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tv   Dateline  MSNBC  March 21, 2021 2:00am-3:00am PDT

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>> yeah. >> and maybe she will finally get her wish? >> yeah. >> yeah. yes. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline." i'm natalie morales. thank you for watching. ♪♪ i'm craig melvin. >> and i'm natalie morales. >> and this is "date line." >> i knew she would never leave her kids in the middle of a hurricane, so i always knew it wasn't going to be good. >> crystal was gone and there were lots of reasons to be worried. >> she had numerous lovers, men and women. >> you have both the husband and boyfriend all failing the polyss. >> all in the same day. >> the answer would have to wait. >> hurricane harvey is moving in this direction. >> we're stuck in the house. immediately we went to social media. >> what kinds of things did you put up? >> pictures of her, her license
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plate. >> someone knew where she was, someone who liked to play games. >> he thought he was smarter than we were, willing to trade one night of freedom. >> he said i'm ready to talk. let me go home, and tomorrow morning i'll tell you everything. >> in exchange for the terrible truth. >> he couldn't have her, nobody could. >> hello, and welcome to "dateline," crystal mcdowell was a divorced mom looking to start a new life when she vanished, then hurricane harvey decimated her texas town and brought the search for crystal to a halt. a lead investigator forged ahead uncovering a series of clues, and as the flood waters receded, he discovered the same deadly storm that slowed the investigation had also flushed out crystal's killer. here is dennis murphy with
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"before the storm." the woman captured on security camera moving ghost like from one room to the next is 37-year-old crystal mcdowell, a real estate agent from baytown, texas. it's thursday, august 25th, 2017. at 7:35 a.m., crystal gets into her black mercedes coop and backs out of the driveway. looks like she's on her way to the work, but crystal never makes it to the office that day. texts, phones calls, and e-mails go unanswered. when crystal's extended family gathers later that evening to watch a pay per view boxing match, cousin says they aren't sure if they should be annoyed or concerned. >> it was the night of the mayweather and mcgregor fight. my whole family is here, and my brother comes up to me immediately and is like, crystal is missing. in my head i'm like what, we'll find her, what do you mean. >> that doesn't make sense.
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>> and he's like no, she's missing. no one has talked to her since 7:00 in the morning. well, that doesn't mean anything. her phone could be broke. she's busy. she works a lot. >> crystal's aunt, cindy, a local beautician was also dismissive when her son called to say crystal was missing. >> he calls me, he says mom, have you heard crystal's missing. whatever, she's not missing. i said, hey, babe, how are you? where are you at? i waited, tried to call her, no answer, and that's when i started to worry. >> blessed with a trifecta of looks, smarts and charms, crystal was a favorite with both her real estate clients and coworkers. her main passion was her two children. the love she had for them was obvious. after ten years of marriage, crystal split with her steve mcdowell but the remodel ended
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up taking longer than the divorce, and this is where crystal's life story gets complicated. while she waited to get the keys of a place of her own, crystal continued to live with her now ex-husband. like i said, complicated. >> tell me about the divorce, who wanted out. >> crystal for sure. >> she gave him his walking papers. how did he take it? >> not well! even though they're divorced they're spending nights together. >> the family called the chambers county sheriff's department to report crystal missing. >> anytime we get a call like that, we automatically take it serious. >> first stop was the mcdowell house to see if crystal's ex-husband steve had heard from her. >> his immediate response was, you know, did something happen, is there something i should know of. >> then mcdowell threw a curve, he said crystal had a new boyfriend and there were nights when crystal just never came
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home, an awkward tale for any recent ex-husband to share. to deputy, it wasn't so much what he said but how he said it. >> just in a strange kind of voice and i'm asking a general question. my instincts consider kicking off that whole moment. >> that the husband had sort of a fishy story or response to what you were asking him. >> just his whole mannerism, didn't appear to be acting normal per se. >> that's when deputy hamis asked for back up to figure out this mess. detective donny walters got the call. >> the first thing i noticed that bothered me is they had been divorced for six months, he's still wearing a wedding ring, why. that's not normal behavior. >> what was his demeanor like as you're talking to him? >> almost cocky. he put himself out that he was a whole lot smarter than we were. >> just like that, the search
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for crystal slingshoted from a well being check to a possible homicide which meant looping in d.a. cheryl leek. >> early on in the investigation when you went around the table with your investigators, who did you think the suspect was? >> a pissed off ex-husband. when i heard she was divorced but living with her ex-husband and that she had a boyfriend, the first thing i thought was the husband did it. >> but those suspicions seemed less certain after detectives stroke to crystal's boyfriend who struck them as being as off kilter as her husband! he had that air about him also. >> the husband has given suspicions and the boyfriend has given suspicion. they were both cooperative, but cooperative to a point that it was questionable. >> you wondered why they were being so helpful. >> yes, sir. >> what was going on, it was suspicious that crystal's ex-husband never reported
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crystal missing but the boyfriend, the place where the surveillance videos were recorded, well, he never filed a missing person report either. >> crystal's boyfriend did something else that attracted the attention of investigators, he gave those surveillance videos to the media before them. coming up. >> it's being played on cable tv before you guys had even see it. >> that's correct. the bottom line is the jeweler was a prime suspect for me. >> and there could be many more. >> she had numerous lovers throughout her marriage, men and women. >> when "dateline" continues. "ds ♪let's make lots of money♪ ♪you've got the brawn♪ ♪i've got the brains♪ ♪let's make lots of♪ ♪uh uh uh♪ ♪oohhh there's a lot of opportunities♪ with allstate, drivers who switched saved over $700.
