How Hurricane Harvey Impacted the Search for a Missing Woman

Crystal McDowell family photo

Dateline NBC Crystal McDowell family photo

In 2017, Houston realtor and mother of two Crystal McDowell disappeared just as Hurricane Harvey was hitting the state of Texas. It made searching for her extraordinarily difficult, both while the hurricane was pounding Texas and because afterward, the floodwaters had washed away a lot of potential evidence.

Ahead of the 48 Hours episode about the search for McDowell, here’s what you need to know about her disappearance and murder.

Crystal Disappeared on August 25, 2017

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In August 2017, just as Hurricane Harvey was about to make landfall in Texas, McDowell was seen leaving her boyfriend Paul Hargrave’s house in Baytown, Texas, early in the morning on August 25. Then she stopped responding to calls and text messages, which put her Uncle Jeff on high alert.

Jeff Walters and his wife raised Crystal after her parents died when she was young, and he immediately contacted authorities when he couldn’t get a hold of her because he said it was highly unusual for her not to respond to his calls and messages.

Walters also contacted Crystal’s ex-husband, Steven McDowell, who initially claimed that she was supposed to come pick up their children Madden and Maui from his house but she never showed. The local authorities began trying to locate Crystal, but when Hurricane Harvey hit the area, the investigation was thrown into chaos.

“It was horrible. The rain wouldn’t stop. It just would not stop. … We had deputies that were flooded out of their homes. One of our investigators lost his entire house. Our local Texas Ranger and his wife were flooded out of theirs,” District Attorney Cheryl Lieck told 48 Hours, adding that they still continued to search to Crystal as best they could.

Three days later, as the floodwaters receded, Crystal’s car was found in the Baytown Motel 6 parking lot with the keys inside. Eventually, security footage from the motel showed Steve parking the car there and leaving. Later security footage caught Steve on camera putting something in a trash can at a local gas station, but the contents of the can could never be examined because they were washed away by the flood.

As authorities dug deeper, they discovered that Steve and Crystal’s divorce had not been very amicable. Then just a few days before her death, Crystal uninvited Steve from a family cruise that her new boyfriend was attending, which investigators believe started Steve’s downward spiral.

Steve McDowell Eventually Confessed

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After having his two youngest children taken away while he was being investigated in their mother’s disappearance, Steven more or less confessed to his oldest daughter from a previous relationship, Krysta, that he had killed Crystal. Then he eventually told the police that he and Crystal fought, he strangled her, and he put her into trash bags and into his car. Steve led authorities to her body 15 days after she went missing. D.A. Lieck told 48 Hours that if he hadn’t led them to the body, which was deep in a heavily wooded area, they likely never would have found Crystal.

At the trial, Steve argued it was a heat-of-the-moment killing, which in Texas can get a defendant as little as two years in prison. But the jury saw things differently and found him guilty of murder, sentencing him to 50 years in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 2042.

The couple’s two young children are currently living out of state with a friend of the family who is seeking full legal custody, according to CBS News.

Dateline NBC normally airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC, though on June 5, the episode aired at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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