"48 Hours" goes inside the search for mom who vanished ahead of Hurricane Harvey
Crystal McDowell vanished just before Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area in 2017 — "48 Hours" followed investigators on their search for the missing Texas mom
Produced by Chris Young Ritzen, Susan Mallie, Marc Goldbaum, Lourdes Aguiar, Josh Yager
[This story previously aired on June 16, 2018. It was updated on September 7, 2019.]
As Hurricane Harvey bore down on the Houston area in August 2017, investigators were in the midst of a desperate search for a mother of two who vanished just before the storm hit. Family – and sheriff's deputies – were convinced Crystal McDowell's disappearance had nothing to do with the raging storm, but a missing person's investigation was no easy feat amid the historic rains and flooding.
As sheriff's deputies and emergency first responders struggled to keep up with the storm, a dedicated team of investigators gathered to track every clue left behind in McDowell's disappearance. "48 Hours" gained unprecedented access inside the command center in Baytown, Texas, a suburb of Houston, as investigators searched for a beautiful young mother.
But as persons of interest surfaced and a crucial clue was uncovered, there was still no sign of McDowell — did someone know where she was? Correspondent Maureen Maher and "48 Hours" follow the team as they piece together the last known moments of McDowell's life, reveal how police found her body and the shocking arrest that left family members stunned.
SEARCHING FOR CRYSTAL
SUNDAY, AUG. 27
CRYSTAL MCDOWELL: MISSING TWO DAYS
District Attorney Cheryl Lieck says despite the horrific flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Baytown, Texas, investigators were determined to find Crystal McDowell.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: It was horrible. The rain wouldn't stop. It just would not stop. …We had deputies that were flooded out of their homes. One of our investigators lost his entire house. Our local Texas Ranger and his wife were flooded out of theirs.
Maureen Maher: And yet, they showed up for work.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Yeah.
Maureen Maher: Every day. All day looking for this woman.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: [shaking her head to affirm]: Everybody.
But weather was not their only challenge. If Crystal had met with foul play, the sheriff says there was a growing list of people to question.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: She was extremely social. She had lots of friends. …She had been a flight attendant for 10 years and then had become a real estate agent.
On the top of the list, Crystal's Uncle Jeff, who cared for Crystal after her parents died when she was 11 years old.
Jeff Walters [in tears]: And our main objective is just to get Crystal back home.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: He was the person that was extremely emotional and reported her missing, but then he kept getting in the way of the investigation.
Getting in the way, by going through Crystal's townhouse with other family members, potentially tainting important evidence.
Crystal's family even hired a private investigator.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: This is not a game to us. This is not a hobby. This is what we do. …But you don't bring on some amateur super sleuth wannabe when you are in the middle of a missing persons … investigation.
Also on the list, the men romantically linked to Crystal. There was Steve McDowell, Crystal's ex-husband, a shipping manager. In June 2017, the couple went through what many described as an amicable divorce after 10 years of marriage and two children: a boy, Madden, and a girl, Maui.
Maureen Maher: And what was his story for Friday morning?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: That she never showed up. That she was supposed to show up and she never did.
That morning, at 7:01 a.m. on August 25, Steve, who had the kids, says he received a text message from Crystal. It read: "On my way. Do you have water? Looks like I may stay here with the kids. It seems just like rain."
But Jeff Walters, Crystal's uncle, says that Steve showed him another text from Crystal allegedly sent around 9:30 a.m., saying she changed her mind and she planned to stop by, pick up the kids and take them to Dallas.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: They just said it didn't sound like her, and that nobody knew where she was, nobody had heard her voice. They just knew something wasn't right.
Maureen Maher: What did he tell authorities about their marriage, their relationship?
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: He told 'em … that he was fine and he didn't mind the divorce … and everything was just hunky-dory.
In fact, Crystal was living with Steve and the kids, in a house she helped him buy, while her townhouse was being renovated.
Cindy Seratte is Crystal's aunt.
Cindy Seratte: He had such a passionate love for her. It was almost unhealthy. …Like if she wanted her feet rubbed, he would rub her feet. If she wanted her hair brushed, he would brush her hair.
Maureen Maher: Is it fair to say that she wore the pants in the family?
