Violations found in death of Clark County deputy’s son

Report looks at treatment of man’s stepdaughter, 11

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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“His selfish, shameful, and cowardly behavior has left an indelible mark on our agency and has raised serious doubts about his credibility, judgment, truthfulness

and fitness for duty.”

Sgt. John Horch in internal affairs investigation report

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Sheriff's Office Internal Investigation

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Investigation of Clark County sheriff's detective

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A Clark County sheriff’s deputy violated policies on firearms storage, off-duty conduct, ethics, competency and employee responsibilities in connection with the 2010 shooting death of his 3-year-old son, according to an internal affairs investigation.

Responding to a public disclosure request, the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office and sheriff’s office released on Friday more than 150 pages of police reports and internal affairs documents relating to Detective Ed Owens, a 7-year veteran of the sheriff’s office.

Owens’ son Ryan fatally shot himself while playing with his father’s gun Sept. 14, 2010, at the family’s Battle Ground home.

Most of the allegations relate to Owens’ behavior following the shooting. Reports say he blamed his 11-year-old stepdaughter for the death — even though evidence clearly showed it was accidental — and coerced a false confession from her.

“His selfish, shameful, and cowardly behavior has left an indelible mark on our agency and has raised serious doubts about his credibility, judgment, truthfulness and fitness for duty — in addition to the policy violations that I have recommended to be sustained," Sgt. John Horch wrote in the internal affairs investigation, completed Sept. 2, 2011.

Owens has been on paid administrative leave since Dec. 28, 2010. His pay during that time wasn’t available, but a county website reporting salaries indicates full-time deputies at his level make between $52,800 and $61,800 a year.

A final decision on his employment or any discipline has not been decided. Messages to Sheriff Garry Lucas and his chief deputy, Mike Evans — who were both out of town Friday — were not returned as of press time.

Owens’ Portland attorney, Steve Myers, however, said the internal affairs report isn’t an accurate depiction of what happened. He said his client denies the allegations.

“There was no tampering with a witness. There was no criminal conduct,” Myers said. “The characterization of a coerced confession is preposterous.”

Owens and his wife were the subject of a criminal investigation for nearly a year. But prosecutors declined this fall to try the deputy because it was in Multnomah County, Ore., where he allegedly coerced his daughter, when Owens and his wife were driving the girl to the airport about a month after the shooting.

“In review of the evidence in the case, the charges we were looking at were witness-tampering allegations,” Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said Friday. “Because of jurisdiction, we didn’t feel we had” sufficient evidence that a crime occurred in Clark County.

The case was referred to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. A deputy district attorney there declined to press charges on either Owens or his wife. A call to the spokesman for that DA’s office was not returned Friday.

As for the death of Owens’ son, Golik said: “The shooting itself clearly was a tragic accident.”

Malfunctioning safe

According to police reports, the night of the shooting, the stepdaughter was watching the 3-year-old in the Owenses’ upstairs master bedroom, as her parents were in the garage studying for college classes. The stepdaughter was lying on the bed with the boy, and she fell asleep. The boy wandered into the closet, where the gun safe was located, opened the safe and picked up a loaded Kel-Tec pistol. The girl was wakened by a loud pop.

Injured by a gunshot to the head, Ryan Owens was rushed to the hospital. He died several hours later.

In the ensuing investigation, detectives discovered that the gun safe had malfunctioned, sometimes not locking when it should, and that Owens and his wife knew it wasn’t working properly, according to police reports. Owens explained that he kept loaded guns in his house to protect his family after receiving a death threat from Zachary Beck, a white supremacist suspect whom Owens had investigated.

A neighbor told police he overheard Owens say on the night of the shooting that he thought the safe had perhaps been unlocked for three days, according to police reports. However, during his internal affairs interview, Owens denied knowing the safe had malfunctioned.

He was found by internal affairs investigators to have violated the code of proper firearms storage.

Coercion allegations

Following the shooting, detectives said in police reports, Owens and his wife persistently blamed the shooting on the 11-year-old. Reports said they thought she had opened the safe for the boy. They also thought she was showing signs of suicide and homicidal violence.

However, other friends and doctors concluded she was a normal child experiencing grief from her brother’s death and isolation from her family.

Owens, according to reports, had the girl admitted to a hospital for treatment of mental illness following the shooting. With the intervention of the state’s Child Protective Services, the girl was released days later to stay with her great-grandmother in Vancouver. Then, the family planned for her to go to live with her father in Southern California.

On Oct. 27, 2010, Owens and his wife drove the girl to the airport. On the way there, they pulled the car over and ordered her to tell them what happened the night of the shooting, according to police reports. When she explained she fell asleep, Owens reportedly called her a (expletive) liar.

Owens’ wife allegedly slapped the girl and made threats that she would be hit with a belt if she didn’t confess, according to police reports. “Ed, give me your belt,” the woman said, according to police reports. Owens handed over his belt, though he later told investigators he didn’t know why she wanted it.

After the stepdaughter wouldn’t change her story, Owen’s wife then took the girl to a fast-food restaurant’s restroom. The two returned 45 minutes later, Owens said, and got back in the car. The girl then agreed to admit that she opened the safe. Owen’s wife recorded the alleged confession on her cellphone, according to the internal affairs investigation. The Owenses later gave investigators the tape as new evidence, but the investigators said they could tell the tape had been doctored.

Owens was reprimanded in the internal affairs investigation for not stepping in when his wife allegedly made threats against the girl, whose name was redacted from the report.

“Deputy Owens took an oath as a police officer to protect the innocent and to safeguard lives and property,” Horch wrote in the internal affairs report. “To the contrary, he did not safeguard (his stepdaughter), and was an active participant in the deception and intimidation against (his stepdaughter).”

As for Owens’ other code violations, internal affairs investigators reported that he violated off-duty conduct and code of ethics by “actively participating and allowing the acts of deception, oppression and intimidation against” his stepdaughter. Investigators concluded he violated the code of competency for believing his stepdaughter was guilty despite evidence that it was an accidental shooting.

Finally, Owens was found to have violated employee responsibilities by not being “forthcoming with all information and knowingly misrepresented material facts related to his actions,” according to the report.

“The full reasons may never be known, but whatever they are, Deputy Owens decided to make (his stepdaughter) a scapegoat … for this tragic accident, and there is a high probability that his actions will have a long-term effect on (his stepdaughter’s) mental health,” Horch wrote in the report.

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.