Attorneys representing the sister of the late Cary Owsley want the FBI to investigate possible civil rights violations linked to what the family says was the mishandling of evidence at the 49-year-old man’s death scene in April.
“We have evidence that certain materials from the home were removed,” said Trent McCain, a Merrillville attorney working with several family members seeking to reopen the Owsley case and conduct an autopsy on his body. “We have a photo of the chair we believe Cary was shot in, burning. And a portion of a rug stained with Cary’s blood was cut out and removed by (Sheriff’s) Deputy DeWayne Janes.”
Janes, a 21-year member of the sheriff’s department and the ex-husband of Cary Owsley’s wife, Lisa Owsley, was suspended five days without pay after an internal investigation by the Sheriff’s Department of how deputies handled the initial death scene, which was ruled a suicide.
The internal review found that Janes was allowed to walk through the Owsley house by his fellow deputies. And Janes later acknowledged that he helped carry Cary Owsley’s body to a gurney, and that he touched the presumed suicide handgun found near the body April 7.
Sheriff Mark Gorbett said Janes’ involvement — and errors in judgment by two other Sheriff’s Department veterans on the scene — crossed the line and amounted to violations of his department’s policies and procedures.
After reviewing the family’s letter to the Department of Justice first and consulting with his agency’s own legal staff, Gorbett released the following statement on Friday:
“This afternoon the Sheriff’s Department received from The Republic a copy of a letter addressed to the FBI from the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute. As occurred early on in the investigation, the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department welcomes the review of this investigation by any law enforcement agency. As a result, the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department will cooperate fully with any request from any federal agency concerning the suicide of Cary Owsley. The Department will not further comment on this matter as a result of the pending litigation threatened by Cheryl Jackson.”
Jackson, sister to Cary Owsley, has been campaigning for six months for an autopsy to be done on his body in an attempt to debunk the findings of Coroner Larry Fisher that Owsley committed suicide. Jackson believes her brother could have been shot by someone else.
“The investigation of Cary’s shooting was profoundly inadequate,” attorney and professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. of the Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute wrote in a letter to the FBI on Friday.
“Evidence was destroyed (literally burned), lost and mishandled,” Sullivan wrote in his letter to Robert Allan Jones, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Indianapolis. “In fact ... three sheriff’s deputies involved in the investigation were suspended (albeit for a short period of time). Litigation is pending in Bartholomew County to disinter Cary’s
remains so that the family
can perform an independent
“On behalf of Cary’s family, we formally request that the FBI investigate this matter for color of law abuses as it involves the Bartholomew County Sheriff and Coroner’s offices. We hope to work with you for justice for this family,” Sullivan wrote.
In a phone interview on Friday, McCain said the coroner’s ruling of suicide was based on witnesses’ statements in the room at the time, and an autopsy was never done. McCain called that inadequate.
“We just want the Department of Justice to look into this and see where the evidence leads,” McCain said.
FBI handles many such cases
The term “color of law abuses” can be used to refer to a wide range of civil rights violations or abuse of power by police and other government officials. In this case, the basic assumption of family attorneys is that the mishandling of evidence deprived the family of their constitutional rights to a full and complete investigation.
McCain said it will be up to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to review any evidence uncovered by the FBI and decide whether there was a civil rights
violation or possible obstruction of justice.
Andrew Northern, an FBI spokesman with the agency’s Indianapolis office, declined to discuss whether an investigation will be performed. He said the FBI is typically the lead agency to investigate claims of abuse of police powers or “color of law abuses.”
He said 42 percent of
the FBI’s annual civil rights caseload comes under the heading of color law abuses.
Meanwhile, the push for an FBI investigation is just one of several avenues that Jackson’s attorneys are pursuing on both the state and federal levels.
A status hearing is scheduled next month in Bartholomew Circuit Court over whether Cary Owsley’s body should be exhumed from the grave for further tests. And a week ago, Jackson’s attorneys sent certified letters to Gorbett, Fisher and other county and state agencies, putting them on notice that a damage lawsuit by family members was possible.
The letters listed Jackson; Rosemary Pennybaker, Owsley’s mother; and Logan Owsley, a son, as family members who suffered a loss that could lead to a monetary claim.
The family has until April 7, 2015, to file an actual lawsuit in connection with Cary Owsley’s death. But certified letters notifying government agencies of a potential legal claim had to be sent within 180 days of the shooting under state law. That deadline arrived Oct. 4.
Cary Owsley has since been buried in Garland Brook Cemetery. Owsley’s widow opposes the idea of digging up his body for further forensic testing on the remains.
In addition to suspending Janes last summer, Gorbett also suspended then-Detective Christie Nunemaker, initially the lead investigator on the shooting case, and Sgt. Dean Johnson for errors in judgment at the death scene. Nunemaker was demoted to the traffic division.