Cindy Seratte: Yes, most definitely.
But over time they grew apart.
Cindy Seratte: He didn't challenge her was the word. …She wanted to be the best she could possibly be. And Steve was OK with just stepping back being the house person.
Krysta McDowell, Steve's daughter from a previous relationship, was at Texas A&M University, when she heard the news Crystal was missing.
Krysta McDowell: He was the dad. She was more of the provider. …He loved being around the kids. They're his life. She was his life, and they were his life.
To the sheriff, it certainly didn't seem like Crystal's ex-husband knew anything about her disappearance.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: He was very cooperative with us. …Very kind. Very friendly. …And he immediately says that he wants to help.
It was Crystal's new boyfriend, Paul Hargrave, who Sheriff Hawthorne really wanted to speak with. Hargrave owned a local jewelry store and had been dating Crystal for a few weeks.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: The last place that we have her is in the Baytown area leaving Paul's house.
Jeff Walters: She seemed in love with him … They seemed perfect together. She was happy.
So happy that Crystal had posted on Facebook just two days before she disappeared … "I've never been happier in my whole life than I am right now … God is so good."
Paul Hargrave: We had talked about going to Europe. She got a ticket to go with me to Belgium next month.
Investigators would learn Crystal had also invited Paul to go on a family cruise. The only caveat: Steve, her ex-husband, was going too.
Paul Hargrave: And I told her, "Well, gosh, I would love to go … But I think it will be awkward for me to be there with the ex husband." So she had asked him to refrain from going. And I know that didn't go well. She had stressed to me that he was pretty upset about that.
Which is why, Hargrave said, he was deeply concerned when Crystal disappeared after she left his home in her black Mercedes, which was also missing.
Paul Hargrave: I hope and pray that she's OK. And she's gonna come back to to us.
So he went on national TV, and spoke with "CBS This Morning's" Michelle Miller:
Michelle Miller: What do you think happened to her?
Paul Hargrave: I'm not sure. I just am trying to focus on, on finding her. [Becomes emotional] And assisting with police with whatever we can assist them with.
But Sheriff Hawthorne says he became suspicious after Hargrave failed to tell authorities about security footage from his home showing the last time Crystal was seen alive.
Paul Hargrave: She actually walked right through this living room at 7:09 when my camera's picked that up. I think she was seen leaving the driveway at 7:10.
Paul Hargrave shared the tapes — not with investigators, but with the media.
Sheriff Hawthorne: So immediately we're like, "Well why would he be turning it over to the media, but yet my investigators don't have those videos?"
Maureen Maher: Intentional or oversight on his part?
Sheriff Hawthorne: I don't know. …Cause it took us a few days to get it. So obviously every hour that ticked off, he became the sheriff's person of interest. That's for sure.
Surrounded by the chaos of both a natural disaster and suspicious characters, the case stalled … mostly, says the sheriff, because investigators couldn't agree on which direction to go in.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Some of the investigators that were involved in this would say, "You know, I think its Steve." And some would say, "I still can't get over Jeff. He's too emotional. He's too this, he's too that." And then we'd had others, like myself, that I'm still looking at Paul.
MONDAY, AUGUST 28
CRYSTAL MCDOWELL: MISSING 3 DAYS
But then, there was finally a break in the case. Crystal's Mercedes was spotted by a friend.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: I will give the family credit for finding that vehicle.
So now they knew where the car was, but who put it there and what would they find inside?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Weather and time deteriorate evidence, physical evidence.
PERSONS OF INTEREST
MONDAY, AUGUST 28
CRYSTAL MCDOWELL: MISSING 3 DAYS
Sheriff Hawthorne could not believe what he found when he arrived at the Motel 6 where Crystal's Mercedes was discovered.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Well you could get in the car because it was unlocked and the keys were sitting on the console.
Maureen Maher: Did that strike you as odd?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Oh, very odd. …My criminal investigation captain told me, "I feel like it's been staged."
Maureen Maher: Set up for someone to take it?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Correct.
But whoever had left the car there to be taken, did not anticipate the massive flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: The water had risen. You couldn't get it out of the parking lot.
