Deadly trail continues as court cases crumble
Published: Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 8:27 p.m.
It was warm on the night of Sept. 16, 1982, when the Ford Pinto wagon noisily clawed into the parking lot of the King Williams motel in Pascagoula, Miss.
A small group of women were gathered in front of the adjacent laundromat. The driver called out to one of the women, “Miss, come here,” recalled Katherine Cousins.
The light-skinned black man with reddish-brown hair and smooth-talking demeanor offered to share his marijuana joint with Cousins as she got in his car.
Sam McDowell asked Cousins if she wanted “to date,” but she declined.
“I said, ‘Mister, I don't care for a date because I done run across one lunatic, and I don't want to run across another one,' ” she later told Pascagoula detectives.
Cousins previously had been badly beaten on a so-called date. She showed McDowell the scars around her neck.
“Why did he beat you?” McDowell inquired. “You take anything from him?”
Cousins assured McDowell she didn't believe in stealing, and the topic quickly changed to two other women, friends of Cousins, who were standing in the parking lot. “Those two right there, they're the type to take something from a man,” Cousins remembers McDowell telling her. “I don't want you. I want them. Now, I'm going to kill them if I can get them, but if you tell anybody I said this, I'm going to come back and kill you because I know you.”
Cousins asked McDowell for change to buy a Coke inside.
She got out of the car and quietly warned one woman not to get into the car with the stranger. She didn't have much of a chance to speak to 22-year-old Melinda “Mindy” LaPree. She watched nervously as LaPree climbed into the wagon.
Cousins hurried to the motel room where LaPree's boyfriend was lying with the couple's 3-week-old baby. She warned him to check on LaPree because she was about to leave with a crazy man. When LaPree's boyfriend got to the parking lot, the Pinto was gone.
Three weeks later, LaPree's badly decomposed body was discovered in a cemetery in the neighboring town of Gautier, Miss. It took months to identify her remains.
Cousins later admitted to police she was scared to tell LaPree's boyfriend exactly what McDowell had told her.
“I have no protection out here,” she opined. “If y'all are going to protect me, I can go with y'all to Mobile to help find him. That's where he said he was from.”
On Nov. 24, 1982, McDowell was picked up in nearby Ocean Springs, Miss., on a shoplifting charge. An older woman named Orelia Dorsey, 69, and an 18-year-old male were arrested with him. Detectives later would learn Dorsey had been traveling with McDowell, who also was known as Samuel Little, for at least 12 years. She was uncooperative and seemingly protective of McDowell.
“I believe she was in love with him,” said Pascagoula Detective Darren Versiga. “But I don't believe he loved anybody.”
In early August of that year, Dorsey convinced the teen's mother, a prostitute working out of a motel in Little Rock, Ark., that the pair could find work for her son. The teen spent most of his time driving for the pair during the months he was with them.
A sheriff's deputy from Pascagoula happened to be in the Ocean Springs Police Department offices when McDowell was brought in. The deputy immediately saw that McDowell fit the description of the suspect in their murder case.
The battered Pinto that McDowell had been using, with an Alabama tag, was found abandoned on the side of the highway in the neighboring town of Gautier.
After the arrest, Pascagoula police issued a nationwide bulletin to law enforcement agencies apprising them of McDowell and urging them to check their own files of unsolved murders for any possible links.
In Alachua County, Sheriff's Detective Greg Weeks and Sgt. Kenny Mack took the newly obtained photos of McDowell to Willie Mae Hodge's Beer Tavern in Gainesville, where their victim — Patricia Ann Mount — was last seen alive.
Women at the bar had told authorities that Mount left with a light-skinned black man with a stocky build and driving a noisy Pinto. When shown the photo of McDowell, Paulette Peppers said she recognized him. So did Irene Monts. Daffney Simmons, who snubbed McDowell when he tried to buy her a drink, picked him out of the photo lineup. She needed only three seconds.
But back in Pascagoula, the case against McDowell was falling apart. LaPree's remains, which were little more than bones, lacked the physical evidence needed to identify her killer. Cousins left town and never testified before the grand jury. Two other women who survived beatings and strangulation at the hands of a man they identified as McDowell came forward to testify after learning of LaPree's death. At the time of their attacks in 1980 and 1981, they sought medical care at an area hospital but never filed police reports.
