Crystal McDowell disappears days before Hurricane Harvey

Just two days before Hurricane Harvey hit Baytown, Texas, a 37-year-old mother of two mysteriously disappeared.

Crystal McDowell was captured in grainy surveillance camera footage entering her black Mercedes and leaving the home of her new boyfriend, Paul Hargrave, at 7:35 a.m. on August 25, 2017.

This is the last time the beloved real estate agent has been seen alive, according to a new episode of “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing on Wednesdays To 8 / 7c to Oxygen.

Yet just as investigators launched a search to locate the missing mother, the hurricane began to ravage the Houston area, leaving homes and businesses submerged in water and crippling the investigation into the missing. missing persons.

Wind and torrential downpours delayed the investigation, but it would also play a vital role in preserving crucial evidence in the case that would ultimately bring Crystal’s killer to justice.

Crystal had once had a busy life, growing up with two drug addict parents who died just six months apart when she was 11.

According to Chambers County District Attorney Cheryl Lieck, at the age of 13, Crystal was abducted by a man who kept her in a chicken coop and sexually assaulted her. She managed to escape the horrific abuse and moved into a house with relatives.

But as Crystal entered adulthood, she found a certain sense of stability. She started working as a flight attendant and met and married Steve McDowell, a man described by those who knew him as “like a big kid”.

“I remember the day she met him and she was very much in love,” her aunt Cindy Seratte told “Dateline” reporter Dennis Murphy. “I really thought she had met the man of her dreams,” Seratte said.

Despite a promising start, the marriage had its fair share of problems, especially as Crystal’s job kept her in the jet set across the country.

“She has had many lovers throughout her marriage, male and female,” Lieck said.

After 10 years of marriage, the couple decided to break up. They divorced, but Crystal stayed with Steve until the renovations were completed in her new home.

She flourished as a real estate agent in the Houston area and started to enter the dating scene again.

“She liked people. She didn’t care about your money. She didn’t care about your status, she just loved people and wanted to be a blessing, ”her aunt recalled of her success.

Crystal began a new love affair with area jeweler Paul Hargrave and had a date with Hargrave the night before his mysterious disappearance.

Investigators quickly focused on the two men in her life as the search for Crystal began.

Although the two men cooperated, investigators found reasons to be suspicious of both.

After learning his ex-wife was missing, Chambers County MP Cody Hammes told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” that Steve’s mannerisms seemed unusual.

“[He] did not seem to behave normally, strictly speaking, ”recalls Hammes.

Although the couple are already divorced, detectives also noticed that Steve was still wearing his wedding ring and looked almost arrogant.

Still, Hargrave’s behavior in the days following the demise of his new love had also aroused suspicion.

“He told us that the last time he saw her was [when] he was taking the shower and she got dressed and gone, ”Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said.

Hargrave provided surveillance footage of Crystal walking inside her home, getting into her car and driving away – but he gave them to national media before passing the footage on to law enforcement authorities.

Both men also failed a polygraph test.

Then, as the investigation began, the hurricane struck.

“I had no choice but to divert some of the resources to save our citizens,” Hawthorne said of the investigation. “When you have this kind of storm and so much devastation, you will never have enough manpower.”

As the storm raged, Crystal’s cousin Jade received a text from someone saying Crystal’s vehicle was seen sitting in the parking lot of a local Motel 6, even providing a photo of the car that clearly showed Crystal’s license plate number just above the blaze. the water.

Detectives requisitioned a rescues airboat to retrieve the car, which had been randomly parked with the keys left inside.

Authorities believed it had been left as bait, but with the storm surging, no would-be thieves were able to escape with the vehicle.

It was the essential key investigators needed to piece together the crime.

While browsing surveillance footage of nearby businesses, investigators found footage of the car being pulled back into the motel parking lot at around 6:37 am on August 26, 2017. Just five hours later, Steve was seen shooting his car. rare Mustang in a gas nearby. station, but instead of filling his tank, he walked to the motel parking lot, apparently checking to see if the car was still there.

Investigators also found surveillance footage of a hooded figure cycling in the rain near the disembarkation scene. They discovered other surveillance footage from a Walmart across the freeway that showed a man, matching Steve’s description, buying the bike in cash that morning.

“When we saw him riding his bike, we said, ‘That’s what he did. He crossed the highway to Walmart. He bought the bike, a Red Bull and a pack of cigarettes, ”Lieck said.

But even with the damaging footage, Steve continued to insist that he hadn’t hurt his ex-wife. They let him return home with the couple’s children, but authorities were increasingly concerned for the children’s safety after discovering that shortly after the divorce, Steve had threatened to commit murder-suicide.

In a bold move, Lieck decided to place the children in preventive detention and told Steve that he would not be able to see the children again unless he took them into his ex-wife’s body.

Steve told investigators he wanted to go home that night but would come back the next day to confess everything. Although authorities feared he might try to harm himself, Steve showed up for questioning the next day and admitted to suffocating his ex-wife to death during a heated argument.

“I didn’t want to hurt her,” he said in the recording of the interrogation. “I love it.”

After killing Crystal, Steve said he wrapped her body in a blanket and placed it in the trunk of his own Mercedes. But before he agreed to give the location of his body, Steve demanded that the death penalty be taken off the table.

“We can’t find Crystal without her help,” said Texas Ranger Steven Jeter, explaining why authorities finally accepted the deal.

Steve led law enforcement to a secluded woodland area where they found the decomposed remains of the missing mom.

It looked like the case was over, but Steve would do one more desperate move to try to get his sentence reduced. At trial, his lawyers argued that he met the definition of a defense of sudden passion – a distinction under Texas law reserved for crimes committed in the heat of the moment.

According to Lieck, if it is determined that a crime of passion has been committed, the sentence is significantly reduced, ranging from two years behind bars to a maximum of 20 years in prison.

“I don’t care how drunk someone can be or how bad they say they are, which in my opinion it wasn’t, that was a ploy,” she said. stated about the defense strategy. “It’s still not an excuse to kill anyone. I mean, that’s what divorce is for and they were already divorced.

To combat the legal maneuver, Lieck presented a heartbreaking testimony from the couple’s own daughter who testified in a videotaped statement that her parents were arguing about Crystal seeing another man when Steve pushed her to the ground and strangled her to death while her daughter watched.

The jury agreed with prosecutors and dismissed the sudden passion defense. Steve was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Investigators now say that if the hurricane hadn’t stopped someone from stealing Crystal’s black Mercedes, they may never have been able to piece together the crime.

“His plan fell apart with the rain,” Jeter said.

For more on this case and others like it, watch “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” on Wednesdays To 8 / 7c to Oxygen, or stream episodes here.

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