Maureen Maher: And that was finally a break in your direction.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Correct.
Crystal's Mercedes was finally towed from the motel and processed, but flood waters in Houston made it impossible to get results back from the crime scene lab.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: A lot of their majors and captains and sergeants and investigators homes were going underwater … it was chaos for everybody.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 3
CRYSTAL MCDOWELL: MISSING 9 DAYS
D.A. Cheryl Lieck [in war room]: There are a lot of moving parts right now.
"48 Hours" was granted unprecedented access inside the sheriff's war room. The investigation had taken a toll on D.A. Lieck, who had lost all hope.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: I know she's dead. There has been no activity on any of her credit cards, debit cards, nothing. You know, she doesn't have a cell phone. Nobody leaves anymore without a cell phone.
Sheriff Hawthorne, deputies and Texas Rangers expanded their focus from finding Crystal … to finding her killer.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck [in war room]: As of about midnight last night the net has widened and its husband, boyfriend, uncle.
Early in the investigation, the top persons of interest had been brought in for questioning. In his police interview, Paul Hargrave pointed the finger at Steve McDowell:
Paul Hargrave [to investigator]: She was really concerned about her well-being. …She was concerned about him finding out about me.
Investigator: Did you have anything to do with the disappearance of Crystal?
Jeff Walters: Absolutely not. …I don't understand even — that's been insinuated. And I don't like it.
Jeff Walters was no fan of Crystal's new boyfriend, Paul.
Jeff Walters [to investigator]: He reminds me of Hannibal Lecter and he creeps me out really bad.
And Steve stuck with his story that Crystal never showed up at his house.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: We polygraphed two of 'em.
Maureen Maher: Steve and Paul.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Steve and Paul. That is correct.
Maureen Maher: And how did they do?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Steve failed. I'll let Paul tell you how he did.
Paul Hargrave: He insinuated, he didn't use those terms, but he called me a liar.
But security cameras don't lie. Focusing on the location of the car, deputies began gathering video from nearby businesses. A camera at a Shell gas station next door to the motel appears to have captured one of their three persons of interest.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: It looks like he's getting out and he's putting something in the trash can and he's stuffing it all the way down, like, to his elbow.
Maureen Maher: Like a bag or?
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Yeah. It looked like clothing is what it looked like.
Deputies say it is Steve McDowell, and it's what he keeps glancing at that makes the investigators sit up and take notice: the Motel 6.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: You could see that he's looking over and he's looking to see if the car is still there and it was.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: We recovered the trash can and the problem is all the contents had floated out of it.
Maureen Maher: Because of the hurricane.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Because of the storm.
Then investigators receive different security video showing Steve McDowell in action — right in the Motel 6 parking lot.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: You just see somebody park the car. …And someone that resembles her ex-husband getting out of it.
Maureen Maher: And what does that say to you?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: It says that my person of interest has changed [laughs]. All right. Remember I'm the one that's still looking at Paul.
The videos are purely circumstantial evidence. But for the first time, investigators are all heading in the same direction.
Inside the war room: "We have to confront Steve and ask where she is."
But Steve was still insisting he had nothing to do with Crystal's disappearance.
So they turned to someone else in the family's inner circle for help, Crystal's aunt, Cindy Seratte.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: I said, "Cindy, I need you to stay close to Steve." I said, "We need communication. And he may not communicate with us. And he may communicate with you."
Cindy Serrate: Every day I was just praying every day that when I went that he would say something.
The investigators were becoming increasingly frustrated.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: When you have no body, that's a huge hindrance. …The way someone's killed, where they're found, that generally can give you an idea of who killed 'em.
CRYSTAL MCDOWELL: MISSING 12 DAYS
Deputies called upon an experienced volunteer search and rescue organization, Texas Equusearch, to help find Crystal.
Tim Miller | Equusearch [to volunteers]: Let's remember this place got flooded real bad and she may be caught in the tree line and not in the water.
Paul Hargrave joined the searchers and Crystal's uncle, Jeff Walters, pitched in.
Paul Hargrave: He's offered a $10,000 reward. And I offered a $5,000 reward.
