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Husband of slain woman freed

Prosecutors drop a felony battery charge, and Gerald Owens is released on bail on a lesser charge. He remains a focus of an investigation into his wife's death.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 6, 2002

INVERNESS -- Gerald Owens walked out of the Citrus County jail Thursday afternoon, his first taste of freedom since the week after his wife was found dead in the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Owens has not been charged in the Sept. 28 slaying of Debra Sue Owens. He was in jail on a count of domestic battery.

But authorities have made the 64-year-old Homosassa resident a focus of their homicide investigation, even taking the unusual step of formally asking a judge to hold Owens without bail.

A Citrus County Courthouse courtroom, packed with defendants awaiting hearings, erupted in boos when Circuit Judge Ric A. Howard announced Thursday that prosecutors had decided not to pursue a domestic battery charge against Gerald Owens.

Sue Wightman, Debra Sue Owens' mother, wept with frustration as she left the courthouse. She had brought with her a collage of pictures showing her daughter with a bruised face or blackened eye.

"From the day she married Gerry until the time she was murdered, she was used as a punching bag," Wightman told Howard during the brief hearing, clutching the collage to her chest.

But Assistant State Attorney Lisa Gerstner said she had no choice but to drop the charge of felony battery.

"I agonized over this one," she said. "But I had nothing."

The charge stems from a June incident in which Debra Sue Owens accused her husband of severely beating her.

The case was unusual because Debra Sue Owens didn't immediately alert authorities. She went to a friend's house after fighting with her husband but didn't tell the friend about her injuries until the next day, Gerstner said. The friend urged Debra Sue Owens to report her husband, which she did two days after the alleged quarrel.

Given the delay, without the testimony of Debra Sue Owens, there was little to link Gerald Owens to the alleged battery, Gerstner said.

Gerald Owens still faces a misdemeanor charge of violating a restraining order. He posted $500 bail Thursday afternoon and was released from the Citrus County jail, where he had been held since Oct. 4. The misdemeanor matter is set for court Jan. 21.

Before her death, Debra Sue Owens was granted a restraining order barring her husband from having any contact with her or her 14-year-old daughter. Gerald Owens is accused of violating that injunction when he contacted his former wife's daughter at a bowling alley.

Debra Sue Owens' body was found riddled with bullets in a thicket of trees in the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Just days before, she had filed a complaint against her husband, claiming he had threatened her life when she said she wanted to end their one-year marriage.

"I asked him for a divorce and he told me never, he'd kill me first, then he'd know where I was at and no one else would be with me," Debra Sue Owens wrote in the document, filed at the Citrus County courthouse three days before her body was discovered by a couple walking through the forest.

Citrus County sheriff's deputies searched Gerald Owens' house on Oct. 4, searching for clues that would shed light on his wife's death.

Shortly after Gerald Owens' arrest, Detective Eric Barnhart wrote Judge Howard a letter, urging him to keep the defendant in jail without bail because "it is believed at this time that the defendant is responsible for the murder and that he poses a real and credible threat to the public."

Ronda Hemminger Evan, a spokeswoman for the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, said that while no one has been charged with the homicide, the investigation is still open and active.

Charles Vaughn, Gerald Owens' attorney, said the prosecutors' decision to free his client was correct.

"I know the law enforcement officers feel they're doing the right thing," he said. "I don't doubt their sincerity."

However, unless authorities have evidence to link Gerald Owens to the crime, he should be left alone, Vaughn added.

-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or .

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