Episode 11 Alex Woodworth

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On the afternoon of March 22, 2018, a young woman arrived at a remote farmhouse in Dunn County, Wisconsin. She had dried blood around her mouth and on her arms and hands. Her clothes were covered in mud, her trousers torn, and her feet were bare. She rang the doorbell rapidly, several times. When 89-year-old dairy farmer Don Sipple answered, she said she needed to be taken to hospital. On seeing the state she was in, the elderly man brought the stranger inside and called 911.

The woman claimed she had been attacked, but she couldn’t remember anything – not even her name.

The concerned farmer had no idea that the young woman sitting in his home was a persistent liar and if the jury got it right, a calculated killer.

On the afternoon of March 22, 2018, a young woman arrived at a remote farmhouse in Dunn County, Wisconsin. She had dried blood around her mouth and on her arms and hands. Her clothes were covered in mud, her trousers torn, and her feet were bare. She rang the doorbell rapidly, several times. When 89-year-old dairy farmer Don Sipple answered, she said she needed to be taken to hospital. On seeing the state she was in, the elderly man brought the stranger inside and called 911.

The woman claimed she had been attacked, but she couldn’t remember anything – not even her name.

The concerned farmer had no idea that the young woman sitting in his home was a persistent liar and if the jury got it right, a calculated killer.

Hello and welcome to Turned Up Dead. I’m Fiona and the true crime case I’m going to tell you today is of the murder of 24-year-old Alex Woodworth. A quick content warning, although not in detail, this episode briefly mentions sexual assault and self-harm.

When police arrived at the farmhouse, the apparent victim was still unable to remember her name or what had happened to her. To the state trooper and Dunn County deputy who responded, she had the appearance and demeanor of a victim of a violent physical attack.

An ambulance soon arrived and took her to Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire. The unidentified woman was bruised and appeared to be suffering from dissociative amnesia. However, someone named Jason Mengel must have been important to her as she repeatedly asked for him.

Whilst being treated at the hospital, staff noticed the word BOY scratched into her left arm. Then, almost miraculously, some of the patient’s memory returned. She said she was 19 years old and that her name was Ezra McCandless. The woman – McCandless – also recalled that her ex and friend, Alex Woodworth, had attacked her in her vehicle when it was stopped on a remote muddy road.

Police began to search the area surrounding the Don Sipple’s farmhouse, but they found no sign of McCandless’s car or Woodworth that night.

The next morning, while she was still in the hospital, Detective Prock interviewed McCandless. The detective had met McCandless and interviewed her a few months before this meeting about another incident, which you’ll hear about a bit further on. At the time of the interview at the hospital, detective Prock considered her a victim and was wanting to get any clues from her as to the whereabouts of Woodworth. However, McCandless claimed she still couldn’t remember anything other than what she had already told them about the muddy road. Prock had no reason not to believe the bruised and shaken woman and finished his interview after around 30 minutes.

However, the search for Woodworth had resumed, and later on that day, he was found dead, slumped across the backseat of MacCandless’s vehicle. Woodworth had multiple stab wounds spread across his body. The missing person case was now a murder investigation.

The next morning, detective Prock returned to the hospital and spoke with McCandless again. He didn’t immediately tell her of the discovery of her car and Woodworth’s body. Instead, he first asked her many of the same questions he had asked the day before – and like the day before, McCandless appeared to be suffering from amnesia.

The detective then began to reveal his cards.

When he informed her they had found her car and Woodworth’s body, some more of her memory returned.

McCandless recalled that on the morning of March 22, 2018, she delivered one of her paintings to a friend named Max.

She then visited Racy D’Lenes coffee lounge and spoke with her ex, Jason Mengel – the man whose name she remembered throughout her amnesia,

Following this, she drove to Woodworth’s house to return some of his things and make it clear that their affair was over.

She told the detective that she and Woodworth had gone for a drive with the intention of finding somewhere public to talk. She had done most of the driving – she wanted to go to a park, but she said she wasn’t really paying attention to where they were going and said she was ‘just driving.’

Her Chevy Impala got stuck in the mud, but they were able to get the car moving again. But then her car became stuck in the mud again. They couldn’t get the car out this time, and then, McCandless claimed, Woodworth was angry that she was calling it off with him. She said she was sitting on the trailer hitch on the back of her vehicle when Woodworth approached her from behind and hugged her. His hug then turned into him trying to sexually assault her. McCandless remembered he told her, “I want you one last time. I deserve one last time.”

They then ended up inside the car, she said had leaned into the back of the vehicle when Woodworth followed her and continued his attack on the back seat. McCandless said he started to cut off her clothes with a knife and then carved the word BOY on her arm. Fearing for her life, she claimed she kneed her attacker in the groin and grabbed the knife by the blade, and then began stabbing him, quote, “everywhere and anywhere,” end quote. Then, she managed to get away.