The more investigators dug in, the more things didn't quite add up.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: This case is about secrets. Double lives on many people's parts. It's one of those cases … I think I've seen it all … but I haven't seen anything like this before.
A TROUBLED RELATIONSHIP
Five years before her disappearance, it seemed like Crystal and Steve McDowell were on top of the world. A skydiving jump had been a 33rd birthday gift to Crystal from Steve.
Now, Crystal's ex-husband was the main person of interest in her disappearance. There were those security tapes, and D.A. Cheryl Lieck says they had discovered Steve had lied about their so-called "friendly" divorce.
Maureen Maher: What did you find out as the investigation went along?
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: That he didn't want the divorce … what we were getting from the family … is that he was distraught, had always been distraught every time she tried to leave him.
L.J. Adams: It was early on when things started not going…well.
L.J. Adams, a bail bondsman and Crystal's good friend, says the relationship was troubled
right from the start.
L.J. Adams: Judging from the things that she said … Steve McDowell is a very, very self-centered, selfish — manipulative person. …It just got to a point where he wanted things his way and he wanted it that way and right now. And if it didn't work out or if she couldn't do it at that moment, it would be a temper tantrum.
In 2008, just one year after they married, Crystal filed for divorce. But Adams says she didn't go through with it back then because Steve had made threats.
L.J. Adams: It was always … [imitates Steve's voice] "Well if you leave me, I'm just gonna kill myself."
Maureen Maher: Emotional blackmail.
L.J. Adams: Yeah. So he knew what to say and what to do.
But Krysta McDowell says her father is not that man. She knows him as a loving father with a playful side.
Krysta McDowell: He is a really goofy guy; like that's the best way I could describe him.
Maureen Maher: Fun guy?
Krysta McDowell: Fun guy.
And even though her father was in and out of her life for most of her childhood, there was a brief period of time when she lived with Steve and Crystal.
Krysta McDowell: I was in high school so — it was like eighth grade to sophomore year … I guess I was 14 to about 16.
She admits the relationship between Crystal and her father was turbulent, but says he was not the only one at fault.
Krysta McDowell: Both weren't perfect, and they both had their issues. …I just think that they were very toxic for each other, and they made each other crazy. Whenever they were together, it was never a happy ending.
Krysta was hopeful things would get better once they finally got divorced. But after Crystal officially filed the paperwork in February 2017, Krysta says her father began acting strangely.
Krysta McDowell: So in March … I noticed that my dad had, like, been acting weird on Facebook … he … changed his, like, profile pictures to, like — it was a grave … and then it was like a grim reaper, like, profile picture … and then he made it, like, a picture of him and Crystal. …And then he took that off — made it say, like, "No profile picture."
Maureen Maher: In a short period of time?
Krysta McDowell: This was all in, like, a matter of, like two or three days.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne would learn that shortly after Crystal filed for divorce, she had called 911 and told police that Steve had disappeared with their kids.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: She had given Steve the kids. …and he essentially did not bring the kids back.
Maureen Maher: For a few days.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: For a few days.
Maureen Maher: And did he threaten to hurt himself and the kids?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Kind of put out an allegation and a threat that you know he would harm himself and Crystal and the kids.
Steve eventually returned the children unharmed and no charges were filed. He later explained to his daughter, Krysta, that he had become upset after discovering that Crystal had numerous affairs while they were married.
Maureen Maher: But he said he was still in love with her?
Krysta McDowell: Yes. And — he said, like, "I love her with all my heart but I just can't let her keep tearing me down like this."
Maureen Maher: So he was OK with getting a divorce at that point?
Krysta McDowell: He was accepting of it. He thought it was for the best. He thought maybe he could, like, get his life in order then.
But Crystal's Aunt Cindy says Steve was just not ready to let go. Remember that cruise they were supposed to go on? Cindy says Steve had actually planned to propose to Crystal again, although the divorce had just become final in June.
Cindy Seratte: He literally bought some clothes for both of them. So, a white dress and a white suit, and literally, he was gonna propose.
But Krysta says her father told her this was all his ex-wife's idea.
Krysta McDowell: My dad told me just the other day that … that she had mentioned, "How would you feel about getting remarried on the cruise? …It's like a fresh start.
