WAILUKU - A woman testified she became faint when a man put both hands around her neck and squeezed after he pulled her back into the dressing room of a Maui Mall store, where he had ripped off her shorts and sexually assaulted her Friday afternoon.
"I couldn't breathe," the 33-year-old woman said during a preliminary hearing Wednesday afternoon for Charles Cowans, whom she identified as her attacker.
"What did you think was going to happen right then?" Deputy Prosecutor Kristin Coccaro asked the woman.
Charles Cowans is escorted out of the courtroom by sheriff’s deputies, including Jon Balberdi (right), after a preliminary hearing Wednesday afternoon in Wailuku District Court.
The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo
Charles Cowans, who is charged in the sexual assault and kidnapping of a woman in a Maui Mall store, speaks with Deputy Public Defender Shelly Miyashiro during his preliminary hearing Wednesday afternoon in Wailuku District Court. At left is Deputy Prosecutor Kristin Coccaro.
The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo
"That I was going to die," she replied.
Wailuku District Judge Adrianne Heely ruled there was sufficient evidence for charges of kidnapping, two counts of first-degree sexual assault and attempted first-degree assault against Cowans, 43. She increased his bail to $1 million.
Heely said the victim's testimony was "not only credible but very courageous and brave."
Before the hearing began, Coccaro said the victim was afraid of having Cowans get a better look at her and asked if she could be allowed to testify wearing sunglasses and a black scarf covering her head. Heely said she would accommodate the victim's request to "make her as comfortable as possible."
The woman testified that she first saw Cowans when he approached from the opposite direction as she was walking to the mall store where she works at about noon Friday. "He slowed down his pace of walking," she said.
She was in the store with other customers including children and her boss when Cowans entered and she asked if he needed help. He said he was looking for T-shirts, then asked if there was a dressing room. She said she pointed out the dressing room but said it was being used.
Cowans was sitting on a couch in the store, then left.
The woman said she saw him sitting outside the store on a bench surrounding plants.
After others had left the store and the woman was alone, she said, Cowans again entered the store and asked if they had job applications. She told him the owner only took resumes.
He began browsing in the store, going to the wetsuits at the back near the dressing room, and asked if there were size large wetsuits. The woman had taken a wetsuit to the register at the front of the store to check its size, which turned out to be extra large, and to get away from Cowans, but he soon appeared at the register, she said.
She said he went back to the wetsuit area, and she offered to help him look for a size large. She was trying to put the extra large wetsuit back on a hangar when he "lunged and grabbed me."
Cowans said, "Come here," then "he grabs me and starts dragging me," she said.
She said she was dragged about 4 feet into the 2-by-2-foot dressing room, with Cowans blocking the entrance with a shelf that he slid over while holding the woman with one hand.
She said she began thrashing and trying to hit Cowans before he grabbed her in a bearhug. "I grabbed his head and tried to bite his ear, but I couldn't," she said. "I tried to wiggle out of his bearhug. He let go and said, 'We're going to have sex.' "
Cowans grabbed her and put his mouth and face on her neck, trying to kiss her, she said. "I'm squirming and trying to get away. I said, 'Oh, God, please don't hurt me. I have a family.' "
She said Cowans continued to hold onto her, so she told him to stop and she had a condom in her purse in another attempt to stop him. He let go but didn't believe her, the woman testified.
Cowans then grabbed the denim shorts she was wearing from the front and ripped them in half, she said. He turned her around so her back was toward him when she tried to get out of the dressing room by diving through a 1-foot space between the floor and the bottom of one wall.
She testified she was halfway out of the dressing room and holding onto a clothes rack as he held her legs and sexually assaulted her. She said Cowans was "enraged" as he pulled her back into the dressing room. "I was like a rag doll and flew back in the space," said the woman, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 112 pounds. "I yelled, 'Somebody, please help me.' "
The woman said Cowans grabbed her by the hair into a standing position as she struggled and began screaming. "He grabbed my neck, the front of my neck and the back of my neck and started choking me," she said. "He was squeezing hard. I was getting faint."
The woman said she pushed her chin to her chest and managed to position herself to loosen Cowans' grip. When he let go and "spun me around again, I dove harder," she said, to again get partially out of the dressing room. This time, she managed to free her left leg from his grasp and braced herself to keep him from pulling her back into the dressing room, she said.
She again yelled for help before Cowans let go of her right leg. "As soon as I stand up, I see a customer standing there in shock," she said. "I scream, 'Help, he's trying to rape me.' "
She said Cowans ran out the door and was chased by the customer.
The woman estimated that five minutes passed from the time she was dragged into the dressing room until she escaped.
Police said an off-duty officer helped apprehend Cowans outside the store.
The woman was treated for injuries including scratches on her neck, face, feet and eye, a cut on her head and bruises.
According to the prosecution, Cowans had been released from the Maui Community Correctional Center the day before the assault. Police said he had registered as a sex offender at the Wailuku Police Station on Friday morning.
Cowans was released from the Wailuku jail after being resentenced last year to a one-year jail term as part of five years' probation after violating his probation in a 1991 case.
Originally charged with attempted murder, he had pleaded no contest to kidnapping and a reduced charge of first-degree attempted assault for an attack on a former girlfriend at the Job Corps Center on the Maunaolu campus in Makawao in September 1991.
Court records show that a bench warrant for Cowans' arrest was filed in April 1993 based on allegations that he violated conditions of his probation.
Police said he was extradited to Maui in May 2012 on the probation violation warrant after serving a jail term and being released by the San Diego sheriff's department.
Cowans is scheduled to be arraigned June 13 in 2nd Circuit Court.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.