The detective pointed out that BOY was cut on her arm from her perspective – the B of boy started near her elbow, and the word finished at her wrist. McCandless then admitted that she had carved the word into her own arm before she started down the muddy road. The detective also noticed that McCandless had no injury on either palm, which she certainly would have if she had grabbed the knife by the blade.

There were also a number of immediate inconsistencies between her story and the crime scene. Woodworth’s autopsy report notes 16 stab wounds that reach from his head to his thigh, but most blood evidence was found outside the car. There was nowhere near enough blood inside the vehicle for someone to have been stabbed inside it over a dozen times, and if things had unraveled as McCandless had said, the victim would have more defensive wounds than those he died with.

Wisconsin police spent two weeks investigating the case and then arrested McCandless on suspicion of Woodworth’s murder. The self-proclaimed victim was charged with one felony count of first-degree intentional homicide.

Ezra McCandless was born Monica Karlen, but she changed her name in 2015. She reportedly chose the surname ‘McCandless’ after Chris McCandless, the 24-year-old adventurer and subject of the book and movie, Into The Wild. He left civilization in the early 90s and lived off the land in an abandoned bus in Alaska until he died from starvation, although his cause of death is still debated.

At the time, McCandless lived with her family in Stanley, Wisconsin, but armed with her new name, the old Monica Karlen began her new life, 35 miles away in Eau Claire.

In Eau Claire, McCandless started a few relationships with a number of men who were all friends.

In the summer of 2017, she met 33-year-old Jason Mengel, and they became romantically involved. Mengel, a medic in the Army Reserve, claimed he was in love with her since the moment they met. Their relationship moved fast, and McCandless quickly moved in with Mengel. Mengel told 48 Hours, ‘I would call her wife and she would call me husband.’

They both became friends with Alex Woodworth around the same time that they met. He worked in the coffee shop they had all met in.

Everything seemed to be going well until McCandless discovered she was pregnant with Mengel. Not wanting to become a mother, she had an abortion. Following this, she and Woodworth then grew close and were soon sleeping together. Mengel then left for two weeks for military training, and with him away, McCandless and Woodworth continued their affair.

During this time, McCandless claimed she was raped twice by Mengal’s friend, John Hansen. This was when she first met detective Prock who interviewed her after she reported the sexual assaults.

The sexual assault case was later dropped.

Mengel, who had supported her after she said she was raped, then found out about her and Woodworth’s affair. However, it was McCandless who broke off her relationship with him and Woodworth. McCandless left Mengel’s home and moved back with her family in Stanley, but she wasn’t happy and she wanted to be back in Eau Clair – and back with Jason Mengel.

McCandless was desperate to get him back, but she had lost Mengel’s trust, and he wasn’t interested in restarting their relationship.

On the day Woodworth was killed, McCandless told the detective that earlier in the day, she had taken a painting she’d painted for a friend. After this, she headed to the coffee shop where she was sure Mengel would be.

She was right. At Racy’s Coffee Lounge, she confronted her ex. The ex-lovers were seen on the coffee shop’s security footage, but the cameras didn’t pick up the atmosphere of their meeting. In a desperate attempt to get him back, McCandless promised to give him her journals, so he could read them and see how much he meant to her. However, throughout their conversation, Mengel couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right about the way she was acting. Mengel later said she seemed agitated.

McCandless’ insisted that her affair with Woodworth was a mistake, and wanting Woodworth to back her up on her claim, she left the coffee shop, got in her car, and went to see Woodworth at his home.

Concerned about his ex’s agitated state, Mengel got on his bicycle and followed her to Woodworth’s residence.

When he got there, he saw McCandless’ distinctive car outside Woodworth’s house. Perhaps not knowing what to do, he rode his bike up and down the street before he let himself into the property after about 45 minutes. This odd behavior had caught the attention of one of Woodworth’s neighbors, who called the police.

Inside the house, Mengel said he walked in on McCandless and Woodworth in the middle of a conversation in Woodworth’s bedroom. Sensing the tension in the room, Mengel suggested they all go outside, which they did.

The threesome exited the house just as two Eau Claire police cars arrived in response to the report of a suspicious cyclist.

Dashcam and bodycam footage that recorded this response is online. In it, you can see McCandless’ car. At the time, McCandless and Woodworth are sitting inside, although they can’t be seen through the window. Mengel was recorded on his bicycle on the road in front of the car. The serviceman, who later swore he had ‘never seen a violent bone in her body,’ was also captured on police body cam footage explaining his concerns about McCandless to a police officer.

The officers spoke with McCandless and Woodworth, who both said they were fine. At 1:05 pm, the officers left believing there was no immediate concern.

