Murder on Cape Cod: a Break in the Case

updated 05/02/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was a phone call Jan Worthington had awaited for the more than three years since her cousin Christa Worthington was found murdered in her Truro, Mass., home. Still, when she got the call April 14 with news of an arrest, "I was shocked," says Jan, 53. "You're in a suspended state when something's unresolved for so long."

Which raises a question: Why did it take so long? When Worthington, 46, was found dead on Jan. 6, 2002, police seemed to focus their investigation mostly on men who had been romantically involved with the stylish former fashion writer and single mother of a 2-year-old daughter. Yet the suspect they finally arrested, former trash hauler Christopher McCowen, 33, had no known relationship with Worthington, other than collecting her garbage. Furthermore, it turns out that in the months after the murder, police interviewed McCowen, says Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe. In fact, says O'Keefe, McCowen had agreed as early as April 2002 to give a DNA sample. But investigators did not obtain the sample until March 2004—blaming his frequent movements around the Cape and the large number of possible suspects—and didn't test it until more than a year later, on April 7, when it proved a match to semen found on Worthington's body. Though O'Keefe faulted a backlog at the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab (see box), Russell Redgate, lawyer for Tim Arnold, the ex-boyfriend who found Worthington's body, says if police knew of McCowen's record—which includes convictions for auto theft and burglary—"they should have told the crime lab, 'We want the results next week.' "

Instead, relatives and loved ones were left wondering who could have murdered Worthington, who wrote for magazines like Elle and Harper's Bazaar : and had left her high-flying career in 1998 to settle in rural Truro. One of the first people police questioned was Tony Jackett, 55, a fisherman and shellfish constable—and married father of six—who had an affair with Worthington and fathered her daughter Ava. Police also interviewed Arnold, 47, a children's book author and illustrator, who said he was returning a flashlight the afternoon in January 2002 when he came upon the grisly sight of Ava next to the lifeless body of her mother, who had been stabbed more than a day earlier. "Mommy fell down," the toddler reportedly told Arnold.

Last winter police appeared desperate as they began collecting random DNA samples from Truro-area men. "I was resigned to thinking that in all probability it would go unsolved," says Jackett. Then the night of April 14, state troopers swarmed a Hyannis, Mass., rooming house and arrested McCowen, an Oklahoma-born itinerant worker who had spent several years in prison in Florida before relocating in the late 1990s to Massachusetts, where at least two women had taken out restraining orders against him. Recently he had worked for a moving company in Hyannis. "He's just a nice, quiet guy," says Callie Jane Duryea, 46, a supermarket clerk who had dated him since she met him two years ago. "I don't see him being able to do something like this."

McCowen's lawyer Francis O'Boy says his client "maintains his innocence," but O'Keefe-who won't reveal the alleged motive—says he is confident of winning a conviction. "There is a significant body of evidence in addition to [the DNA]," he says, "that gives us a comfort level with respect to the strength of this case." While that brings relief to those who were close to Worthington, the news also brought a burden. "We were waiting and hoping this would happen," says her cousin Jan. "Now it has, and we're starting another phase of the grief process."

By Thomas Fields-Meyer. Jennifer Longley on Cape Cod

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