Who killed Christa Worthington?

"48 Hours" has covered the murder of A-list fashion writer Christa Worthington, murdered on Cape Cod, for nearly 16 years; now the man convicted of killing her may get a new trial

Last Updated Nov 19, 2017 1:50 AM EST

Produced by Joshua Yager and Martin Zied

This story previously aired on Sept. 20, 2007. It was updated on Nov. 18. 2017.

Christa Worthington

Christa Worthington

Polaris

During the winter of 2002, the quiet Cape Cod community of Truro was rocked, when a former New York City fashion writer was found murdered inside her home. As correspondent Susan Spencer reports, almost everyone in the town became a suspect, when police decided to take a look at the entire male population.

In the wintertime, Cape Cod can feel like the end of the world and it's the only world 56-year-old fishing warden Tony Jackett ever really has known.

"It's a real challenge being out on the water, you know...mentally and physically...really. A real independent way of life," he says. "I feel fortunate and blessed that I was born and raised here."

And that, according to reporter Eric Williams, is pretty much how everybody in the town of Truro saw him. "He's a great guy. Gregarious, smart, ah, you know, really a pleasant fellow, you know, who likes the ladies, the ladies you know!" Williams says.

In 1997, a new lady came to town - a glamorous former fashion writer from New York named Christa Worthington.

And Tony Jackett, married, with six kids, nonetheless went for her, hook, line and sinker. "She was someone very different from the people that I knew," Jackett remembers. "She was mysterious, enigmatic, somewhat of a loner."

Worthington, a 40-year-old Vassar grad, had lived what seemed a life in the fast lane, covering the runways of New York, London and Paris for top fashion magazines, scoring an interview with fashion superstar Yves St. Laurent when she was just 26 years old.

But Steve Radlauer, who dated Christa for two years in New York, says she never felt part of the glamorous world she covered.

In 1997, she moved to Truro, where her prominent New England family owned a slew of properties.

It seemed like the perfect retreat, and the perfect place to have a child. "She had this having a baby thing in mind, and I think she felt like this would be a good place to do that," says Radlauer. "The complication was that she was not married and didn't have a boyfriend."

"I could tell that there was an attraction. You know ultimately I ended up over her house having a cup of tea...and one thing leads to another," Jackett remembers,

For about a year, off and on, they had an affair and for the beautiful writer, who desperately wanted a child - and the local fisherman who already had six, one thing did lead to another.

Jackett says Christa's pregnancy came as a total surprise.

It was surprise he didn't share with his wife of 26 years, even when Christa gave birth to a daughter, Ava, in May 1999.

Friends insist Christa had been told she couldn't have a baby, but Jackett always has felt she set him up. "How do I explain this? I'm like, all of a sudden I realize I'm, uh, in deep s---!"

In fact, Christa had gone on the "Leeza" talk show the year before to talk about women who choose to be single parents.

Ava became the center of Christa's universe, says Linda Schlecter, who babysat a few times a week. "A very devoted mother and she would always have Ava on her lap and they would always be playing and laughing," Linda remembers. "Now, I'm just still in a lot of disbelief about what's happened. It seems so unreal."

Unreal indeed.

"I walked into the newsroom here in Cape Cod and we just had gotten word from police that there'd been a murder," remembers reporter Eric Williams.

It was the first homicide in Truro in 30 years and it sent Williams into high gear, finding sources, working the phones. It was Sunday, Jan. 6th, 2002.

"Surprisingly, you know, I knew the guy who found the body. And next thing I know I'm calling him and talking to him about it," Williams recalls.

Williams was calling Tim Arnold, another former boyfriend of Christa's, who lived just through the woods from her house. Arnold's story was that he had simply dropped by the house at 4:30 that afternoon to return a flashlight and instead got the shock of his life.

"He sees Christa lying on the floor in a sort of a kitchen hallway area and he sees Ava near her mother's body," Williams explains.

Arnold later told police little Ava was trying to nurse. He said he'd scooped her up and ran outside. He then called 911:

Operator: 911, this call is recorded. What is your emergency?