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. baytown is a notch in texas's bayou belt. it's a land of pump jacks and refineries the size of cities. fortunes ebb and flow with the price of crude, and in august 2017, the price per barrel was on the rise. banks were lending, housing were being flipped, and luxury items like diamonds were in demand. baytown's oldest and biggest jewelry store, robisons, paul hargrave managed the store, he was crystal's date. >> it was a nice restaurant over there in houston. >> chambers county sheriff brian hawthorne. >> her companion that night, how
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would you describe him, is he sort of a new boyfriend? >> yes, a new boyfriend. >> he's a well known name in the county. big jeweler. >> the jewelry store has been there for 50 plus years. >> she has dinner and goes home to spend the night at his place. >> that's correct. he told us the last time he had seen her, he was getting in the shower and she had gotten dressed and left. >> that makes him the last person to see her alive, which puts him in an investigative jam. >> it obviously putting him as a person of interest, that's for sure. >> but hargrave's investigative status was soon upgraded. remember that security camera footage of crystal leaving for work, those videos were recorded at hargrave's home. we know that because he gave us and other news organizations the footage. the sheriff said hargrave didn't give the videos to his investigator, didn't tell them about it, not at first. >> they released some of the video and pictures to the national media before our detectives even had it.
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>> it's being played on cable tv before you guys had even seen it. >> that's correct. >> that didn't sit well with the sheriff. >> the bottom line is the jeweler was a prime suspect for me. >> she thought the time stamped videos backed up the boyfriend's alibi. >> all that did was really confirm what i thought. i really didn't think he had anything to do with it. i really didn't it. >> you weren't looking at the boyfriend? >> he didn't have a motive. the motive is going to rest with the ex-husband because any logical person is saying, okay, they're divorced, she spends the night with new boyfriend, and she comes home the next morning and ex-husband is supposed to be okay with that. no. i don't care who you are, you're not okay with that. >> so the d.a. was looking hard at the husband while the sheriff was betting on the boyfriend. it had to be one or the other, right? well, maybe not. did i mention that crystal's life was complicated. >> her name is crystal because her parents named her after
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crystal meth. >> you're kidding? >> no. >> and her parents both died when she was 11. they died within six months of each other from aids from drug use. at one point around 13, she was abducted by a man and he kept her hostage, kept her in a chicken coop. >> oh, you're kidding. >> sexually assaulted her. >> how awful. >> she managed to escape, and then eventually ended up down here in baytown with her grandmother and paternal aunt. >> crystal eventually ended up living with her cousin jade's family, and somehow clawed her way back from the abuse she suffered as a child, which could explain all of those photos and videos crystal took with her own daughter. she may have wanted the world to see just how much her own little girl was loved, wanted and protected. >> when i think of crystal, i think of loving. she was a very very loving and a
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hard worker, those are the two things i think of when i think of crystal. >> it's jade's parents who introduced crystal to her eventual husband steve. >> my dad has been friends with steve, childhood friends, high school. i have also grown up around steve. >> tell me about steve first, who's the guy you remember. >> very child like, he's like a big kid. >> and like a big kid, he loved his toys, video games, and muscle ford mustangs. >> i remember the day she met him. i found somebody i love, aunt cindy. he's perfect, he's funny. we talk a lot, and i really thought she had met the man of her dreams and then you met him. >> i met him. >> what did you think. >> the nicest most passionate, kind person i had met. >> we were always at their house playing, all of us kids and they're goofy and silly and they would go on trips and things like that. >> the trips were a job perk. shortly after her marriage to steve, crystal landed a flight
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attendant position with express jet and with her outgoing personality, crystal was soon an airline favorite, and that's when her life became even more complicated. >> she had numerous lovers throughout her marriage, men and women. >> she was very social, and because she traveled all over the united states with express jet, she had flight attendant friends and pilots all over the country. there were a lot of players and a lot of different directions we found ourselves going in the first week. >> if she's been intimate with people here and there, an angry husband, an angry wife. >> that's correct. that's some of the avenue we were looking at is other angry spouses. >> crystal mcdowell had been missing just two days by the time the chambers county sheriff's office had uncovered all of these promising leads to pursue. but suddenly pursuing leads became next to impossible. as little baytown suffered a disaster of epic proportions.