Maureen Maher: Do you think that's true, that she said that to him?
Krysta McDowell: Yeah.
Cindy Seratte: I don't believe Crystal would ever lead him to believe that. I really don't.
Maureen Maher: This was a fantasy in his head?
Cindy Seratte: I believe that.
In early August, it seemed Crystal had moved on and was dating Paul Hargrave. Cindy Seratte says Crystal tried to keep the relationship secret from Steve at first even though she was still living with him.
Cindy Seratte: And she said, "Aunt Cindy, I have to keep this quiet. He will kill me."
But by August 23, just two days before she disappeared, Crystal made that Facebook post — "I've never been happier in my whole life than I am right now … God is so good" — and had disinvited Steve from the cruise. D.A. Lieck thinks this might have been the start of Steve's final unraveling.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Steve was probably more upset about not going on the cruise because he
thought they were going to rekindle their romance somehow.
And there was more.
L.J. Adams: She was a financial meal ticket to him.
L.J. Adams says Crystal had recently decided to cut Steve off financially.
L.J. Adams: Because he was just spending money, just spending money…just ridiculously spending money. …And at that point, she just said, "I can't do this anymore, Steve."
Maureen Maher: Was it just losing her, Cheryl? Or was it he was losing his whole life?
Someone else was sliding into his place.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: His whole life, his whole lifestyle.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 8
CRYSTAL MCDOWELL: MISSING 14 DAYS
As the cleanup from Hurricane Harvey was underway, investigators had cleared Paul Hargrave and Crystal's uncle, Jeff Walters. They were convinced Steve McDowell had the motive to murder his ex-wife and that he had dumped her car at the Motel 6. But how did he get home? A security video from a nearby Walmart would provide that answer.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: We spot a bicycle on the service road, Interstate 10 service road.
Investigators were convinced it was Steve McDowell.
Maureen Maher: For you, the surveillance footage is the turning point in the case.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Authorities were closing in on Steve McDowell and the stakes were only getting higher — he still had the children.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: We could potentially be minutes or hours away from somebody losing control.
Maureen Maher: Again.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Again.
Maureen Maher: It's almost life and death for these kids?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Correct.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: He kept coming in and talking … he'd come in every day and sit there five hours or so and just, "No. Nope. Wasn't me, wasn't me…"
District Attorney Cheryl Lieck knew Steve McDowell had killed Crystal. But knowing it and proving it were two different things. And she says McDowell seemed to understand that.
DA Cheryl Lieck: We didn't have enough to arrest him.
Maureen Maher: Was he … Arrogant? Helpful? Cooperative?
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Arrogant and aloof … It was a game. …He's just — he's just gaming us he thinks…
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: At this point, we have no direct evidence. We just have circumstantial evidence. …Circumstantial evidence has as much weigh in a court as direct evidence, but you just need more of it.
Lieck says the evidence that finally brought the case home for her was that security video from the Walmart, showing how McDowell probably got home after ditching Crystal's car.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: We had him buying the bike and riding it out.
Maureen Maher: What happens next?
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: We bring him back in.
Day after day, investigators were telling McDowell they were successfully gathering more and more evidence — a ploy to wear him down.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: He was just, like, melting, you know. You could see that it — was getting to him. He wasn't eating. He wasn't sleeping. His face had sunken in…
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne says investigators were under pressure too, and deeply concerned about just how much might be too much for Steve McDowell.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: At the time when all this is taking place, he's got custody of his children.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: I kept thinking, he's gonna kill those kids, he's gonna kill those kids!
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 8
CRYSTAL MCDOWELL: MISSING 14 DAYS
Once again, Steve voluntarily came in for questioning. But, Cheryl Lieck wasn't taking any more chances. She had been in touch with Family and Protective Services, and convinced the agency to remove the McDowell kids from his home that evening and place them with Crystal's Aunt Cindy.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: We knew psychologically that that would be the final straw for him, him — his kids being gone.
Maureen Maher: He would have nothing left.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Right.
Maureen Maher: And what was his response?
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: He just about collapsed.
Exhausted, Steve McDowell said he wanted to go home — but promised he would return in the morning, ready to talk.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: And then that's when– basically that's when he said, "I'll tell you everything."
