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John "Jack" McDowell

Other New Mexico exonerations
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On Sunday, July 10, 2011, 35-year-old James Chavez was fatally stabbed in a home on Idaho Creek Road in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. The house was in shambles and apparently methamphetamine had been manufactured there. Chavez’s body was found on the kitchen floor, which was covered in red sulphur, an ingredient used to make the illicit drug.

Police said that one bedroom contained a ripped mattress and piles of animal feces. The smell of animal waste was so strong that the officers had to step outside for air. During their search, they found a cell phone belonging to a woman named Casey Williams. Several knives were found in the house, but none was linked to the crime. A knife sheath was examined for fingerprints, but no usable images were developed. DNA tests performed on blood were not helpful—only Chavez’s DNA was identified.

Police became aware that two or three weeks earlier, Chavez had reported to police that he had been in an altercation with 34-year-old John McDowell at the Idaho Creek Road residence. Chavez claimed that an armed McDowell threatened to kill him. Searching the home, police found correspondence between Chavez’s ex-wife, Catherine, and John McDowell.

Police located Casey Williams in Albuquerque. She said that on Friday, July 8, she and Chavez drove to Santa Fe for the funeral of Chavez’s father. However, they stayed up all night smoking methamphetamine and went to the casino. When they went to the Chavez family home, they learned the funeral had already taken place, so they drove back to Albuquerque. Along the way, Chavez said he was trying to clean up the Idaho Creek Road house and that his employer had said he would help Chavez get the house out of foreclosure if Chavez would clean it up. Williams said she dropped off Chavez at the house and went to get cleaning supplies.

She said she returned with her boyfriend, David Dinelli, after dark. She said she, Chavez, and Dinelli smoked some methamphetamine and then began removing trash. She said she was talking to her friend on her cell phone when three men entered the front door without warning.

The first man in—later identified as Anthony Villagomez—was carrying a sawed-off shotgun. She described the other two as an older man and a younger man with blond hair.

Dinelli walked out of a bedroom, saw the men, and jumped out of a window. Williams said Villagomez forced Williams down a hallway and into the garage. She said she was unable to see what happened, but she heard an argument and that Chavez said, “I got it” and “Don’t worry.” One of the men said something about not knowing who he was stealing from. She then heard a shriek and nothing else. The older man came to the door leading to the garage, pointed either his finger or a knife at her, and said, “Not a word.” All three men then left.

Williams said she went into the kitchen and found Chavez struggling to breathe. She walked outside and Dinelli “popped out of the bushes.” Williams said she went back inside and Chavez was dead. She said she and Dinelli then drove away. Dinelli was interviewed and said he had been knocked unconscious by one of the men. He later admitted that was false and that he had just run away.

The investigation went cold after that, although the lead detective, Richard Romero, continued pursuing possible leads. In June 2012, federal agents arrested Catherine Chavez on drug and weapons charges. Romero showed up at her interrogation and began asking questions about her ex-husband’s murder. He told her she faced up to 30 years on the federal charges and possibly life in prison for the murder of Chavez.

After a break and a consultation with her attorney, Catherine was granted immunity from prosecution. She gave a statement that John McDowell and Villagomez went to the Idaho Creek Road house to beat up Chavez because John believed Chavez had been stealing property that John stored at the house. The killing was not part of the plan, she said, but happened when Chavez rushed at John and Villagomez with a knife.

She said that she and Chavez had ended their relationship in 2009 and that Chavez went to prison at that time. Subsequently, she began dating John McDowell, who was nicknamed “Blade” because he was good with a knife, and they moved into the Idaho Creek Road home. When her divorce from Chavez was finalized in early 2011, she and Chavez were each awarded a half-interest in the home.

At that time, Williams moved into an apartment as part of an agreement with child welfare officials so she could regain custody of her two children. Under the agreement, John McDowell was prohibited from living with her. However, she said, John surreptitiously moved in with her anyway. At the same time, however, he continued to store personal belongings, including furniture, dirt bikes, a revolver, knife collections, and tools at the Idaho Creek Road home.

By the summer of 2011, John’s property began to disappear from the home. He and Catherine suspected that Chavez, who had been released from prison, was responsible.

On the night of July 9, 2011, Catherine said she and John went to a casino and then she dropped him off at the home of Villagomez. On her way home, she drove past the Idaho Creek Road and saw several vehicles that she did not recognize parked outside.

She said she called John and told him. Ten minutes later, Villagomez and John arrived along with John’s father, John “Jack” McDowell, who was a retired New Mexico state police officer. All three were riding motorcycles. She said she drove off as they pulled up.

A few minutes later, as she was arriving at her apartment, John called and told her to come back. She said that when she returned, John threw a knife with a blade of eight or nine inches into the back seat of her vehicle. She said she buried the knife in the desert. It was never found.

After Catherine gave her statement, Villagomez was placed under surveillance. Not long after, Villagomez was arrested on federal weapons and drug charges. Romero showed up at Villagomez’s interrogation and told Villagomez he knew that he was involved in the Chavez murder. Villagomez refused to answer questions. However, eight months later, he was granted immunity and implicated himself, as well as John and Jack McDowell, in the murder.

On January 15, 2013, police arrested 56-year-old Jack McDowell and his son, John. They were charged with first-degree murder, aggravated burglary, and tampering with evidence.

In November 2014, Jack McDowell went to trial in Sandoval County District Court. The prosecution’s case centered on the testimony of Villagomez, Williams, and Catherine Chavez.