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>> it was a biblical storm. it really was. i felt like i was on noah's arc. >> coming up. >> it just kept raining and kept raining. it just kind of changed everything. >> a hurricane puts a homicide case on hold, but not forever. >> immediately we went to social media. >> what kinds of things did you put up on there? >> we put pictures of her, her license plate. >> when "dateline" continues. hr license plate. >> when "dateline" continues #1 for psoriasis symptom relief* and #1 for eczema symptom relief* gold bond champion your skin (deborah vo) i was hesitant to get the hearing aids because of my short hair, but nobody even sees them. (vo) discover the exclusive, new miracle-earmini- a nearly invisible hearing aid from the brand leader in hearing aids with over 70 years of experience. (deborah) when i finally had miracle-ear and i could hear for the first time, i started crying. i could hear everything. new miracle-earmini. so small and comfortable that no one
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. record breaking, epic, biblical, all words to describe hurricane harvey, meaning it was a storm like few had ever seen. harvey was not only massive but slow moving. once it hit houston and baytown, it weirdly just stopped. >> it just kept raining and raining, half of the county was going underwater at 5:00 in the morning, and we were already doing high water rescues. >> it seemed no one was talking about a missing woman any longer. the whole community and everyone in it was now fighting just to survive. >> what was the scariest moment for you in harvey. >> when the water started coming down my walls in my house, and it was overflowing, and i was watching to see if -- which way it was going to come in first, the front door or the back door. i've never experienced that before. it just never stopped. >> there were boats actually traveling the roads and the only communication we have was
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through our phones. thank god our phones were working. >> crystal's cousin jade cherry was stranded in her mom's home with a pair of newborns. >> i have two screaming twins, they were 4-month-olds, half breast feeding, half breast milk. >> with the entire county in peril, the search for crystal mcdowell was no longer an investigative. >> i had no choice but to divert some of the resources to rescuing our citizens. >> you don't have the manpower, you don't have the resources for an event like this. >> when you have this kind of a storm and this much devastation, you could never have enough manpower. >> so jade picked up the slack, house bound with twins, she did the only thing she could think of it to find crystal. >> immediately we went to social media. >> what kinds of things did you put up on it? >> we put pictures of her, her license plate. >> because her car was missing. >> yes. beautiful black mercedes, and we're posting and we're sharing,
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and i'm just, you know, repeatedly like keep sharing it, keep sharing it. >> jade was crowd sourcing the search for crystal, and what do you know. >> i get a text from someone and it said, hey, jade, i don't know if they found your cousin or her car yet but her car is at motel 6 off 146. i'm like, how do you know that it's her car, do you have a picture of it, and she said my friend posted it on snapchat and was like, wow, like this mercedes about to be flooded, i would be so mad if this was my car. >> jade's friend then forwarded this picture of the car. >> it's just the car and water and the water is right underneath the license plate. >> and it's crystal's. >> it's crystal's car. the first thing i did was call my dad, and i tell my dad, crystal's car is at motel 6 on 146. what, how do you know, so i sent him the picture while i'm on the phone with him.
