With jury selection complete, the trial of 34-year-old Christopher Cowan of Shoreline for attempted murder in connection with the Jan. 17 stabbing of Edmonds Dominos Pizza delivery driver Mike Brenick got underway Tuesday with opening arguments in Snohomish County Superior Court.
Snohomish County prosecutor Craig Matheson began the day presenting his case to the jury. Describing in meticulous detail the sequence of events leading up to the attack and culminating in Cowan’s arrest three days later, Matheson led the jury step by step through his case against the defendant.
Setting the scene, Matheson described the poorly-lit back parking lot behind Dominos Pizza at 22914 Highway 99, where Brenick had parked his 2013 Nissan Leaf. The car was in this location to charge the battery from a power outlet, as no outlets are accessible from the store’s main front parking lot.
According to Matheson, at 11:40 p.m. Brenick was preparing to deliver a food order to a nearby residence. As he approached his car carrying the food order he noticed someone in the driver’s seat. He opened the car door and accosted the suspect, while taking out his cell phone to call police. The suspect then took out a knife and stabbed Brenick several times. At first feeling no pain, Brenick grabbed his abdomen and noticed “his guts spilling out,” at which point he ran back to the front of the store holding his intestines in, a move which Matheson said “saved his life.” The suspect fled on foot.
Matheson then described how Brenick pounded on the front door of the Dominos (store policy calls for the door to be locked after 10 p.m.) and was let in by his manager. Brenick was bleeding profusely and clearly in great distress, repeating “I’ve been stabbed, call 911,” which the manager did. The 911 call was received at 11:42 p.m., and Edmonds Police arrived on the scene at 11:44.
In response to police questions, Brenick described his assailant as a black male in his mid-20s wearing dark clothing and carrying a backpack. This description went out over the air at 11:46.
Fortunately one of the officers responding had combat first aid training, and was able to apply dressings to temporarily seal the wound. Brenick was transferred to an aid car at 11:53 and rushed to Harboview Medical Center.
Among the first responders was Edmonds K-9 Officer Jason Robinson, who along with a backup officer and K-9 dog Hobbs began a search for the assailant at 11:54. Hobbs picked up a scent, which led them through the parking area of the adjacent Ballinger Park Apartments, where they encountered a resident standing outside his apartment.
Asked by the officers if he had seen anyone, the resident said he had seen a man that matched the description given by Brenick running through the parking area. This man stopped to talk to the resident and asked if he would call him a taxi. The resident made two calls to secure a cab, at 11:48 and 11:50, but neither were answered. The man then left on foot, leaving his coat behind on the ground and a manila envelope in a cigarette butt can. The resident gave this information to the officers at 11:57. Hobbs continued to follow the scent, but lost it a few blocks later and the K-9 track was called off.
Upon examination, police found the envelope contained the insurance documents for Brenick’s car.
Police continued to search the area hoping to find the suspect. This included questioning the clerk at the Union 76 gas station convenience store at 76th and Highway 99. The clerk reported that a man fitting the description of the suspect had been in the store. Subsequent viewing of the store’s security camera tapes revealed a man matching the suspect’s description in the store between 12:00 midnight and 12:03 a.m.
In addition, the store manager found a pawn ticket from the Shoreline Cash America store in the name of the defendant, Christopher Cowan, on the floor near where the security tape showed the suspect standing. The pawn ticket was time-stamped, and subsequent inspection of Cash America’s surveillance video showed what appeared to be the same man as on the 76 store tape receiving the ticket at Cash America.
Based on this evidence, police obtained an arrest warrant, and Cowan was picked up by Shoreline police on Jan. 21, then transferred to Edmonds police detectives for questioning.
But Matheson saved the key piece for last. Evidence including the coat and the manila envelope containing Brenick’s car insurance documents found at Ballinger Park apartments, and various pieces of clothing belonging to Cowan, were sent to the crime lab for forensic analysis. All but one came back inconclusive. But the manila envelope bore a fingerprint matching that of Cowan, providing strong corroboration for the case against him. Matheson told the jury that the match was confirmed by two independent fingerprint analyses.
Matheson concluded by telling the jury that the defendant chose to kill Brenick rather than let him call police, and told them he will ask that they return a verdict of guilty as charged with attempted first-degree murder.
Defense attorney Jennifer Bartlett then addressed the jury, saying that Cowan was staying with friends at Andy’s Motel on Highway 99 that night. He walked to the 76 store, wiped his feet on the way in, bought some candy and left. “And for this…buying a piece of candy…he becomes a suspect in this tragic case.”
Maintaining that the evidence “simply does not fit,” she pointed out significant differences in the descriptions of the suspect by the convenience store clerk, Brenick and the Ballinger Park resident, where he was variously described as wearing a solid color dark shirt and a checkered shirt, sporting a thin mustache or was clean-shaven.
She also noted that the photo montage assembled by police to show witnesses and aid in identification of the suspect was flawed. The montage showed only one photo of an individual with a gap in his front teeth, while the other images showing either no teeth or a metal “grill.” That photo with the tooth gap was Cowan, and witnesses all chose that one as the suspect.
In addition, she called the fingerprint evidence into question, pointing out that the only print compared to the one on the manila envelope was taken from Cowan. A proper analysis would have required comparing the print with those of Brenick, the Ballinger Park resident and anyone else who might have touched the envelope. Because this was not done, she maintains that the analysis was flawed, not thorough and incomplete.
In conclusion, she told the jury that the details simply don’t fit the prosecutor’s conclusion, and that she will ask them to return a verdict of not guilty.
The trial continues in Snohomish County Superior Court this week, and could conclude as soon as the middle of next week. My Edmonds News will provide updates.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel