Secrets of the River

A Washington State teen is found strangled and beaten along a river bank -- did the killer videotape the murder?

Produced by James Stoltz

[This story originally aired Nov. 10, 2012. It was updated on Aug. 9, 2014.]

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," 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 and her dad, Reid Cowell
Mackenzie and her dad, Reid Cowell

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 a call from police that began 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?"

"That's correct."

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."

"Yeah."

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.

THE SEARCH FOR A KILLER

The Columbia River held a silent secret about how Mackenzie Cowell, so full of life, had come to rest along the bank at Crescent Bar, some 48 miles from home.

"It was a violent way to meet your end. And then the attempted dismemberment afterwards ... that was probably the most shocking thing," said Detective John Kruse of the Wenatchee Police Dept.

Detective Kruse and Chief Robbin Wagg sensed the challenge that lay ahead.

"No stone would go unturned no matter how long it took," said Chief Wagg.

But first, a town took time to grieve. Mackenzie's stunned classmates gathered in the local arena.

"We are here today because someone stole her life," the Reverend Sandy Brown told the crowd. "They did something that only God is allowed to do."

The Apple-Ettes danced for their friend. Reverend Brown tried to somehow make sense of it all.

"We are here today also because no one can steal our memories of her," he said.

As they released hundreds of balloons, the crowd yelled, "Mackenzie, we love you!"

Mackenzie's mother, Wendy Cowell, went on local news and begged for answers. "It's important to my family and I for you to bring that person forward," she said.

As the hunt for a murderer began, an unprecedented statewide task force of top investigators from around the region joined forces.

"I think this is probably the biggest investigation the Wenatchee Valley has ever seen," said Det. Kruse.

First to be questioned were those who loved Mackenzie most.

"We interviewed Wendy, Reid, family members," Kruse explained. "I would never describe Reid or the mother Wendy as a person of interest in this case. But we certainly did look at them."

"But it's gotta be somebody that she knew and trusted. I knew that for a fact," said Reid Cowell.

Mackenzie's boyfriend Joaquin Villasano -- who had failed that one question on a lie detector test --came directly under the police spotlight.

"I did really think I was the number one suspect," he told Van Sant.

"So then he asked me like three times if I was a gangster and I was like, 'No.'"

And soon, police concluded Villasano, with an air-tight alibi, had lost as much as anyone.

"Yeah, I loved her a lot," he said.

But that was not the case with Joey Fisher, with whom Mackenzie had her problems.

"Joe Fisher was the boyfriend of Wendy Cowell, Mackenzie's mother," Kruse explained. "We know that they have this relationship that sometimes involved arguments."

"Is this potentially the guy?" Reid Cowell wondered. "She had told her mom, 'It's either him or me.'"

"That was the day before she went missing ... that they had had a huge fight," said Sandy Francis.

"That was the day before?" Cowell asked Francis. "Yes," she replied.

"Because the next day, after this volatile confrontation she disappears..." said Van Sant.

"She's gone. She's gone," said Francis.

"He remained very high interest with the homicide task force. In the end, we could find no physical linkage," said Wagg.

There was no evidence to tie Joey Fisher to Mackenzie's murder, and he was completely exonerated by police.

The investigation into the murder of Mackenzie Cowell was stalled. Two months would pass. Then, from the shadowy side of Wenatchee, an unexpected witness emerged: a walking contradiction named Liz Reid.

"I am in college full time. I have a straight-A G.P.A.," she told Van Sant.

"If the cops were here they'd say, 'Not bad for a drug-dealing liar.'"

"I'm sure they would say that," she replied.

When Mackenzie Cowell was doing everything to build an honest life, Liz Reid was doing anything to stay high on Oxycontin.

"I was selling drugs. I was writing bad prescriptions, doctor shopping," she explained.

"To get access to Oxycontin? Van Sant asked.

"Correct."

Liz Reid was also working with the police as an informant. The information she gave police sent the investigation of Mackenzie Cowell's murder into overdrive.

She named names: Sam Cuevas and Emmanuel "Buddah" Cerros, two streetwise convicted criminals, drug dealers -- people Liz Reid hung out with.