Without enough evidence to arrest him, and knowing a full confession was their only real chance of finding Crystal's body, the sheriff allowed his prime suspect walk out the door.
Maureen Maher: That was a big risk that he wouldn't run or kill himself.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: It was a risk.
Maureen Maher: I've been a crime reporter for 25 years. I have never heard of a department saying, "Go home and get your affairs in order." …I mean, that's the part I go, "Really? They let him go home?"
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Well, we … but see, this is the thing. We had the kids.
And taking them was a moment Sheriff Hawthorne will never forget.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: …we knew that these kids were probably never gonna see the mother again.
Maureen Maher: Or their father, as — a free man.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Or their father as a free man. Gimme a minute [pauses] …Both of the children came out and gave every one of us bear hugs. And that's when you realize the — the totality and the impact that family violence has on children.
A few hours after Steve McDowell's youngest children were taken from him, he summoned his older daughter, Krysta, to come home from college immediately.
Krysta McDowell: I was at work, and I work at a bar, so I work pretty late…
Krysta McDowell says she was confused when her father texted her in the middle of the night.
Krysta McDowell: He said, "Your little brother and sister are gonna live somewhere else for a while."
Krysta was already planning to head home later that day.
Krysta McDowell: And he was like — "Is there any way you can be here sooner? …You probably won't see me for a while unless you come see me in person before then." …And so I got in my car, 3:30 in the morning; drove all the way to Baytown.
Two hours later, it was the beginning of the end of Krysta's life as she knew it.
Krysta McDowell:It was dark still. I knocked on his door and he let me in … He told me that, at 10:00 a.m., the Rangers were gonna come pick him up.
Krysta says, though clearly anxious, it mostly seemed like her father was just trying to take care of business — giving her photo albums, financial statements, and even the keys to his beloved Mustang — until the conversation took an abrupt turn.
Krysta McDowell: He looks at me and he says … "the Rangers told me that if I tell them where the body is that … 'They'll lessen my punishment.'" And I said, "Well, you don't know where the body is. Like, how would you know?" …And he was like, "What if it's true?"
Krysta McDowell: And I asked him, "Do you know where the body is?" And he just, like, looked away from me and — just, like, bawled his eyes out. And at that point I knew that he knew where it was.
Maureen Maher: What did you think at that point?
Krysta McDowell: I don't know. What do you think? [Emotional, her voice breaks] If someone you love and you've sat here and defended the whole time tells you they're guilty, what do you think?
Maureen Maher: Did you think he had actually confessed to you at that point? Even though he never said the actual words?
Krysta McDowell: [nods to affirm] 'Cause I asked him what he did over and over. I begged him to tell me. And he was just like, "I just — I can't tell you what I did."
Krysta McDowell: Then all of a sudden … we heard a noise and he stood up and was like, "They're here…"
Maureen Maher: And then all of a sudden, he's gone?
Krysta McDowell: Yeah. …I literally dropped to my knees and just cried.
Police brought Steve McDowell back to the station to deliver his much-anticipated confession. But the man who had kept them guessing about so much, for so long, was about to make them guess again.
Maureen Maher: He's, like, yanking your chain.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Yeah. He is.
Maureen Maher: Back and forth, back and forth.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: And I'd had it. At this point I'd had it.
A CRIME OF PASSION?
It was Saturday, September 9:
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: I didn't sleep much. I literally couldn't wait for daylight to come up.
Steve McDowell agreed to meet with Sheriff Hawthorne and the investigation team one more time and finally provide an answer to the question — what happened to Crystal?
RANGER HOLLAND: Okay. My understanding from our communication was that you were kind of ready to be honest about some things.
STEVE MCDOWELL: [Nods head to affirm]
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: We needed a confession. We needed somebody to take us to her body.
D.A. Lieck and Sheriff Hawthorne watched in a nearby room as McDowell shared the details of the morning Crystal came home after a night with her boyfriend:
STEVE MCDOWELL: I didn't mean to hurt her. I love her. I would do anything in my life to bring her back.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: They got into an argument when she got home and I think he was mad that she had stayed out all night.
RANGER HOLLAND: Is that when she told you that she didn't love you anymore?
