Christa Worthington was a cosmopolitan, Vassar-educated, successful fashion writer when she left her life in New York City behind to start over in Cape Cod. Instead, her life was stopped short when someone stabbed and beat her to death, while her toddler slept upstairs.
Truro, Massachusetts, a small town in Cape Cod, transforms in the winter. The summer tourists leave. The beaches and ice cream shops empty out. And the year-round residents hunker down in their homes as freezing winds blow in off the Atlantic. In the first dreary days of January 2002, Christa Worthington, a former fashion writer, had returned home to Truro from a glamorous holiday season spent New York City with her 2-year-old daughter, Ava. The two of them sheltered cozily in Worthington's small shingled home, set back among the trees and down a long driveway paved with crushed clam shells.
When Tim Arnold, an author, and Worthington's former boyfriend, drove down that driveway on Jan. 6 to return a flashlight, things seemed off right away. Her car was parked by the house, but there were newspapers, unopened, piling up at her doorway, and when he knocked on the front door, there was no answer. Arnold went around to the side of the house and found that the door that led inside to her kitchen was slightly ajar. When he opened it and went inside he immediately saw Worthington's dead body sprawled on the kitchen floor. Ava, unharmed, sat next to her mother's lifeless body, trying to nurse. There were tiny bloody handprints around the room from where Ava had tried different things to comfort her mother: a small towel she'd used to try to clean Worthington's face, a sippy cup she'd tried to get her to drink from, a box of Cheerios, its contents strewn around the room.
Arnold knew little Ada well – he babysat for her often, even after Worthington ended their relationship. And she recognized him right away.
"Mommy fell down," she said to him.
Christa Worthington was 46-years-old when she died. Just a few years before she'd abandoned her life as a highly regarded fashion journalist who had written for publications like W Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, Harper's Bazaar, The New York Times, and more. She'd become disillusioned with the fashion industry and the “boys club” culture of magazine publishing. She decided to get back to her roots in Truro, Cape Cod, where her family were key fixtures in the community. Worthington lived at first in her family's tiny cottage near the center of town. And soon, she began a relationship with the local shellfish constable, Anthony Jackett. He was handsome and weathered and kind. He was also married and had six children. They carried on their secret affair for nearly two years.
"Tony became tender and we were made new spellbound. I love him,” Worthington wrote in her diary.
Worthington had been told years ago that she would have difficulty conceiving, so she was shocked — but delighted — when the affair led to a pregnancy. She named her daughter Ava.
Jackett didn't share her enthusiasm.
“I didn’t know if that was something I could keep from my wife for very long,” Jackett told ABC News after Worthington's murder. “I did manage to do that for a couple of years. I was shocked, because she had convinced me that she couldn’t have children.”
Jackett did eventually tell his wife, and the families worked out a shared custody agreement.
But the thrill and joy of motherhood came hand in hand with the gossip of a small town. Worthington told friends that she felt like a pariah in Truro; that she'd developed a negative reputation because of her relationships, particularly her affair with Jackett. Small town Massachusetts was different than New York, where'd she'd spent the last 20 years, free to be as anonymous as she chose. Worthington now felt as if she wore a scarlet letter — and that judgment would follow her in death.
Michael O’Keefe, the Cape Cod District Attorney who led the investigation into her murder, seemed to disapprove of the victim, even as he tried to find her killer. He claimed on the record that Worthington slept with anyone and everyone, telling writer Maria Flook, “Worthington was an equal opportunity employer. She’d f--k the husbands of her female friends. The butcher or the banker.”
An autopsy confirmed that Worthington had sex soon before she died. The District Attorney requested DNA samples from over 800 men in the Truro area. The implication being that Worthington could have been sleeping with anyone, and that every man was a potential suspect.
Despite the show of testing these 800 potential suspects, the police focused mainly on three people closely linked to Worthington. The first was Anthony Jackett, Ava's father. Police also suspected Tim Arnold, Worthington’s most recent ex-boyfriend and the man who found her body. The third suspect was Elizabeth Porter, a 29-year-old woman who dated Worthington's elderly father, Toppy, and was supported by him financially. Was it possible that Porter saw Worthington (and Worthington's inheritance) as an impediment to her relationship and the income that came with it?
Police found they did not have enough evidence to link Jackett, Arnold, or Porter to Worthington’s death, and without any arrests, the residents of Truro lived in fear of the perpetrator-at-large. But after three long years of terror and uncertainty, the police finally had a lead: A backlog of rape kit testing caused a years-long delay in providing Worthington’s results, but when her kit was finally tested in 2015, investigators found a match to the DNA at the crime scene. And it wasn't anyone they'd been actively pursuing.
On April 14, 2005, police arrested Christopher McCowen, a 33-year-old man who worked as a garbage collector in Truro, and who was employed by Worthington in that capacity.
During the murder trial, McCowen’s ever-changing and contradictory narrative puzzled jurors. At first he claimed he was having an affair with Worthington every week during his Thursday afternoon stops to pick up her trash — explaining that he often had sex with women on his garbage route. When the prosecution refuted his claims based on the timeline of Worthington’s death, McCowen changed his story, stating that, on the night Worthington was killed, he drank alcohol to the point of blacking out, and might have stopped by Worthington’s house, though he still claimed that any sex they had was consensual. He maintained that he did not kill her — but he knew who did.
McCowen pointed the finger at his friend Jeremy Frazier, a white, 23-year-old man who McCowen alleged came by Worthington’s house in order to rob her. According to McCowen, Worthington caught him, and threatened to call the police, so the two men beat her. While McCowen admitted to taking part in attacking Worthington, he said it was Frazier who ultimately stabbed her to death.
Questions of racial bias and forced confessions plagued the trial, and the district attorney's earlier condemnation of Worthington's sex life was used by the defense in their favor. If she was such an "equal opportunist" why was it so implausible, McCowen’s supporters argued, that she had a consensual relationship with him? They argued that police only arrested him because he was a Black man. Additionally, McCowen’s attorneys argued that police took advantage of their client's low IQ of 76 and manipulated him into falsely confessing.
"A person of Chris McCowen's race, class and limited capacities was an easy target," his attorney told CBS News.
In the end, however, a jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Was justice done?
With McCowen, her likely killer, behind bars, it seems Worthington may at last rest in peace. But she has enjoyed little dignity in death. A talented writer with a glamorous life that she left behind to dedicate herself to motherhood, she became the victim of a brutal murder, and the subject of public opprobrium. The whispers, the gossip, the outright denunciation lingered for years.
In 2003, Leila Levinson, who had been a classmate of Worthington's at Vassar College, wrote about her slain friend for the college's Alumni magazine.
"I want to write this for Christa, the quietly enigmatic woman I knew in college, the sparkling-eyed petite girl down the hall from me in Lathrop who snagged a single room as a freshman," Levinson wrote. She described an imperfect young woman — Worthington could be anxious, aloof, dramatic. She was also brave, kind, and non-judgmental.
Levinson finished with a treasured memory of Worthington, from a weekend they'd spent together with another college friend, in Truro. "The sun was highlighting amber hues in her irises, and there she was a mermaid, and Rob and I were like two porpoises, the laughing feeling so good, the sun and water and wind so right," she wrote. "For a moment, there we were — ourselves, in love with the world."