracy.
Much of the information in this book is based on my interviews, many done “on background” for reasons already acknowledged. Granted, this is not the best arrangement. But such confidentiality was necessary to secure the subjects’ cooperation, in some instances because of the menacing air surrounding the case. In verifying key matters, especially criminal activities or persons and events impinging directly on the murder, I insisted on at least two, preferably three, sources, as well as confirming documents. Material gleaned from MSP interviews and incident reports was always checked.
Some potential sources repeatedly refused to talk even after a year or two of my nagging, worried that the murderer was still “out there.” But many also feared local police in Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham, who wield the power to inflict a drunk-driving bust or do a pot search at two a.m. So real was the fear factor that several sources even called me after interviews, wanting to retract their comments. Not once in my career have I had to fall back on anonymous sourcing as I have for this narrative.
On the other hand not all was so grim. A number of individuals stepped forward unsolicited, among them, a former assistant district attorney, now in private practice, who introduced himself on the checkout line at a local supermarket; his information proved invaluable to my understanding of the personalities and social world of the Cape’s court system and law-enforcement agencies.
Another ex‑prosecutor explained District Attorney Michael O’Keefe’s foibles—his heavy drinking, priapic tendencies, blind ambition, and racial insensitivity. Not so surprising was the help I received from McCowen’s girlfriend, Catherine Cisneros, and from his father and stepmother, who provided the defendant’s childhood medical records and other documents, in addition to explaining what life was like for a black child growing up in rural southwestern Oklahoma.
Other sources were people whose trust stemmed from my book Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape, which does not shy away from discussing the ongoing class war between locals and wealthy summer visitors. Happily, a number of these individuals worked in local town offices and in district and superior courts; they guided me to records buried in dusty files and offered sub-rosa tips about local officials. One Truro selectman, for example, was quietly shouldering two OUI convictions; a third would land him in jail, my tipster pointed out, explaining “why the bastard keeps backing the police.”
By the time I finished writing, the core documentation for this project filled sixteen three-ring binders and seven file boxes, not counting interview transcript and the trial record. Unlike the Massachusetts State Police and the FBI, I used a cassette recorder to memorialize my 200 or so interviews. I also filled nine of my beloved French Rhodia notepads inside the courtroom.
In the end, I still remained puzzled, and called several out-of-town friends, well-known lawyers and one of the most celebrated PIs in the country, a man who’d worked with the defense for the Oklahoma bomber and John Walker Lindh, the California youth who joined the Taliban. I did this for a reality check. Was I exaggerating about the cops, who were, after all, trying to nab a killer? Was the misconduct of the prosecution really as egregious as I was saying? The collective reply was, “It’s very bad. These guys were out of control. Had your man been tried in Boston, even Dayton, Ohio, it probably would have turned out differently.”
None felt it necessary to belabor the fact of race, though all alluded to it. Again, readers will draw their own conclusions. New developments in the McCowen case will unfold within the year. The account that follows is based on the best information and documentation available now.
Like any other bleak winter day, Sunday, January 6, 2002, was gray and windy, the metallic smell of rain heavy in the air. Cape Cod knows only three colors in winter: gray, darker gray, and the muted green of omnipresent scrub pines, somber hues that only add to the depression that engulfs many locals during this phase of the year. As Henry David Thoreau once observed, “It is a wild place, and there is no flattery in it.”
Just outside the kitchen of the bungalow at 50 Depot Road, Christa Worthington’s green Ford Escort was parked, as usual, at the top of her long driveway. A plastic Little Tikes car belonging to her daughter, Ava, was not far away, waiting to be used once more come spring.
The telltales were barely noticeable at first glance: on the flagstone walkway curving back to the house lay a barrette, also a pair of eyeglasses near the Escort’s driver’s door. Under the front tire was a wool sock, its mate several feet away in a flower bed. Farther away still, south toward the woods, a set of keys lay on the ground on the Escort’s passenger side, as if someone had flung them from the house.
Inside, the home seemed too small for its contents. What was always known as the “back door” led into the kitchen, which was Cape Cod tiny, a mere 120 square feet, not accounting for the appliances, the free-standing cabinet just behind the door, and the counters. The table was covered with newspapers, old mail, flyers, and notes. Toys scattered across the floor made the room even smaller.