"She tells a very compelling story that Sam Cuevas and Emmanuel Cerros abduct and kill Mackenzie Cowell on a bluff near Crescent Bar," said Kruse.

Liz Reid told police that Mackenzie died because of a horrible case of mistaken identity. That Cuevas and Buddha murdered Mackenzie because they wrongly thought she was in the drug world too, and a police informant.

"'I choked that bitch to shut her up,' and that's what he said," Liz Reid told Van Sant.

"At that moment Sam Cuevas had basically told you he had murdered Mackenzie Cowell?"

"Yes," she replied. "...He said they had to choke her two times because they choked her once, they thought she was dead."

"It was compelling. And that's why we invested so much time and so much resources 'cause we were excited," said Kruse.

Liz Reid claims she provided more details to the cops, including a description of the knife allegedly used during the attack.

"So essentially you had described the murder weapon prior to it being made public?" Van Sant asked Liz Reid.

"Yes. Yes," she replied.

And come spring, as the orchards came to life again, the task force thought they'd found the killers.

"And that was the belief of a number of task force members at the time based on what Liz Reid was telling us," said Kruse.

Liz Reid swears she was actually shown a snuff film of Mackenzie Cowell's death.

"You say the killers told you and they showed you ... they showed you a video," Van Sant noted to Liz Reid.

"Yes," she replied, crying. "To have to watch somebody be tortured like they did to her and kill her and laugh about it. It never goes away."

But as cops investigated Liz Reid's disturbing story, a totally new tip came in about yet another suspect -- someone Mackenzie saw every day -- a classmate at her beauty school.

"I think he was fascinated with serial killers. He certainly was fascinated with death," said Wagg.

"He's a dangerous man," added Det. Kruse.

A NEW LEAD

The investigation into the murder of Mackenzie Cowell had dragged on for seven months. Police task force investigators had come to distrust their star informant: Liz Reid.

"I'm sensing that she's not being truthful," said Det. John Kruse.

And what of that gruesome murder video? Cops spent months looking for it.

"We found nothing. We found nothing that was a video of this murder," said the detective.

Under pressure, Liz Reid then threw the entire investigation upside down. She retracted her story of seeing a snuff film of Cuevas and Buddha murdering Mackenzie.

"You completely changed your story?" Peter Van Sant asked.

"I did," she replied, saying she felt threatened by police. "That they were gonna charge me with murder."

"You were frightened ... you were terrified," noted Van Sant.

"I was terrified. I'm like, 'my God. You're gonna get taken over there and charged with something' to do with killing this girl,'" Liz Reid explained in tears.

But cops say Liz Reid was never a suspect, just a desperate informant with a made-up story.

Asked can Liz Reid be trusted, Kruse told Van Sant, "No. I think we've proven that."

Investigators were frustrated and months passed.

"I think you have faith that they'll find him. They will eventually. It may take a while," said Reid Cowell.

Spring slowly ripened into summer when police got that intriguing, new lead.

"You know we didn't even know Chris Wilson," said Chief Robbin Wagg.

Christopher Wilson was a classmate of Mackenzie Cowell's at the Academy of Hair Design.

Police speculate Wilson and Mackenzie had decided to meet. That the brutal killing occurred only minutes after Mackenzie left their beauty school -- after her classmate Chris came out that same back door.

"You know we're less than three short blocks to his apartment from here," Det. Kruse told Van Sant.

Just who is Chris Wilson? That question would end up on the front page.

CBS News consultant Jefferson Robbins is an investigative reporter for the local paper, The Wenatchee World. He'd come to know everything about Chris Wilson.

"Artist, musician, had done some artwork and photography that might strike some as dark," Robbins explained. "He has a tattoo of Hannibal Lecter on his arm."

"Hannibal Lecter, being in 'The Silence of The Lambs', the serial killer?" Van Sant asked.

"Correct."

"He didn't fit in the Wenatchee norm. If he would have been in a big city, in Seattle, New York or Portland, he would have been a non-event," said Kathleen Zornes, Wilson's mother.

Zornes contends her son isn't dark or evil. He's just different.

"What's a Hannibal Lecter tattoo?" she asked Van Sant.