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his reaction was the same as mine, holy crap, this is her car. >> with the roads and fields flooded, jade's family could only get to the motel 6 by boat, same with the detectives from the sheriff's department. >> we it to commandeer an airboat. >> the motel 6 is under too. >> out on i-10. >> yes, sir. get an airboat, make a route around the motel, and sure enough there's the car. >> finding crystal's car was a huge break, one wrapped in a riddle. did crystal leave her mercedes at the motel 6 or someone else. >> you could tell it had been haphazardly parked. >> and the keys were inside, connect the dots. >> come and get it, i want somebody to take this car because something happened. >> this is a tasty prize, steal me. >> absolutely. >> nobody seemed to have taken the bait. >> there was a couple that tried, but the problem is the water was too high. >> crystal's car was later towed to a garage where a csi team
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went through it. >> forensically what happens in the case, if the crime scene techs were to process the vehicle, you going to come up with anything? >> nothing. >> that's when "dateline" posted a missing in america report, viewed 100,000 times online. but the story generated no usable leads. by the time the last remnants, a week had gone by. the sheriff knew he needed an outside assist. he put out a call for help, answered by texas ranger steven jeter. >> what do you do. >> ground zero, went back in like nothing had been done before. >> on day one, jeter had ex-husband mcdowell sitting in a chair for his first formal interview. >> i heard him, you're the ex-husband, we're going to take your story and i have to rule you out as a suspect. >> he's a cooperative guy. >> once we reached out to him, he was very cooperative.
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>> mcdowell told jeter the same story he told deputies a week earlier. he hadn't seen crystal since thursday night when she left for her date. >> according to him, that was the last time he saw her alive. >> you woefully underestimate a texas ranger, if you see a gun slinger in hats and boots. jeter has gone through training to read a suspect bring reading behavior and body language. >> tell me about his demeanor. tell me about what you're seeing as much as what he's saying to you, ranger. >> probably lack of sincere concern even for what we know is an ex-wife. i asked him, let's take a lie detector test. >> mcdowell said sure, he'd be happy to. >> he failed. >> how badly did he flunk the poly. >> he couldn't have failed any worse. >> which naturally it made him the prime suspect. >> from the family members he had been talking to, they were all in steve's corner. they all thought that steve
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treated crystal right and was a good person for crystal. >> all agreed that steven was an involved and loving dad. according to jeter, crystal's boyfriend, paul hargrave the family pointed fingers at. >> they didn't know anything about him, so he was the lead man. >> then the boyfriend was brought in for questioning, and he too cooperated, handed over those videos, his cell phone, and agreed to be strapped to the polygraph. >> and failed miserably. >> he did too. that's a dilemma, you have the husband and boyfriend failing the polys. >> all in the same day, both on saturday. >> what the hell is going on. i couldn't believe it. maybe they're in it together. so that really through us off. really through us off. >> the skies may have cleared. that didn't mean any new light was shed on the investigation. everything seemed just as dark and confusing as before. it looked as though the only way to solve this mystery was to
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find crystal. or her body. >> coming up, caught on camera, a rider in the storm. >> when we saw him riding a bike, we said, that's what he did. >> when "dateline" continues. s did. >> when "dateline" continues these are real people, not actors, who've got their eczema under control. with less eczema, you can show more skin. so roll up those sleeves. and help heal your skin from within with dupixent. dupixent is the first treatment of its kind that continuously treats moderate-to-severe eczema, or atopic dermatitis, even between flare ups. dupixent is a biologic, and not a cream or steroid. many people taking dupixent saw clear or almost clear skin, and, had significantly less itch. don't use if you're allergic to dupixent. serious allergic reactions can occur, including anaphylaxis, which is severe. tell your doctor about new or worsening eye problems, such as eye pain or vision changes, or a parasitic infection. if you take asthma medicines, don't change or stop them
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sure it's secure. and even if the power goes down, your connection doesn't. so how do i do this? you don't do this. we do this, together. bounce forward, with comcast business. i'm dara brown, new york has its first case of the covid variant in a woman with no travel history. the brazilian variant is a number of rapidly evolving versions of the virus, causing concerns for health officials. a rare wildfire burned across new jersey last week, and investigators are saying the fire was intentionally set. it took over 30 fire departments and one firefighter suffered cardiac arrest. anyone with information is asked to call the ocean county prosecutor's office. now back to "dateline." welcome back to "dateline."
