Murder

Death on the Cape

UPDATED 01/28/2002 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/28/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

Tim Arnold arrived that Sunday afternoon of Jan. 6 simply to return a borrowed flashlight to his neighbor and ex-girlfriend Christa Worthington. But peering through the open front door of her shingled house in rural Truro, Mass., on Cape Cod, he made a grisly find. There was Worthington's daughter Ava, 2, clinging to her mother's bloodied, pajama-clad body. As Arnold, 45, drew closer to the toddler, he says, "she stretched out her arms and reached up to me." Whisking Ava outside, Arnold, trying to spare her, spelled out the news to his father, who had driven with him to the house: "I think she's d-e-a-d."

But it was far too late to shield the child from the horrible crime. In Truro's first murder in more than 30 years, Worthington, a 46-year-old fashion writer for some of the country's most revered style publications, had been fatally stabbed in the chest and might well have been dead for as long as 36 hours before Arnold's arrival. The back door had been kicked open and the lock broken, and inside homicide detectives found open cereal boxes, a bloodied cup and a child's stool and wet washcloth at the kitchen sink—indications that Ava may have tried to revive her lifeless mother. A medical exam confirmed that the child was physically unharmed, but when found, "she was in shock," says Arnold.

As were legions of friends and former colleagues from around the world who had known Worthington when she was a fixture on the fashion scene. After graduating from Vassar in 1977, Worthington, the daughter of Christopher Worthington, now 72, a retired attorney and former Massachusetts assistant attorney general, and his late wife, Gloria, went on to a successful career as a writer for Elle, W, Harper's Bazaar and The New York Times. In Paris in the early '80s, she also served a stint as acting editor of the fashion industry bible WWD. "She was a terrific reporter," recalls Marian McEvoy, editor of House Beautiful. "Christa could interview a rock and get it to say something quotable."

But by 1995, Worthington told friends that what she most longed for was not a high-powered career but a child. Soon she moved back to Massachusetts, where she cared for her ailing mother (who died of colon cancer in 1999) and settled in nearby Truro, close to relatives and friends. There she also entered into an affair with Tony Jackett, 51, a local fisherman and shellfish warden who was married and the father of six. She was nevertheless "ecstatic," says a friend, when she found herself pregnant.

In the two years since Ava's birth, the single mother was a familiar sight in Truro, taking her daughter shopping and to dance classes. But more recently, there were signs that she was trying to resume her career. "I think she was probably looking to her future, to create some security," says Joyce Johnson, 72, a retired freelance writer who talked with Worthington at a party on Dec. 21.

But she would never have the chance. In the wake of her murder police questioned the two most recent men in her life—Jackett and Arnold, a children's book author and illustrator (The Winter Mittens) who had briefly lived with Worthington and, by all accounts, remained friendly with her. But within a week of the discovery of her body, the case took an unexpected turn. Based on tips from Worthington's family and friends, police began questioning Elizabeth Porter, 29, the resident of a seedy Quincy, Mass., rooming house who has been linked to Worthington's father and made claims—falsely—that she and Christa were "stepsisters."

To date, authorities have refused to disclose results of their investigation. Still, should they catch the killer, the crime's legal resolution will hardly quell its lasting repercussions. For the time being Ava is living with a childhood friend of her mother's, Amyra Chase, 45, and her husband, Cliff, 46, whom Worthington designated as Ava's official guardians three months before her death. But Tony Jackett and his wife, Susan, who had ultimately developed an amicable relationship with Worthington and Ava, are also seeking custody of the little girl, pending results of a court-ordered paternity test. Complicating the matter is Ava's inheritance and the settlement of her mother's $700,000 estate.

Ava, of course, has no more grasp of the custody battle that now looms over her than she has of her mother's death. On the night after Worthington's body was found, Ava stayed at the nearby home of her babysitter Linda Schlecter. At one point, says Schlecter, the little girl turned to her and asked, "Has my mommy gotten up yet?"

Susan Schindehette
Anne Driscoll and Jennifer Longley in Cape Cod

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