The testimony of the two known prostitutes would not suffice, and the grand jury refused to indict McDowell in the slaying.
Authorities in Ocala at the same time were trying to solve the murder of Rosie Hill, 21, of Arcadia, who was found beaten, nude and strangled to death in a field in northwest Marion County in August 1982, about a month before the murder of Mount. Witnesses said a man fitting McDowell's description left the bar with Hill in a beat-up brown Pinto, with wood-grain panels. Authorities sent out a crime bulletin to law enforcement agencies linking the two slayings.
After the case in Pascagoula was dismissed, prosecutors determined that Alachua County had the best shot of succeeding in a trial. Mount's body had been discovered within hours of her slaying, and witnesses identified McDowell as the man they saw leave the bar with her the night she died.
Detectives Mack and Weeks interviewed the teen who traveled with McDowell during the critical time frame. He described McDowell's habit of leaving motel rooms at night and returning in the morning, as well as Dorsey's morning scrub-down of the car.
The teen also told the detectives how McDowell talked of using prostitutes for sex and then getting rid of them. Although McDowell never explained what he meant by ‘‘getting rid of'' them, he made it clear he never let them have his money. McDowell was adamant about not being taken advantage of despite his dozens of arrests for thefts and burglaries.
Investigators hoped that hair fibers found on Mount and the testimony from the teen would be enough to sustain a conviction.
McDowell was ordered extradited to Alachua County to face a charge of killing Mount. On July 20, 1983, Weeks and Mack traveled to Mississippi to retrieve McDowell.
“He was mean,” recalled Mack. “From the moment we sat down with him, we knew we were dealing with a cold and calculated killer.”
Weeks described McDowell as arrogant. “He would talk to us,” he recalled. “He'd sign away his rights, and he'd talk, but the moment we tried to talk about Patricia Mount he'd say, ‘I never saw her before. Nope, she's never been in my car.' ”
The trial began in Gainesville in late 1983, but the prosecution's key witness — the teen — could not be found. Prosecutors twice asked for the trial to be continued to allow for more time to track him down.
The Alachua County Sheriff's Office, in a last-ditch effort, sent a letter to police in Little Rock, Ark., the teen's last known location, asking for help in finding the key witness. The Sheriff's Office explained that it believed McDowell could be responsible for the deaths of as many as 60 women.
Unbeknownst to the investigators at the time, after the teen was released from custody on the shoplifting charge in Mississippi, he returned to Little Rock, where he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine. He was likely at sea during their search.
By January 1984, the trial proceeded without the teen's testimony. McDowell never took the stand in his own defense. But his public defender, John Kearns, poked holes in the physical evidence.
Limitations in DNA technology at the time meant the hair fiber analyst could confirm only that hairs retrieved from Mount's body had the same characteristics as hair samples taken from McDowell. However, the expert also had to admit that hairs were not as uniquely identifiable at the time as fingerprints. Furthermore, the analyst also admitted on the stand that the hair could have been transferred through two people bumping into each other. According to testimony from the state's own eyewitnesses at the bar, McDowell and Mount danced closely before leaving together.
The jury sat through the two-day trial and weighed the admittedly circumstantial evidence. Despite the prosecution's stated goal of getting McDowell off the street, in January 1984, the jury found him not guilty of killing Mount.
The decision took the jurors 30 minutes.
Within an hour of the verdict, McDowell was released from custody and back on the road.
McDowell wandered to multiple cities in at least 24 states over the next several decades. Orelia Dorsey traveled with him until she died of a brain aneurysm in Los Angeles in 1987.
This past January, Los Angeles Police Department detectives announced a DNA match for McDowell, under the name Samuel Little, on the bodies of three women found beaten and strangled to death in Los Angeles. The first was killed in 1987.
LAPD officials asked for help from the Alachua County Sheriff's Office in retrieving investigative files from the Mount case. Information provided by Linda Brown, the longtime ASO records bureau chief, helped detectives establish a timeline for Little/McDowell as well as details of the suspect's pattern of behavior.
The LAPD is urging authorities from any jurisdictions in the 24 identified states to re-examine any cold cases that match the profile of Little/McDowell's known victims. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is leading the effort in this state, looking into unsolved murders in at least 12 jurisdictions.
And in Pascagoula, prosecutors have reopened the LaPree murder investigation.