Tim Arnold: Please send somebody to 50 Depot Road.

Operator: OK. What's the problem?

Tim Arnold: It's Christa Worthington. I don't know what happened to her. I think she fell down or something. I'm sure she's dead.

Christa was dead, lying in a hallway off the kitchen. "She was bruised up, looked like there had been some sort of altercation that she had been in," Williams explains.

She was half naked, and stabbed once through the left lung. "The blade went through the body and into the kitchen floor beneath her body," Williams tells Spencer.

The front door was smashed - there were drag marks on the ground outside and several personal items scattered in the drive.

The disarray continued inside. Shocked EMTs carelessly grabbed a blanket from the house to cover Christa's body. Soon, all of Truro knew what had happened.

"We got a phone call that Christa had been murdered," Tony Jackett remembers.\

His reaction? Jackett says he felt just disbelief and that the crime just seemed so senseless.

With all the elements of a classic mystery, sensational reports of the murder on Cape Cod topped the news around the country, leaving Christa's nervous neighbors with no reason to suspect that it would take police literally years to solve this crime, not that they didn't have plenty of suspects.

"It became some sort, some kind of awful parlor game, you know, in living rooms on the outer cape. You'd sit around and once again go through it, trying to figure out, could it have been Tim? Could it have been Tony? How did it go down?" Williams remembers.

By the spring of 2005, townspeople were starting to think police never would figure out who killed Christa Worthington.

NO SHORTAGE OF SUSPECTS

Christa Worthington's savage murder in January of 2002 left 2-year-old Ava without a mother, and it left the townspeople of Truro edgy, nervous and silently wondering if the killer might be one of them.

"Who else would come down to the end of the world in January and do this?" Williams wonders. "You think, 'It's gotta be someone who is here, 'cause no one comes here in January.'"

The best potential lead to the murderer's identity was DNA found on Christa's body.

"It's DNA of an unknown male that's consistent with someone having had sexual relations and it's that DNA we seek to match," explains District Attorney Michael O'Keefe. According to him, investigators first zeroed in on her immediate circle, especially past boyfriends.

All the while waiting for the crime lab to find a DNA match, first there was the neighbor and former boyfriend Tim Arnold. Not only had he found the body, but his semen would turn up on the blanket thrown over Christa; then again, they had lived together for a time in the house.

"Tim Arnold was one of the few men under the age of, you know, 70 or whatever, in Truro year round," says Christa's friend Steve Radlauer.

Radlauer says her relationship with Arnold, at times contentious, apparently was over. "I don't think that she ever entertained the idea that this was going to develop into a long term relationship, that they were going to get married or anything like that."

But Radlauer acknowledges Arnold may have had that idea. "From what I understand, he was more serious about that as a long term possibility than she was."

Arnold emphatically denied to police that he had anything to do with the crime. Otherwise he refused to discuss Christa Worthington. These days, Arnold struggles with health problems, mainly affecting his vision. He says memories of what happened in 2002 are never far from his thoughts.

"I think about it a lot...I think about it just about every day," he acknowledges.

And he sometimes writes about Christa.

"The Christa I knew was a person of contradiction. She was by turns bright, talented and ambitious, and then a homebody who wanted nothing more than to spend time with her child," he says.

While Tim Arnold may have been at the top of the suspect list, early on, Ava's father, Tony Jackett, wasn't far behind.

According to Christa's friends, Jackett had little time for the baby at first and eventually, Christa demanded that he at least pay child support. She also demanded that he tell his wife, Susan.

Susan Jackett says she didn't have a clue her husband had fathered Ava.

"He said he was in trouble. And I said with the IRS? And he said 'No worse.' With the police? 'No worse than that.' And I said what could be worse than that?" she remembers.

What was she thinking at this point? "I was sort of frightened. I couldn't, he was very uncomfortable. I couldn't imagine that it was and he said I had an affair and there's a child. He hesitated and he said there's a child, and I said 'You're kidding,'" she recalls.