Mengel left shortly after the officers. This would be the last time he would see Alex Woodworth alive. McCandless then drove west along Cameron Street and into Dunn County.

When first charged, McCandless first pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, but this defense was withdrawn, and she entered a plea of not guilty due to the homicide being in self-defense.

The defense’s story was that Woodworth was a sexual sadist who McCandless killed in self-defense when he attempted to rape her.

McCandless testified in her own defense and told mostly the same story she had told detective Prock in their second interview at the hospital. During her testimony, Woodworth portrayed herself as the victim. She told the court that Woodworth had shown her some of his writing when they first met, it had been about cannibalism. She said Woodworth was into BDSM, and she testified that he had cut her clothing while they were having sex in the past, just like he did when he attacked her in her car.

The prosecution argued that McCandless intentionally lured Woodworth away from the public and murdered him in cold blood on behalf of the state. Her motive, they claimed, was to win back her ex Jason Mengel.

Prosecutors claim by murdering Woodworth, quote “the defendant was taking control of her life by seeking out (the victim) to permanently remove the bad memories of their relationship and abortion, the guilt of her infidelity with John Hansen, and here associations as a male in their relationship,” end quote.

To support their case, the prosecution called a medical expert who testified that Woodworth was first stabbed in the back of his head. This suggested Woodworth had been taken by surprise and also explained his lack of defensive wounds.

The prosecution pointed out that the blood evidence didn’t match McCandless’s testimony and that Woodworth was stabbed when he was out of the vehicle where the pools of his blood were found.

On October 28, 2019, the prosecution began their cross-examination of McCandless. Her trial was covered by Court TV. In their commentary of the beginning of the cross-examination, some of the presenters questioned the prosecution’s method of starting right at the beginning of her relationship with Mengel.

It was a slow start, but over the next three hours, the prosecutor questioned McCandless in a way that highlighted the inconsistencies in McCandless’ testimony and in her overall defense.

At the beginning of the cross-examination, the jury heard text and Instagram messages between McCandless and her ex, Jason Mengel. An example sent from the defendant read, quote, ‘I feel so strongly when I feel and it scares me a lot of the time,’ end quote. Others spoke of one day having children together and of the depth of their feelings for each other.

McCandless had obviously been very well prepared for the cross-examination. She was confident – she appeared more comfortable and in control than the prosecutor throughout much of her time on the stand.

Despite this, the jury heard her confirm parts of her story that didn’t make sense and admit to lying on multiple occasions.

Her story of how she got the knife from Woodworth had changed since her interview with Prock. The previous day McCandless testified that she kneed him in the groin, and he dropped the knife, which she then got hold of. This differed from the story she gave to detective Prock about grabbing the knife by the blade. The position she claimed to have been in in the car when Woodworth allegedly began his attack had also changed. By the time she got to trial, she had said she was on her back, not on her front, as she told police before. McCandless had also testified the previous day that she removed a pillow and blanket from the car, but the prosecutor pointed out that she told Prock she didn’t throw anything out of the vehicle. To account for the differences from her conversation with Prock, McCandless said, quote, ‘I don’t have independent strong memories about that conversation,’ end quote.

She had even lied about giving the painting to her friend. She might have been giving the painting to her friend, but she hadn’t painted it for him. Three days before the murder, Mengel had gotten a call from a friend who told him more about his ex’s affair. During this call, he learned that McCandless and Woodworth had slept together in his bed. The painting had been hung above his bed, but on hearing this, it became a reminder of McCandless’ infidelity.

But still, McCandless didn’t give the reactions the prosecution likely hoped for. She remained extremely calm and gave the prosecutor a tough time.

In contrast to the defense’s claims of Woodworth being a violent sexual sadist with a taste for cannibalism, Woodworth was shown to be almost the exact opposite.

Extracts from Woodworth’s journals painted a picture of a romantic man who thought deeply about love, what love is, and the effects being in love has on him.

Some of the extracts the prosecutor read, and asked McCandless to read included:

‘Love becomes love of the infinite. That is the Good. Love and do as you desire becomes a principle of excellent morality.’

‘Love and do as you desire transforms into infinite obligation. If you actually love, you’ll give and give and give no matter what your love asks for that is your desire.’

‘I could follow in your footsteps and give my life for whoever needed it.’
The prosecutor attempted to get McCandless to agree with his interpretation of this that in saying this, Woodworth was speaking about giving his life for the one he loves, not taking the life of someone he loves. However, McCandless didn’t agree.

Another line from his journal referred to a philosopher, and said, ‘I was too Hegelian, or I call it such now, you were my master.’

There was no mention of being into BDSM or enjoying violence. And unlike McCandless’ claims that Woodworth was angry that she wanted to be with Mengel, records of texts between McCandless and Woodworth showed that Woodworth initiated no contact with McCandless after she ended their affair.