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i'm natalie morales. after crystal mcdowell disappeared, investigators took a hard look at two of the men in her life. crystal's ex-husband and her new boyfriend cooperated fully with police. both agreed to take a lie detector test, and both failed miserably. authorities were baffled but a series of revealing clues would soon put the investigation into focus. once again, here's dennis murphy with "before the storm." >> by tuesday, september the 5th, the sky was clear and the water down. with the break in weather, texans took to ripping up carpal tunnels, tearing out dry wall, and hauling flooded cars to the salvage yard. but there was no break in the hunt for crystal. she'd been missing for 11 days, and was now presumed dead. >> bodies become evidence. >> she tells her story from the grave. >> so you need the remains. >> got to have the remains. >> but where were they?
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if crystal's body had been dumped in one of these bayous, the receding flood waters would almost certainly have kept it out to the gulf of mexico. nevertheless, a call went out for volunteers for what many thought was a futile search, a local group, texas equisearch took the lead. on the first day out, wednesday, september 9th, more than 100 people systematically worked grids by foot, atv and airboat but as light waned on that first day, equisearch founder tim miller wasn't hopeful. >> it doesn't look good, you know, it doesn't look good at all. >> while volunteers worked the wetlands in search of crystal, ranger jeter worked to solve the central dilemma of his investigation, he had two men in his cross hairs, the ex-husband and the new boyfriend. he needed to focus on one or the other. so you started to ask the question, who's got a camera around here. >> that's right. >> he had investigators check businesses near the motel 6 in search of surveillance footage.
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>> what did you come up with? >> well, fortunately a lot of people had some. >> almost too much, hours upon hours of footage, but buried deep within this investigative or b, detectives uncovered images of the man they believe killed crystal mcdowell. the first clip is this footage, recorded saturday, august 26th, at 6:27 a.m., the outer bands of hurricane harley are starting to hit bay town. you can see the taillights of crystal's mercedes being backed into the motel 6 parking lot. >> we can see somebody walk from the car. >> five hours later a different security camera at a gas station next to the motel shows this blue car pull in next to a pump. this one caught the eye of a watchful investigator because it's a rare mustang gt, just like steven mcdowell's. >> and he couldn't have had a more distinctive car than shelby, but it's hard to mistake that vehicle. >> without a doubt.
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>> the driver who looks just like steven mcdowell does something odd, rather than pumping gas, he instead walks towards the motel 6. >> he appears to be looking at his wife's ditched car. >> investigators were now certain mcdowell was the one who ditched crystal's car and did so with the expectation it would conveniently disappear. >> and the thought, nobody stole it yet. >> i think that's exactly what went through his head, the car's still here. >> now they had a puzzle to solve, if mcdowell was acting alone, once he left the car, he would have been on foot miles from his house. >> for two weeks, we're going how in the hell did he do this, how did he get back home. >> to find out, they pulled security camera footage along all of the roads in the area, and they found this video of a man driving a bike in the driving lane along the i-10 feeder raid, time stamped at 7:05 a.m., 25 minutes after crystal's car was dropped off,
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and that's when the pieces all fell into place. >> when we were at his house, we saw a bicycle in the garage, and the thing about this bike is it it has unique mag wheels. >> jeter remembered mcdowell's alibi was that he had been shopping at this walmart across the freeway from the motel 6, so jeter had the security camera footage pulled. a guy looking like steven mcdowell dress instead a sweatshirt with a hoodie up is seen paying cash for a bike with unique mag wheels, just minutes after crystal's mercedes was abandoned. >> when we saw him riding a bike, we said, that's what he said. he walked across the interstate to walmart, he bought the bike, a red bull and a pack of cigarettes. >> ironically, the storm that brought the investigation to a halt also led to its biggest break. the flood waters prevents crystal's star from being stolen, which in turn led detectives to focus on the surveillance cameras near the motel 6. had that not happened, they