STEVE MCDOWELL: Yeah.
RANGER HOLLAND: That when she told you she didn't want to be with you or have anything to do with you?
STEVE MCDOWELL: [Nods head to affirm]
And it seems that was enough for Steve McDowell to make a terrible choice.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: He describes and … he essentially shows that he … strangled her from behind.
Maureen Maher: So she had no idea he was coming?
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Yes.
STEVE MCDOWELL: I squeezed her. I put my arm around her like this [demonstrates].
RANGER HOLLAND: "OK. Like a — a choke hold or something?
STEVE MCDOWELL: [Nods head to affirm]
RANGER HOLLAND: Did she say anything when this was going on? Or did she fight or what – what happened?
STEVE MCDOWELL: She said I was scaring her.
RANGER HOLLAND: How did you eventually know that — that she was no longer alive?
STEVE MCDOWELL: She stopped moving.
RANGER HOLLAND: And what did you do after that?
STEVE MCDOWELL: I covered her face with a bag.
RANGER HOLLAND: And then you put her in the car?
STEVE MCDOWELL: I tied her up and put her in trash bags and put her in the car.
And then, McDowell says, early the following morning, he drove off to dispose of Crystal's body, leaving their two children home alone.
McDowell leads investigators to a densely wooded area off an access road not far from his house.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: Steve drives the detectives and the investigators out here.
"48 Hours"' cameras were the only ones allowed at the crime scene as investigators began their arduous work.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 9
CRYSTAL MCDOWELL MISSING: 15 days
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: … the terrain's pretty tough. It was a lotta work just tryin' to clear the trees and the limbs so that we could bring the body out.
At the end of a long search, the sheriff and district attorney share an embrace.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: It was a relief…
SHERIFF BRIAN HAWTHORNE [to reporters]: Today at 2:45 p.m., Crystal's body was discovered and Steven Wayne McDowell, 44, has been arrested and charged with murder…
Maureen Maher: If he had not told you exactly where the body was, would she have ever been found?
D.A. Cheryl Lieck [shaking her head]: No.
Once Steve McDowell showed investigators where the body was, he was brought to the Chambers County Jail. Even though he confessed to strangling Crystal, that may not be the end of it. In Texas, a defendant can claim they killed someone out of sudden passion, which could mean as little as two years in prison.
Which is exactly what Steve McDowell did in June 2019 during his trial for murder. McDowell testified that Crystal's death was a result of a spontaneous hug that got out of control. But D.A. Lieck gave the jury a different point of view.
Maureen Maher: Do you think this was premeditated?
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Yes. Without a doubt.
Maureen Maher: This was not just, "he snapped?"
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Well you can snap and still think about it …I think he just decided, "if I can't have her, nobody can."
After five days of testimony, evidence and argument, it only took 3 ½ hours for the jury to reach a verdict: guilty.
One day later, the same jury sentenced Steven McDowell to 50 years in prison for the murder of his ex-wife.
Sheriff Brian Hawthorne: We've been very fortunate, the jury saw it the same way the law enforcement officers and District Attorney's Office did.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: It feels good, I think they made the right decision. … With the 50 years, he will have to serve at least 25 before he's eligible for parole.
Jeff Walters: I hope he never makes it out of there, you know? … He deserves whatever he gets.
Cindy Serrate: For the kids it's just a sad situation all the way around.
D.A. Cheryl Lieck: Both parents are gone now. Basically those kids are motherless and fatherless just like Crystal was.
Which brings us back to the other victims in this case — the children. It was Aunt Cindy who was tasked with telling an 8-year-old boy and his 5-year-old sister, the truth.
Cindy Serrate: And I just grabbed their hands and I said, "We found your mommy," I said, "and she's in heaven … and your daddy's in jail for taking your mother's life." …And at that point, Madden looked up and he said [emotional] — he said, "OK," he said, "I can deal with this."
Cindy Serrate: And Madden grabbed his sister and they hugged and he said, "I love you Maui." He said "I'll always take care of you."
The couple's young children are living out of the state with a family friend who is in the process of obtaining full legal custody.
Steve McDowell will be eligible for parole in 2042.