Then, to Tony's total shock, she forgave him. "It's been too many years and he's a nice man, you know, and people make mistakes, he's only human. I don't want this anger in me. I just want to make this all work," she tells Spencer.

And by the time of the murder, the Jacketts claim, it was more or less working. The three of them had a relationship of sorts, with Ava at its center. Tony, they say, had no reason to kill Christa.

"We had her over for dinner. And it was a little uncomfortable the first time. But the more I got to know her, I liked her. I thought she was a nice person. And the baby was very enchanting," says Susan Jackett.

Susan says Tony was home with her when Christa was killed. Tony took a lie detector test and says he "clearly passed."

But police refused to rule anyone out, and the suspect list was expanding to Agatha Christie-size proportions, at times even including Tony's then son-in-law, Keith Amato, who had taken an outside shower or two at Christa's house near the beach.

Even Christa's elderly father was drawn into the investigation, though his 29-year-old girlfriend - a former heroin addict upon whom Christa thought he was spending far too much money.

Meanwhile, the state crime lab was hopelessly backed up. Months passed with no word on the DNA taken from Christa's body. The police went to the FBI for a profile of the killer, but nobody seemed a fit.

Then finally, a year after the murder, the crime lab at last produced results. The results were disappointing to police, because the DNA from Christa didn't match Tim Arnold or Tony Jackett, or any other suspect the police had.

Police widened their circle. The widened circle brought in DNA from repairmen, trash men and deliverymen. With pressure mounting, District Attorney O'Keefe took an unprecedented step, asking for DNA from single every man in Truro.

"Somebody killed Christa. So if we sample everybody, we'll find who it was," O'Keefe argues. "We're still taking DNA from people, dozens of people."

But reporter Eric Williams has an opinion on this move. "These guys are throwing darts at an elephant, you know. I mean, they've got no chance. It's just crazy."

But chance is strange thing.

A STUNNING BREAK

In the three years police were searching for Christa Worthington's killer, an uneasy peace settled over Cape Cod, as the investigation dragged on.

Only the random DNA round-up got much public attention.

"It's just needle in a haystack kind of stuff. It did seem to smack of some desperation," Williams remarks.

Meanwhile, whole books were being written about this unsolved murder; investigators, under intense pressure, still would rule no one out, including Tony Jackett.

Little Ava, his daughter with Christa, was sent to live with a friend, Amira Chase, whom Christa had named as a guardian in her will. Jackett was allowed to see his daughter only one afternoon a week.

Jackett decided to fight for custody but lost to Christa's friend. And Tony thinks he knows why.

"Well, being a suspect definitely cost me custody, more than anything else, custody of my daughter," he says.

Jackett was also getting used to another reality. "We were just going to have to live with the fact that the perception of my being a suspect is going to stay."

But then, on April 7, investigators caught a stunning break, when the crime lab had a hit -- a match for DNA found outside and inside Christa's body.

"It was just a bombshell. A huge bombshell," Williams remembers. "We were just like electrified. Couldn't believe they'd come up with a match."

Suddenly, there was a match, a suspect and an arrest, all announced to the world by District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, three and a half years after the crime.

"Last night at approximately 7:15 p.m. detectives from the Massachusetts State Police arrested Christopher A. McCowen for the 2002 murder of Christa A. Worthington," the D.A. announced.

A lot of people had no idea who McCowen was.

Christopher McCowen had been Christa Worthington's garbage man. Truro was astonished and relieved and it seemed like a done deal.

Police picked up a docile McCowen at his rooming house, lying on the bed, watching cartoons; marijuana and an open bottle of prescription pain killers were on the table nearby. Incredibly, he'd been right under their noses from the start.

Interviewed twice, both times he had denied knowing Christa Worthington. Also, he had given police his DNA, voluntarily, more than a year earlier.

When detectives took him in for questioning, McCowen waived his right to a lawyer. Detectives say he again denied knowing Christa.

