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.

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.

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.

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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