"It's not an insight into his soul?"

"I don't believe so. No," said Zornes.

Amelia Savage is Chris Wilson's best friend. She agrees he's guilty -- of being an eccentric, artsy kid in a small town.

"I mean, Chris isn't so bizarre it's just that it's such a normal little town where everyone looks just the same," she explained. "He's not a perfect person, but he's a good person."

So it was seemingly out of the blue that friends and family were told Wilson wasn't just different -- he was potentially dangerous.

"Was he fascinated with the dead, with serial killers?" Van Sant asked Savage.

"No," she replied with a laugh.

"You laugh," said Van Sant.

"It's ridiculous," she said.

And compounding their disbelief was the source of the letter to investigators suggesting Chris Wilson might be a killer. Theo Keyes is yet another troubled police informant -- a man who served jail time, had been a friend of Chris Wilson and had a reported history of mental illness.

"He wrote the letter while he was in jail for exposing himself to a barista," said Zornes.

In that jailhouse letter, Keyes wrote that Chris Wilson had an interest in "dead bodies ... and serial killers".

"We don't pick people to provide information to us. We take information as it comes in," Wagg explained. "Theo Keyes we treated exactly the same as Liz Reid."

Investigators came to see Chris Wilson as a deeply troubled misfit, whose obsessive fascination with death, they claimed, led him to work in a funeral home.

"There's hundreds of people ... working in funeral homes across the country. That's a profession," Savage said defending her friend.

But it wouldn't be Chris Wilson's tattoo or work in a funeral parlor that made him the prime suspect in Mackenzie's murder. It would be forensic evidence discovered by investigators along the muddy river bank at Crescent Bar.

"What led us to Chris Wilson was DNA evidence, his Y-STR DNA on a piece of duct tape that also had Mackenzie blood that was by Mackenzie's body. It wasn't that he was different. It was his DNA," said Kruse.

Wilson had given police a swab of his DNA on August 11. Although not totally conclusive, the crime lab determined the DNA on the duct tape could belong to Chris Wilson. That's when Chris got the grilling of a lifetime.

"'Chris have you been to Crescent Bar?'" Det. Kruse said he asked Wilson. "'No I haven't been to Crescent Bar.'

"Well you know your DNA was.' And at that point he says, 'Well I don't know how that could be, and I want a lawyer.' I tell him, 'Chris you're under arrest for the murder of Mackenzie Cowell.' No emotion. Absolute flat line."

"No reaction at all?" Van Sant asked.

"Zero."

Eight months after Mackenzie Cowell's car was found abandoned, Chris Wilson appeared in court.

"And there he is standing at the table in front of the judge. And I just went, 'That's him?'" Reid Cowell said. "No that can't be. How can that guy have killed Mackenzie?"

Chris Wilson was charged with the murder of Mackenzie Cowell.

"And when you made eye contact with him?" Van Sant asked Reid Cowell.

"Chris Wilson does not make eye contact with anyone," he replied.

"Kathleen, you are passionate in your belief in Chris' innocence, correct?" Van Sant asked.

"That is correct," said Zornes.

In fact, Kathleen Zornes says that at the time police believe Mackenzie was being murdered, Chris was with her picking up a plate of cupcakes.

"He was perfectly normal, fine happy," she told Van Sant.

"He was the Chris as you would have seen on any other day?"

"Any other day. Any other day ..."

APARTMENT 28

All the promise, all the grace that defined 17-year-old Mackenzie Cowell's life had been stolen. Yet her spirit still inspired a community.

"She was full of life. She was just going a mile a minute and taking life full blast," said Det. John Kruse.

Mackenzie Cowell
Mackenzie Cowell

A task force, a town, and a father kept Mackenzie's memory alive.

"I think of all the things that we did down here ... Swimming and running and sometimes just sitting," Reid Cowell reminisced as he walked along the river bank.

But now was the time for justice and, hopefully, answers to unbearable questions.

"I would like to talk to this guy," Reid Cowell said. He'd ask, "Why did you take Mackenzie?"

Chris Wilson, declaring his innocence, was headed to trial.

