Crystal Howell pleads guilty to murder charges
Unshackled, in voice barely above a whisper, Crystal Brooke Howell pleaded guilty in Superior Court Monday where she faced charges in the death of her father, Michael Howell.
She was charged with first-degree murder and concealment of a death other than natural causes back in 2014, after his body was discovered at the home both shared in the Sheepback Mountain community near Maggie Valley.
Her father was last seen alive on surveillance video taken at the Ingles store in Canton on Feb. 24, 2014, while shopping with his daughter.
Crystal Howell was caught shoplifting during the trip, a fact that disappointed her father and frustrated the teen, who during later interviews, said she contemplated what to do about the situation upon their return home.
She admitted to thinking about what to do, including killing him, while she took a long shower to escape his disapproval.
According to the account of the facts in the case by the state, after her shower, Howell took a shotgun and shot her father in the head at close range while he slept on the couch.
She then concealed his death by hiding his body in a large plastic bin in the shed behind the family home, where it remained for nearly a month until discovered by f friends she had invited to stay with her in the home.
At different times, Howell told different stories to various people about her father’s absence. To one person she said he planned to be out of town for an extended period, to her friends staying with her, she reported that he had committed suicide in Georgia.
Howell told her friends that she was avoiding DSS workers until she turned 18 because she was afraid they would take away her father’s valuables and possessions and place her in DSS custody.
In the absence of adult supervision, she and her friends hosted drug-fueled parties at the home where a stripper pole had been installed. Howell had accessed her father’s finances and was using his bank account to pay her expenses.
Around March 20, 2014, her friends were helping her gather her father’s belongings from the home, placing them in the shed. On March 21, Howell loaded up her father’s Land Rover and a U-Haul of belongings, took $3,000 in cash and headed to her mother’s home in Georgia where she told them she would stay until she turned 18. She told one of her friends to stay in the home and pay the bills.
The next day, her friends discovered the body of Michael Howell in the shed and immediately reported it to the Waynesville Police Department.
He was still wearing the clothes he had on the day of his murder and his body was wrapped in sleeping bag.
An investigation was launched and on March 23, Howell was arrested at a Motel 6 in Georgia. On April 3, she was extradited back to the Haywood County Detention Center, where she has remained in custody since.
Howell initially told detectives it was an accident and that the safety had malfunctioned. She also told an inmate in Georgia, when she was awaiting extradition, that she killed him because he was going to disown her because of the shoplifting.
At another time, she told investigators that she thought killing him would help him too, because he had been depressed.
Although there had been some question as to her competency to stand trial, after extensive psychological evaluation she was determined competent.
Howell had been in counseling since the age of 12 and had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “borderline personality disorder is a serious mental disorder marked by a pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning. These experiences often result in impulsive actions and unstable relationships.”
Speaking on Howell’s behalf, her lawyer, Bridgette Aguirre said, “This has been a difficult and sad case for all involved. The decision she made has changed her life and her family’s life forever. She is here today to take responsibility for her actions.”
As Howell’s mother Kristina Rester, and sister Sierra Howell, held each other and quietly sobbed, she admitted her guilt before the court.
She was sentenced to 60 to 84 months in the custody of the Department of Adult Corrections for the concealment of death charge with credit given for 932 days of pre-trial confinement.
At the conclusion of that sentence, she will commence with the mandatory minimum life sentence of 25 years for the first-degree murder charge, with the possibility of parole. She will be 47 years old before she is eligible for parole.
She did not face the death penalty because she was 17 at the time the murder was committed.
She was also ordered to pay court costs in excess of $13,000 for her legal defense and lab fees.
Judge Bradley Letts, who presided over the plea, addressed the law enforcement officers and others who worked on the case over the last two-and-a-half years.
“I want to offer my public thanks for the jobs well done by the Sheriff’s office, the SBI and Ms. Aguirre for all their hard work in this case,” he said.
Then he addressed Crystal Howell directly.
“The first step in you and your family moving forward is your taking responsibility for your choices. I am glad you were able to begin that process by doing so today,” he said.
From a statement Howell’s mother wrote, the judge read, “I won’t give up on her, and I hope that with help and counseling she will find a place of peace.”
“I hope that these words shared by your mother will offer you some hope of healing and forgiveness to come,” he said.