The search for missing Texas mom Crystal McDowell continues nearly two weeks after she disappeared just before Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in the U.S., with authorities looking at the possibility of foul play.
Sheriff Brian C. Hawthorne of the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office in Texas tells PEOPLE exclusively, “I do believe there’s foul play involved and I don’t think that she has just decided to disappear and not contact anybody.”
According to authorities and news reports, the 37-year-old McDowell never arrived on Aug. 25 to pick up her two children, 5 and 8, from her ex-husband’s home in the Houston area after she left her boyfriend’s home earlier that day less than 18 miles away.
She was officially reported as a missing person the next day — as Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in Texas late on Aug. 25, began drowning Houston.
McDowell was last seen at her boyfriend’s home on Aug. 25 getting into her car, according to ABC News. Days later, police found her 2013 black Mercedes Benz submerged in a Motel 6 parking lot roughly 13 miles from her home, CBS News reported at the time.
Sheriff Hawthorne tells PEOPLE that there is “some real possibility” that, if foul play was involved in Crystal’s disappearance, it was purposely timed to coincide with the storm.
“Everybody knew that it was coming,” he says. “Everybody knew that we were supposed to get 20 to 25 inches of rain, and it ended up being 50 inches of rain. It would have been and it appears to have been somewhat of an ideal time to do this.”
After initially battling flooding and storm weather, investigators are now trying to work through their lengthy list of persons of interest in the case, the sheriff says.
“She [McDowell] had a history of several romantic relationships,” Hawthorne says, adding, “She has just thousands of friends and a very successful real estate business. And amid that real estate business, there are all kinds of aspects that could give different people motives, whether it be the jealousy of her success or the possibility of somebody discovering that she was in an inappropriate romantic relationship with somebody.”
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McDowell and her ex-husband divorced in June and she had recently been staying with her boyfriend, Paul Hargrave, according to CBS News.
Hargrave told the outlet that he had last heard from Crystal on the morning of Aug. 25. “She texted me to say road conditions were good around 8:30 a.m.,” he said.
Hargrave further told ABC News that Crystal had told him she intended to stay with her children at her ex-husband’s house or take them out if weather conditions were good.
“She wouldn’t just get up and leave her kids,” he said. “She wouldn’t do that so I think something is horribly wrong.”
Sheriff Hawthorne echoes that, saying, “She had too many family members and friends, and she had a successful business and she has two beautiful children that I just don’t think she would walk away from.”
Hawthorne tells PEOPLE that Crystal’s family has hired a private investigation company out of Liberty, Texas, noting that there has been cooperation between the P.I. and authorities.
“What we are doing is trying to reduce our list of persons of interest,” he says. “So every day we try to take somebody else off the list.”
McDowell is described by authorities as 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs approximately 110 lbs., with blonde hair and green eyes. She was last seen wearing a black dress.
Anyone with information is urged to call the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office at 409-267-2500.