Garfield County man’s gone from FBI to private eye
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” Phil Walter thought several times during an eight-hour interview that Chuck McDowell was about to confess to shooting his wife in the back of the head in Rite Aid in 1998.
Walter could see something.
“A half dozen times I believed he was on the verge of confessing because his shoulders would slump and his eyes would tear up,” said Walter, a retired FBI special agent of 29 years and former chief investigator for the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
That interview and the help of Steve Vaughan of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation would lead to McDowell’s confession. He would later be sentenced to life in prison.
Fifty-one-year-old Ruth Ann McDowell was an assistant manager at the Rite Aid store when McDowell shot and killed her the night of Sept. 24, 1998. Walter said she had a pencil in her hand and a check in the other when she was found in her office.
Investigators canvassed the area and found witnesses who said they’d seen her husband park in a nearby parking lot and go into the back of Rite Aid that night. McDowell told Walter and Vaughan his wife had made a fool of him, and he was upset because she controlled the money and gave him an allowance.
McDowell seemed about to crack but each time composed himself and continued denying the allegations. Walter realized McDowell wouldn’t confess because he and Vaughan weren’t important to McDowell. Confessing may bring some form of relief, but it’s a huge leap to admit to your kids you killed their mother. McDowell might confess to someone he respects and knows very well, Walter recalls thinking.
“He knew (Police Chief) Terry Wilson very well because (McDowell) was a city employee,” Walter said.
McDowell was a very proud man, Walter said, so he said he suggested Wilson set up another interview and say something along the lines of, “You’ve made a fool of me because I believed you when you told me you didn’t kill her. I thought you were a man and you would own up, but these two men are telling me you did it.”
“He confessed in five minutes,” Walter said.
The local investigative kingpin now runs Walter and Associates Professional Investigations, a private investigation agency. He retired from the FBI in the mid-1990s when turning 55 meant he could no longer be a special agent.
He’s conducted background investigations for various federal agencies and consulted law enforcement agencies with complex and sensitive investigations like homicides and internal affairs investigations, among other things. He’s currently helping investigate a 1975 cold homicide in another judicial district.
He’s studied and taught investigative tools like statement analysis and interview and interrogation techniques, which he has decades of experience using.
He said when people are recollecting information they look to one side, sometimes to the same spot each time. If a person was doing something else mentally, they might look elsewhere or make some other type of movement.
But he stressed that as an investigator, it was always his goal to try to determine if someone was innocent as well. The insights come from experience observing and analyzing people’s statements and body language and the amounts of consistency in them.
Walter specializes in statement analysis, which often involves asking someone to write down a statement about a 24-hour period involving a crime. It applied in the investigation of someone suspected of stomping a man to death in Wyoming.
Part of the suspect’s written statement said, “I went home. I drank beer. I watched TV and went to sleep.” Then the very next paragraph said something like, “I didn’t hear about the murder until after I left and went home. I drank beer. I watched TV and went to sleep.”
Walter said repeating the events at home suggested the man actually went home a second time, after the murder. And had the man been innocent, Walter said, he probably would have written that he didn’t “know” about the murder until after he got home instead of that he didn’t “hear” about it, which suggests he did know about it.
Statement analysis also applied to Michael Blagg, when his wife, Jennifer Blagg, was found dead in a landfill in Grand Junction in 2002. Walter said Blagg got on television at one point and said, “I am a follower of Christ, and I hope that my wife, Jennifer, and my daughter are Christian.”
Walter said he called the sheriff after he heard the statement and recommended authorities continue looking at Blagg as a suspect. Blagg’s statement was troubling because it put his wife and daughter in a completely separate category from himself. Blagg later received a life sentence for murder.
Statement analysis is just one tool used to make decisions during investigations. Many times it’s ultimately the criminals who give themselves away by leaving evidence or making inconsistent statements or confessions.
“It’s not a science. It’s a lot more of an art,” Walter said. “People aren’t rocket scientists who commit crimes.”
And a lot of times people on some level want to confess to someone to feel better about something they’ve done.
“Confession is good for the soul,” he said.
Walter, who lives in Garfield County and grew up on the Western Slope, started with the FBI in 1966.
For an essay assignment in seventh grade, he researched the Texas Rangers, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Scotland Yard, the Secret Service and the FBI.
“The FBI sounded pretty good,” he said, explaining he got a law degree from the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder to join the agency.
Asked about high-profile cases, Walter said he “was there” for the case of the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst and Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) shootout in Los Angeles. He also worked on the case of the “Falcon and the Snowman” involving Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee selling U.S. security secrets from a defense contractor to the Soviet Union. The nicknames came from Boyce’s expert falconry and Lee’s selling cocaine.
Once, Walter said, the FBI arrested a contract killer and organized crime “bag man” from Chicago in California. The man gambled and lost money he was supposed to deliver, and a contract was put out on his life. He made the mistake of beating up a girl who tipped off the FBI.
They “set up” at the woman’s apartment. Walter was in another apartment nearby.
The man was opening the door when Walter pumped a round into the chamber of a 12-gauge shotgun.
“If you’ve ever heard a shotgun being loaded, you don’t forget the sound,” he said. “He started asking for last rights in Italian. … When I said, ‘FBI,’ he said, ‘Thank God.'”