10.12.10

Murder at Beauty School

He wore dark eyeliner and worked with corpses. She was a dancer with prom-queen looks. The only thing they had in common was Hair Academy—and maybe, a horrific crime.

Who is Christopher Scott Wilson? The answer to that question vacillates wildly, depending on whom you ask, and it may determine whether the 29-year-old beauty school student is convicted of murdering his teenaged classmate.

Wilson is either a death-obsessed weirdo who liked to slice up the bodies at the funeral home where he worked, and who allegedly once bragged about strangling a woman to death with a belt. Or, he’s a responsible, well-liked bookworm, a “regular guy” with a knack for playing folk guitar but a focus on the future, attending beauty school so he could run his mother’s salon.

It was at the Academy of Hair Design in Wenatchee, Washington, where Wilson met Mackenzie Cowell, a striking 17-year-old dancer who disappeared from this apple-farming community in northern Washington eight months ago. This was also the place where Cowell was last seen alive, on February 9, driving toward Wilson’s home at 404 S. Chelan Avenue. Circumstantial evidence has both Wilson and Cowell leaving the academy at around the same time.

Cowell told fellow students she’d be gone only 15 minutes that day, and cell phone records indicate that she may have sent or received phone calls in the vicinity of Wilson’s residence. Some two hours after Cowell left the school, three people reported seeing a man in a dark coat walking down a road close to where the girl’s car was later found. Two of them gave a description that closely matched Wilson, according to the probable cause affidavit.

While Wilson was a “good employee” at the funeral home, the owner said “some things started to take place” that made him uncomfortable.

Four days after that, investigators found Cowell’s beaten, strangled, and mutilated body at a party spot along the banks of the Columbia River called Crescent Bar.

She was still wearing her beauty school uniform, and there were no signs of sexual assault. But autopsy results later showed that someone tried to cut off her arm after she died. Wilson’s attendance at school over the next few weeks was sporadic, including a weeklong leave of absence that began February 18, nine days after Cowell’s murder. He told detectives during a voluntary interview in August that he knew Mackenzie but didn’t talk with her, and he willingly provided a sample of his DNA. Last week, that sample landed Wilson in jail, after tests matched it with DNA found on a piece of bloody duct tape recovered near Cowell’s body.

Investigators had zeroed in on Wilson in part because of a letter his male friend wrote to detectives in August. The letter writer recalled a story that a girl once told him about Wilson. The girl said that Wilson walked up behind her and “began choking her around the neck,” according to court documents. “He stopped a short time later and acted as if nothing happened. This male friend also said Wilson has an obsession with death, dead bodies and serial killers.” Then, two weeks ago, an anonymous woman called police to report that she thought Wilson might be Cowell’s killer. She told investigators that Wilson once told her he murdered a woman who was a guest at a hotel he worked at by strangling her with a belt.

When the DNA results came back last week, detectives told Wilson he’d matched the duct tape at Crescent Bar, and asked him why that might be. He denied being there and immediately asked for an attorney, according to court documents.

The same day, investigators went back to re-interview students at the academy. One student described a “developing relationship” between Wilson and Cowell. Another told detectives she saw the two interact several times at school, and that Wilson had said he was developing feelings for her, that he thought she was “hot.” The interviewee also told police that Wilson “liked to cut people up, something he apparently did while working at funeral homes.”

Wilson did work for a few months in 2004 as an intern at a funeral home called Telford’s Chapel of the Valley, the owner, Rick Phillips, told the Wenatchee World. While Wilson was a “good employee” overall, Phillips said “some things started to take place” that made him uncomfortable.

“We let him go,” Phillips told the newspaper. He did not elaborate or return a phone call from The Daily Beast. “But he didn’t do anything real bad.”

Christopher Scott Wilson was no shadow-lurker, say some of his friends and classmates. They say the prosecution’s portrayal doesn’t look anything like the young man they know. Danika Steven of Seattle met Wilson when she was living in Wenatchee 10 years ago. The two of them both liked “smoking cigarettes and reading,” she told The Daily Beast, adding that Wilson was “like my brother.”

Steven said she talked to her friend daily, and neither before nor after Mackenzie Cowell’s killing did Wilson ever mention the dead girl’s name. Were there really a “budding relationship” between the two, as investigators allege, Steven is convinced she would have known about it. The two talked frequently about his love interests. Wilson, who Steven calls a “regular guy,” was once engaged to her best friend, she said. He also dated a single mom for a time, ending the relationship only so he could focus on school.

Still, this regular guy stuck out in Wenatchee, wearing eyeliner, dyeing his hair black, and shopping at second-hand stores—an ubiquitous profile in nearby Seattle, but one that made Wilson an occasional target for homophobes in rural Washington, despite that he is heterosexual.

“A lot of people over there assumed he was gay,” Steven said. “He was one of only three males in that [beauty] school and the only straight guy.”

Wilson did work at a funeral home and at one point wanted to be a mortician, Steven said, but only because he liked the good pay, free rent, and irregular hours that would allow him to work on his folk guitar music.

“It was nothing like, ‘I just love being around dead bodies,’” she said. “He told me a few times at the beginning that that was what really creeped him out. But he said after a while, you start to realize it’s like being a doctor, and you just do it.”

Steven supports her friend to such an extent that she believes he might have been set up. That’s not as far as other classmates have gone, but Wilson has his share of defenders.

“I have never known anyone more respectful, gentle, caring and dedicated,” wrote classmate Lisa Leavitt in a comment on one of the stories in the World. “Chris had a following or ‘fan club’ if you will. A lot of the girls were into him.”

The academy, Leavitt added, is a school of “all sorts of artistic people of all ages and all walks of life, they do not always get along.” Wilson mourned Cowell’s death, and “was just as sad as all of us were,” she said. “Mackenzie and Chris were our family for the time we were at the school with them. Please don’t be so quick to judge him.”

Wilson will get his day in court, of course. (Public defender Keith Howard did not return calls for comment, and Wilson has yet to enter a plea.) In the meantime, citizens of Wenatchee will have to decide for themselves whether Mackenzie Cowell’s killer is caught, or still out there.

Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com.