A disappointingly light prison sentence for their loved one’s killer seems like a drop in the bucket to the family of Crystal Seratte McDowell, a bisexual blonde beauty whose ex-husband caused her to vanish on the morning of August 25, 2017, as Hurricane Harvey barreled toward Houston.
Steven McDowell was convicted this summer of first-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison for strangling Crystal to death, a crime he didn’t confess to until two weeks after dumping her body in the marshy woods of Chambers County.
When the sentence was announced, Crystal’s uncle, Jeff Walters, shouted “He deserves worse!” from the courtroom’s crowded gallery, as other relatives and friends gasped. They believe Crystal’s killer should have faced the death penalty or life in prison for capital murder.
“So many things in the investigation
and the prosecution of this case don’t make any sense,” Walters, who is gay, tells OutSmart. “They were handled wrong from the beginning.”
Throughout the trial (whose venue was changed to Galveston at Steven’s request), a number of witnesses referenced Walters as “Uncle Jeff,” a beloved fixture in Crystal’s life.
However, Walters says, “In two years, the district attorney’s office never interviewed me.” Many in the courtroom felt that a public feud between Walters and the sheriff of Chambers County, regarding his department’s slow response to investigating the case, kept the DA, Cheryl Lieck, from calling Walters to testify. It was a tactical mistake that she would later regret at trial when Lieck was blindsided by testimony from the defendant.
Crystal’s family members also blasted Chambers County for not immediately removing the couple’s two young children from Steven’s custody, when evidence pointed directly to him as the killer. Moreover, Steven had threatened to kill the children (along with himself) if Crystal didn’t leave her new boyfriend and come back to him. The couple’s young daughter, Maui, was only five when she saw Steven strangle Crystal, who tried to say “Help” as she turned her head to Maui. “But I couldn’t hear her. She looked at me sadly,” the child testified. Steven warned Maui to go to her room and not tell anyone what happened, including her brother.
Today, the kids are alright as Maui and her brother, Madden, now 10, were placed with Crystal’s former girlfriend, Mandy Avalos, as their conservator.
“I am going to adopt them as soon as I can get the paperwork signed,” says Avalos. “It’s almost like they have always been mine. Crystal always referred to them as ‘our babies.’”
Avalos, who now lives with the children in Las Vegas, met Crystal when they were seniors at rival high schools in Baytown. “We were girlfriends for eight and a half years,” sometimes dancing the night away at South Beach in Montrose.
On the morning that Crystal was killed, Avalos awoke with a start, sensing that something was wrong with Crystal, even though she was some 1,500 miles away. Avalos called and texted Crystal throughout the day, but Crystal didn’t reply because she was dead. “Instantly, I tried to book a flight to Houston, but all flights were canceled due to the hurricane,” said Avalos. “I am not one to sound the alarm, but I knew something was wrong.”
Five days later, Avalos was able to fly to Houston and travel to the scene of the crime, where Steven invited her into his home and allowed her to visit the children.
The Search for Crystal
Meanwhile, Crystal’s family in Baytown grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of interest the Chambers County Sheriff’s Department seemed to show in searching for Crystal.
It wasn’t her ex-husband or her boyfriend, but Walters who reported that Crystal was missing, phoning from a motel near Waco where he was fleeing the onset of Hurricane Harvey with his elderly aunt and her disabled son. However, when he was unable to contact Crystal, Walters returned to Baytown, frantic to stop Steven from carrying out his threats to kill himself and the children.
On Saturday, August 26, the day after Crystal went missing, Walters and two other relatives confronted Steven at his home in Mont Belvieu, in Chambers County. Although Steven and Crystal were divorced, she had been living there, along with the children, while her townhome in Baytown was being renovated. Steven claimed that Crystal hadn’t come home for a week, but Maui confided to “Uncle Jeff” that she had hugged her mother for the last time the day before. In addition, a sheriff’s deputy saw Crystal’s black dress in the washer, indicating that she had been home recently. Also, Crystal’s handbag and purse were there.
Frustrated with the sheriff’s department and Houston TV stations who weren’t pursuing the story, Walters and Crystal’s boyfriend posted a $15,000 reward and turned to social media, which resulted in a tip that Crystal’s Mercedes was found parked at a Motel 6 in Mont Belvieu with its doors unlocked and keys in the ignition, as if the killer hoped that it would be stolen.
Social media also piqued the interest of Ashleigh Banfield, who hosts a true-crime talk show on HSN, a news channel that is owned by CNN. Walters says, “Someone from her office called and asked me if I would cooperate with them, and I said, ‘Anything to help find Crystal, because nobody here seems interested.’ Right before the interview started, she told me that the Chambers County sheriff would be on with us. I told him that it took the family to find Crystal’s car, and that’s when he got upset.”
Special reports by 48 Hours on CBS and 20/20 on ABC fueled the feud between Walters and the sheriff, who told the TV reporters that Walters was a suspect in Crystal’s disappearance.
Crystal’s family endured almost two years of waiting before the trial of Steven McDowell began in June. Immediately, their spirits were tested when Lieck described to the jury that Crystal was a doomed soul whose parents named her after their drug of choice, crystal methamphetamine.
“That isn’t true. She was named by her grandmothers,” says Walters.
Further, the court let Steven read aloud to the jury a string of lewd text messages which Crystal supposedly sent to her lovers while still married to him. The texts were unverified and should have been deemed inadmissible by the rules of evidence.
“Everything Steven said was a lie,” said Avalos, including his claim that, on the morning of August 25, he and Crystal had made love in the master bedroom and that he had accidentally “hugged her to death.”
At the next break, the DA dashed into the hall outside the courtroom to find Walters and ask him if he would testify. She had specifically indicted Steven for “strangling” Crystal and wasn’t prepared for his attempt to beat the rap by claiming that she died in a different manner. Lieck needed Walters’ inside knowledge of Crystal’s life with Steven to convince the jury they couldn’t believe anything Steven said.
“If just one juror believes his story, we’re cooked,” Lieck later explained to NBC’s Dateline.
The DA returned to the courtroom and ripped into Steven’s testimony, destroying his credibility with a fare-thee-well. With her confidence restored, she decided she didn’t need Walters’ testimony after all.
In the aftermath of the trial, Walters says, he is happy that his niece’s children seem safe and sound with Avalos.
“I was upset at first because they were being taken away from their family,” he says. “But apparently they are adapting really well, and I am thankful that Mandy is providing a place for them.”
Avalos is happy that a 50-year sentence means Steven McDowell won’t be eligible for parole for at least 25 years. “I’m okay with that, because the kids will be grown. I feel like the DA was very passionate and she did an amazing job, and I will forever be grateful to her and her team. The whole time, I was taking notes and recording Steven and forwarding them to the DA’s office. Steven thought that he was fooling me, but I was fooling him the whole time.”
This article appears in the August 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.