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The Single-Mom Murder

Christa Worthington left the glitz of the Manhattan fashion and journalism worlds for the simpler life of a single mother on Cape Cod. But when she was murdered, she left behind a beautiful 2 and 1/2-year-old daughter, a long list of potential suspects, and the realization that her life wasn't so simple after all.

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"Is this New York?"

It was a question that Ava had asked her mother every time they passed through another town on I-95 on the drive from Cape Cod to Manhattan. It was a long haul, one that Christa Worthington, a 46-year-old freelance journalist, single mother, and resident of New York on and off for twenty years, had rarely done in the few years since she had made the difficult choice to leave the city. But at 2 and 1/2, Ava seemed capable of making the trip without a total meltdown, and Worthington had wanted to get out of the drear of the wintertime Cape, so they'd packed toys and snacks into her Honda Civic and hit the road. Plus, Worthington had been invited to a Christmas party thrown by New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, her close friend and former colleague, later in the week. It seemed like the perfect excuse.

"Is this New York?"

When they reached Manhattan, it was a great homecoming. Worthington's friends were in town for the holidays, and Brantley's party, a big, boozy gathering at an East Village theater, was like the old gang from fashion magazines like W and Elle. Everyone remarked at how terrific she looked: Though it had meant lots of nights working out to calisthenics tapes in her living room and going to Weight Watchers meetings in nearby Provincetown through the fall, Worthington had finally lost the twenty-odd pounds she'd put on during pregnancy -- she called it her "mother pudge." And Woody Allen and Soon Yi were at the party -- that alone was worth the trip.

Three weeks later, on January 6, Worthington's friends received shocking news: Back at her cottage in Truro, a "down-cape" town just ten minutes away from the curling sand-and-shrub end of Cape Cod, Worthington had been savagely beaten and stabbed in the chest. She'd bled to death on her kitchen floor. She was there more than 24 hours before she was found. Ava had been with her.

Detectives found Ava's bloody handprints all over the house -- on a Disney videotape Ava had tried to stick into the VCR, on her own sippy cup (from which she had apparently tried to feed her mother), on a box of Cheerios she'd managed to pull from the counter. She needed her diaper changed, badly; she'd explained to the man who found her that "Mommy fell down." A precociously talkative child, Ava was nevertheless still nursing, though she had promised her mother over and over that she would stop. On that terrible night, she'd pulled aside the V of Worthington's nightgown.

For Christa Worthington, Ava was the latest, happiest chapter in what had sometimes been a turbulent life. Told for years by doctors that she would not be able to have a child, she had conceived at 43. From the outside, her life could seem idyllic. Her family had deep roots in Truro -- around the corner from her house, there's a road called Worthington Way -- and the first EMT on the scene was a cousin. Part of a clique of relocated parents who were struggling to bring up sophisticated kids in a rural environment, Worthington played French cartoons so Ava could pick up some of the language, and even sent her to a playgroup with a Spanish-speaking nanny in hopes that she might become trilingual. Ava had a real memory for songs, and Worthington had started to play classical music around the house to help develop her ear.

But in the days following Christa's death, it became apparent that the drama and complications that often characterized Christa Worthington's life had by no means ended with Ava's birth. "Everyone always thought Christa played the victim," laments a friend, "and now it turns out that she wasn't exaggerating at all." In no time, police assembled a roster of possible suspects out of Agatha Christie -- the married ex-lover, a local "shellfish constable," who was Ava's father; the aristocratic father with a 29-year-old heroin-addict girlfriend; an old boyfriend with an angry streak, known to her friends simply as "the magician"; and the neighbor and former boyfriend with a rare brain condition who found her body -- he told police he was "returning a flashlight."

Worthington had complained to friends in the weeks before she died that she was a "pariah" in her family and among other townspeople up in Truro. She was angry at her father. She'd talked about moving back to the city, restarting her career, getting back in the game. It might have been safer.

Outside the clapboard funeral home in Worthington's hometown of Hingham, Massachusetts, a hard-bitten female cop dispatched by Christopher "Toppy" Worthington, Christa's father, was trying to keep order over the scrum of media: video teams from CNN and Fox News, People photographers brandishing telephoto lenses, large delegations from the Boston papers.

"I told yaa before," the cop kept shouting, "not one foot of yaas on the property."

Inside, the scene was far more sedate; continually arriving Worthingtons bent by Christa's flower-laden casket and tried not to weep while viewing the cardboard collages of snapshots Worthington's cousins had assembled. There were 60 or so photos: Christa leaning back on a veranda overlooking the Italian seashore, Christa with three friends in HAPPY BIRTHDAY tiaras, Christa pensive on the windswept Vineyard ferry. "She looks just like Greta Garbo," sighed one of Worthington's aunts, gazing at a black-and-white shot of her niece in Paris.

Toppy himself remained backed into one corner of the home for nearly the entire four hours of visitation, looking as though he wished he could disappear into the garish floral wallpaper. Soft-spoken and rail-thin from riding his mountain bike nearly every day, Toppy was offered condolences by a continual round of family and friends, but he didn't seem to have much to do with the wake's main attraction, Ava.

Parading about in a green velvet dress topped by a Peter Pan collar, Ava smiled a wide Worthington smile as she navigated the crowd. Ava is now living with Cliff and Amyra Chase, the Cohasset couple designated as her guardians in Worthington's will, which bequeaths $700,000 to the child.

"Yesterday," clucked one of her old baby-sitters, watching her, "Ava went into the corner of the room and said six times, loud and clear, 'Get out of my house, I'm not afraid of you.' Six times she said it."

Ava was there because a child psychologist had advised relatives it was in her future best interest. She held court in a circle of adults -- "no more monkeys jumping on the bed!" -- until one of her teenage cousins scooped her up and took her to see the collages.

They stopped first in front of a photo of Worthington in her mother's old studio -- Gloria Worthington painted until her death, from cancer, three years ago.

"Where's Ava?" asked Ava.

"I don't know, honey," said the cousin, hiking her up on her hip. "Maybe you weren't born yet."The next photo was of Ava. It was a summer day on the beach and she was squinting up into the camera, knee-deep in the water, alone.

Ava extended a chubby finger at it. "Where's Mommy?" she asked.

Even at 46, Worthington had the lineaments of an appealing girlishness, with pillowy lips, perpetually pink cheeks, and bright, frank eyes. The part of her personality she showed most people was reserved and maybe even a bit shy. "Christa had the innocence of a girl from a small town who thought the world was just such a sweet place," says Knight Landesman, publisher of Artforum. "But she was far too sophisticated for that, so you knew it had to be slightly faux."


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