Suspect repeatedly slipped through cracks
Published: Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 6:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 6:21 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — When Los Angeles cold case detectives caught up with Sam McDowell this past fall, he was living in a Christian shelter in Kentucky, his latest arrest a few months earlier for alleged possession of a crack pipe.
But the LA investigators wanted him on far more serious charges: the slayings of two women in 1989, both found strangled and nude below the waist — victims of what police concluded had been sexually motivated strangulations.
The name of Sam McDowell — or Samuel Little, as he was known in LA — came up, police said, after DNA evidence collected at old crime scenes matched samples of his stored in a criminal database. After detectives say they found yet another match, a third murder charge was soon added against McDowell.
Now, as the 72-year-old former boxer and transient awaits trial in Los Angeles, authorities in numerous jurisdictions in California, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Ohio are scouring their own cold case files for possible ties to McDowell. One old murder case, in Pascagoula, Miss., already has been reopened. DNA results are pending in some others.
McDowell's more than 100-page rap sheet details crimes in 24 states spread over 56 years — mostly assault, burglary, armed robbery, shoplifting and drug violations. In that time, authorities say incredulously, he served less than 10 years in prison.
But Los Angeles detectives allege he was also a serial killer, who traveled the country preying on prostitutes, drug addicts and troubled women.
They assert McDowell often delivered a knockout punch to women and then proceeded to strangle them while masturbating, dumping the bodies and soon after leaving town. Their investigation has turned up a number of cases in which he was a suspect or convicted.
Police are using those old cases — and tracking down surviving victims — to help build their own against McDowell.
"We see a pattern, and the pattern matches what he's got away with in the past," said LAPD Detective Mitzi Roberts.
McDowell has pleaded not guilty in the three LA slayings, and in interviews with detectives after his September arrest he described his police record as "dismissed, not guilty, dismissed."
"I just be in the wrong place at the wrong time with people," he said, according to an interview transcript reviewed by The Associated Press.
Still, as more details emerge, so do more questions. Among them: How did someone with so many encounters with the law, suspected by prosecutors and police officers of killing for decades, manage to escape serious jail time?
"It's the craziest rap sheet I've ever seen," said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman, who has worked many serial killer cold cases. "The fact that he hasn't spent a more significant period of his life (in custody) is a shocking thing. He's gotten break after break after break."
Deputy Public Defender Michael Pentz, who represents McDowell, declined to comment.
Authorities have pieced together a 24-page timeline tracking McDowell's activity across the country since his birth. His rap sheet has helped them pinpoint his location sometimes on a monthly basis. Law enforcement agencies are now cross-referencing that timeline with cold case slayings in their states.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is leading a review of that state's unsolved murders and helping coordinate the effort among 12 jurisdictions. The department published an intelligence bulletin alerting authorities in Florida, Alabama and Georgia about McDowell's case, noting he lived in the area on and off in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
"We strongly encouraged them to look at any unresolved homicides that they had during those time frames and then consider him as a potential suspect," said Jeff Fortier, a special agent supervisor at the FDLE. The department is re-examining DNA evidence in about 15 cases that was collected before advances in forensic science allowed for thorough analysis, Fortier said.
"We are in the infancy stages of what we expect will be a protracted investigation," he said.
In Mississippi, Pascagoula cold case Detective Darren Versiga is re-investigating the killing of Melinda LaPree, a 22-year-old prostitute found strangled in 1982. McDowell had been arrested in that crime but never indicted, Versiga said. The detective has tracked down old witnesses and is working to reconstruct the case file because much of it was washed away during Hurricane Katrina.
McDowell grew up with his grandmother in Lorain, Ohio. His rap sheet shows his first arrest at age 16 on burglary charges. After serving time in a youth authority he was released and, months later, arrested again for breaking and entering.
In an hour- and 15-minute interview with Los Angeles detectives, McDowell spoke openly about his past and his time in the penitentiary, where he started boxing as a middleweight against the other inmates. "I used to be a prizefighter," he said.
In his late 20s, McDowell went to live with his mother in Florida and worked at the Dade County Department of Sanitation and, later, at a cemetery. Soon, he began traveling more widely and had more run-ins with the law; between 1971 and 1974 McDowell was arrested in eight states for crimes that included armed robbery, rape, theft, solicitation of a prostitute, shoplifting, DUI, aggravated assault on a police officer and fraud.
"I've been in and out of the penitentiary," he told the California officers.
"Well, for what?" a detective asked, to which McDowell responded: "Shoplifting and, uh, petty thefts and stuff."
