For nearly three hours on Friday, jurors watched and listened as Christopher Collings told about the night he raped and murdered 9-year-old Rowan Ford.
Collings' confession was captured on videotape during two interviews conducted at the Barry County Sheriff's Department in Cassville on Nov. 9, 2007, the day Rowan's body was found in the bottom of a cave and the day Collings finally confessed to the crime.
In the opening minutes of the tape, Collings, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "BIG" on the front, appears nervous but then speaks calmly as officers question him for details about Rowan's kidnapping, rape and murder. As the interview progresses, Collings becomes more emotional, putting his head in his hands and crying, laughing nervously and showing flashes of anger when officers continue to press him for answers.
When asked when he decided he was going to have sex with Rowan, Collings is vague and shies away from the question, finally telling Barry County detective Robert Evenson and Wheaton Police Chief Clint Clark, who conducted the first interview, that he made the decision sometime on the way back to his trailer in Wheaton after he had already taken Rowan from her home in Stella.
"To this day, I still don't know why I did it," said Collings. "I picked her up, carried her out to the truck, laid her on the seat and took her back to my house."
Collings said the rape lasted about five minutes, and Rowan didn't struggle much but did begin to cry.
"It was quick," said Collings. "It was over before I realized it had happened."
Collings also had trouble clearly explaining what he was thinking when he decided to have sex with Rowan.
"It was like . . . it felt like something was burning in my chest. I don't know what it was," said Collings in stops and starts. "I could feel it, but I couldn't tell you what it was . . . because I'd never felt it before."
In contrast, the reason why Collings strangled Rowan was clear -- Collings feared Rowan could identify him as her attacker.
"When I got outside with her, there was moonlight and she turned around and she looked at me," said Collings. "I started freaking. 'Oh my God she knows who I am. What am I going to do now?'
"There was a piece of nylon cord laying on the truck beside me. I grabbed it and wrapped it around her neck and started pulling real hard until she quit moving."
After killing Rowan, Collings said he picked up her body, put it in the back of his pickup and "took off."
"I started to head to Muncie Chapel, but I thought that wasn't the place to be going because it's in the wide open," explained Collings. "I circled around to Rocky Comfort and remembered the cave - the sinkhole or whatever the hell it is."
Once at Fox Cave, Collings said he "tossed" Rowan "in the hole" and drove back to Wheaton. When Collings walked back into the small camper trailer and turned on the lights, he saw blood on his mattress and all over his clothes.
To hide the evidence, Collings said he burned his clothes, the mattress, the rope he used to strangle Rowan and Rowan's pants and panties in a stove outside his trailer and in another 55-gallon barrel in a calf barn on his property.
"Then I went inside and laid down on the floor because I had no mattress," said Collings. "I laid there and stared at the ceiling until the sun came up."
|Collings admitted to drinking 30 Smirnoff Ice Triple Black malt beverages during the night and also smoking a "hog leg" joint that was the size of his thumb on the night he murdered Rowan.|
"I don't do nothing in moderation, and look what it gets me," joked Collings. "I don't mean to be funny. I'm just trying to get through this."
Near the middle of the first interview, Evenson asks Collings whether David Spears or Nathan Mahurin (another friend who was with Spears and Collings on the night of Rowan's disappearance) knew about what he had done to Rowan.
"Have you told them or anyone else about the details you told us today/" asked Evenson.
"I'm very certain of that," answered Collings. "I'd not told anybody until I told you."
In a second taped interview, which the defense introduced during their cross examination of Evenson, Barry County detective Brian Martin, Evenson and eventually Clark return to the interview room and begin asking Collings repeated questions about Spears' involvement in the crime.
Evenson testified that the second interview was conducted after he received a call from Newton County Chief Deputy Chris Jennings that Spears had also confessed to the rape and murder of Rowan and the details of the incident he was sharing in Newton County were strikingly similar to Collings' account.
Over and over again, Collings adamantly tells officers he was alone in his trailer when he raped Rowan and alone when he strangled her and dumped her body in Fox Cave.
When Martin and Evenson tell Collings that Spears is telling officers in Newton County that he participated in the rape of his stepdaughter and helped Collings dispose of the body, Collings expresses disbelief.
"Oh my God, why would he do that?" asks Collings.
At one point in the interview, Collings suggests that maybe Spears is confessing to the crime so he will be brought to the Barry County Jail where he would have the opportunity to kill Collings for murdering his stepdaughter.
Collings also wonders outloud if Spears feels guilty about leaving his stepdaughter alone, and because of his guilt, his mind is playing tricks on him.
Evenson explains to Collings that Spears is telling the Newton County deputies exactly the same information that Collings just shared in Barry County.
"He's telling details only you or whoever else was there would know," said Evenson. "He's putting himself in the story with you."
"I was there by myself but if the dumb _ wants to say he was there, I'm not going to save his ass," said Collings.
"I'm not capable of saying David was a part of it when I know for a fact he was not," continued Collings. "I'm not covering up. The evidence will tell the truth, when they find my DNA and not his."
In addition to Evenson's testimony, Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox and Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bock put two more FBI agents on the stand.
One of the agents to testify was David Bernall, a member of the FBI evidence recovery team who was in charge of maintaining custody of Rowan Ford's body from the time it was removed from Fox Cave until the autopsy was completed. Bernall also collected physical evidence off Rowan's body before the autopsy was performed by Dr. Keith Norton, a pathologist in Springfield.
Bernall described how he collected the clothing off of Rowan's body and also used an alternate light source system to illuminate fluids, like saliva and semen, which cannot be seen easily by the naked eye. He said the lights are like those seen on popular television shows like CSI.
Bernall testified that the evidence he collected, which included a sexual assault evidence kit, was bagged, placed in his FBI-issued vehicle and transported to the FBI evidence vault in Kansas City.
During Bernall's testimony, Cox displayed a photo of Rowan's naked body lying on the mortuary table before the autopsy was performed. When the image appeared on the big screen in the courtroom, Collings quickly turned his chair around to avoid looking at the gruesome photo. Rowan's mother, Colleen Munson, walked out of the courtroom.
Collings, 37, from Wheaton, is charged with first degree murder and rape. A jury of five men and seven women from Platte County will decide Collings' fate. Cox and Bock are seeking the death penalty.
Live updates from the trial, which is taking place at the Phelps County Courthouse in Rolla, will resume on Monday and continue throughout the week. Readers can follow these updates through The Monett Times' Facebook page, on-line at www.monett-times.com or by following Schlichtman on Twitter at @monetteditor.
Friday marked the fifth day of testimony. Attorneys now say the trial could stretch into a third week.