Sheriff's deputy fired after violations in son's death

3-year-old shot himself with father’s gun, according to official report

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Investigation of Clark County sheriff's detective

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A Clark County sheriff’s deputy was fired Tuesday afternoon after he was found to have violated a number of policies in connection with the 2010 shooting death of his 3-year-old son.

Clark County sheriff’s Chief Criminal Deputy Mike Evans said he notified Detective Ed Owens of his termination in a meeting that also included Owens’ attorney and Sheriff Garry Lucas. The action culminated a nearly yearlong investigation.

The separation is effective immediately, Evans said. Owens, a seven-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, had been on paid administrative leave since December 2010.

While Evans described it as one of the most difficult decisions of his career, one of Owens’ attorneys said the outcome was a political decision that didn’t take into account all the facts of the case.

“The guild leadership is not happy the sheriff is imposing his standards of family conduct on Ed and his wife,” said Mark Makler, a Portland attorney for the Clark County Deputy Sheriffs Guild. “They thought that was inappropriate.”

Makler said the guild leadership has the option to arbitrate the termination under terms of a labor agreement. Generally, the guild has 10 days to file a grievance upon a disciplinary action. He couldn’t yet say what the guild leadership would do.

According to the official report, Owens’ son, Ryan, accidentally shot himself Sept. 14, 2010, at the family’s Battle Ground home while playing with his father’s Kel-Tec pistol.

Owens and his wife, Kristie, were the subject of a lengthy criminal investigation after Vancouver police detectives discovered they tried to blame Kristie Owens’ 11-year-old daughter for the death and allegedly coerced a false confession from her, according to police reports. No criminal charges were filed against the Owenses.

When the criminal investigation concluded, the sheriff’s internal affairs officers probed the case and found that Owens violated county policies on proper firearms storage, off-duty conduct, ethics, competency and employee responsibilities, according to their investigation, which was completed Sept. 6.

Allegations made

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

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

Detectives determined the shooting was accidental; the safe that contained the pistol was malfunctioning, not locking when it should. The Owenses knew about the malfunction, according to police reports.

Most of the grievances against Owens relate to his behavior after the shooting. Investigators said Owens and his wife adamantly blamed the 11-year-old girl for the death, saying she had opened the safe for the boy. Police determined there was no evidence that had happened.

The allegations came to a head Oct. 27, 2010, when the Owenses drove the girl to Portland International Airport to catch a plane to stay with her father in Southern California. According to police reports, they stopped the car near the airport and demanded the 11-year-old tell them what happened the night of the shooting. After telling them that she fell asleep, her mother reportedly slapped her and threatened to spank her with a belt if she didn’t change her story.

The girl then gave a different story, saying she opened the gun safe for her half-brother. The couple taped her new confession and gave a copy to investigators. In reports, the investigators said they could tell the video had been doctored, according to an internal affairs investigation.

Owens, who earned $64,100 a year, was placed on paid leave after the sheriff’s office learned of the incident with the 11-year-old. Evans said the sheriff’s office was waiting on the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office to close the criminal investigation before it launched the internal investigation in July. The multiple jurisdictions and investigations prolonged the conclusion of the case, he said.

‘Tragic case’

When reached by telephone Tuesday, Owens’ private attorney, Steve Myers of Portland, said: “This is such a tragic case. Obviously he’s upset with the result.”

Myers said his client was also distressed by the “subjective” internal affairs investigation report and by the media coverage quoting the report. The attorney said the report isn’t an accurate depiction. He contends the report omitted evidence that support the Owenses.

Myers said he had a medical record suggesting the girl had homicidal thoughts, and the couple were instructed to contact a hospital following the shooting. They were just being concerned parents, he said.

However, in police reports released to The Columbian, Vancouver police investigators said the hospital, where the girl was admitted by her parents, reported that she didn’t show signs of homicidal violence. Further, friends and other outside family members said she seemed like a normal child coping with the grief of her half-brother’s death.

Chief Deputy Evans said Tuesday he hopes his office can move on from the ordeal.

“This whole situation has had a pretty profound impact on everyone,” Evans said. “The circumstances that started everything were tragic. … And then the continuing aftermath just took a bad situation and made it worse.”

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