Owsley case headed to FBI

An investigation into the April 7, 2013, death of a Columbus man has been forwarded to the FBI.

Jeffrey Beck, attorney for the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, has forwarded all files in the Cary Owsley death investigation to the Indianapolis office of the FBI “to consider looking at the evidence in this investigation,” Sheriff Matt Myers said Friday.

Myers said he began to review the documents after becoming sheriff on Jan. 1. Myers said he decided to put the documents into the hands of the FBI “to provide some type of closure for the Owsley family, the community and the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office.”

Cary Owsley’s death from a gunshot wound was ruled as a suicide by County Coroner Larry Fisher, without an autopsy being ordered. The dead man’s sister, Cheryl Jackson, led a successful campaign to have his remains exhumed and tested by two forensic pathologists, who ruled cause of death as undetermined.

Three Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department deputies who were at the death scene were reprimanded over their involvement in the case, which Jackson has maintained was botched.

In Beck’s letter sent to the Indianapolis office of the FBI on Friday, the sheriff’s department’s attorney points out that the FBI and Department of Justice saw no reason in November 2013 to extend the investigation. The files forwarded Friday by Bartholomew County to the FBI include a handwriting analysis, DNA analysis and firearm analysis prepared by the Indiana State Laboratory Division.

Family’s reaction

In a telephone interview Friday, Jackson said she was happy to hear that the FBI was being asked to review the case.

“This is all we have ever wanted,” she said. “I am hopeful justice will be served in my brother’s case.”

She added that she hoped that the community would also be served by a review of the evidence and what happened in the investigation.

The Owsley case was first referred to the FBI in October 2013 by Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. of the Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute. Sullivan and Jackson’s attorney Trent McCain requested that Owsley’s case be investigated for color of law abuses by the sheriff’s department and the Bartholomew County Coroner’s office.

In a Nov. 8, 2013, letter from then-FBI Special Agent Robert Allen Jones, the Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice responded by agreeing with the FBI that the facts gathered did not warrant further investigation at that time, according to Beck’s letter. However, Jones’ letter concluded by indicating that upon completion of the contemplated Owsley autopsy, that the report could be forwarded with any new evidence for further consideration.

Jackson said she believes the additional evidence that is going to the FBI now, including reports from the pathologists who examined Owsley’s exhumed body and analysis of the firearm, and DNA and handwriting samples, will lead to further investigation by the FBI.

Investigator reaction

Mark Gorbett, who was sheriff when the Owsley case was investigated, sent a four-page letter to the FBI as he was leaving office Dec. 30 about the Owsley case.

In the letter, he provides a copy of an email from Jackson which seeks to have a gunshot wound trajectory expert allowed into the Owsley death scene to do a reconstruction to “find the truth” about whether the death scene was staged.

“The action demanded by Ms. Jackson would implicate a violation of significant constitutional and statutory rights, of which I could not condone,” Gorbett wrote, saying Jackson was demanding that Gorbett walk into the home of a private citizen without probable cause and without any evidence of a crime being committed.

Later in the letter, Gorbett said he would fully cooperate with the FBI on any further requests for investigation into the Owsley case if the FBI deemed additional investigation was necessary.

Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash said if the FBI had left a window open to review further evidence in the case in the November 2013 correspondence, the agency should review it to provide some closure, if possible, for Jackson and others who are questioning the circumstances of Owsley’s death.

However, he said when the case was presented to him, prior to the forensic autopsy conducted in May 2014, he did not see a potential criminal case.

“I would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it wasn’t suicide,” he said. “Nothing changes my view from more than a year ago that he (Owsley) wanted to kill himself,” Nash said, saying that there is so much evidence that Owsley did commit suicide that he doesn’t see how it could be disproved. But Nash also said that doesn’t mean he can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Owsley did commit suicide.

“I don’t prove innocence; I prove crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” Nash said.

Nash also pointed out that after the forensic pathologists released their reports, Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann determined when autopsy results were released that the material did not need to be forwarded for a criminal investigation.

An FBI spokesman said Friday it was unlikely anyone at the Indianapolis office would be able to comment about the case or the procedure used in handling it as it would be classified as a pending investigation.

Fisher, who said he is standing behind his initial ruling of suicide in Owsley’s case, said he was fine with the evidence going to the FBI.

“We’ve already gone through this many, many times,” he said. “It is what it is.”

Owsley, 49, was found dead in his Columbus home.

Jackson began questioning evidence handling at the scene about a month after her brother’s death. In a civil lawsuit filed in July 2013, Jackson objected to sheriff’s deputy E. DeWayne Janes, the ex-husband of Cary Owsley’s widow, being allowed to walk through the death scene investigation, to help place Owsley’s body on a gurney and to handle the weapon suspected to have been used in the shooting death.

Jackson contends that her brother would never have killed himself. She contends the coroner’s office and sheriff’s department bungled the death scene investigation by losing or mishandling much of the evidence.

Three deputies were disciplined as a result of the investigation. They were Janes, who retired from the department at the end of the year; then-Detective Christie Sims Nunemaker, who retired from the department in early 2014; and Sgt. Dean Johnson.

Owsley case timeline

April 7, 2013: Cary Owsley, 49, is found dead in the Columbus home he shared with his wife, Lisa Owsley. County Coroner Larry Fisher and the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department consider the death a suicide.

May 9, 2013: After Owsley’s sister, Cheryl Jackson, questions how the Sheriff’s Department handled the death investigation, an Indiana State Police specialist, Sgt. Tom Baxter of the criminal investigation division, makes several recommendations for how the sheriff could gather more evidence “to bring additional clarity to this case.”

July 26, 2013: Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett suspends three sheriff’s deputies for five to 10 days each without pay for errors in judgment in connection with the Owsley case.

July 30, 2013: Jackson files suit in Bartholomew Circuit Court to exhume her brother’s body and have an autopsy conducted on his embalmed remains.

Nov. 20, 2013: Jackson wins a settlement of her suit in court, allowing Owsley’s body to be exhumed from Garland Brook Cemetery so an autopsy can be done sometime early in 2014.

February 2014: Circuit Judge Judge Stephen Heimann issues court orders and amendments that outline final preparations before exhumation of Owsley’s body, and the autopsy is performed.

May 27, 2014: Autopsy results from court-appointed pathologist Scott Wagner  indicate the manner of Owsley’s death to be undetermined. Wagner’s ruling was based on key pieces of evidence being unavailable but states that no evidence suggests the death is a homicide. After review of  evidence, Judge Heimann determines material does not need to be forwarded for a criminal investigation.

May 28, 2014: Autopsy report by Dr. Werner Spitz states, hired by Jackson, that while physical evidence does not contradict a self-inflicted gunshot wound, circumstantial evidence “opens the door to the possibility that Mr. Owsley’s death may not have been a suicide.”

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.