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never would have found these videos of mcdowell. >> his plan fell apart with the rain. >> he was a victim of hurricane harvey, too. >> in more ways than one. >> but when confronted with all of this evidence, mcdowell denied it was him. >> there's no doubt in my mind that that's you. i want to show you that. i'm guessing you would like to see that. >> i mean, it doesn't really prove anything to me, because i know it wasn't me. >> mcdowell eventually admitted this footage at the gas station was him. but the walmart clips, no way, he said. by now, investigators were convinced mcdowell was crystal's killer. as for the boyfriend, an innocent man who had nothing to do with crystal's disappearance. d.a. lieck by then had enough evidence to charge mcdowell with murder but she believed she needed one more piece of evidence to ensure a conviction. >> i wanted that body. >> why is that important? >> well, it's important for a lot of reasons. it's easier to try a murder
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trial when you've got a dead body. it just is. but, you know, she deserved to be found. she deserved to be found. her kids deserved for her body to be found, her family deserved for her to be found. >> investigators all believed mcdowell knew where the body was but he steadfastly denied any involvement in crystal's disappearance. after an hour of getting nowhere, mcdowell was allowed to go home to his children, but now district attorney lieck and ranger jeter had a whole new problem on their hands. >> i had found folks who said he talked about murder suicide sometime earlier. >> right after the divorce, mcdowell had reportedly threatened to destroy the entire family. >> it was like, i'm going to kill myself. i'm going to kill the kids. >> you're going to be blamed for the ruination of my life. >> yes. >> lieck worried mcdowell might
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finally decide to bring his whole world crumbling down around him. >> coming up, a prosecutor gets tough. >> you tell him we're not letting him see his children until he takes us to the body. >> a gamble that pays off. >> he said, i'm ready to talk. >> when "dateline" continues. i'. >> when "dateline" continues ♪ irresistibly delicious. ♪ ♪ pour some almond breeze. ♪ ♪ for the maestros of the creamiest-ever, ♪ ♪ must-have smoothies. ♪ ♪ it's irresistibly delicious.♪ ♪ more almond breeze, please! ♪ you could take your ulcerative colitis treatment in a different direction. talk to your doctor about xeljanz, a pill, not an injection or infusion, for adults with moderate to severe ulcerative colitis when a certain medicine did not help enough. xeljanz is the first and only fda-approved pill for moderate to severe uc. it can reduce symptoms in as early as two weeks, improve the appearance of the intestinal lining, and provide lasting steroid-free remission. xeljanz can lower your ability to fight infections.
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along with himself, district attorney cheryl lieck turned to an old high school classmate for help. crystal's aunt cindy. >> cindy seratte, she stayed close. >> she stayed to watch over the children. >> i told my husband i was going over there. i don't think this is a good idea. i truly feel he's going to kill the kids, himself and the kids. >> what was your mission about this aye got to go over to steve's idea. >> protect the kids. i knew if i could stay close, talk to him, that's what hairdressers do best. keep him calm or try to get him to confess. >> is he frightening you at that point? >> no, i carried a gun the whole time. >> when you were over at his house. >> oh, yeah, i had a gun on me at all times. >> why. >> because i felt like he was going to snap at any moment. the texas rangers were really getting under his skin. >> even so mcdowell returned for
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questioning. >> you could see he was losing weight before your eyes. >> the rangers laid out all the evidence against him, the polygraph, the videos, the lies they caught him in, but mcdowell held tight, would not confess, and by evening time, lieck was getting nervous. >> i can't get these kids off my mind that something is going to happen. >> lieck decided to put the kids into protective custody with child protective services. once the children were safely secure, lieck sent a message to their dad. >> you tell him that we're not letting him see his children until he takes us to the body. i said i'm done. i'm done. he's dicking us around, and i'm sicking of it. i'm sorry, you're just not going to get away with it. you killed her, you don't have the right to do that, and now you don't have the right to leave her somewhere where nobody's ever going to know if she's ever just going to wash up somewhere, and everybody that loves her is sitting around wondering where is she. >> that night, an exhausted
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mcdowell asked ranger jeter and his partner ranger james holland to present a counter offer to d.a. lieck. >> he told holland, let me go home, and tomorrow morning, i will tell you everything and i'll take you to where crystal is at. >> with that verbal agreement, the district attorney and ranger jeter allowed mcdowell to walk out of the sheriff's office knowing it was a risky decision. >> did you feel at all weird about letting him walk that night. >> yes, i did. i thought he was fixing to break. i thought he was going to probably openly take himself out. >> on the morning of saturday, september 9th, rangers jeter and holland went knocking on steven mcdowell's door, not sure what they would find, but to jeter's surprise, mcdowell answered the door. >> he said i'm ready to talk. >> at 12:45 p.m., mcdowell was back in the chair, and made good on his promise to talk. mcdowell said he knew crystal had a long string of affairs. >> and you've confronted her at different times about those