Villagomez testified that on the night of the crime, before they went to the Idaho Creek Road home, he took the sawed-off shotgun from John and removed the shells because he did not want it to be used. The purpose of visiting Chavez, he said, was to beat him up and force him to return John’s stolen property.

Williams testified that Villagomez took her cell phone and identification before taking her to the garage where he remained with her, leaving the door open.

Villagomez’s testimony on that event differed. He told the jury that he forced Williams into the garage after Jack McDowell took her cell phone and identification from her. Villagomez said he shut the door to the garage.

Villagomez said John McDowell and Chavez began fighting hand to hand, knocking over the kitchen table, spilling red sulphur onto the floor. Both men kept slipping on the powder, and during the struggle, Chavez’s pants fell to his knees.

Villagomez said that after a few minutes, both men stopped. They were out of breath and did not appear to be injured. Villagomez said John McDowell walked toward him and said something about “the girl.” He said he told John that she was in the garage and would keep quiet. Villagomez said at that point, Jack McDowell walked up to Chavez and stabbed him.

He said it “happened so fast and it wasn’t supposed to go that way.” Villagomez testified that they planned to “beat the dude up, tell him to take us to the stuff. That was it. No one was supposed to die that day.”

Villagomez said that Jack McDowell told him that the girl [Williams] “needs to go; no witnesses.” Villagomez said that because he had Williams’s cell phone and identification, she wouldn’t say anything. He said that Jack told him later that the knife and some clothes had been buried “out on the mesa” by “an acquaintance.”

Dr. Ian Paul, a forensic pathologist, testified that Chavez suffered traumatic injuries, including a tear on the back of his head, bruises on the front part of his neck, small scrapes on the bottom of his front left abdomen, and scrapes on his left hand. Chavez had defensive wounds on the inside of his left wrist and on the third through fifth fingers of his right hand that were consistent with him grabbing a knife or defending against a knife. Chavez was stabbed once in the abdomen and twice in the chest.

Catherine Chavez testified about seeing the cars at the home, calling John and waiting there until he arrived with Jack and Villagomez.

Catherine also testified that Jack McDowell told her that Chavez did not have a knife, that John and Chavez fought, that John left the room, and that Jack stood over Chavez until he took his last breath. She did not testify that Jack told her he stabbed Chavez.

Detective Romero testified that three or four shoe prints were taken, but that none of the prints could be connected to either Jack or John McDowell or Villagomez. He also said that a knife sheath found underneath Chavez’s body was submitted for DNA testing, but only Chavez’s DNA was found.

The prosecutor attempted to elicit testimony from Romero that after the detective arrested Jack and his son, they were taken to the police station.

“Now, after you made these arrests and after you went back to the station to conduct interviews, Jack McDowell had already invoked his right to counsel, correct?” the prosecutor asked.

“No,” Romero said. “He did that when I went to interview him in the interview room.”

“After that, what you know as an officer, what are you to do when someone does that?” the prosecutor asked.

“Not question them in regards to what I'm investigating,” Romero replied.

The prosecutor then attempted to elicit testimony from Romero that Jack McDowell spontaneously said, “My life is over.”

However, McDowell’s lawyer objected and that testimony was not allowed. In the process of further questioning, the prosecutor twice noted that because McDowell had asked for a lawyer, Romero could not question him any further.

During closing argument, the prosecutor said that Catherine had testified because she wanted to “come clean.” Villagomez testified that he was doing so because he wanted “the truth to come out.”

On December 5, 2014, Jack McDowell was convicted of first-degree murder and tampering with evidence. The aggravated burglary charge had been dismissed during the trial. He was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

In February 2015, John McDowell pled guilty to aggravated battery and tampering with evidence. He was sentenced to 9½ years in prison.

In January 2018, the New Mexico Supreme Court reversed Jack McDowell’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that the prosecutor had improperly commented on McDowell’s invocation of his right to remain silent.

“For decades, prosecutors have been prohibited from commenting on or eliciting testimony about a defendant's exercise of his or her right to remain silent,” the court declared. “The prosecutor commented twice on [McDowell’s] exercise of his right to counsel. As if to bring home to the jury the importance of [McDowell] doing so, the prosecutor elicited testimony that, as a result of [McDowell’s] request for an attorney, the detective could not question him further—which is a comment on [McDowell’s] right to remain silent.”

The court noted that the prosecutor not only questioned Romero twice about McDowell’s invocation of his right to an attorney, but “emphasized the import” of McDowell’s decision. Specifically, he elicited testimony from Romero that the invocation prevented Romero from getting information from McDowell—although he did get information from Villagomez, Catherine Chavez, and Casey Williams.

“This was the classic contrast—the innocent speak, while the guilty remain silent,” the court said.

In November 2019, Jack McDowell, represented by a different defense lawyer, Kathleen Rhinehart, went to trial a second time. The prosecution witnesses again testified. Rhinehart argued that John McDowell was the real killer—not his father. Rhinehart called two witnesses who were not presented at McDowell’s first trial.

A police officer testified that a few weeks before Chavez was killed, Chavez called police to report that John McDowell had pulled a gun on him and threatened to kill him.

And Jack McDowell’s first wife—the mother of John McDowell—told the jury that after her son was arrested, he called her from the jail and asked her to provide an alibi for him for the night Chavez was murdered. She told the jury that he wanted her to say that he and Catherine Chavez had been at her home for a barbeque that night. She said she refused to do so.

On November 27, 2019, the jury deliberated for about 90 minutes before acquitting Jack McDowell. He was then released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/10/2020
State:New Mexico
County:Sandoval
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2014
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:30 years to life
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:54
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No