York-area man avoids death-penalty trial with last-minute guilty plea

Liz Evans Scolforo

A Manchester Township man on Monday avoided a possible first-degree murder conviction and death sentence just minutes before jury selection was to begin in his trial by pleading guilty to fatally beating his on-again, off-again girlfriend.

Ross Crawford

Ross William Crawford admitted to killing C. Jennifer Dowell, 53, inside her Village Drive home in Manchester Township in June 2012.

Crawford, 45, formerly of Harvest Drive, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, stalking and obstruction of justice, according to his trial attorney, public defender Erin Thompson.

As part of a negotiated agreement with prosecutors, Crawford was sentenced to a total of 24½ to 49 years in state prison, with credit for the time he has served since June 9, 2012, she said. He also was ordered to pay one of her sons $1,000 restitution for funeral expenses.

"Throughout the time I’ve had him as a client, he has expressed remorse for her death and his role in that, and the situation as a whole," Thompson said.

C. Jennifer Dowell

The background: Crawford was supposed to be on house arrest when he fatally beat Dowell, then slashed his own neck and arms in a botched suicide attempt. He'd been out of York County Prison less than three weeks.

Criminal court filings spanning nearly three years told part of the story of the couple's tumultuous relationship.

Northern York County Regional Police filed charges against Crawford over and over — for arson, aggravated assault, simple assault, burglary, making terroristic threats, unlawful restraint, theft and other offenses — until eventually charging him with Dowell's slaying.

Sometimes Dowell testified against Crawford, but sometimes charges against him, including serious ones, were dismissed because she wouldn't appear to testify against him.

PFA tossed: She obtained a temporary protection from abuse order against him in August 2010, but it was dismissed with prejudice a few weeks later when she failed to appear for a hearing on the matter, court records state.

In that petition, Dowell stated Crawford had set her home on fire, physically assaulted her and destroyed all her personal and business records.

In the days after Dowell's murder, two of Crawford's former defense attorneys recalled the relationship as troubled.

"When I was representing him, she didn't want him in jail," attorney Suzanne Smith said at the time. "She would ask me how to get him out of jail, and when he'd be eligible for release. ... I encouraged them both to stay away from each other because bad things always happened when they were together."

Attorney Ron Gross described the couple's relationship as "very unhealthy."

Botched suicide: Dowell had been dead at least 24 hours hours when a concerned co-worker went to Dowell's home and discovered her body, covered by a sheet or blanket, police have said. The co-worker fled after seeing Crawford there, covered in blood and holding a knife, police said.

Crawford initially forced a standoff with Northern Regional Police by barricading himself inside Dowell's home and claiming to have a weapon, but Thompson said Crawford never had a weapon.

"He was trying to give himself time to bleed out (and die)," she said. That standoff was the basis of the obstruction charge, she confirmed.

Thompson described Crawford's relationship with Dowell as tumultuous.

'Textbook' case: First assistant district attorney Jennifer Russell said the murder "is a textbook case of what can end up happening" to domestic-violence victims who remain involved with their abusers.

"One time is too many times," she said of domestic abuse. "Somebody who loves you doesn't threaten you, doesn't make you feel unsafe, doesn't hurt you."

Russell confirmed Dowell suffered head trauma as well as injuries to other parts of her body.

"She was badly beaten," the prosecutor said.

Russell confirmed Dowell's family members were consulted about the plea agreement, and will have a week to submit written victim-impact statements to the court.

Missing dog: One of Dowell's pets, a 19-year-old blind Yorkshire terrier named Abigail, was missing when police went inside Dowell's home to find her dead and Crawford waiting to die.

Dowell's ex-husband James Dowell said he believed Crawford hated Abigail and probably killed her.

But Thompson said Crawford maintains Abigail died of natural causes.

"According to Mr. Crawford, that's actually what sparked the fight (that led to Dowell's death)," she said. In entering his guilty plea Monday, Crawford said he found the dog dead and made some insensitive comments about it, sparking the fight, according to Thompson.

Other pets: Jen Dowell's golden retrievers, Peachy and Gracie, and her cat, Little Man, were taken in by Dowell's family members.

Thompson said Crawford has always referred to the three dogs "with nothing but affection."

"That's why he gave himself up (during the standoff) when police threatened to use tear gas," she said — because Crawford didn't want the animals hurt.

James Dowell, who remained close with his ex-wife, said she loved all animals, especially her own, and volunteered at the York County SPCA.

Jen Dowell was an avid gardener who loved to go to the beach, James Dowell has said, and previously owned and ran The Kangaroo's Pouch from Thomasville's Morningstar Marketplace. At the time of her death she was waitressing at Bob Evans restaurant in West Manchester Township, he said.

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