A family member who doubts that 49-year-old Cary Owsley killed himself four months ago has filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to dig up her brother’s body and ship it to Baltimore for a privately financed autopsy.
Cheryl Jackson contends that a Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department probe was tainted by critical missteps.
Jackson’s goal, according to the lawsuit, is to learn whether her brother committed suicide April 7, as Coroner Larry Fisher ruled, and let an outside expert — Dr. Cyril Wecht, who has a forensics institute in his name at Duquesne University — conduct forensic tests.
“Hopefully, it can give the family information that shows them the answers they seek about Cary’s death and give them peace,” said George Hoffman III of Franklin. Hoffman represents Jackson, who lives in Chicago.
Jackson has waged a campaign to call attention to her brother’s case and what she considers a bungled Sheriff’s Department investigation.
Jackson was joined in the suit — via supporting sworn statements — by Logan Owsley, the dead man’s son; and the deceased’s mother, Rosemary Owsley Pennybaker.
“I do not believe a proper and complete investigation was done into the unusual circumstances of my son’s death,” the mother said in a statement attached to the suit. Her grandson Logan filed a similar statement.
The lawsuit was filed in Bartholomew Circuit Court late Tuesday afternoon, and it will be heard by Bartholomew Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann.
Jackson’s suit against Lisa Owsley, the dead man’s widow, and Garland Brook Cemetery, where he is buried, seeks permission to exhume the body.
“It’s an unusual type of case,” Heimann said, adding it’s impossible for him to predict how long it could take to decide the issues. “That depends a lot more on the attorneys than it does on me.”
Fisher and Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett have concluded their investigation into the shooting that left Owsley slumped in a broken chair in a rear room of his house. His 50-year-old wife was the only other person at home at the time, sheriff’s investigators
Jackson’s suit contends the coroner and sheriff botched the death investigation, lost
evidence and made other mistakes that justify exhuming the body.
On Friday, Gorbett acknowledged critical errors in the early stage of the department’s investigation, and three veteran deputies were suspended for five to 10 days each. The lead investigator at the Owsley death scene was demoted.
Among those disciplined by Gorbett was E. DeWayne Janes, a 21-year veteran, who is the ex-husband of Lisa Owsley. Janes was present at Cary Owsley’s death scene within minutes of the shooting in April and acknowledged he helped carry the dead man’s body to a gurney and that he helped another officer handle a gun found at
“Subsequent to Cary Owsley’s burial I learned of suspicious circumstances surrounding the death,” the suit said, quoting Jackson.
Among the circumstances listed in the suit were:
“Immediately prior to his death, Cary and his wife were discussing separation and
“The date of Cary’s death he made plans to move his personal belongings from the marital residence.
“In the months leading to Cary’s death he had a contentious relationship with Lisa Owsley’s adult sons from her prior marriage to E. DeWayne Janes.
“The weapon purportedly used in Cary’s death was previously owned by Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Deputy E. DeWayne Janes, who is also the ex-spouse of Lisa Owsley and was at the death scene where he handled evidence, including the purported weapon and Cary’s body.
“Key evidence was either lost or destroyed, including, but not limited to, the chair in which Cary Owsley was found dead (it was burned) ... the bullet that purportedly killed him was lost, and (a) hole in the wall from which the bullet was removed was repaired prior to any complete investigation.”
The suit also said an independent review of the sheriff’s death investigation by outside experts found it “did not meet professional standards, was hastily done ... and no autopsy was performed.”
Jackson’s suit says she asked the coroner to exhume the body and do more investigative work, but he refused.
After learning of Jackson’s lawsuit, Fisher reiterated that he holds to his ruling of suicide.
“I don’t see that they are going to find anything different,” Fisher said Tuesday.
Jackson’s attorney said he visited Lisa Owsley’s home Tuesday afternoon and gave her the option of agreeing to have her late husband’s body removed from its grave at Garland Brook Cemetery in Columbus.
The suit contends Lisa Owsley voluntarily gave up her rights to have a say in any subsequent attempt to exhume her late husband’s body when she signed a document one day after his death letting Jackson and her mother handle the funeral arrangements and burial.
A waiver of rights of disposition signed by Lisa Owsley on April 8 said, “This waiver ... includes the relinquishment of any right to seek the recovery, possession, relocation or disinterment of the decedent’s remains.”
Hoffman said he believes that document means Jackson, the mother and Logan Owsley now have the right to overrule Lisa Owsley on what happens to the dead man’s body, but the judge will ultimately decide that point.
Lisa Owsley said she will consult with her attorney, Mark McNeely of Shelbyville, before deciding whether to give permission. She said Jackson’s lawyer gave her a consent form to sign during the visit.
State law on disinterment of bodies generally allows a dead person’s immediate family members to decide among themselves if a body should be removed from the grave. A spouse has the highest priority to decide, followed by children, parents and only lastly by siblings.
Hoffman said that getting the widow’s consent would speed up the process of getting a private autopsy and forensic exam done. With her OK, the state Department of Health could issue a certificate directing the cemetery to allow the body to be removed from the grave.
“We mean no harm to anyone at all,” Hoffman said. “We’d be very pleased if Ms. Owsley would agree to the disinterment. If she’d agree as Cary Owsley’s spouse, it would be a lot more
But Lisa Owsley said Tuesday by phone that the lawsuit contains inaccurate information.
“I’m tired of the lies,” she said. “Cary and I didn’t discuss divorce that day. He wasn’t packed to move out. We cleaned up the scene later, but only after the sheriff’s department was finished.”
Hoffman said if his client wins the case, an examination of the body would be done in Baltimore by a forensic pathologist.
“I can tell you that I came up through criminal defense work,” Hoffman said, “and detectives will tell you that you can look for gunshot residue, examine the bullet’s angle of entry and get information like that.”
Hoffman said he doesn’t foresee any legal action against Fisher or anyone else for monetary damages.
Outside experts consulted in the case, however, doubt an autopsy and further tests at this stage will tell the family much.
A review of the Owsley investigation in early May by Indiana State Police criminal specialist Tom Baxter found shortcomings in the sheriff’s handling of the death scene, but Baxter concluded in a May 9 letter to Gorbett that exhuming the body probably wouldn’t help matters.
Gary Rini, a Cleveland-based consultant and crime scene expert, said he doubts that examining Cary Owsley’s body now will overturn the coroner’s ruling.
“What is the goal? They (family members) have this idea in their head, but they don’t sit down and think it through,” he said Tuesday.
Rini argues that the Sheriff’s Department mishandled the death scene and did a poor job of preserving or even finding key evidence, but digging up the body isn’t the answer.
“Digging up the body will show that he was shot once — and that he has a hole in his upper abdomen,” Rini said. “They could possibly do a trajectory analysis by poking a route through (the body). They’ll see if his internal organs are intact.”
Rini said the fact that Cary Owsley was found upright after the shooting — slumped in a desk chair on his office floor — indicates to him that there was no struggle for a weapon.