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Woman's dark road ended in a pond

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Christy Elizabeth Cowan had dreams of becoming a nurse. After graduating from high school in the top of her class, she became a certified nurse's aide and cared for the elderly.

But somewhere along the way, family members said, Cowan took a wrong turn.

In recent years, she led a dangerous lifestyle of prostitution and drugs.

Cowan, 31, was found dead Tuesday night in a pond behind a Plant City home, authorities said. She had been strangled and bludgeoned to death with an ax.

Authorities arrested Samuel L. Smithers, 43, a Plant City electrician, Tuesday and charged him with murdering Cowan and an unidentified woman and dumping their bodies in the water.

"To lose a child at someone else's hands is devastating, really devastating," said Cowan's mother, Elaine Platt. "It's such a big, gaping wound that I feel like someone ripped my heart right out of my chest."

Hillsborough detectives are still trying to identify the second woman and released a description Thursday in the hope someone would recognize her.

The woman's race is unknown. She is described as 5 feet 2 with a slender build and black or dark brown curly hair. She was believed to have been between 18 and 30, and she had abdominal scars.

The woman was found wearing a black halter top, a short light-colored skirt buttoned in the front and red underwear. She wore a copper bracelet with a Southwestern design and three rings: one with a garnet stone, the second with an onyx and the third a band with a Chinese dragon.

Detectives said the woman died of a skull fracture after she was beaten and stabbed in the head. Authorities have had trouble identifying her because her body was in the water for 10 to 12 days. Cowan was identified through fingerprints.

"We're very early in the investigation so we have been relying on information from the medical examiner," said sheriff's Lt. Craig Latimer. "We were extremely pleased we were able to get the suspect off the streets so quickly because this is a gruesome case."

Cowan, who was last arrested March 9, was on her way to a drug treatment center in Ocala when she ran from the transport van May 9. She was last seen at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the area of Hillsborough Avenue and 34th Street.

About 8 p.m. Tuesday, a woman called authorities to report she saw Smithers in the garage of a home at 4604 U.S. 92 W washing an ax and blood from the floor. Smithers, who lives in Walden Lake, was caretaker of the property. Detectives later discovered the bodies of Cowan and the unidentified woman.

Smithers, a handyman and electrician who neighbors said is a deacon at First Baptist Church of Plant City, was questioned at his home and arrested.

Though he has no record in Florida, Smithers served time in Chattanooga, Tenn., for a string of church arsons. While serving as a volunteer firefighter in 1980, Smithers was arrested for setting fire to East Ridge Baptist Church, where he was a deacon. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

"It's scary to think someone like that just lives within the community," said Plant City Mayor Michael Sparkman, who attended church with Smithers. "It's hard to comprehend anyone would do that."

Cowan's family members said Thursday that despite her dangerous lifestyle, she didn't deserve to be murdered.

"Yes, she had some problems," said Platt, 53, who lives in Connecticut. "But nothing that warranted this."

Platt, 53, who lives in Connecticut, said Cowan was born there and moved to Florida six years ago with her boyfriend, Robert Burke, 42. The couple had two children, a 4- and a 9-year-old, who live with Burke and his mother, Gloria, 66, in Tampa.

Cowan moved to Florida because she loved the beach and the warm weather, Platt said. But after failing an entrance exam for nursing school she became depressed and turned to the streets.

"She wanted to straighten out, but she just couldn't," Gloria Burke said. "If they had put her in jail and kept her there for a few years, she would have had time to think about what she was doing."

Cowan and Burke broke up several years ago, Gloria Burke said. Cowan called every so often to check on her children but was not allowed to see them.

"Every time Robert looked in the paper and saw that someone was killed, he would always wonder if it was Christy," Gloria Burke said. "He worried and he would say, "One of these days, I'm going to read about her.' "

Information from the Chattanooga Times was used in this report.