Dirty dishes overflowed in the sink. Food-encrusted pans covered the burners of the galley-style stove opposite the doorway. At the right rear corner, the room opened into a narrow hallway that led to the living room. Along the right side of the hallway, on the easterly side of the house, were two doors: one led to Christa’s study, the other to the bathroom.
In the study, a lone desk lamp illuminated a room nearly as cramped as the kitchen and just as messy, with a floor-to-ceiling stack of cardboard file boxes, plastic bins, a desk and chair, piles of magazines, and more loose paperwork. A Dell laptop computer, its screen still glowing, reported that the last user had logged off the Internet.
In the northwest corner of the house, the living room offered a “million-dollar” view of the salt marsh leading down to Pamet Harbor, then the bay and Provincetown, with the Pilgrim Monument in the distance. Paintings by Christa’s mother, Gloria Worthington, covered the walls. Two couches, a coffee table, a Christmas tree, and Christa’s childhood piano made this space cramped, too. The couches were littered with coats and books. On the far side of the living room, the north end, the so‑called front door was locked. It had not been used in years, the kitchen entry being closer to the turn around where occupants always parked. The door to the bedroom, kitty-corner to the locked front entry, was shut, too. More toys strewn across the floor made the living room hard to navigate.
The little girl who owned the toys, barely two and a half, managed the transit with no problem. She had turned on the television to play her favorite video but hadn’t been able to figure out how to get the VCR tape into the machine. She’d put it in end first, then tried it sideways, then upside down. She soon stopped, wondering when her mother was going to wake up.
Despite the mess, the house appeared to be in its natural state, unaffected by the force of a struggle. The only aberration lay on the floor in the hallway: a woman’s body, naked from the chest down. Her head leaned toward her right shoulder, and blood had pooled on the floor below her swollen mouth. On her bare stomach were tiny red handprints.
The little girl made her way back toward the kitchen, stopping to tug at her mother again. She was hungry and equally starved for attention. She had never gone this long without talking to an adult. Most of all, she missed her mother’s smile, her cooing sounds. Earlier, she had tried to clean her mother as her mother had so often cleaned her, using a hand mitt to wipe up the blood.
In the kitchen, she poured herself a bowl of Cheerios, a skill she’d recently acquired. She added milk to the bowl, barely noticing the bloodstains she left on the glass bottle of organic milk her mother always bought. Her hands were covered with blood. It was under her fingernails and in her hair. She ate a little but did not finish. Her attention wandered again.
The late-afternoon sun began to set. The day had almost passed, and her mother still had not gotten up. She grabbed a bottle of apple juice from the refrigerator and put it down next to her mother, then curled up beside her on the floor. Her mother had said she would have to stop nursing soon, but for the moment, she gave up on the juice for the familiarity of her mother’s nipple.
Most eyes in Massachusetts that Sunday were on the New England Patriots, winners of five straight games and closing out a Cinderella season. The Patriots needed a victory to clinch the AFC East division title and a loss by the Oakland Raiders to seal an improbable bye in the first round of the playoffs. The victory was almost a certainty, their opponents being the Carolina Panthers, a team in the midst of a fourteen-game losing streak. Still, New England was leading just 10–3 at halftime when Robert Arnold, in his late seventies, went to pick up his son, Tim, age 44, in Wellfleet.
Since his brain surgery seven months earlier, Tim suffered double vision and balance and coordination problems, and he couldn’t drive. He normally lived with his parents, but since mid-November, he’d been house-sitting for friends in Wellfleet. His father was picking him up so Tim could do his laundry at home.
By the third quarter of the game, the clothes were in the dryer and the Patriots had jumped ahead 24–6. Tim decided to call Christa Worthington, an ex‑lover who remained a friend, to see if she still wanted to go out for Sunday night dinner. He had suggested Saturday, but she had said no. Tim had gotten the impression she was going off-Cape to see her dad. When she didn’t answer, he thought she might still be away. He left a message on her answering machine and went back to the game.
A half hour later, with New England up 38-6 and running out the clock, Robert Arnold was ready to drive the six miles back to Wellfleet. Noticing a flashlight Tim had borrowed from Christa, he suggested they return it on the way. Robert grabbed the flashlight, Tim picked up the laundry basket, and they got into Robert’s seven-year-old Ford Windstar.
