JESSIE BARDWELL CASE: WAS TEXAS WOMAN’S DEATH AN ACCIDENT OR MURDER?
A father dreams his daughter has been killed, then she disappears -- what does her boyfriend know and could the dad's nightmare have been an omen?
CBS NEWS : 23.06.2018
Jessie Bardwell, 27, a beloved daughter and friend seemingly vanished from the Texas home she shared with her boyfriend, Jason Lowe. Fearing the worst, her father traveled from Mississippi to Texas to start the search for his daughter. Jessie’s body was later found in a remote spot of farmland wrapped in a sheet.
Jessie Bardwell GARY BARDWELL
Police suspected murder, but was it?
“This story is about a young girl,” Richardson, Texas. Detective Eric Willadsen tells “48 Hours” correspondent Maureen Maher. “Thinks she finds love and it turns out he’s pure evil.”
Jessie was fun-loving and outgoing, say friends and family. She lived in Orange Beach, Ala., where she worked at a local hotspot.
Then she fell for Lowe. To the surprise of her family, one day she moved to Texas. Turned out she was following Lowe, who had landed a job in Dallas. She suddenly disappeared in May 2016.
“I knew she was dead,” Jessie’s father, Gary Bardwell, tells Maher.
Bardwell said he had nightmare before his daughter disappeared. “Something was terribly wrong. Jessie was … was killed. …And when I woke up, it was just a dream.”
“And I felt it – she was not on this earth anymore,” he says.
Gary Bardwell immediately filed a missing person’s report. After multiple visits to Jason and Jessie’s home, detectives had a sense something was wrong. There were things out of place and the unmistakable scent of death. Soon after, Lowe was arrested and charged with murder.
Lowe later claimed Bardwell’s death was an accident. His attorney had a plan, and he put together a mock trial to test the defense theory. The result of the stand-in jury? Lowe was not guilty. Prosecutors, however, maintain it was murder and Lowe tried to hide her body.
“I think about what I think happened to her. And I couldn’t protect her,” Bardwell tells Maher. “It’s just unimaginable. It’s unthinkable. It’s unforgivable.”
What happened to Jessie Bardwell?
A GUT FEELING
Gary Bardwell: Yesterday — I went down to the river and just — set there and watched the boats go by and took some deep breaths and said, I don’t know how much of this I can take, you know, any longer.
There are days when it’s hard for Gary Bardwell to get out of bed. But he always does, determined to get justice for Jessie, his 27-year old daughter who disappeared from her apartment in Richardson, Texas, in May 2016.
Gary Bardwell: I’m doin’ it for Jessie, takin’ one day at a time, one step at a time.
Bardwell knew something was wrong before he even knew Jessie had gone missing.
Gary Bardwell: Somethin’ from my soul was gone. And I was afraid that it was her.
“I called her my beautiful daughter. And I still do. Beautiful Jessie,” said her father, Gary Bardwell GARY BARDWELL
That connection, that bond deeper than words, formed the moment Jessie was born, says Bardwell.
Gary Bardwell: As soon as she was born I immediately started crying. …It was just such a happy moment — such a happy moment.
Jessie grew up alongside her older brother, Brandon.
Brandon Bardwell: Me and Jessie have been two peas in a pod since we were young.
Gary Bardwell, a now-retired firefighter with the Pascagoula, Mississippi, Fire Department, loved being a dad.
Gary Bardwell: She kinda didn’t want me out of her sight … She just liked to know where I was.
[Holds Jessie’s teddy bear] She slept with this every night.
Gary Bardwell: I just loved those days.
Gary Bardwell: Daddy’s little girl, for sure.
When Jessie was 14, Gary and her mother, Carla, divorced.
Gary Bardwell: She loved her mother too. …Very much so.
Jessie spent her high school years with her father and her new stepmother, Gina.
There were a few tries at college life.
Gary Bardwell: Somewhere along the line, she was having more fun than school.
That’s when Jessie moved to Orange Beach and started working tables at Cobalt, a popular beachside restaurant.
Gary Bardwell: She just loved being around the water …. She would be in the water fighting the waves and having fun.
Gary Bardwell: We talked every day. She’d text me every day.
Jessie’s good friend, restaurant manager Kimberly Asbury found out Gary Bardwell was an accomplished musician, and booked him at the restaurant.
Kimberly Asbury: Like he came and they went boating and they went fishing … She’d go to his gigs. I mean they were friends. They weren’t just father and daughter.
Jessie had been living with a long-term boyfriend, but surprised everyone when she fell for a new guy, Jason Lowe.
Kimberly Asbury: It kind of came out of nowhere.
Jessie’s friend Terri Ellis saw the romance start.
Terri Ellis: Jason seemed friendly. …He definitely — was outgoing as well.
Jason Lowe FACEBOOK
He was handsome, had two college degrees and was ambitious. For Jessie, not just a new love - but a ticket to a more exciting life. When Jason went to Dallas for a six-figure job in the tech industry, Jessie decided she would join him and pursue her own dream of cosmetology.