"And then he's presented with a fairly strong piece of evidence that he's lying," O'Keefe says, referring to the DNA evidence.

Police say that's when his story changed. "He admits that, yes, he went there on Friday night, yes, he had sex with her and yes, he beat her. But he doesn't want to bring himself to admit that he killed her. So he blames the worst part of it on someone else," O'Keefe says.

According to McCowen, that somebody else was his friend Jeremy Frazier, who had been with him the night of the murder. But Frazier's DNA wasn't found anywhere on Christa's body.

"Was there an operating assumption that the last person who'd had sex with Christa Worthington had killed her?" Spencer asks.

"Yes," O'Keefe says, stating he still believes that's the case.

Christopher McCowen's interview at the police barracks lasted about six hours and for whatever reason, he declined to have it recorded, so the only record of this crucial interview is a report some 20 pages long that the detectives wrote, from their notes, about a week later.

In it, McCowen is sometimes confused and comes up with at least half a dozen different versions of what really happened the night police say Christa Worthington died.

Attorney Bob George took McCowen's case after the police interrogation and says they jumped to conclusions from the start, noting that their Web site listed this murder as "solved" almost from the moment of McCowen's arrest.

"A person of Chris McCowen's race, class and limited capacities was an easy target," George argues.

An especially easy target, he says, because Christopher McCowen literally wasn't smart enough to defend himself. "This is a person with a 76 to a 78 IQ on his best day, meaning on a day where he's not using drugs and alcohol, not under pressure," George says.

"He was using Percocet that day, he was using marijuana that day," George says. The attorney says his client was putty in the hands of police.

"This is a false confession," George argues. "And I don't accept it. I don't know how much of it is actually coming from Chris McCowen's mouth or how much of it is coming from the police investigation. I don't' know."

Police bungled that investigation, he charges, from the moment they arrived at the crime scene. "There were leads that weren't followed, and there were things that weren't done," George says.

As for the DNA, the lynchpin of the prosecution's case, the significance of that, George says, is all in how you look at this crime. "There was no evidence of the indications of rape," he says.

And the police, he's about to tell the jury, are looking at it all wrong. "That person that killed Christa Worthington was white! They had footprints that were unidentified, they had palm prints that were unidentified, and they had unknown male DNA from three individuals under her fingernails!" George argued in court.

MCCOWEN ON TRIAL

Prosecutors go into Christopher McCowen's trial confident the jury will accept their simple theory of Christa Worthington's murder. "That he went to this location for the purpose of having sex with this person, that was denied to him, and in a rage, he raped and killed her," explains District Attorney Michael O'Keefe.

The case against Christa's alleged killer, O'Keefe concedes, depends on two vital pieces of evidence. "The DNA and the statement together were the two major pillars of the case," he acknowledges.

As far as the DNA is concerned, the state's expert says it proves - beyond doubt - that McCowen had sex with Christa Worthington.

As for the statement, Trooper Christopher Mason tells the court that although McCowen didn't actually confess, he did admit to police that he beat Christa and watched her die.

"Mr. McCowen stated, 'I never meant for that lady to get killed. It's a nightmare after nightmare. And not a day goes by that I don't think of it,'" Mason testified.

In the prosecution's scenario, McCowen was drinking heavily that night. He joined friends at a local club, where they were videotaped by an onlooker, while taking part in a "Rap" contest.

"This person, wanted the company of a woman, after partying and drinking all night," O'Keefe argues. "So, O'Keefe continues, at around 1:30 a.m., McCowan drove to Christa's house in Truro, where he killed her," the DA argued.

The district attorney believes McCowen was alone and didn't have a prior relationship with Christa. "Other than his familiarity with who she was, where she lived and the fact she lived alone," he tells Spencer.

That is where McCowan's attorney, Bob George, insists prosecutors have it all wrong. "Now when they found the DNA, for 39 months you will hear they were looking to speak to Christa's last lover," George said in court.

George wants to convince the jury there is reasonable doubt about everything in this case. For starters, he claims, his client and Christa may have been involved.