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affairs. >> yes. i confronted her. and she told me to stay out of her business. she says i'm not dominant enough in the bedroom is what she says. >> pretending to be sympathetic, ranger holland teased out the details of crystal's death. it was slow and brutal. >> is that when she told you she didn't love you anymore. >> yeah. >> did you snap? did you mean to suffocate her? >> no. >> it just mapped? >> i did not mean to hurt her. i loved her. >> and how did you suffocate her? >> i squeezed her, put my arm around her neck. >> like a choke hold or something? did she say anything when that was going on, or did she fight or what happened? >> she said i was scaring her. >> how did you eventually know
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that she was no longer alive? >> she stopped moving. >> mcdowell said he then wrapped her in trash bags and hid her body in the trunk of the mercedes. he said he dumped her body the following morning, but before he revealed where, mcdowell said he wants a deal. >> he wants the death penalty off the table. >> what's the calculus that the prosecutor has to go through here, the d.a. >> we don't find crystal without his help. >> it's just flat not going to map. >> it's not going to happen. this isn't a forensic case. this isn't a d.a. case, that is who done it, we now know who done it, now take me to where she's at. >> district attorney lieck was on the same page and with jeter as her go between, she agreed to forego the death penalty. >> we're not going to seek the death penalty if you take us to her today. >> shortly thereafter he agreed, all right, i'll take you to crystal's location. >> they retraced mcdowell's route, which eventually led to this short narrow strip of black
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top known as needle point road. >> it's heavily wooded, next to a ravine. >> ranger, would you have ever gone down that door. >> no, that place was 4 to 5 foot under water earlier. >> at a seemingly random spot, mcdowell said stop, this is the place. jeter and holland set off on foot into the thicket. >> within a short period of time we found what we believed to be the remains of crystal mcdowell. there was not much left of her. she was pretty much decomposed. >> steven mcdowell had not only confessed but given up the body. so case closed, right, well, not in texas because a murder defendant here can claim sudden passion, that the victim somehow played a role in their own death by provoking the killer, and mcdowell wanted to make that argument before a jury hoping to drastically reduce his sentence. >> i can tell a jury, look, if you find this story of sudden passion, then the only thing -- the maximum you can give him is
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20. he can get out in as little as 2. >> what worried district attorney lieck was that there were even some in law enforcement that thought this was a sudden passion case. >> were you under courthouse pressure or law enforcement pressure from this take on the case that this is a poor henpecked enjoy, and he snapped, and -- guy, and he snapped and we're in manslaughter here, and why are you going for the full ride. >> i don't care how henpecked somebody might be or how much they say they are, which, in my opinion, he was not, that was a ploy, is still no excuse to kill anybody. >> a popular prosecutor who's also a single mom, lieck has built a reputation as a fierce advocate for women and children, and on this case, she was going to be the voice of crystal mcdowell. >> she was begging him, please stop fighting with me. aye been in an unhappy marriage for ten years, please stop using the kids as pawns, you have used me long enough, please, please, please, i'm tired.
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i'm exhausted. i can't fight with you anymore. >> to lieck, the killing of crystal mcdowell was a black and white case of premeditated murder. would the jury see it witnesses >> why did you bring the kids in? >> they wanted to talk about it. >> and the jury makes a worrying request. >> i went, oh, god, where are they going with this. >> when "dateline" continues. is such a hassle. same with my boat. the insurance bills are through the roof. -[ sighs ] -be cool. i wish i could group my insurance stuff. -[ coughs ] bundle. -the house, the car, the rv. like a cluster. an insurance cluster. -woosah. -[ chuckles ] -i doubt that exists. -it's a bundle! it's a bundle, and it saves you money! hi. i'm flo from progressive, and i couldn't help but overhear... super fun beach day, everybody. your mission: stand up to moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis. and take. it. on...