As Robert drove around Old County Road and then cut back up Depot, Tim wondered whether he should return the flashlight unannounced. Christa had chastised him before for showing up without calling, and although he’d left her a message, she hadn’t given him the OK to come by. Seeing her always stirred emotions. Just two months earlier, he had written in his journal: “There is such an ache where she and Ava used to be. The first Father’s Day gift she gave me was a picture of Ava in my arms. Ouch. That hurts badly. Especially now that I can look back and see how little she was involved.”
Often, he’d tried to convince himself that he had the upper hand, writing in his diary that she could be “impatient, angry, hostile, unpleasant,” and that he had “left her several times because she was so difficult, so cutting, so caustic, on the attack.” But he couldn’t give up the idea of the two of them together.
He decided it would be best just to leave the flashlight on her back porch.
As they slowed to take the left into Christa’s driveway, it was Robert who first saw two copies of the New York Times in familiar blue plastic wrappers. Tim got out and grabbed the papers. They drove up the 175-foot drive, a narrow dirt road topped with weeds and crushed clamshells. As it curved to the left near the house, Tim was surprised to see Christa’s car. He also noticed the light on in her study. It was dusk. He got out, flashlight and newspapers in hand, crossed the flagstone walkway, and went up the three steps to the kitchen landing.
The rickety wooden storm door was closed. The inside door stood open more than halfway. Looking inside, as he later recalled, he immediately saw Christa on the floor with Ava. The child appeared to
be breast-feeding. He thought it an odd place to nurse, then remembered
that Christa would often stop whatever she was doing to give Ava her breast, no matter where.
When he called out, Ava’s head popped up. The little girl ran to him as he stepped into the kitchen, putting the newspapers down. Ava was usually a talkative child, but at this moment, she said nothing, only clung to him. He took the three or four steps across the kitchen
with the child in his arms and looked down at Christa. She was naked from the chest down, a bathrobe and black fleece shirt around her shoulders. Her legs were splayed. Her right knee was bent, pointing at the ceiling. Her left leg was bent at the knee, too, but entirely flat on the ground.
Tim blinked, having trouble with what he was seeing. Her lips were horribly swollen, as if she had been hit, and a lot of blood had run down the side of her face onto the floor. Some of it was still wet, glistening. Her eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling, unfocused.
He looked into her eyes, and all he saw was white. In a daze, he reached down and touched her cheek. It was cold. Panic rushed through him. He looked for the phone, a cordless model that should have been on its cradle on the wall but wasn’t.
With Ava still in his arms, he stepped over the body and into the living room. The television was on, a children’s show. The flashlight was still in his hand, and he put it down on a windowsill to turn the TV off, then stepped back over the body and reached down to check Christa’s pulse. Nothing. The open bathroom door was just beyond her head. Inside, he saw blood on the rim of the sink and a red-stained wash mitt on the floor underneath. Ava’s little step stool was there, too. The child, he realized, had tried to clean her bloodied mother. He forced himself to whisper comforting words to Ava as she clutched him.
He looked around the kitchen once more, remembering that the inside door had been open. Christa must have just gotten home. What could have happened so quickly?
He carried Ava out to the Windstar. His father had already turned the van around, so that it pointed downhill, back toward the road. As Tim climbed inside, he said, spelling for the sake of the child, “Christa is D‑E-A-D,” his voice shaky. They sat in stunned silence, the only sound the whirr of the vehicle’s heater. Then Tim said, “I can’t find a phone anywhere.”
Robert left the Windstar to go inside. As he later testified in court, first he could bear only a quick glance at the body as he looked around the kitchen, putting his hand against the wall to steady himself. He had never been in Christa’s house before and wasn’t sure where to look. The place was cluttered. He looked at Christa again. He was a retired veterinarian; he’d seen death before but not like this.
The right side of the young woman’s face had been beaten, contusions covering her upper lip, nose, and forehead, and smeared streaks of blood laced her chest and abdomen. Her lips were swollen but pulled back, exposing her teeth, gleaming reddish from the blood she’d aspirated. He stepped over the body to check the living room. No phone. Quickly, he returned to the Windstar.
