Rolla, Mo. - For the first time a graphic picture of a raped and murdered nine-year-old girl was shown during a trial that could end with a man being punished by death. An FBI agent testified a photograph presented as evidence was a picture of Rowan Ford’s body. The fourth grader was found at the bottom of a cave with no clothes on the lower portion of her body. Investigators say there were signs she was strangled to death.
Chris Collings is one of two men charged with the November 2007 rape and murder of Ford. Her step-dad, David Spears, is also facing a murder trial in October of this year. Prosecutors say Collings took Ford from her bedroom inside her home in Stella and brought her to his home to rape her.
During the second day of testimony in Collings' trial, prosecutors introduced possible DNA evidence including a rape kit performed on the little girl’s body. Several law enforcement officers took the stand including sheriff’s deputies from Newton County, McDonald County and FBI agents. They told jurors about the details of the night Ford was killed, their interviews with Collings and Ford’s relationship with her accused killer. “Rowan Ford called him Uncle Chris,” FBI Special Agent James Stinnett said.
“Uncle Chris” or Chris Collings told officers he would babysit Ford. According to officers, Collings said he would also help Ford with her math homework. He lived with her and her parents for about three to four months. He moved out of the home one week before the girl disappeared from her bedroom. “He was very polite, very helpful,” Newton County Chief Deputy Chris Jennings said about Collings during the initial investigation. “He seemed concerned this little girl was missing.”
Several officers testified Collings was very cooperative as long as they did not accuse him of any connection to the girl’s disappearance. They say he even suggested places for officers to search and mentioned a possible suspect. “He did think David Spears was involved with Rowan Ford's disappearance,” Stinnett said.
For several days officers say Collings calmly met with them. One officer testified Collings agreed to wear a wire to talk to Ford’s step-dad. Former FBI agent Rick Stonecipher said Collings told officers Spears’ alibi was not true. During cross examination, Stonecipher agreed Collings’ case was not the first time someone “lied to him and then later confessed to a crime.”
Collings and Ford's step-dad were friends for about eight years. Officers say they were in Spears’ basement drinking and smoking pot the night Ford disappeared. Stinnett testified Collings told him they bought Seagram’s 7 and two Smirnoff Black Ice six packs. “In my notes they said they had smoked a ‘hog leg,’” Stinnett said. “If you've seen Cheech and Chong movies, it's a real big joint.”
Prosecutors and Collings’ own attorneys say he eventually confessed to killing the girl. They say he confessed to the Wheaton police chief because he knew the chief for most of his life. Videotaped confessions from Collings are expected to be played for the jury later this week.
On Tuesday, prosecutors brought three large boxes of evidence to the courtroom including a rape kit. Criminalists tested the evidence to see if the DNA of Spears or Collings’ DNA matched the DNA found in the rape kit. During future testimony, jurors will hear exactly what investigators discovered.
Prosecutors want the jury to find Collings guilty of first degree murder which means he could get the death penalty. During the rape, they say Collings tried to hide his identity from Ford. While he was leading Ford out of his home, prosecutors say the little girl caught a glimpse of him. They say Collings then strangled her with a “chicken house cord” to make sure she could not identify her rapist. According to prosecutors, Collings admitted that strangling Ford may have taken minutes but “it felt like an hour.”
Collings’ defense attorneys want jurors to convict him of second degree murder which would take the death penalty off the table. They are asking jurors to consider his frame of mind at the time of the murder. One of his attorneys says he “freaked out.” Collings’ attorneys say because of drug and alcohol use at the time of the murder he does not know why he took Ford or remember certain details about the crime. They say the murder was intentional but Collings did not have time to deliberate or have “a cool reflection” for any length of time about whether or not he would kill Ford. In order to be convicted of first degree murder, prosecutors must prove the crime was premeditated or the person had even a brief amount of time to deliberate their actions.
Wednesday’s testimony is expected to be emotional as prosecutors present photographs and evidence of Ford’s body in the cave, evidence collected from Collings’ home and an interview with the police chief he reportedly confessed to.
KSPR News will have live updates from the third day of testimony at www.kspr.com