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Just two days before Hurricane Harvey barreled down on Baytown, Texas, a 37-year-old mother of two mysteriously vanished.
Crystal McDowell was captured in grainy surveillance camera images getting into her black Mercedes and leaving the home of her new boyfriend, Paul Hargrave, at 7:35 a.m. on Aug. 25, 2017.
It’s the last time the beloved real-estate agent was seen alive, according to a new episode of “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing on Wednesdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Yet just as investigators were launching a search to find the missing mom, the hurricane began to tear through the Houston area, leaving homes and businesses submerged under feet of water and grinding the missing persons investigation to a sudden halt.
The torrential wind and showers delayed the investigation, but it would also play a critical role in preserving crucial evidence in the case that would ultimately bring Crystal’s killer to justice.
Crystal had once had a troubled life, growing up with two drug-addicted parents who died just six months apart when she was 11 years old.
According to Chambers County District Attorney Cheryl Lieck, at the age of 13, Crystal was abducted by a man who kept her in a chicken coop and sexually assaulted her. She managed to escape the horrific abuse and moved into a home with relatives.
But as Crystal moved into adulthood, she found a certain sense of stability. She began working as a flight attendant and met and married Steve McDowell, a man described by those who knew him as being “like a big kid.”
“I remember the day that she had met him and she was very smitten,” her aunt Cindy Seratte told “Dateline” reporter Dennis Murphy. “I really thought she had met the man of her dreams,” Seratte said.
Despite the promising beginning, the marriage had its share of problems, particularly as Crystal’s job kept her jet-setting around the country.
“She had numerous lovers throughout her marriage, men and women,” Lieck said.
After 10 years of marriage, the couple decided to call it quits. They divorced, but Crystal remained living with Steve while waiting for renovations to be complete at her new home.
She thrived as a real estate agent in the Houston area and began to enter the dating scene once again.
Crystal started a new romance with area jeweler Paul Hargrave and had been out on a date with Hargrave the night before she mysteriously disappeared.
Investigators soon honed in on the two men in her life as the search for Crystal began.
Although both men were cooperative, investigators found reason to be suspicious of both.
After learning his ex-wife was missing, Chambers County Deputy Cody Hammes told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” that Steve’s mannerisms seemed unusual.
“[He] didn’t appear to be acting normal, per say,” Hammes recalled.
Although the couple was already divorced, detectives also noticed that Steve was still wearing his wedding ring and almost seemed cocky.
Yet Hargrave’s behavior in the days after his new love interest disappeared had also raised suspicion.
“He told us the last time he’d seen her was [when] he was getting in the shower and she had gotten dressed and left,” Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said.
Hargrave provided surveillance footage of Crystal walking inside his home, getting into her car, and driving away — but he gave it to the national media before ever passing the footage on to law enforcement authorities.
Both men also failed a polygraph test.
Then, just as the investigation was getting underway, the hurricane struck.
“I had no other choice but to divert some of the resources to rescuing our citizens,” Hawthorne said of the investigation. “When you have this kind of a storm and this much devastation, you could never have enough manpower.”
While the storm raged on, Crystal’s cousin Jade got a text from someone who said Crystal’s vehicle had been spotted sitting in the parking lot of a local Motel 6, even providing a photo of the car that clearly showed Crystal’s license plate number just above the surging water.
Detectives commandeered an air boat that was out doing rescues to retrieve the car, which had been parked haphazardly with the keys left inside.
Authorities believed it had been left as bait, but with the rising storm waters, no would-be thief had been able to make off with the vehicle.
It was the critical key that investigators needed to piece the crime together.
While pouring through surveillance footage from nearby businesses, investigators found footage of the car being backed into the motel parking lot around 6:37 a.m. on Aug. 26, 2017. Just five hours later, Steve is spotted pulling his rare Mustang into a nearby gas station, but instead of filling up his tank, he walked toward the motel’s parking lot, seemingly checking to see if the car was still there.
Investigators also found surveillance footage of a hooded figure riding a bike through the rain near the drop-off scene. They uncovered more surveillance videos from a Walmart across the freeway that showed a man, matching Steve’s description, purchasing the bike in cash that same morning.
“When we saw him riding a bike, we said, ‘That’s what he did. He walked across the interstate to Walmart. He bought the bike, a Red Bull, and a pack of cigarettes,” Lieck said.
But even with the damaging footage, Steve continued to insist he hadn’t hurt his ex-wife. They let him return home to the couple’s children, but authorities were becoming increasingly concerned for the children’s safety after uncovering that shortly after the divorce Steve had threatened to carry out a murder-suicide.
In a bold move, Lieck decided to take the children into protective custody and told Steve he wouldn’t be able to see the children again unless he took them to his ex-wife’s body.
Steve told investigators that he wanted to go home that night but would return the next day to confess everything. Although authorities worried that he might try to harm himself, Steve did come in for questioning the following day and admitted to choking his ex-wife to death during a heated argument.
“I did not mean to hurt her,” he said in the interrogation tape. “I love her.”
After killing Crystal, Steve said he wrapped her body in a blanket and placed it inside the trunk of her own Mercedes. But before he would agree to give up the location of her body, Steve asked that the death penalty be removed from the table.
“We don’t find Crystal without his help,” Texas Ranger Steven Jeter of why authorities ultimately agreed to the deal.
Steve led law enforcement authorities to a remote wooded area where they found the decomposed remains of the missing mom.
It seemed the case had come to a close, but Steve would make one more desperate move to try to get a reduced sentence. At trial, his attorneys argued that he met the definition of a sudden passion defense — a distinction under Texas law reserved for those crimes committed in the heat of the moment.
According to Lieck, if it's determined a crime of passion was committed, the sentence is significantly reduced to anywhere from two years behind bars to a maximum of 20 years in prison.
“I don’t care how henpecked somebody might be or how much they say they are, which in my opinion he was not, that was a ploy,” she said of the defense strategy. “It’s still no excuse to kill anybody. I mean, that is what divorce is for and they were already divorced.”
To combat the legal maneuver, Lieck introduced heart-breaking testimony from the couple’s own daughter who testified in a videotaped statement that her parents had been arguing about Crystal seeing another man when Steve pushed her down and choked her to death as her daughter looked on.
The jury agreed with prosecutors and rejected the sudden passion defense. Steve was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Investigators now say if the hurricane hadn’t stopped someone from stealing Crystal’s black Mercedes, they may never have been able to piece the crime together.
“His plan fell apart with the rain,” Jeter said.
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