Terri Ellis: She thought of it as more of an adventure. Like,” I’m trying something new.”
But Jessie failed to mention that she was about to go to Dallas when she saw her family that Christmas.
Gary Bardwell: I had no clue of what was going on.
Gary Bardwell: She knew that she was fixing to leave for Texas and I would have done everything I could to try to talk her out of it.
Shortly after the holidays, Jessie left for Texas. And suddenly the girl who always had her iPhone was now never on it.
Kimberly Asbury: You couldn’t reach her.
Kimberly Asbury: It just went from hearing from her a lot and talking to her to nothing.
Terri Ellis: The moment that I really started to get worried was when her phone number was cut off and everything that we talked to her had to go through Jason.
The only way to get Jessie was to call Jason’s phone or the house phone. They would come to find out that Jason was monitoring all her calls. Eventually, every time Bardwell called Jessie, he only got Jason.
Gary Bardwell: I said, “Let me speak to Jessie.” He said, “She said she’ll call you later.”
Two months later, Bardwell finally got his chance to meet Jason Lowe. Jason and Jessie came to Pascagoula for a visit. Bardwell tried to persuade Jessie not to go back to Texas.
Gary Bardwell: I remember Jessie was — huggin’ me more than normal … And I was goin’, “Are you OK?” “Yeah, yeah. I — I definitely wanna go to Texas. I just want you to be proud of me, you know?” …They left. I watched the car drive away.
Even though Jessie never let on that anything was wrong, Bardwell had a bad feeling. He went into his studio — Jessie’s childhood room — and wrote the song, “Taken Away.”
Gary Bardwell: That song, “Taken Away” was written the very last time I saw Jessie. …It was written about seein’ them leave, me gettin’ a gut feelin’ of something was bad wrong.
In May, four months after Jessie moved to Texas, she stopped answering his calls all together. Bardwell called Jason, and insisted on knowing where Jessie was. He says Jason told him he didn’t know.
Maureen Maher: What was he saying?
Gary Bardwell [mimicking Jason’s voice]: “I don’t know where in the hell she is. We don’t live co-dependent … She can go … and come as she pleases.”
But when she didn’t call her mom and stepmom on Mother’s Day, Bardwell had had enough.
Gary Bardwell: I said, “We’re leaving in the morning. Let’s pack some bags. And we’re going to Texas.”
A FATHER'S MISSION
When Gary Bardwell got in his truck and headed to Texas, he was angry. Very angry.
Gary Bardwell: I get so angry that it scares me.
His little girl was missing and he believed Jason Lowe was behind it.
Gary Bardwell: I text him on the way there. I said, “If Jessie’s not there when I get there, you are in a tremendous amount of trouble.”
But when he got to Jessie and Jason’s apartment, she was nowhere to be found. Bardwell immediately filed a missing persons report with the Richardson Police Department. Over the next 24 hours, the police repeatedly visited the apartment and still she never showed up. That’s when Detective Chiron Hale got assigned to the case.
He first made contact with Jason by phone.
Det. Chiron Hale: He stated … the last time he saw her was on May 8th, which was Mother’s Day — that morning at 10:00 a.m. and she left in her Acura.
Det. Chiron Hale: And is that car still gone?
Jason Lowe: Yes.
The next day, Detective Hale, the lead detective, made a house call and made another audio recording:
Det. Chiron Hale: Still haven’t heard from Jessie, right?
Jason Lowe: I haven’t.
By then Jessie had been reported missing for three days.
Det. Chiron Hale: As the father of three girls, I was very determined to get to the bottom of what had happened to Jessie Bardwell.
It seemed everybody was desperate to find Jessie except the man who claimed to be in love with her.
Jason Lowe to Det. Chiron Hale: We just did our own thing, always. I didn’t question her she didn’t question me and it worked.
The detective looked around the apartment and saw no sign of a struggle. Jason stuck to his story that she left home in her Acura.
Jessie Bardwell posing with the Acura that police learned had been sold three weeks before her disappearance.
There was just one problem with that story. The police learned that Jessie and Jason had sold that Acura three weeks before Jason claimed she drove off in it. They found it in the new owner’s driveway.
Det. Eric Willadsen: Jason’s lies were not very smart. Who would lie about an Acura that had been sold? … it was pretty clear that there was definitely something — going on other than just a missing person.
It became even clearer the following day. A team of detectives including Hale and his partner Eric Willadsen returned to the apartment. They saw what appeared to be a line of cocaine
DETECTIVE: You have coke on the countertop? A line of it? Yes or no.
JASON LOWE: Yes, sir.
But it was an odor coming from the garage that really got their attention.
Det. Eric Willadsen: It’s a smell that you never forget. Once you’ve smelt it, you know instantly when you smell it again.
It was the smell of death. And it was coming from the back of Jason Lowe’s black Audi. Detective Hale opened the hatch door. There was no Jessie Bardwell, but a body had clearly been there.
When police searched the garage, they came across Jason’s Audi. It was covered in mud and the bumper was ripped-off and stuffed inside the car. The thing that stuck out the most to the detectives was the odor emitting from the back hatch of the vehicle. It was the smell of death. COLLIN COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE
Det. Chiron Hale: There was standing fluid in the back hatch. And it smelled like just decaying flesh. …It had front-end damage. It did not have the bumper. The bumper was inside the vehicle … it had a lot of mud on the inside and on the outside.
One explanation was that he had gotten stuck in the mud while searching for Jessie.
Det. Chiron Hale: He still held onto the fact that he did not know where Jessie was.
When the detectives sprayed the luminol-based chemical Bluestar in the Audi, the cargo compartment lit up — indicating the presence of blood. COLLIN COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE
But when they sprayed the chemical Bluestar in the cargo compartment of the Audi, it lit up like crazy – indicating the presence of blood.
Det. Chiron Hale: It pretty much turned into a homicide investigation at that point.
DET. CHIRON HALE: We’re wondering if you wouldn’t mind coming down to the station so we could talk?
JASON LOWE: Like right now?
DET. CHIRON HALE: Yeah.
Jason Lowe was initially arrested on drug charges and thrown in jail. Detectives used the opportunity to further question him on Jesse’s whereabouts.
Det. Eric Willadsen: We spent a long time speaking with him to try to relate to his emotions, his feelings.
DET. HALE TO LOWE: You see this picture? Look at the picture. Jason.
DET. WILLADSEN TO LOWE: The girl you were in love with. The girl that you wanted to marry.
Det. Eric Willadsen: …and nothing seemed to work.
JASON LOWE: Don’t f—ing patronize me.
Det. Eric Willadsen: He didn’t seem to care … He seemed irritated and thought that — we were trying to pin things on him that he hadn’t done.
DET. WILLADSEN: Will you tell me where she’s at.
JASON LOWE: I don’t know any of that, man I’m wrapped up –like I’m good—I’m not going to be accused of stuff and I’m done talking.
Jason Lowe was charged with the murder of Jessie Bardwell RICHARDSON POLICE DEPARTMENT
Even without a body, Jason Lowe was charged with murder.
Det. Eric Willadsen: I had no doubt that he had killed her.
But they did have doubts — grave doubts — that they would ever find Jessie.
Det. Eric Willadsen: Texas is a huge state. We’ve got lots of rivers, lots of lakes, lots of ponds, fields. There are — 100 million different places you could hide a body in Texas.
Back home in Pascagoula, the town rallied around the family.
Kitty Bardwell | Jessie’s grandmother: They had a candlelight vigil at the beach … praying that she’d be found, maybe safe somewhere.
On May 19, almost three weeks after Jessie was last seen alive, they finally got an answer. The police had reason to believe Jessie was on a remote ranch in North Texas. Gary Bardwell says they wouldn’t tell the family how they knew; only that it was a reliable source. Chief Jimmy Spivey called the Bardwell family into the station.
Gary Bardwell: The chief said, “It’s gonna be a bad day for y’all today because we do not expect to find your daughter alive.”
A team of detectives, FBI investigators, and prosecutors made their way to that remote ranch in Farmersville, Texas. They arrived late afternoon and started walking through the fields.
Det. Eric Willadsen: We saw where he had gotten stuck in the mud.
Maureen Maher: You could still see the car parts on the ground?
Det. Chiron Hale: You could.
Det. Eric Willadsen: We found a piece of metal…looked like it was shielding something — kind of a makeshift burial area, and at that point you could start to smell, you know, decaying flesh, so…
Det. Eric Willadsen: …we walked closer. She was covered with a sheet, so you could tell — but you could see the outline of the body under the sheet.
Jessie Bardwell had been crudely wrapped in a blue fitted sheet and covered with a pile of debris, including a red blanket and two red and gold towels.
Maureen Maher: What was the condition of this body?
Det. Eric Willadsen: It’s one of the worst we’ve seen.
It would take seven days to officially identify her body. The medical examiner ruled Jesse’s death a homicide. But her body was so badly decomposed officials could not say how she was murdered.
Against his better judgment, Jessie’s father read the autopsy report.
Gary Bardwell [overcome with emotion]: I felt it was my responsibility as Jessie’s daddy to read the report. …she was brutally murdered. And she was thrown away like a piece of trash … wrapped up in a sheet barely looking like a person.
Gary Bardwell [overcome with emotion]: They sent the hearse to Texas to pick her up and my firemen buddies loaded her into the back of the hearse … This is my life now.
Over 900 people showed up at First United Methodist Church to mourn the death and celebrate the life of 27-year-old Jessie Bardwell.
Kitty Bardwell: If this town could be washed with all the tears that were shed over Jessie, it’d be real clean. We wouldn’t even need for it to rain for the tears that were shed for Jessie.
While the Bardwells spent the next year grieving, a very different looking Jason Lowe was in a McKinney, Texas, jail cell preparing his defense.
Andy Farkas | Defense attorney: One of the key issues in this case is whether or not to have our client testify.
Jason’s court appointed attorney, Andy Farkas, says he is sure that Jason did not murder Jessie. He’s not so sure Jason can convince a jury. But he has a plan.
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