The Atlantic hurricane season of 2017 was the deadliest and costliest hurricane season of all time, largely due to three of the season’s hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Harvey in particular had a massive impact on the United States mainland.
Over the course of four days, more than 40 inches of rain fell in the Houston area, causing massive flooding, displacing tens of thousands of people, and leading to dozens of deaths. But in the midst of that natural disaster, there was a man-made human tragedy playing out.
One Big Difference
Crystal McDowell was a realtor living in Baytown, Texas. She lived with her two children and their father Steve. There was nothing remarkable about that situation except for one major omission: Crystal and Steve were divorced.
On Good Terms
After their divorce had been finalized in June, Crystal had helped her now ex-husband buy a house, indicating that they got along pretty well with one another. Then while Crystal’s townhouse was being remodeled, she went to stay with Steve.
Despite having split romantically, there were apparently no problems between the two. Just a few days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Crystal made a Facebook post that said: “I’ve never been happier in my whole life than I am right now … God is so good.”
Part of the reason that Crystal was feeling so happy was that she had a new relationship in her life. She’d started seeing a man named Paul, who was a well-known local jeweler. Aside from the coming hurricane, it seemed like everything was going as well as could be expected for her.
Not According to Plan
Then on the morning of August 25th, the day before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Crystal told her ex-husband Steve she was headed over to his house in order to pick up the kids to take them to Dallas. But apparently, something happened between when they spoke and when she was supposed to show up.
She Never Came
Steve said that Crystal never showed up to pick up the kids. Her family went into something of a panic as it was completely unlike her to do something like that. When she didn’t show up all day, they felt they had no choice but to come forward and tell police that she was missing.
But when the rain began falling on Texas, police would have their hands full dealing with one of the worst natural disasters the state had ever seen. Very little investigative work could be done to try and find Crystal as countless tons of water flooded the state.
Crystal never showed up during the storm and in the days that followed, her disappearance began to gather national attention and sparked as large a manhunt as could be mustered under the circumstances. As more and more time passed and no signs of Crystal were found, it became more and more likely that she had been killed.
Slew of Suspects
If Crystal had been killed, it was difficult to determine exactly who was behind her death. Investigators developed a list of persons of interest that included as many as ten different people at one point, including her uncle, her ex-husband, and her new boyfriend Paul Hargrave.
Beneath the Surface
As the police investigation continued, they found more and more evidence that suggested that the situation between Crystal and Steve wasn’t as congenial as it seemed. Like any couple that had gotten divorced, there were problems between them but they uncovered things worse than just simple arguments.
In the months before her disappearance, there was one occasion where Steve had apparently threatened to kill them both and their children too, according to court papers investigators uncovered.
More Than Words
There was another occasion where Crystal had called police after Steve had allegedly threatened to hurt himself and the children. She’d made the panicked 911 call after she found out one of the kids hadn’t shown up for school.
“We tried locating him but didn’t have any luck,” said police spokesman Steve Dorris. “But the next day he brought the kids back.” Crystal had decided not to file charges after that event.
Her Cell Phone
The first big break in the case came when police were able to get Crystal’s phone records and tracked down the final ping from her cell phone. They were able to find her phone in a marshy area and several days later, found her flooded car in a Motel 6 parking lot near Interstate 10.
At that point, it was nearly two weeks after Crystal had gone missing. Whether it was the moral weight of what he had done or the inevitability of the police investigation uncovering the truth, Steve McDowell broke down and made a tearful confession: he had killed his ex-wife.
The Real Story
Contrary to what Steve initially said, Crystal did make it to his home on the morning of August 25th. According to Steve, the two of them had gotten into a fight and he had strangled his ex-wife in a fit of rage inside the home that she had helped him buy.
They Didn’t See
Steve then stashed Crystal’s body in the home overnight and disposed of it the next morning along with her car and cell phone. Though the children were home at the time, investigators believe that they remained asleep through the entire ordeal and didn’t see or hear their mother’s death or the aftermath.
“He is a little emotional, but he said very little,” Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said of Steve after his arrest. “He has been 100 percent cooperative. He was a person of interest as were others and every person involved, including Mr. McDowell, has been very cooperative.”
“I believe [Steve] knew exactly what he was doing. I think he knew the storm was coming in and this would help cover his tracks,” Crystal’s boyfriend Paul Hargrave said. “I think I had a lot to do with his decision to do this and I can’t help but feel responsible for that.”
While Crystal’s family was glad to finally know what had happened to her, they were naturally devastated to find out that she was gone forever and a man who was once a part of their family was behind it all. “She is a light in the heavens that can never be extinguished,” said her uncle Jeff Walters. “She is an angel that watches over us all with that bright smile.”