They sat in the van in silence again, both rattled, having trouble deciding what to do. After a moment, Tim passed Ava to his father and went back inside. Again, he checked the kitchen, the living room; he opened the bedroom door and took a quick look, remembering other times when Christa’s phone was difficult to find, a cordless in a cluttered house. He turned around for the second time, deciding that the only recourse was to go back up the path to his father’s house to call from there. He left the house without noticing Christa’s cell phone on the kitchen table. It was on, the illuminated screen revealing a lone 9.
As in 911.
He ran up the 100-yard path to his father’s house, then dialed the police emergency number. It was just before 4:30 p.m. In a surprisingly coherent voice, he told the dispatcher he thought Christa Worthington had fallen down her stairs. The Truro police switchboard logs report him saying, “I think she is dead.”
Robert continued to wait in the minivan, holding Ava, who rested her head against his neck. Although he never talked about it later, he had to have smelled both Christa’s blood and Ava’s dirty diaper. Meanwhile, Christa’s cousin Jan Worthington, a member of Truro’s rescue squad, was reading the newspaper at her North Pamet Road home two miles away when her pager went off. The dispatcher announced: “You have a rescue call—50 Depot Road, the Worthington
residence—for an unconscious, unresponsive female.”
Jan thought of her mother, Cindy, who had a pacemaker. The address was wrong, but errors like that were made all the time. She drove as fast as she could, slowing only when she pulled abreast of her parents’ house on the opposite side of Depot from Christa’s, several hundred yards west. No cars, no activity.
She turned back to Christa’s driveway. At the top of the hill, she saw Tim Arnold standing next to his father’s minivan. “It’s Christa. I think she’s dead.”
She ran up the steps and stopped at the landing. Through the kitchen door, Jan saw Christa on her back, wearing what appeared to be a green bathrobe bunched up around her shoulders. Her legs were in a weird position, “akimbo,” as Jan later described them. She turned back to Tim, screaming for an explanation. He repeated that maybe Christa had hit her head and fallen. But he didn’t know.
She again yelled at Tim, telling him to call the police. He said he couldn’t find the phone, forgetting that he had already called 911. Jan panicked and ran down the driveway, screaming, “Call the police! Somebody—call the police!” Halfway down the drive, she met the ambulance that had just returned from Hyannis and was minutes away when the emergency call for 50 Depot Road came in. Paramedic Jeff Francis, responding from his nearby home, followed in his car. All of them later recalled Jan’s shrieks.
Francis was the first official responder to step inside. The ambulance crew followed, one carrying the “first-in bag,” three others bringing the defibrillator and oxygen. They flipped the light switch near the kitchen table, and Francis noticed a pool of blood about eight inches by 14 inches around Christa’s head. He bent to feel the pulse on her neck.
The patient was not breathing. He instructed the crew to clear an area so they could move the body. They slammed the open portable dishwasher shut, slid it back to create space, and began moving toys away from Christa’s feet. The body had stiffened in its awkward position.
“Code thirteen,” Francis reported on his radio, meaning that rigor had set in. They gave up on moving her. Two members of the ambulance crew later recalled seeing the sea-green bathrobe around Christa’s shoulders and two bloody handprints on the flat of her stomach. Fecal matter was under her and between her legs, blood behind her ear. They used a brown blanket from the couch to cover her body. A plastic yellow disposable blanket from the ambulance was also put on top of the body.
The deputy fire chief and two emergency medical technicians had arrived. The kitchen was getting crowded. Outside, a second ambulance pulled up, then a Truro police lieutenant and the Truro fire captain. Cars and trucks were parked end-to-end along the narrow driveway, and Jan was still screaming. She stopped only with the arrival of her father, on foot, from across the road. The ambulance crew searched the house, looking for the baby, whose toys and handprints were everywhere.
Outside, Tim Arnold explained that Ava was safe in the Windstar with his father. Someone brought out a supply of diapers, and EMT George Malloy carried the little girl down the driveway to Jan’s parents’ home. Malloy would state that the child, whom he held in his arms for the next hour, “never once stopped shaking.”
He added, “Anybody who says she didn’t see what happened up there is totally crazy.”
Later that evening, the long probe into Christa Worthington’s murder began.
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