Stepfather Charged In Death Of Mo. Girl

Newton County (Mo.) Sheriff Ken Copeland speaks to media about a girl's body which was found south of Stella, Mo., during a press conference in front of the Newton County Sheriff's Department in Neosho, Mo., Friday morning, Nov. 9, 2007. The body of Rowan Ford was found on private land about 10 miles south of the girl's hometown of Stella, a village of about 200 people, Copeland said. He said authorities were still determining how the girl died. (AP Photo/T. Rob Brown)
AP Photo/T. Rob Brown
The stepfather of a 9-year-old girl found dead in a hillside cave and his friend were each charged Saturday with murder and rape.

Rowan Ford vanished while in her stepfather's care last weekend, and authorities early on had said he would not explain a lengthy absence that night from the family's house. Her disappearance led to an intensive search by dozens of officers from three counties and 50 FBI agents and specialists.

The girl's body was found Friday in a cave in a remote part of McDonald County, about 10 miles south of the village of Stella, where she lived with her mother, Colleen Spears, 44, and her stepfather, David Spears, 25.

Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly said the stepfather's friend, Chris Collings, 32, confessed to authorities about the slaying.

Based in part on Collings' statement, the affidavit Epperly sent to the prosecutor alleges the men took Rowan from her home to a camping trailer where Collings lived in Barry County and each raped the girl. One of them strangled her with a cord, though it wasn't clear which man, Epperly said.

Barry County prosecutors charged David Spears and Collings with one count each of first-degree murder, forcible rape and statutory rape.

Epperly said Collings, who was being held in the Barry County Jail, did not have an attorney. David Spears' mother, Myrna Spears, said her son didn't have an attorney yet and would likely need a public defender.

Myrna Spears told The Associated Press Saturday that her son admitted to her from jail Friday night that he had taken part in the crime. He claimed to have suffered a blackout and his memories of that night started coming back to him on Friday, she said.

Authorities have said David Spears had been drinking that night, while his wife was working the overnight shift at Wal-Mart.

Bill Alsop, the village mayor, said Colleen Spears was too upset to speak with reporters.

"She's numb," Alsop said. "She's trying to keep herself busy. She's in there right now on the sewing machine, sewing something for her baby's funeral."

Epperly said he expected Newton County prosecutors to file a kidnapping charge against Collings but not the girl's stepfather because he was a legal guardian.

"He's my one and only," Myrna Spears said about her son, choking back tears. "He's all torn up. He really did love her."

Collings' brother, Greg Horton, 44, said he was shocked by the allegations.

"I don't believe he could do something like this. He has three kids of his own," Horton said. Collings' children are all younger than 10 and live in Arkansas with their mother, who is separated from Collings, Horton said.

Colleen Spears discovered her daughter was missing about 9 a.m. Nov. 3, after working a night shift at a Wal-Mart in a nearby town. She and David Spears reported Rowan missing later that day after searching for her at the homes of acquaintances.

David Spears initially told investigators he had gone out with friends the night of Nov. 2, leaving Rowan alone after she fell asleep. He said he returned around midnight but did not check on the girl, authorities said.

Authorities said he later acknowledged he had gone out a second time, around 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, after calling his mother and asking to borrow her sport utility vehicle. His mother has said she watched TV but did not check on Rowan while she waited for Spears to return. He was gone for 5½ hours.

David Spears previously said that it was wrong for him to leave the girl alone and that he initially withheld some information about his whereabouts that night because he was afraid authorities would suspect him in her disappearance.

Reactions in Stella, a village of 172 residents, ranged from disbelief to anger Saturday at the news of Rowan's death and the arrests of the two men.

"We've gone from sad to angry," said Alica Blevins, 51, a neighbor of the Spears'. "It's mind-boggling. The whole town is just in shock and can't believe this."