Grave Doubts

If Tondelaya McKenzie killed herself, how did she arrange her own corpse?

On the warm Sunday morning of February 22, 2004, a chubby-faced man named Dwight Johnson flagged down a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy near an apartment complex in unincorporated Fort Lauderdale south of Sunrise Boulevard. He told the deputy he'd just gone up to a second-floor apartment and found Tondelaya McKenzie lying still with blood on her face.

When BSO deputies entered the apartment, they found McKenzie, two months shy of her 20th birthday, lying face up in bed, her body covered from head to toe with a blanket. Under the blanket, a handgun lay on her chest, her arms at her sides, a single bullet hole squarely in the middle of her forehead. She wore a court-ordered ankle monitor around her right leg. They found no signs of a struggle.

A day later, the Broward County Medical Examiner's office completed an autopsy and deemed the death a suicide — even though BSO had barely begun its investigation.

Carla and Bill Cowan think police are painting an incorrect picture of their daughter.
Colby Katz
Carla and Bill Cowan think police are painting an incorrect picture of their daughter.

A mortician soon received McKenzie's body, however, and he telephoned her parents, Bill and Carla Cowan. "He told us, 'Y'all come down here,'" the father recalls. "'This baby did not do this to herself. '" Among the things that aroused the undertaker's suspicions were the broken acrylic nails on her hands, which suggested a struggle had taken place. And on both wrists, deep indentations, as though she'd been bound.

As time went on, the family's suspicions were heightened further: No blood or gunpowder residue were found on her hands. No drugs or alcohol were in her system. A clothes maven, the outfit she died in was mismatched and considerably warmer than what she would have been wearing in an un-air-conditioned apartment.

During the more than two years since, the Cowans have come to believe that their daughter was murdered and the scene altered to appear as a suicide. That opinion was bolstered by a private investigator hired by the Cowans, who tracked down a witness who said the crime scene had been cleaned up. Regarding the BSO investigation, the private investigator says, "I don't think they were as complete as they could have been."

The Broward State Attorney's Office reexamined the case at the Cowans' request later in 2004. Without issuing a report detailing the findings, that office's homicide unit concluded that "there is no credible evidence that would suggest that Tondelaya's death was as a result of the criminal act of another person."

Last month, the Broward SAO agreed to reopen the investigation once again after the Cowans argued that BSO might have improperly downgraded the case. Shortly after McKenzie died, the BSO crime statistic scandal became public, revealing that hundreds of serious crimes had been improperly cleared or downgraded — although none as serious as homicide.

Carla Cowan is a gregarious woman with a wide smile and full figure. She doesn't believe in coincidences and routinely credits God for the smallest happenstance. She cries easily when she speaks of her daughter. Bill possesses a booming baritone voice and is as analytical as Carla is emotional. He was studying at City College in Fort Lauderdale to become a private detective when McKenzie died.

The Cowans moved to South Florida from Philadelphia about 15 years ago to care for Carla's father, who had cancer. They had met when Tondelaya was only a few months old, and Bill raised her as though she were his own daughter. The couple has two other children, Jackie, 19, and Billy, 12.

Part of their skepticism about a finding of suicide is that their daughter hadn't seemed despondent. Not that McKenzie didn't have problems.

In August 2003, she was charged with aggravated battery after attacking a woman on a Lauderhill sidewalk. According to police reports, McKenzie and a friend, Ebony Clark, had jumped the woman because of previous trouble among them. Clark, however, had brought a kitchen knife and stabbed May several times as McKenzie pummeled her with a belt. A Broward circuit judge placed McKenzie under house arrest with the ankle monitor while she awaited trial.

The Cowans were not happy about their daughter's choice to live in the apartment in the northern part of the Sistrunk neighborhood. Dwight Johnson, the 41-year-old who also lived in the apartment, had a handful of drug-dealing and possession charges in his past. They had pleaded with her to move home. She wouldn't.

Carla, who owned and drove an ice cream truck at the time, had stopped by to see her the morning before her death. McKenzie was upbeat, displaying no hint of anything that would lead to suicide. They were stunned to learn of her death the next day.

Several days later, Tim Duggan, the BSO detective in charge of the case, told the Cowans that he'd concluded McKenzie had committed suicide. Why? Because, Duggan believed, McKenzie was disheartened about the assault charges she was facing. He also told the family that McKenzie was a prostitute, says Bill Cowan, who told the detective that he was way off-base. (Duggan told New Times that he could not talk about the case.) The parents point out that their daughter wasn't facing harsh punishment as a first-time offender in the battery case. During their own investigation, the Cowans learned that an acquaintance of McKenzie's claimed that another woman had bragged that she'd helped clean up the apartment after McKenzie's murder. Bill asked one of his college instructors, Valerie Bailey, a licensed private eye, for help.

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