McCandless was also shown to have misrepresented his writings about cannibalism. She had spoken of it as being in a literal sense – Woodworth wanted to actually eat human flesh. But his journals showed that all references to cannibalism were metaphorical – similar to how we often talk of being consumed by love. McCandless agreed that there was no literal reference at all to cannibalism in his journals.

What had at first seemed like a directionless, fumbling cross-examination started to come together to show the jury that they couldn’t trust McCandless.

McCandless confirmed that she had told the Eau Clair police officers that she was fine when Mengel followed her to Woodworth’s house and that she had said she wanted to go somewhere public, but she had passed two public parks on her way to the muddy road she ended up on. Neither of these, the prosecution claimed, were the actions of someone in fear.

Toward the end of the cross-examination, McCandless’ confidence seemed to drop as the prosecutor drilled the number of times she had stabbed Woodworth. He then went on to question the defendant about taking Woodworth’s phone after the attack but not using it to call the police. In response to the phone being found broken on the ground, McCandless claimed she fell on her way to get help, and it broke, so she left it there.

McCandless confirmed that when taken to hospital, she had told nurses that she had been at Owen Park and she said nothing of the alleged sexual assault. She agreed that she had no reason to be afraid to tell the nurse of being sexually assaulted at that time. The prosecutor then got McCandless to admit that she knew she was lying at the time – to an extent. McCandless said she could remember ‘bits and pieces of what she later claimed happened.

The prosecutor finished his cross-examination with a list of people she had also lied to after following the events of March 22.

In early November 2019, the jury found McCandless guilty of `first-degree murder.

After the verdict, Woodworth’s father said in a statement read by Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Noldolf, “By killing our son, not only did she take our son, she made the world a colder and darker place.” Following the case, Woodworth’s grandfather suffered a heart attack. The family urged the judge to give their son’s killer the maximum sentence of life in prison.

McCandless read an apology after her sentence was given which read in part, “I want to say how sorry I am that they have lost their son. But sorry doesn’t cut it in my mind,” she went on to say, “I loved Alex very much. And I also feel a great loss. And I am so sorry.”

On February 7, the family’s wish was granted, and Judge James M. Peterson sentenced Ezra McCandless to life in prison. But whereas her victim’s family would probably want her never to be released, judge Peterson allowed McCandless the possibility for parole after 50 years.

On December 10, 2019, a woman named Rosie Gunelson set up a GoFundMe campaign titled ‘Support an Artist.’ Its goal was reportedly to fund an appeal for McCandless, but it’s no longer taking donations, and there are no updates on the campaign. It doesn’t indicate when it was stopped or how much they were hoping to raise, but just $50 was raised before it was shut down.

McCandless’ previously private Instagram account was also made public following her convction.

So, what do I think? Please remember, these are simply my personal thoughts based on what I know about this case, and I have no background in law or law enforcement.

My personal opinion is that McCandless is in the right place. After listening to her police interview and knowing the gist of the story, I wasn’t at all surprised when I learned she took the stand in her own defense. What did surprise me was how confident she seemed. The thought crossed my mind that she appeared more confident at her murder trial than many people are just getting through a regular day.

I’m sure McCandless believed she was smarter than the prosecutor – she did appear to run circles around him at the beginning of her cross-examination. I think she saw his gray hair, watched him fumble with his computer throughout the trial, and thought she could outsmart him. There were a few times where McCandless corrected some minor errors he made, things like the correct page number for a specific text message, for example, but the prosecutor didn’t seem upset at all and at times thanked her. Who knows, maybe he outperformed McCandless’s acting in court.

I didn’t watch the whole trial, but from what I saw, I don’t think I’d have been too worried about the jurors returning a not-guilty verdict. I believe that on top of the evidence not matching McCandless’ version of events, the jurors simply realized that McCandless couldn’t be trusted. Her amnesia followed by well-timed recollections was too convenient, and the defendant herself admitted to lying multiple times throughout the investigation.

McCandless’ apology was all about her. She said, “I loved Alex very much. And I also feel a great loss.” I don’t think she is sorry at all – she downplays the fact that she killed him by saying, “they have lost their son.”

What might come as a surprise is that some people who knew her said Ezra was an amazing person, and Mengel said he hadn’t seen a violent bone in her body. Though they hadn’t really known each other that long. When we first meet people, especially if it’s a romantic interest, we don’t start by showing them our flaws. Instead, we show ourselves in the best possible light and then kind of slip our flaws in along the way.

When someone is actively trying to hide a part of their personality, it can take a while to see behind their mask.

Thank you for listening to Turned Up Dead. All sources for this episode can be found at turnedupdead.com.

Remember, if you listen carefully, even the words of liars will tell you the truth.