Federal judge orders York County murderer to pay millions to victim's sons

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Ross Crawford

A York County man who beat his girlfriend to death in her home while he was supposed to be on house arrest has been ordered to pay $4 million to his victim's two adult sons.

U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane issued her default judgment against convicted murderer Ross Crawford on Tuesday, Dec. 17, according to federal court records.

York County has already paid $550,000 to the sons of C. Jennifer Dowell, also known as Cherylann Dowell, to settle the case. There was no admission of liability on the county's part.

Jeffrey and Justin Fleckenstein, acting on behalf of their mother's estate, had sued Crawford for murdering their mother and also sued York County, alleging the county should have done more to determine he was abiding by house-arrest terms.

"Ms. Dowell was subjected to extensive physical, psychological, and emotional abuse by Crawford, who had a documented history of domestic violence," Kane wrote in her order.

Crawford, 48, formerly of Manchester Township, pleaded guilty Jan. 11, 2016, to third-degree murder, stalking and obstruction of justice. That was the day his death-penalty murder trial was set to begin.

He admitted killing Dowell inside her Village Drive home in Manchester Township in June 2012.

C. Jennifer Dowell

As part of his negotiated plea agreement, he was sentenced to 24½ to 49 years in state prison.

Civil-rights attorney Devon Jacob, who represented Dowell's sons, said it's unclear whether Dowell's estate will ever collect on the judgment against Crawford.

But successfully suing Crawford was important to Dowell's sons to show that her death caused the community a significant loss and to make a "clear statement" that domestic violence won't be tolerated, according to Jacob.

"The family wants to make sure he never forgets what he did to their mother," Jacob said. "This was just about seeing it through. They wanted to draw attention to the domestic-violence aspect of this (murder)."

The plaintiffs' attorney also noted that Crawford could someday receive an inheritance or perhaps be released from prison and obtain a job.

"Realistically, this is a guy who could come into money at some point during the rest of his life," Jacob said.

Crawford didn't enter a defense after being sued in Harrisburg's federal court, and Kane entered a default judgment against him in August, according to court records.

No electronic monitoring: Crawford, who had a history of domestic abuse against Dowell, was supposed to be on house arrest and electronic monitoring after being released from York County Prison but was not.

Compounding the issue, Jacob said, was the fact that the county probation department assigned what was essentially a new probation officer — one with no experience in domestic violence issues — to monitor Crawford.

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.

Dowell obtained a temporary protection from abuse order against Crawford 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.

More:York County settling wrongful-death claim avoided risk of trial, attorney says

More:York-area man accused of killing girlfriend supposed to be on house arrest

Botched suicide: Dowell had been dead at least 24 hours when a concerned co-worker went to her 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 police by barricading himself inside Dowell's home and claiming to have a weapon, but his defense attorney, public defender Erin Thompson, has 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.

Former prosecutor Jennifer Russell has described the murder as "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."

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.