"Chris McCowan could have reasonably had a consensual sexual relationship with Christa Worthington and anybody who doesn't believe it is someone who just can't accept it," George told jurors.

And that's the defense's explanation for the damning DNA evidence: that Christa Worthington voluntarily had sex with McCowan, probably that Thursday, his day for picking up the trash, and that later, someone else came along and killed her.

But George says, getting the jury to believe that could be a problem, because his client is being tried in lily white Cape Cod. "If you had the same body of evidence and Johnny Whitebread was home for the holidays from college and was from an affluent family on the Cape and he was not black, the same body of evidence, he wouldn't have been charged," George argues.

But miles away, in New York, Christa Worthington's former boyfriend Steve Radlauer says race has nothing at all to do with his doubts. "Let's hear about the consensual relationship. How long had that been going on? I saw Christa two weeks before she was murdered, roughly. It wasn't going on then, 'cause we would have heard about it. That would have been her top story, top of the Christa news would have been 'I'm having an affair with my local trash man,'" he says.

Back in court, the defense also must deal with its other big problem - that statement. So police intimidated him, George argues, in a six-hour interrogation, much as they'd done with other suspects, like Tim Arnold.

Another one time suspect, Keith Amato, described a similar experience. "Trooper Mawn slammed his hand down on the table and said, 'This is a murder investigation. And if we so chose we will turn your life inside out,'" Amato testified.

"They did exactly the same thing to them that they did to McCowen, except they were smart enough and they had the wherewithal and the background to know when to say stop, cut it out, I'm not doing this anymore, I want a lawyer," George says.

George's witness, forensic psychologist Eric Brown, claims that with an IQ of about 76, Christopher McCowen simply couldn't understand the police's questions.

But the prosecution says that's rubbish. McCowen seemed smart enough, when Brown gave him an intelligence test, linking "relativity" with Einstein, labeling Gandhi as the "spiritual leader of India."

And he was clever enough, the state argues, to concoct a story blaming someone else, his friend Jeremy Frazier, who appeared uncomfortable the moment he took the stand.

On the stand, Frazier insisted he didn't drive to Christa's house with McCowen and that he had nothing to do with her death.

But Bob George wants the jury to believe Frazier could have. Frazier told jurors he did have a few beers at the party.

Certainly Frazier and McCowen were together that night. The videotaped rap contest shows Frazier listening to music with McCowen nearby. But Frazier supplied an alibi. He later was seen at another party, and then slept at a friend's house. And his DNA doesn't show up anywhere at the crime scene.

"He was a convenient patsy for the defendant to blame," D.A. O'Keefe argues, saying Frazier had nothing to do with the murder.

Bob George also argues that police bungled the whole investigation. There were fibers, hairs and DNA that never made it to a lab, and a crime scene contaminated by careless EMTs.

Christopher McCowen never testifies, betting that his attorney has created enough doubt to set him free.

"I just think it's a case about reasonable doubt. The case has too many holes in it," George says.

During closing arguments, he said, "It's based on an assumption -- a false assumption -- that a Vassar-educated, 46-year-old world-traveling wealthy heiress could not possibly have had consensual sex with a black, uneducated, troubled, garbage man."

THE VERDICT

While the jury in the Christa Worthington murder trial deliberated, the case was still being tried in the court of public opinion. And everyone in town's had an opinion. "I think the preponderance of the evidence indicates that he's guilty," one person said. "He deserves every bit of reasonable doubt if it's there," another said.

Days went by and the clock ticked on without a verdict.

Christopher McCowen's lawyer Bob George is taking an optimistic view, insisting that time, and the evidence, are on his side. "If you can't trust what you find at the crime scene because the scene has been corrupted, if you can't trust the statement because it's unreliable, and if the DNA doesn't mean anything 'cause the defendant could have been involved in a consensual relationship with the victim, then what happened?"

For five agonizing days, the jury, including two African Americans debated that very question.

