Murder defendant Wilson shadowed by his own persona
Saturday, April 9, 2011View full version
Doubt came into Amelia Savage’s mind, and made her ashamed.
The former Chelan woman got to know Christopher Scott Wilson when they were in their early teens. Near and far, as Savage toured the world and Wilson moved between school, the Army, the Northwest and the East Coast, the two remained in contact.
After Wilson’s arrest in October 2010 on suspicion of murdering Mackenzie Cowell, he was jailed, and two months went by with no phone calls, no emails, no Facebook messages. Savage, now living in Brazil, was left only with Wenatchee World stories and the speculation she read online.
“The way the articles are printed, you really question — did I not know my own friend?” she said. “Have I missed something for 17 years that was right in front of me? Is he a sociopath and I’ve just never known that?”
Savage returned to North Central Washington for a family visit last month, and met Wilson in a Chelan County Regional Justice Center interview room. The two friends hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. They hugged, as best they could, through security glass.
Accused of Wenatchee’s most stunning murder in decades, Wilson was still able to make his old friend laugh — mostly at the thought of being portrayed as a villain.
“Even considering the circumstances, we just laughed for an hour straight,” said Savage, 29. “I didn’t know what to expect, if it would be a really sad visit or what — but this is just Chris. He’s having a very bizarre thing happen to him right now, and still he can see the humor in it. It was amazing.”
Savage believes in Wilson’s innocence. She knew him as a skateboarding companion and confidant long before the wider world came to know him as a defendant. She watched from a distance as he was charged with murdering his 17-year-old fellow student from Wenatchee’s Academy of Hair Design.
And after that, she watched as elements of his personality that she remembered fondly — his dark humor, his cynicism, his affection for the offbeat and the macabre — became lenses through which the public defined him. Police documents noted his arm tattoo of fictional murderer Hannibal Lecter, the film about John Wayne Gacy in his DVD collection, the photos he took of a prank sculpture made to resemble a dismembered human body.
She asked if he was angry that so many people seemed to think he was guilty.
“And he’s like, ‘It’s no one’s fault,’” she said. “‘People only know what you tell them.’”
Wilson has remained in jail since his arrest on $1 million cash bond, speaking to few people outside the criminal justice system. Through his defense attorney Keith Howard, he declined a request to be interviewed — at Howard’s advice.
Kathleen Zornes sees her son twice a week, and talks to him on the phone even more. It never seems to be enough. She worries he’s not getting enough sunlight. Worst of all, she’s been unable to hug her son since his arrest, six months ago.
Chris Wilson had a suggestion for her. He kept a clothing mannequin for costuming projects. When another renter moved into Chris’s former apartment, “I, of course, had to pack up all his clothes,” Zornes said. “... But I didn’t wash one of his shirts. So he said, ‘Put that on the mannequin. Then you can just hug that.’”
She smiled at the thought, then began to cry. “But it’s very difficult.”
If Christopher Scott Wilson is unconventional, he’s the son of an unconventional mother. Kathleen Zornes, 48, has been a flight attendant, a bike shop owner, makeup artist, a travel agent, a bank staffer. She had little concern that her son, now 30, hadn’t settled down with a house, a career and a family in the years before his arrest.
“I don’t know what I want to do yet when I grow up,” she said. “... I wanted him to find something that he loved to do, but finding that is a journey within itself. So it didn’t matter to me what he did, as long as he was happy doing that.”
Zornes, then named Lisa Kathleen Prosise, was 18 and unmarried when Chris was born in Bellevue in 1980. A California native, she arrived in Issaquah as a child when her father became the town’s police chief in 1971. He left that post in 1976 to open his own regional construction company, and the family remained in the Northwest.
Chris was less than a year old when Kathleen married Rick Wilson, an engineer hailing from North Dakota, who adopted the boy and gave him his name. Their son Jeffrey was born in 1983.
The marriage came undone over time, and by the early 1990s Kathleen had moved to Chelan and opened a bike shop and snowboard shop, Nature Gone Wild. She helped the Chelan Police Department obtain cycles at cost for its bike-patrol program, and carried both bike and skateboard products.
Amelia Savage drifted into the shop when she was just 12, a home-schooled, creative kid with a passion for skateboarding. She found a kindred spirit in Chris, just a year older, passionate about music, humorous and artistic.
“He could be a bit shocking to kind of offset the normalcy that he was surrounded by, and his sense of humor was a bit macabre,” she said. “Maybe he was interested in being different.”
The two challenged curfews together, boldly skateboarded through public parks despite police efforts to stop them, and generally chafed at the restraints of their small town.
“We were cynical skateboarders who had jobs at 13 and saved our money and got the hell out as soon as we could,” Savage wrote in an email. “We both had loving (single) mothers who allowed and encouraged us to be different. We were treated like criminals by the Chelan police since we were old enough to stay out after 10 p.m.”
Both worked at Nature Gone Wild into their teen years, even investing together in a car — a 1963 Rambler Ambassador that Chris nicknamed “The Pink Lady.” But Savage started classes at Wenatchee Valley College at age 15, on an accelerated track to escape North Central Washington. She lived and worked in Europe, South America and on cruise ships before finally opening her hotel in Salvador, Brazil.
She returned to the valley yearly at best, but stayed in touch with Chris with all the social media available. By 1997 he and his mother had moved to Boise, where she worked as a flight attendant with Horizon Air and he attended Borah High School.
