Grave Doubts

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

Bailey tracked down the woman, whose name was Quwanna, who, in a taped interview, told of a conversation she'd had with a woman named Brianna, who is known to the Cowans. "She said that Brianna said she'd changed 'that dead bitch's clothes' and cleaned up the place after the murder," Bailey recalls. Brianna was involved with a man who had ties to that apartment, Quwanna explained.

Bailey says working on the case raised doubts in her mind about the suicide ruling. "Yeah, I really thought she might have been murdered," she says. "In my mind, if she was murdered, there were several people who could have done it, who had a motive."

The Cowans later learned that Johnson had told Duggan that he was with Brianna during the period in which McKenzie likely died. Carla knew this alibi was a lie, however, because she was with Brianna at a birthday party at a nightclub at that time.

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.

At the Cowans' urging, Howard Scheinberg, with the homicide unit of the Broward SAO, reviewed the case in August 2004. Bailey delivered her interview of Quwanna to that office. The Cowans subsequently learned it was given to Duggan.

"I've spent many, many hours on this case," Scheinberg told New Times when asked about the review. "Everybody they asked me to talk to, I did. I consulted with the lab, the doctor. Sometimes people just have a hard time accepting their loved one committed suicide."

Asked whether he'd seen a completed investigative report by Duggan and copies of statements made by Johnson and others, Scheinberg said he didn't recall seeing them, nor was he certain such documents were ever produced.

Eroston Price, the coroner who performed the autopsy, now works for the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's Office. She doesn't recall many specific details about the case but has no doubts about the suicide determination.

"When you have an investigation, like I did, based on the evidence of the scene itself, you can make that determination," she replies when asked how she was able to deem it a suicide before Duggan had completed his work. "There's a lot that went on with making that decision: the scene itself, the position of her body, all the stuff around her, and all the evidence that was gathered by [BSO]."

Despite the SAO review of the case in August 2004 — and partially because of it — the Cowans weren't satisfied. They'd learned from Duggan that no gunpowder residue had been found on McKenzie's hands. They also were told that only one partial fingerprint belonging to McKenzie was found on the gun and that none was found on the bullets in it, a holster, or a plastic bag nearby holding more cartridges.

Bill Cowan wonders how it is that a young woman, shrouded beneath a blanket, could maneuver a large-caliber revolver, turn it toward her forehead, cock and pull the trigger, make a shot that was virtually straight in — and not leave fingerprints all over the place.

And about that gun. An initial report by BSO described it as a .38 special; a year later, the chief medical examiner, in a letter to the Cowans, wrote that it was a .357 magnum. At the very least, the discrepancy reflects sloppy work.

In light of the crime-downgrading scandal at BSO, the Cowans now wonder about how the investigation was done.

Scheinberg dismisses those suspicions. "I can only say this without offering any proof," he says. "I have never seen any BSO homicide detective take any death less than seriously. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that this is not a case of someone clearing a case that someone didn't want to look into or something like that."

Several weeks ago, the Cowans met with Brian Cavanaugh, head of Broward SAO's homicide unit. Bill Cowan brought up the audiotaped interview that claimed a woman had admitted cleaning the crime scene. Scheinberg, also at the meeting, said that he'd given the tape to Duggan and that there was no indication anything had been done with it. Cowan says he got the impression from officials in the room that a valuable piece of evidence had been downplayed or dismissed.

"Cavanaugh gave Scheinberg a look like he was pissed off," Bill recalls. The Cowans are hoping he'll stay that way.

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