Then, on day six, there was a shocker, when the judge announced he was throwing one juror off the panel  -- a white woman whose boyfriend was arrested in an unrelated crime. In a phone call with him, she was taped criticizing the police and there's concern about bias.

Two days after a new juror was seated, the logjam was broken and the jury rendered its verdict. 

Christopher McCowan

Christopher McCowen reacts as the jury's verdict is read in court finding him guilty of the 2002 rape and murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington in Barnstable, Mass., on Nov. 16, 2006.

AP Photo/Steve Heaslip

Christopher McCowen was found guilty of first-degree murder.

"He was was devastated by the verdict. Anyone with eyes could see that he was terribly hurt by what happened," says his attorney, Bob George.

Hours later, before he was sentenced, he addressed the court for the first time. "This case here, is a very horrendous case. I feel sorry for the victim's family, her daughter, and her. I have never meant for this to ever take place," he said.

But he still claims he had nothing to do with Christa Worthington's death. "But, your honor, all I can say is that I am an innocent man in this case...and that's all I got to say."

But the court didn't buy it and sentenced McCowen to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

"Did I want a not guilty? Of course I wanted a not guilty ... you know, my belief in McCowan's innocence is what drove me. I believed he was innocent and still believe he's innocent and will believe he's not guilty until the day I die," says his attorney.

Even after the verdict, Bob George refuses to give up. He's a little suspicious about what really happened to get that juror removed. "You've got a juror receiving phone calls from her cellphone from someone who's incarcerated in a deliberating deadlocked jury, in a major murder case, from the jail!" George says. "You don't have to be Oliver Wendell Holmes to figure out there's something strange about that! We'll find out what happened."

Eric Williams, who has covered the case from day one, says while replacing the juror confused things, in the end he's confident in the jury's decision. "There was enough evidence, it seemed, to push them, to unanimously agree. And for most Cape Codders, that's good enough," he says.

Tony Jackett, Ava's father, says this case has changed his life dramatically. "Kind of like being in a dark tunnel and wondering if you'll ever see the light again."

Now finally cleared as a suspect in Christa's murder, Tony Jackett is relieved at the verdict, although remarkably, he isn't sure the jury got it right.

"I felt there was reasonable doubt all over the place," he tells Spencer.

Tim Arnold is happy it's finally over, but to this day he is haunted by what happened. "Sometimes the weight of events forces you to look back. Whether you want to or not. It's just something that's always there," he says.

Ava still lives with her legal guardians and by all accounts is doing well.

Ava never will remember those happy times, but Christa's friends are determined that one day she will know how much her mother loved her.

"How would you want to tell her about the past?" Spencer asks Jackett.

"A little bit at a time," he says.

"Ava won't have her. That's the enduring tragedy of the whole thing," Arnold adds.

EPILOGUE

For nearly 16 years,   "48 Hours" has covered the aftermath of Christa Worthington's murder and Christopher McCowen's trial.

Soon after his convicton, the verdict was called into question when several jurors made allegations of racial bias during their deliberations.  That prompted the trial judge to take the unusual step of calling all 12 jurors back to court to be questioned.

Their testimony revealed there was racial tension in the jury room. And McCowen's attorney, Bob George, thought it was sufficient grounds for a retrial. 

"It's enough to establish that the statements were made, the bias statements were made, now it's up to the judge to decide if there's gonna be a new trial," George told WBZ at the time.

But the judge ruled against McCowan, upholding his conviction.  In 2010, the State Supreme Judicial Court agreed. McCowen, from the moment he was sentenced, has refused to give up the fight.

"All I can say is I'm an innocent man…" he tells the court at his sentencing.

Though three appeals have been denied, he now has a new legal team, and they have filed another motion for a new trial.  

But for those closest to Christa Worthington, life has moved on.  Tony Jackett maintains a warm relationship with his daughter Ava, who now is in college and continues to thrive.

Christopher McCowen's original attorney, Bob George, had some legal trouble of his own.

In 2012, George was convicted of money laundering  in an unrelated case and served three years in prison.