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welcome back. steve mcdowell confessed to strangling higgs ex-wife crystal. as part of a plea deal, he showed detectives where he hid her body. there was not much doubt he was a killer, but could prosecutors prove the murder was premeditated? they were ready to use everything in their arsenal including stunning testimony from the most innocent of victims. here is dennis murphy with the conclusion of "before the storm." >> after a year of court hearings and motions, steven mcdowell finally went on trial for the murder of his ex-wife crystal in june 2019. d.a. cheryl lieck made sure she was well armed. she showed the jury mcdowell's confession, the video of him dumping crystal's mercedes and buying that bicycle at walmart and later checking on the car to
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see if it had been stolen. but the video that really got the court's attention, prerecorded testimony of crystal and steven's two children. >> why did you bring the kids in. >> i didn't want to. i spoke to their guardian and said, look, if you don't think that this is going to be something that they can handle, i will absolutely not put them on the stand. it's just not worth it to me. but they wanted to talk about it. >> it being their mother's murder. the daughter, now 7, said she saw it happen. no cameras were allowed in court. we turned to the trial transcript. she told the court they were arguing about her going with another man and she said, i'm going to take my children with me. he pushed her on the bed and said no, you're not. then he started putting his hands like that, the daughter demonstrated by putting her own hands over her nose and mouth. the daughter continued, and she tried to put her hands up and her feet up so dad wouldn't have so much weight on her.
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then he glanced at me, really mad at me. mom glanced at me and tried to say help. then when he was done, he told me to go in my room, don't tell anyone. damning testimony from a child. the defense tried to undercut it, contending the daughter heard ability the killing from relatives and just made up a story to fill in the blanks. then in rebuttal, the defense called their own star witness, steven mcdowell. >> when he was on the stand, did he do himself any good? >> huh-uh. >> who did the jury meet? >> they met a conniving, manipulative cry baby. >> through his tears, mcdowell told an entirely new and strange story about how he killed crystal, that it was nothing more and a frequent accident. in the midst of the argument, crystal got hysterical, he put her in a bear hug to calm her down. i was frustrated and i was upset and i was mad. his lawyer asked what happened
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next. mcdowell responded, she became limp and she fell. d.a. lieck couldn't believe what he was hearing. >> he hugged her to death. that's a new one on me. >> that had not been told before? >> no. there's no way. we were looking it up, googling it at dinner that night, how do you hug somebody to death. >> when the case went to the jury, lieck thought an outright acquittal seemed unlikely, but a hung jury was a distinct possibility. >> just one, just one juror is all it needs. i thought, god, if even one believes his story, we're cooked. >> just sure, one of the jurors asked to see mcdowell's confession tape again. >> does it make you nervous? >> it always makes me nervous. >> an hour after rewatching the confession, the jury came back with a verdict. guilty. but now came the penalty phase when the jury would decide if this was a premeditated killing
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or one of sudden passion. >> how stressful was this case for you? >> it was real stressful. when you get a case like this, or you have the perpetrator who can convince even some members of law enforcement that he might have been the victim in all of this, then you worry about what's the jury going to think. >> how do you straddle this thing -- forgive the thought. it's like how do you not get seen as a hard-ass woman? >> i don't know, and i think -- >> cuz you could be judged -- >> i think i'm seen like that by a lot of jurors. there's nothing i can do about it. if i tried to be anything different than i am, it would come across as insincere. >> that authenticity apparently resonated with the jury in crystal's case. they rejected the sudden passion argument and found crystal's murder was premed tornadoed. they sentenced steven mcdowell
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to 50 years in prison. he is appealing his conviction. cindy wasn't in the court. instead, she went to the multiplex. >> we went to the movie and had a really good day. >> and dad's going away forever. >> exactly. they never asked a question. he got 50 years. it was almost a relief. i'm actually for the death penalty for this kind of stuff. it's better than 20, better than two. >> crystal's children are being raised by an old friend whose own parents gave crystal a home. >> she makes them stay focussed in school. they have regimes and routines. she loves them. >> they're phenomenal kids. >> as for crystal, lieck hopes she'll be remembered more as a loving mom than an up by the boot straps survivor of awful abuse. >> she wanted that family she never had. she wanted children.
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she wanted to love something unconditionally and have somebody love her unconditionally. >> i love you. >> and she was still looking for that love right until the hours before the winds began howling and the waters rose. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline." i'm natalie morales. thank you for watching. "first up" on msnbc -- [ sirens ]. >> state of emergency in miami beach because of these wild scenes. the city now taking extreme measures to crack down on out-of-control spring breakers. the new overnight curfew begins lifting right this minute. the miami beach mayor sounding the alarm. >> our

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