The search for Mackenzie Cowell's killer
A high school dancer and aspiring model is found dead. Did the killer videotape the murder? Peter Van Sant reports.
Produced by James Stoltz
With the miracle of another spring, the small town of Wenatchee, Wash., nestled in a landscape of endless apple orchards, turns out to celebrate the annual Apple Blossom parade.
But in 2011, one graceful dancer is missing from the festivities: Mackenzie Cowell.
"She loved to dance, dance, dance. Anywhere we went she danced. Grocery stores, gas stations, anywhere if a song came on, she would just break out in a boogie," said Sandy Francis told "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant.
Mackenzie's father, Reid Cowell, and his fiancee, Sandy Francis, cheer on Mackenzie's old high school dance team, the Apple-Ettes.
Mackenzie, 17, was 5'8", strong and beautiful ... a young woman with a future who was at the heart of a family unit that couldn't get enough of each other.
"We used to call each other on our cell phones. That's how bad it was," said Reid Cowell.
"From upstairs to downstairs to argue," Sandy said, "over whose turn it was to make floats."
"Like Coke floats , root beer floats?" Van Sant asked.
"Root beer floats were her favorite," Sandy replied.
"Coke floats, root beer floats, orange floats," added Reid Cowell.
The family is as authentic as the American West, starting with Reid. He's at home among the soaring Cascade mountains, rich blue skies and of course, the orchards of apples.
"And you felt safe having your family here?" Van Sant asked.
"We did feel safe," said Cowell.
And Mackenzie, a senior in high school, was thriving.
"She was working to achieve dreams that she created on her own. Her day started at 6:15 in the morning, she had to be out of the door by 7:15," her dad explained.
There was also dance, modeling and efforts to learn a trade. For that she came to the Academy of Hair Design, smack in the middle of downtown Wenatchee.
"What drew her to that do you think?" Van Sant asked Sandy Francis.
"I think her modeling and her love of clothes, and you know the makeup and primping and being a girl," she laughed.
"Being a girl" was something Mackenzie loved. Her boyfriend, Joaquin Villasano, was smitten.
"Did you love her?" Van Sant asked Villasano.
"Yeah, I loved her a lot," he replied.
Asked if Mackenzie loved him, Francis said, "Absolutely."
It was Feb. 9, 2010. Reid and Mackenzie had planned a father-daughter dinner date at home. The orchards were barren and the cold Columbia River rolled through town.
"Beauty school got out at 5 o'clock. So I called her about 5:40 to see how close she was. And her cell phone went straight to voicemail, which was pretty weird," explained Cowell.
Two hours later came that call from police and Reid Cowell's desperate ride into darkness and fear.
The next morning, Detective John Kruse of the Wenatchee Police Department joined the search for Mackenzie.
Police would trace her last known steps on the day she disappeared.
"We're at the Academy of Hair Design. Mackenzie Cowell is a student here. It's 3:00," Det. Kruse told Van Sant at the scene. "She just finished asking one of her co-students, 'Hey, do I have to sign out if
I'm just leaving for 15 minutes?' Right after that, she leaves out this door right here. ... She comes up these stairs. And she's recorded on these cameras here."
"These security cameras on the side of this wall?"
Video taken by those security cameras capture the last images of Mackenzie alive. When she got to her car, she sent a text to her boyfriend.
"She said, 'Hey,'" Villasano told Van Sant.
"'Hey?' That was the way she greeted you."
Then, Mackenzie Cowell disappeared.
"Like she drives off the face of the earth," Van Sant commented to Det. Kruse.
"That's a good way to put it," he replied.
"I'd lay awake at night," Cowell said, wondering, "'Where are you?'"
Everyone, even strangers, were searching for that answer.
"We just started canvassing any neighborhood. After several days, that was our strength and our hope," said Cowell.
Then, four days into it, Reid Cowell got a call from the F.B.I.
"But she told me she was very, very sorry to tell me this over the phone, but that they had found a body," he said.
Added Francis, "I didn't know what to say to him. What do you say?"
In a bend of the mighty Columbia River, called Crescent Bar, Mackenzie Cowell lay in the shallow water.
"Right here in this location, about 15 feet out from here is where Mackenzie's body was found," said Douglas County Chief Deputy Robbin Wagg, who was struck by the brutality of the murder. "A combination of strangulation, blunt force trauma to the head, and a deep laceration into the neck.
And horribly, Mackenzie's killer had attempted to saw off her arm.
"You could see a knife still stuck into the tissue," Wagg told Van Sant. "Still stuck into her shoulder into the tissue."
"What did you guys do at that moment?" Van Sant asked Cowell and Francis.
"We just stood there and held each other," said Cowell.
The police went to work. And after meeting with Mackenzie's boyfriend, they decided to give him a lie detector test.
"'Do you know who killed Mackenzie?' And they kept saying I failed that question," said Villasano.
"Do you know who killed Mackenzie," Van Sant asked.
"No. I didn't," Villasano replied.
Detectives kept Joaquin Villasano in their sights. But the investigation took a dramatic turn when a surprise witness came forward.
Liz Reid swore she knew who killed Mackenzie Cowell and that the video of Mackenzie leaving beauty school was not the last recorded image of her alive. Liz Reid swears she saw the murder itself unfold in a chilling videotape recorded by the killers.
"I saw it with my own eyes," she said.
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