Those of us who collect and analyze false confessions are often stunned when we discover a high profile false confession years after it was made. Sometimes, we learn about these by tracking civil lawsuits and verdict, sometimes an attorney from a town where the local newspaper does not provide its stories to NEXIS or WESTLAW will tell us about it, and sometimes we learn about it when the true perpetrator is ready to go to trial. When this happens, it makes us wonder how many other false confessions are out there waiting to be discovered. Today I discovered a beauty, one which did not turn up in my search for such confessions in preparation for my article documenting 125 proven false confessions with Richard Leo. It's a beauty because it is an FBI interrogation induced false confession and it is the rare false confession to a murder from a woman.
An article written by Sarah Core of the Indiana Daily Student from October 25, 2006 tells the story of Wendy K. Owings, 32, of Bloomington, who testified Tuesday about her involvement in the Jill Behrman murder case, which stemmed from a false confession of murder. Owens was called by the prosecution to testify that her previous confession was false and that she did not know the man now on trial for murder -- John R. Myers II.
What did Owings confess to in 2002 and why did she confess? Core writes (my comments are in parentheses): "In 2002, Owings told police that she, along with Uriah Clouse and Alisha Sowders, were in Clouse's truck on May, 31, 2000, when they accidentally hit Behrman on her bike (a classic minimization tactic). Owings said they panicked (impulsive versus premeditated) , and Clouse threw Behrman, still alive, into the bed of the truck along with her bike. Clouse drove to Salt Creek, and after wrapping Behrman up in an off-white tarp and tying bungee cords around her, he stabbed her, Owings said. Clouse then forced Sowders and Owings to stab her ("you didn't mean to do it, you were forced to") also and then dumped her body into the water, Owings said.
Sounds like an open and shut case, right? Not quite. Owings' confession prompted a massive search by police and FBI that involved building two dams to drain a 7,000-foot section of Salt Creek. But after Behrman's remains were discovered in 2003 in a wooded area near Paragon, Ind. Owings recanted her statement.
Why did she lie? Owings testified that she was pressured by investigators to disclose any information she might know about the case and because she was afraid of the potential jail time hanging over her head at the time: "(I) had 86 years worth of felonies brought against me, and I thought if I didn't tell them ... I'd have all these felonies against me," Owings told the jury. By confessing, she hoped to receive a lighter sentence for giving information. Did she hope or was she told or made to think that a lighter sentence would follow with her cooperation?"I figured they would just believe what I said and let me go home," she said. (Again, something the investigators told her must have given her this impression)
Owings came under suspicion by the FBI in 2002 after she made a comment at a party stating she had killed Behrman. On cross-examination, Myers' defense attorney suggested to the court that Owings wasn't telling the full truth this time either and asked her if she would really lie about killing someone to get out jail.
"To get out of 86 years, yes, I would, and yes, I did," Owings replied.
Interestingly, the case against Myers is largely circumstantial. Myers never confessed, despite the FBI's use of a tactic straight out of the Marty Tankleff interrogation playbook. During Myers' interrogation, the detective held up an envelope, suggesting it had a letter in it, and told Myers that "possibly his father had not taken the secret to the grave with him." In other words, he claimed that Myers' father, before he died of cancer, wrote a letter telling police that Myers had killed Behrman. For news about the Myers case, see