That year, a few weeks before Chris’s 17th birthday, his adoptive father Rick Wilson died in Seattle after falling from the sill of an open third-floor hotel window, where he’d been sitting. Kathleen and her sons flew in for the funeral. Rick’s family had is body embalmed, but the cosmetic reconstruction was poorly done.
“It was very traumatic for both my boys,” Kathleen said. “I believe that was a turning point for Chris, where he thought he could do such a better job. ... He didn’t want families to go through what we went through when we saw him.”
The path was never direct, though. When he was 18, Chris and Amelia Savage briefly shared an apartment at the Burke Hill complex in Wenatchee, she taking over his lease when he moved out after a few months. That year he began collecting tattoos — including a likeness of Hannibal Lecter. He studied at Wenatchee Valley College and spent time living with Kathleen’s parents, now in California. In 2003, he enlisted in the Army.
It was not to last. In letters that June to his mother from Fort Benning, Ga., he was miserable. He hated the way he looked with a shaved head, and took no end of guff from the drill sergeants about his tattoos. “When I’m running laps, they yell, ‘Come on, Axel Rose!” he wrote.
He began to suffer vision problems, and was diagnosed with a detached retina that would eventually lead to his medical discharge. “They put me in the sick bay, meaning I sleep with everyone who is either too sick or fat to make it through boot camp,” he wrote. “I have contracted the flu and a cold. I better not contract the fat.”
Returning to Wenatchee, he interned for a few months as a funeral director and embalmer at Telford’s Chapel of the Valley, hoping to learn mortuary sciences. He traveled, living in Rhode Island for about a year before returning to the Wenatchee Valley again. For a while, he and a friend ran a startup auto repossession company called The Grim Repo.
He also met a girl his family came to love: Tessa Schuyleman, an artist, musician, photographer and model. The two collaborated on music and art, and remained close friends even after they ceased dating.
“She always dressed so funky-fun — hats with veils and bustiers, and she was just a cute little model,” Kathleen recalled. “... I considered Tessa the daughter I never had. I love her.”
Chris read widely, and by his 20s he was an avowed atheist. “I despise the sun,” he said on his Facebook profile, “but not as much as I despise organized religion.” Atheist commentators like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were among his preferred authors.
“He’ll have any conversation with anybody about religion,” Savage said. “He’s just open to anything.”
Later, he moved to Ellensburg to be close to another girlfriend, and worked at a Goodwill store there in 2007. Savage said one day outside the Goodwill building, Chris discovered papier-maché human limbs and a torso, smeared with fake blood and wrapped in plastic to resemble a carved-up body. He called police and photographed the pieces, Savage said. The images wound up on his social networking profiles.
He returned to the funeral industry, but Kathleen said he was disillusioned by the profit motive, with grieving families asked to pay for expensive caskets and arrangements. The final straw came when he was asked to embalm the body of a small boy who’d died in a sledding accident.
“It looked so much like his little brother that he decided, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Kathleen said.
But the cosmetic aspects of funeral management — hairstyling, makeup — still appealed to him. It could be applied to theater or films, both areas where he had an interest.
Chris moved back to Wenatchee, and took another studio at the Burke Hill apartments. He signed up for classes at the Academy of Hair Design in 2009.
Most of his fellow students were young women. One of them was named Mackenzie.
Kathleen remarried in 1999, to Don Zornes, and in 2001 left the airline industry to become a financial services representative with a Wenatchee bank. In 2006, she and Don bought a Wenatchee building along with a salon business called Solutions, and renamed it Salon Couture. Tessa Schuyleman took the promotional photos for her business.
Kathleen believes the police investigation that implicated her son was flawed. She’s seen contradictions in the case, leads that appear to point elsewhere. She hopes the jury agrees when Chris goes to trial May 31.
“Whoever is involved in this, they need to be held accountable,” she said. “No question at all. An innocent, beautiful life was taken. Whoever was involved in this needs to be held accountable. But please, let’s get the right people.”
Tom Deskin, a friend of the Zorneses, found Chris an “eccentric, different, really nice guy. Just definitely on his own kind of plane, but not really in a bad way.”
At the time Mackenzie Cowell was murdered, Deskin lived two flights above Wilson at the Burke Hill apartments.
“When the detectives talked to me, I said, ‘If Chris did this, I’m going to have to go to some kind of class to learn how to read people,’” said Deskin, 26. “... Just from his demeanor and being around him, it seems pretty impossible to believe.”
Fourteen stylists work at Salon Couture. In January, a new staffer came to Kathleen and said, “Can I ask you a question? I heard that Christopher painted his walls black, and had blood running down the walls.”
“It’s interesting to me, the trial of public opinion,” Kathleen said. “... The way they have portrayed my son and Tessa — it’s so tragic that, number one, people are so judgmental, and number two, if they lived in Seattle, they would not have been looked twice at. But because we live in Wenatchee, they do stand out a little bit more.”
Last summer, before Chris’s arrest, a Wenatchee relative of Amelia Savage died, unattended, while asleep at home. The body lay in bed for several days before it was discovered, and the family had to cope with both the death and the cleaning of the bedroom.
From Brazil, Savage tried to help as best she could, but this was unfamiliar territory. She knew Chris had experience with funeral services, and she emailed him for advice. Within two days, Chris and Kathleen went to the home and disposed of the mattress.
“They took care of a really bad situation for us,” Savage said, “and I actually almost posted on his Facebook, ‘A good friend helps you move, but a great friend helps you move bodies.’
“And I paused ... you never know. That was maybe just a little bit too dark-sided to post, but I’ve heard that before. But imagine if I had. You know what I mean?”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123