"Is this a winnable case in your opinion?" Van Sant asked Det. Kruse.

"It's a very winnable case," he replied. Because investigators say the DNA on that duct tape was just the start of the case.

"This, we determined, was the residence of Chris Wilson," said Chief Robbin Wagg. His task force combed over every inch of it.

"When they started spraying the luminol, they found what turned out to be a substantial stain that they were sure was blood, and it was right in this area right in here," he pointed out.

The cops cut the stained carpet. Then, a small, bloody patch was tested for DNA.

"It came back exclusively as Mackenzie Cowell's blood. And it was a substantial stain," Wagg told Van Sant.

"So Chief, what do you believe happened in this apartment?"

"This is where Mackenzie Cowell was murdered by Chris Wilson," he replied.

Then there was a controversial video of Chris Wilson taken by his friend, Tessa Shuyleman.

In the video, shot as Wilson moved out of Apartment 28, the two friends seem concerned that it's neat and clean so he could get his security deposit back. Wilson would later explain the carpet was damaged during a party:

Chris Wilson on video: Does it look clean?

Tessa Shuyleman on video: Clean, for what happening? Clean, considering? Yeah it's clean, considering.

Police allege Wilson was checking for blood.

"She zooms right on the carpet where that blood is," Kruse said of the video.

The police task force is now certain that Mackenzie Cowell's blood was soaked deep into the carpet in Apartment 28, where Chris Wilson lived at the time of the murder. The question that now defines this case is how did her blood get here?

"We have a whole list of things that make this look very suspicious," said attorney John Henry Browne.

Washington State's own John Henry Browne, hired by Chris Wilson's mother, is among the most high powered lawyers anywhere. His clients have ranged from Robert Bales, the American soldier who pleaded guilty to mass murder in Afghanistan, to serial killer Ted Bundy and "Barefoot Bandit" Colton Harris Moore.

"Chris is clearly the classic underdog. And that always is attractive to us," said Browne.

Together with co-counsel Emma Scanlon, he is crafting a strategy that it's not Chris Wilson who is guilty -- it's law enforcement of unspeakable corruption.

"I'm saying, to avoid professional embarrassment, they did whatever it took," said Scanlon.

Including, allege these two lawyers, somehow planting Mackenzie's blood in Wilson's apartment.

"This is Wenatchee. They do things like that," said Browne.

John Henry Browne's attitude about Wenatchee goes way back.

It was the mid 1990s, and dozens of people were charged with child sexual abuse. Most were convicted - wrongfully, it turned out -- until a young John Henry Brown succeeded in having some of the cases dropped or overturned.

"It was completely false. Made up," he said. "What's become known as the Wenatchee Witch Hunt."

Gary Reisen was the prosecutor then, going up against John Henry Browne in the child sex abuse scandal and he is the prosecutor now against Chris Wilson.

"You don't like that when your investigators are accused of things that seem to be baseless," he said. "Mr. Browne -- likes cases that are high visibility. He likes publicity in his cases."

What bothers law enforcement most isn't Browne's dramatic flair.

"There's no evidence that the blood was planted. The blood was left there by Mackenzie Cowell when Chris Wilson murdered her," said Kruse.

Remember, Mackenzie's jugular vein had been cut. Browne argues there should have been blood discovered all over Chris Wilson's apartment.

"How do you explain that?" Van Sant asked Chief Wagg.

"He was interested and infatuated with the serial killer, Dexter--the series, 'Dexter,'" he replied.

"Dexter" is the hit Showtime series where the killer often brings his victim into a room draped in plastic to keep the crime scene clean.

"He very well could have had plastic down on the floor. We just don't know," said Wagg.

But why was Mackenzie in Chris Wilson's apartment? Police believe they'd become friends. "No way" swears Wilson's mother.

"They weren't friends on Facebook, on My Space," Kathleen Zornes told Van Sant.

"In your opinion, is there a campaign against your son," he asked.

"I believe there is a conspiracy to frame him, yes," Zornes replied.

"And I'll tell you this. That's nuts," Kruse told Van Sant. "The DNA evidence led us to Chris Wilson. And the DNA evidence tied him to Mackenzie Cowell."