Then came the 911 call of Sept. 11, 1976, in Sunset Hills, Mo.
Pamela Kay Smith was banging on the back door of a home, crying for help, naked below the waist with her hands bound behind her back with electrical cord and cloth. Smith, who was a drug addict, told officers that she was picked up by McDowell in St. Louis. She said he choked her from behind with electrical cord, forced her into his car, beat her unconscious, then drove to Sunset Hills and raped her.
Officers found McDowell, then 36, still seated in his car near the home where Smith sought refuge, with her jewelry and clothing inside. McDowell denied raping Smith, telling officers: "I only beat her." The case summary was recalled in court papers filed by prosecutors in Los Angeles.
McDowell was found guilty of assault with the intent to ravish-rape and was sentenced to three months in county jail. Pascagoula Detective Versiga, who reviewed the Smith case, believes McDowell may have pleaded to a lesser charge and received a shorter sentence because of the victim's lifestyle. The case file refers to Smith as a heroin addict who often failed to appear in court.
After that, the charges against McDowell grew more serious.
In Pascagoula, LaPree went missing in September 1982 after getting into a wood-paneled station wagon with a man witnesses later identified as McDowell. A month later her remains were found, and McDowell was arrested in her killing and the assault of two other prostitutes. Versiga believes grand jurors failed to indict in part because of the difficulty in determining a precise time of death but also because of credibility problems due to the victim and witnesses working as prostitutes.
McDowell, nevertheless, remained in custody and was extradited to Florida to be tried in the case of a slain Gainesville woman.
Patricia Ann Mount, 26 and mentally disabled, was found dead in the fall of 1982 in rural Forest Grove. Eyewitnesses described last seeing her leaving a Gainesville beer tavern with a man identified as McDowell in a wood-paneled station wagon.
According to The Gainesville Sun's coverage of the trial, a fiber analyst testified that hairs found on Mount's clothes "had the same characteristics as head hairs taken from" McDowell. But when cross-examined the analyst said "it was also possible for hairs to be transferred if two people bumped together."
A jury acquitted McDowell in January 1984.
By October 1984, McDowell was back in custody — this time in San Diego, accused in the attempted murder of two prostitutes who were kidnapped a month apart, driven to the same abandoned dirt lot, assaulted and choked. The first woman was left unconscious on a pile of trash but survived, according to court records. Patrol officers discovered McDowell in a car with the second woman and arrested him.
The two cases were tried jointly, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. McDowell later pleaded guilty to lesser charges of assault with great bodily injury and false imprisonment. He served about 2½ years of a four-year sentence and, in February 1987, he was released on parole.
As he told the LA detectives in his interview, McDowell then moved to Los Angeles, where three more women were soon discovered dead: Carol Alford, 41, found on July 13, 1987; Audrey Nelson, 35, found on Aug. 14, 1989; and Guadalupe Apodaca, 46, found on Sept. 3, 1989. All were manually strangled.
It is for those slayings that McDowell now stands charged. No trial date has been set. If convicted, McDowell would face a minimum of life in prison without parole, though prosecutors said they may seek the death penalty.
When the case landed on Detective Roberts' desk, she had no idea it would grow from two local cold case slayings to a cross-country probe into the past of a man with some 75 arrests. As she studied her suspect, Roberts also began calling agencies that had dealt with McDowell most recently.
He had been arrested on May 1, 2012, by sheriff's deputies in Lake Charles, La., for possession of a crack pipe and released with an upcoming court date. At Roberts' request, deputies tried finding him but came up empty. Then last September deputies called with a hit tracing an ATM purchase by McDowell to a Louisville, Ky., minimart. Within hours he was found at a nearby shelter.
In his interview with police, McDowell said he didn't recognize the slain LA women. Detectives said that DNA collected from semen on upper body clothing or from fingernail scrapings connect him to the crimes.
Roberts and others who've investigated McDowell through the years said some cases may not have gone forward because DNA testing wasn't available until the mid-1980s and, even when it was, wouldn't have been useful in these cases unless authorities tested clothing, fingernails or body swabs. Due to this perpetrator's particular modus operandi, DNA wouldn't necessarily be found through standard rape kit collection.
Even in those cases that did go to trial, they said, jurors may have found the victims less credible because of their backgrounds, and the witnesses — often prostitutes — in some cases disappeared. Because McDowell was also a transient, Roberts said: "I don't think he stuck in a lot of people's minds much."
"But what's different now, we're just not going to allow that to happen," she said. "I think we owe it to the victims. I think we owe it to the families."
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