STELLA — Shortly after 8 a.m. five years ago today, the body of Rowan Ford, 9, was found by McDonald County deputies in a cave-like area in eastern McDonald County.
Today, many in the village of Stella still remember Rowan.
“Things have finally calmed down, not completely back to normal, but people still remember,” said Bill Alsop, former Stella mayor. “But everybody is kind of ready to put it past them. We want to remember her every year, but we just try to put it past us now that everything’s finished in the court system.”
Shortly after she was reported missing, a massive search that was led by the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, Missouri Highway Patrol, the FBI, friends, family and other law enforcement agencies with one goal in mind: to find Rowan.
Alsop remembers how everyone came together to find her.
“What was awesome about that was everybody here doesn’t see everyone else every day, but everybody pretty much knows everybody,” he said. “And everybody feels for everybody. A little village is like a little family.
Everybody that could walk was out looking for her. Everybody knew her. She was a little sweetheart and everybody wanted to find her.”
Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland also remembers that search and to this day, has a photograph of Rowan in his office at the sheriff’s department.
“Her photo is still on the wall, I had placed that there when she was missing,” Copeland said. “In my 30 years, this has probably been one of the cases that I have become more personally involved in — with personal feelings —than any that I ever knew of. A 9-year-old girl. Not only did I have a granddaughter that age at that time, but just Rowan’s story touched me.
“Not only was I personally involved with feelings, but about every deputy that we have was,” he added.
“Through that investigation, we got to know this little girl, although we never, ever met her. We got to know about her likes and dislikes, her feelings, the little life that she lived. Unfortunately it wasn’t the perfect lifestyle, but I know from a fact from talking to her teachers, her mom, that she was involved totally in church over there. She was at church before the congregation got there. Before they even unlocked the church, she was there.”
Seeing her daughter for the last time
Rowan’s mother, Colleen Spears, saw Rowan before going to work. In a previous interview, Colleen said, “The last time I saw her was 8:30 p.m., Friday (Nov. 2, 2007). I gave her a hug and a kiss. I told her goodnight and sweet dreams. That was our whole nighttime routine. She went up to get ready for bed.”
Page 2 of 3 - Shortly after the kiss goodnight, Colleen left for work at the Jane Wal-Mart. She returned home the next day. “I came in around 10 minutes to 9 a.m. Saturday and went to the bathroom,” said Colleen. “A lot of times (Rowan) will open the door to see me, when I would pull up. Sometimes she would wait until I was out of the bathroom.”
Not seeing her daughter, Colleen went into her bedroom to check on her. She was not there.
“I then woke him (David Spears, Colleen’s husband and Rowan’s stepfather) up, because he was sleeping on the couch, and asked him if she went to someone’s house,” Colleen said.
Colleen started calling Rowan’s friends around 10 a.m. Colleen said Rowan liked to ride her bike, but the bike was still at the house. Not finding her daughter, Colleen started searching around 4:30 or 5 p.m. Saturday.
“I drove up here and then down, then I walked around to see if she was playing with anyone,” said Colleen. “I already had torn the house apart.”
As the search continued, the community came together for a candlelight ceremony on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007. Braving the cold, an estimated 200 people gathered at the Stella Baptist Church — the church Rowan attended — shortly before 6 p.m. They proceeded down the street, around the block, with candles lighting up the sky and the participants’ voices singing hymns. Making their way around the block, they ended up at 777 Grove St., Rowan’s home. As they walked up the driveway, the group sang Rowan’s favorite song, “Old Rugged Cross.” Colleen held and hugged a giant teddy bear — which she had named “Rowan” — in her arms.
A tragic end
That fateful Friday brought a lot of tears for not only Colleen, her family and friends, but also the community and everyone involved. Copeland was the one who broke the news to Colleen that they found Rowan’s body. Alsop and his wife, Stella, were also there on that tragic day.
“When (Copeland) was on his knee in front of Rowan’s mom and held her hand, I watched him with tears running down his cheeks, vowing to her that they would find whoever did that to her daughter,” Alsop said. “That is an impression that stuck in my head that I will never forget.”
After Rowan was found at the McDonald County cave — located at the intersection of Mike’s Creek and Fox Road near Powell — about 10 miles south of Ford’s home — her stepfather, David Spears and Spears’ friend, Chris Collings, were arrested and put on trial for the rape and murder of Rowan. In March of this year, Collings was found guilty of raping and killing Rowan and was officially sentenced to death for the crime. Prosecutors in September 2012 dropped murder and rape charges against David Spears because the physical evidence failed to implicate him or was inconsistent with statements Spears made to investigators. Spears pleaded guilty for endangering the welfare of a child and hindering prosecution and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Page 3 of 3 - Moving onward
Colleen moved out of the house after the event. Copeland said he ran into her recently.
“After the funeral and after the arrest were made, I never saw (Colleen),” Copeland said. “We never heard word out of her. However, I did run into her in Family Market here about a month ago, [and] got to visit with her there. She is trying to do the best that she can. My heart aches for her as a mother.”
No memorial celebrations are planned on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.
“It is going to be a quiet, somber day in Stella, Mo.,” Alsop said. “Everybody is going to kind of memorialize her themselves.”
“Today, we don’t have any memorial planned for here,” Copeland said. “We have notices up, all of the guys are aware of it, we just hope that we can be there in case there is a child in need.”
The school that Rowan attended – Triway School, just down the road from her house — has a plaque. A tree was also planted and dedicated to Rowan, a bench was made and is now in the Stella Historical Society’s building, and there is a memorial brick with her name on it at the Stella Veterans Memorial.
“Her memory is going to live on forever,” Alsop said.
Copeland said the photo of Rowan will continue to hang in his office.
“I have no plans to take it down. It’s a reminder to me every day that she is not the only child out there having a bad home life, that has been abducted or that will be abducted,” Copeland said. “It is just going to be a reminder for me that there is, we don’t want any more to end up the way she did.”