"If Chris Wilson did not murder Mackenzie Cowell, who did?" Van Sant asked Emma Scanlon.

"Sam Cuevas and Emmanuel Cerros," she replied.

Sam Cuevas and Emmanuel Buddha Cerros -- those two small-time drug dealers Liz Reid once swore confessed to her. Liz Reid changed her story yet again and now told Chris Wilson's lawyers her tale about seeing that videotape of Mackenzie's murder. And she was prepared to testify under oath that it was all true.

"You're certain that what you saw was the death of Mackenzie Cowell?" Van Sant asked Liz Reid.

"Yes," she replied.

"On video?"

"Yes."

Liz Reid was now slated to be the star defense lawyer's star witness. But Chris Wilson still had one big problem.

"Mackenzie Cowell's blood is in Chris Wilson's apartment and you can't explain how it got there," Van Sant noted to John Henry Browne.

"Well, yeah. It's very difficult to convince a jury that evidence has been planted. But we are going to attempt to do that," he replied.

A NEW TWIST

Mackenzie Cowell's bedroom hasn't changed much since she last slept peacefully. Time frozen in teenage photos, her Apple-Ette outfit ready for the next dance.

"She was so full of life and joy and happiness and kindness. Her and her dad had so much fun together. She loved her dad dearly," said Sandy Francis.

But in Wenatchee, there were two families waiting for answers to the mysterious murder -- each with very different versions of justice for Chris Wilson.

"He is anxious for trial. He wants to tell his side of the story," said Wilson's mother, Kathleen Zornes.

The famous lawyer and the longtime D.A were primed. Then, in a stunning development, Gary Reisen made Wilson the offer of a lifetime: plead guilty to manslaughter and serve only 6-and-half years in prison.

"I indicated, 'Yeah, if he'd plead to that -- I would recommend that we do that. Take that offer,'" said Reisen.

"Were you in anyway intimidated by the fact that Browne was on this case?" Peter Van Sant asked.

"Well, I don't think so," the D.A. replied.

But if Wilson was a killer, a very sweet deal now lay on the table.

"If I was innocent, I'd take that deal," said defense attorney John Henry Browne.

"He said it wouldn't matter if they offered six months, six years, six days, he is not going to plead to something he did not do," said Zornes.

Chris Wilson turned down the D.A.'s offer. The trial was on. And Liz Reid's story now had a new twist that threatened the prosecutor's claim that Mackenzie Cowell was killed in Chris Wilson's apartment.

Liz Reid claims Mackenzie was actually murdered on a secluded bluff ... and that she can prove it.

"Is there any doubt in your mind that where we stand right now is where Mackenzie Cowell died?" Van Sant asked Liz Reid as they stood at the overlook.

"None," she said.

Liz Reid says that "Buddha" Cerros demanded she come here to find a ring ripped from Mackenzie's hand during the killing.

"It was smashed, it was bent a little, but it was a ring," she said of the ring she says she found on the bluff.

Attorney John Henry Browne says the ring matches the ring seen in a picture of Mackenzie. If true, Browne says Chris Wilson is an innocent man.

"I personally took that ring that she found. I showed it to Reid Cowell. I showed it to Wendy Cowell. I showed it Mackenzie's boyfriend. None of them recognized that ring at all," said Det. John Kruse.

"Where is Mackenzie's ring? If that's not Mackenzie's ring, you bring her ring into court. They don't have it, because that is her ring!" said Browne.

Police concluded it wasn't Mackenzie's ring and that Samuel Cuevas and Emmanuel "Buddah" Cerros had zero to do with the disappearance or death of Mackenzie Cowell.

"I don't know Mackenzie Cowell, never met her, never seen her, nothing," Cerros told "48 Hours."

After "48 Hours" tried for a year-and-a-half to contact him, he finally surfaced.

"Well, Liz Reid is a liar. That's all I know. She likes to take innocent people down for no reason," he said.

At the time, Cerros was working an honest job and said Liz Reid's accusations damaged him badly.

"I go to the grocery store, they look at me like I'm a killer or something. They just stare at me," he said.

And Cerros swears the cops got it right. There was never any video of Mackenzie being murdered.

"I didn't have nothing to do with Mackenzie Cowell's murder," he said.

It was Chris Wilson alone who would be tried for murder.

"It's to late to take a plea right?" Van Sant asked Browne.

"That's correct," he replied.

Van Sant spoke with Chris Wilson by phone about the extraordinary moments that were about to unfold in a Wenatchee courtroom:

Peter Van Sant: What was your relationship with Mackenzie Cowell?

Chris Wilson: There was absolutely no relationship at all.

Peter Van Sant: You never had coffee with her, never took her out on a date?

Chris Wilson: Nothing. We never had a conversation ever.

Peter Van Sant: Chris, did you kill Mackenzie Cowell?

Chris Wilson: No, I did not kill Mackenzie Cowell.

But a jury would decide that. And the members of that jury were now being selected. That's when all hell broke loose.

"When we got the jury questionnaires back, as far as you know ... I believe 80 to 85 percent of them said, 'No, he's absolutely guilty,'" said Wilson.

"There is no way in hell he will get a fair trial here," said Zornes.

It was the eleventh hour and 59 minutes. Suddenly, Chris Wilson was getting cold feet. The veteran D.A. and the star defense lawyer once again talked plea bargain.

Asked it this was a done deal, Brown told Van Sant, "No. Because they have to talk to the family."

Reid Cowell and Sandy Francis, who had lived every day for Mackenzie, made their way through a courthouse in chaos.

"What's going on?" Van Sant asked Reid Cowell inside the courthouse.

"Plea bargain ... but it includes a written statement that, 'I did this. I kidnapped her and I murdered her,'" he replied, tearing up.

In Judge John Bridges packed courtroom, a community gathered. Chris Wilson accepted a sentence far longer than that first deal: 14 years in prison in exchange for agreeing to these words:

Judge John Bridges: Mr.Wilson, it reads, "This is my statement ... I also did recklessly cause the death of Mackenzie Cowell by strangulation and by stabbing her with a knife ... Mr. Wilson is that your statement?

Chris Wilson: Yes.

Judge John Bridges: And are those the things that you did?

Chris Wilson: Yes.

But Wilson would tell "48 Hours" that he pauses at this moment in the courtroom when the judge asked, 'And are those the things that you did?' because the deal was based on a lie. And that he took it only to avoid a longer sentence:

Peter Van Sant: Did you almost say no?

Chris Wilson: Absolutely.

Peter Van Sant: Do you believe you were framed?

Chris Wilson: Framed by law enforcement? Yes.

"Am I happy Chris Wilson is in jail 14 years? Absolutely. Do I wish it was 40? Absolutely," said Chief Robbin Wagg.

But just why did the D.A. offer a deal?

"I had no evidence to prove that Mr. Wilson was in there when that blood was deposited," Reisen said. "Our job is to keep a community safe. And we now know that we are sending a killer to prison today."

The judicial dance was over, but the anguish and questions were not.

"In open court, Chris just pleaded guilty on three counts," Van Sant commented to Wilson's mother.

"He did," said Zornes.

"Do you believe him?"

"No. I'm his mom. I do not believe him," she said.

Then, Zornes and Sandy Fisher - two proud women who had lost what they valued most - shared the humanity they had left, embracing one another in the courtroom.

Jefferson Robbins told the tale on the front page of The Wenatchee World.

Reid Cowell and Sandy Fisher headed home ... past the gentle orchards as the Columbia River rolled on, whispering the name Mackenzie.

"I have a really nice wind chime out in the front yard. And when that wind chime goes off I think it's her talking to me," Reid Cowell said.

"I still think about her as though she's still around."

Less than a year after accepting the plea deal, Chris Wilson filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. He contends his plea was not voluntary. Wilson claims he entered into the plea bargain without fully understanding the consequences -- how much time he would ultimately serve in prison.

An appeals judge denied Wilson's motion to withdraw his guilty plea. He said Wilson provided no evidence he misunderstood the plea deal he signed.

Chris Wilson's earliest possible release date remains August 2023. He will be 42 years old.

  • Peter Van Sant

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"

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