Friends, kin describe defendant as caring, generous
TRURO -- Christopher M. McCowen, the man accused of raping and murdering Cape Cod fashion writer Christa Worthington three years ago, was a ''playboy" notorious for having many girlfriends, family members and friends said yesterday, but he was also described by those who knew him as a caring father, hard worker, and generous friend who would not commit murder.
A more complex picture of the 33-year-old former trash hauler began to emerge yesterday, one day after the Hyannis man was charged with the high-profile 2002 murder and pleaded not guilty. While authorities pointed to his criminal record, which includes jail time for burglary in Florida and at least four restraining orders issued against him by women on Cape Cod, many of those who knew him painted a picture of a personable, positive man who was honest about his past and his troubled relationships with women.
Meanwhile, residents of the Truro area -- including some who lived under a cloud of suspicion for the unsolved murder -- began to absorb the significance of the arrest, and the possibility of a conclusion to a story that has consumed the tiny Outer Cape community since the cold night it happened.
Tim Arnold, a former boyfriend who discovered Worthington's body -- and who was repeatedly interviewed by police about the murder -- declined to comment yesterday, saying only that he felt relieved by McCowen's arrest one minute and incredibly ''down" the next. Arnold, a children's book illustrator, bore a heavy burden during the long investigation, his friends and his lawyer said yesterday.
''Tim has suffered a great deal," said Russell Redgate, his lawyer. ''Now, thank God, vindication seems complete."
But as news of the arrest reached people who knew McCowen, they reacted with disbelief that their son, friend, and former colleague could have committed the crime.
David Nichols of Eastham, a close friend and the godfather of McCowen's 4-year-old daughter, said McCowen might have had a relationship with Worthington, but not as a precursor to murder. The murder ''is just not Chris," he said. ''He confided in me a lot. I don't think he did this."
McCowen was ''flabbergasted" when he was asked for a DNA sample three months after Worthington was killed, said Nichols.
Police arrested McCowen Thursday night at the Hyannis rooming house where he lives, after linking him to the Truro crime scene with a DNA sample. Investigators have not suggested a motive, but said McCowen knew Worthington only from his weekly stop at her home on his trash-collection route. Ordered held without bail, McCowen was described by his lawyer as ''somber" on Friday. A bail hearing has been scheduled for May 3, his lawyer said.
The arrest ended three years of rampant speculation about the murder, talk that was fueled by the investigation's early focus on Worthington's past romantic partners. It was Arnold who discovered her half-undressed body on her kitchen floor, as many as two days after the 46-year-old former New Yorker was stabbed to death. Worthington's unharmed 2-year-old daughter was found nearby. The child's father, a married man, also was questioned.
Yesterday, those who know McCowen pointed to missing pieces in the story told by police.
''How did he get into the house? Was there a sign of a break-in? They've been waiting so long to solve this, and now they've got the DNA and they say: Case solved," McCowen's father, Roy H. McCowen of Woodbridge, Va., said in a telephone interview yesterday. ''He is innocent until proven guilty."
Some on the Cape wondered yesterday why McCowen did not run away after the murder if he was guilty.
''Why would you hang around if you killed a woman?" asked Tim Rose, manager of the town transfer station in Truro where McCowen dropped off the trash he collected for Cape Cod Disposal. McCowen held the job for about a year, until June 2002, months after the murder.
Born with a mild form of epilepsy, McCowen was raised by his paternal grandmother in Oklahoma, his father said, because his mother, who was 18 when he was born, couldn't care for him. The elder McCowen, now 55, said he later moved to Florida with a new wife, and the couple took custody of Chris, as he was known, when he was 15.
In recent years, Roy McCowen said, he talked to his son twice a month, often about football. He last saw him two years ago, when Chris -- who has two daughters, ages 4 and 12, according to his father -- came home for his stepsister's high school graduation.
''He hadn't really found himself yet," Roy McCowen said. But ''you couldn't help but like him because of his positive attitude."
McCowen, who learned of the arrest from news reports, described his son as a ''playboy" and ''a young man who likes women," but said he had never been violent. ''He would never murder a woman and leave her with a child. That's out of character," he said. ''It's just very difficult for us to imagine that he's in the trouble he's in. And he's definitely in trouble."
Police said that McCowen had moved frequently in recent years, complicating their efforts to collect his DNA sample. Nichols said McCowen did work for the Cape-based Christmas Tree Shops, cooked at a Cape restaurant, and worked most recently for a moving company.
His history with police on Cape Cod included an arrest in Wellfleet in 1999 for pulling a former girlfriend's car door open as she drove past him, shattering a window. Last February, the mother of his 4-year-old daughter asked for a restraining order after he threatened to ''snap her neck," the Hyannis woman said in court papers.
Nichols met McCowen at a local bar in 1998. Later, when Nichols was injured and needed a place to live, McCowen and his girlfriend took him in. The two men would play pool and basketball together and debate football, especially the Miami Dolphins, McCowen's favorite team. McCowen was an usher at an American Cancer Society benefit at an Eastham hotel three years ago that Nichols, a part-time comic, hosted.
McCowen's current girlfriend also doubted he could have committed a brutal murder.
''I just don't see him doing something like this," said Callie Duryea. ''I never had a problem with him. He was always very calm. We never argued, we never fought, he never raised his voice. Sure, everybody gets upset and angry every once in a while, but he never displayed that type of anger."
Duryea, mother of two grown children, said McCowen was a kind man and a good father to his two kids, helping them with homework and recently painting Easter eggs with them. She believes the authorities were so anxious to solve a murder that had been lingering for three years that they picked the wrong suspect.
She said she fears McCowen will be convicted because he is black and has a record.
''I'd really like to see some bigwig lawyer do us a favor and take his case," she said. ''I have a very strange feeling they're going to stick it to him."
Duryea said she would brave public opinion and the negative opinion of her family and friends to support McCowen.
Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com. Matt Viser of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Connie Paige contributed to this report.