By SUE CARLTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 1998
AMPA -- Bernice Bowen, arrested in connection with a violent rampage that left three policemen dead, said in a tearful jailhouse interview Friday she is guilty only of loving the wrong man.
"I just chose the wrong person to be with," said Bowen, 24, who could face life in prison on charges of being an accessory in the murders of two veteran detectives and a young highway patrol trooper.
"I never, ever knew that he was capable of this," she said.
Her boyfriend was Hank Earl Carr, an ex-con and gun enthusiast who kept a handcuff key on him and was wanted in three states. On May 19, Carr, who gave police another name, was being arrested in the shooting death of Bowen's 4-year-old son when he managed to escape, killing three officers before turning the gun on himself.
Bowen, who had a job at Kmart, was arrested days later by police who say she could have saved lives by revealing Carr'strue identity instead of letting them believe he was a man without a criminal past. Had she told the truth, they say, police would have known they were dealing with a "monster."
Bowen, alternately tearful and tough as she spoke Friday in her first interview since the arrest, said she is sorry for the deaths of Tampa detectives Randy Bell and Ricky Childers and Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James Crooks.
"I wish I could have been there that day and taken the bullet for them police officers," she said.
But she also said she does not feel responsible for Carr's bloody rampage.
"I believe what he did that day was very cold," she said. "I do not condone what he did. And I'm very angry at him for leaving me here to face this."
Investigators disagree that she did not know the capabilities of Carr, a man they say had a bitter hatred for cops. Investigators say more than one witness will testify that both Carr and Bowen had a plan for how to escape police if the need arose.
"It's going to be clear they prepared for just this sort of occasion when police finally came to arrest Hank Carr," prosecutor Shirley Williams said.
In a baggy orange jail uniform over her 5-foot-3 frame, a rose tattoo on her forearm, Bowen spoke of growing up poor in Ohio and being abused by her father.
She said she had goals -- the Air Force, law school -- but quit in 10th grade. At 17, she married Joseph Bennett, an older man who worked in the oil fields and took her away from her stormy family life.
Their first baby was Kayla, a name from the soap opera Days Of Our Lives. But the marriage ended in divorce, and Bowen said she was "drunk all the time." Her mother got custody of Kayla and the brother she called "Bubba Dude," Joey.
One Valentine's Day, Bowen met Carr, a man with a criminal record who was once investigated in a murder and once accused of biting off a man's ear. Nicknamed "Boo" since childhood, he was smart and tough and counseled her on her drinking, she said.
"I knew there was good in him," she said.
On the advice of her attorney, John Kromholz, and because of pending charges, Bowen would not say if or when she knew of Carr's criminal history and warrants.
Bowen and Carr landed in Tampa in late 1996 or early 1997 with plans, she said. She took computer classes in trade school. One day they planned to go to Daytona to learn to build Harley-Davidson motorcycles and open a business.
Life was more complicated than that. Carr worked sporadically, sometimes for moving companies, and Bowen danced at a topless bar. Her mother, who had custody of Bowen's children in Ohio, agreed to let Bowen take them back to Tampa in 1997, thinking Carr was out of the picture.
Bowen said Carr was angry over his childhood, when he was on his own at a young age. She said he was abusive to her but never to her children. She said in some ways he reminded her of her father.
"The loud tone of voice, possessiveness," she said, ". . . always bossy and controlling."
Investigators contend Bowen was no victim but a willing participant. They say she told a friend that when the police came for her man, they would go down "in a blaze of glory."
Bowen declined to speak about the guns in the home. Kromholz said federal gun charges may be pending.
Bowen said the morning it happened started like any other.
"He (Joey) woke up and he said "Daddy, I had a dream I could swim,' " she said. They were going to take him swimming that day, but first, breakfast. There was no anger, she said, no strife.
Bowen said she was on the stairs outside their apartment when she heard the gunshot. But police say Kayla told them her mother was in the room when Joey was shot.
"I guarantee if I was inside of that house when my little boy got shot, it would have been me that got shot," Bowen said. She said she believes it was an accident, as Carr said.
On advice of her attorney, Bowen refused to speak specifically about what happened over the next hours. Police say she gave them a false name for Carr, withholding information that could have warned the detectives they were dealing with a dangerous felon.
Williams said that after the detectives were killed and police were trying to identify the suspect to find a mug shot and fingerprints to aid in his capture, a female detective got on her knees and held Bowen's hand, begging her for Carr's real name.
"It's a lie," Bowen said Friday.
In jail, with little hope of raising her $100,000 bail, Bowen is kept away from other inmates because of the notoriety of the case. But she says that during hearings in the jail courtroom, inmates sometimes flash her peace signs in a show of support.
She says she knows some people hate her, but she has a callous on her hand from answering dozens of supportive letters. Some say she is being held responsible for Carr's sins, she said.
"I thank God everyday for these people," she said.
In her cell, she keeps a newspaper reprint of a photo of her, Joey and Kayla.
The last time she saw her daughter, before her arrest, the child was dealing with losing both her brother and Carr, who she called Daddy.
"She said "Daddy's in jail, isn't he?' " Bowen said. "I said "No, babe, Daddy's in heaven, too.' "
Her daughter remains in foster care, and Bowen sits in a jail cell holding out hope that they will one day be reunited.
"I'm very scared," she said.