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Bowen goes on trial today

The case is expected to center on Bernice Bowen's actions after police told her that her boyfriend, Hank Earl Carr, killed three officers.

By SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 1999


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Bernice Bowen sobs as she is denied bond in the video court of Judge Walter Heinrich in Tampa in June 1998. [Times file photo]
TAMPA -- As cop killer Hank Earl Carr hunkered down in a convenience store, bleeding from a gunshot wound and keeping close watch on his hostage, he spoke by phone to his girlfriend, Bernice Bowen, for the last time.

He knew he would fry in the electric chair for what he had done that day, he told her. Knew that before he would let that happen, he would press the muzzle of his own gun to his head, leaving everyone behind to sort out the bloody carnage he had spilled across three counties.

Bowen was his "old lady," the former topless dancer who once clung to him as they rode on a Harley, the girlfriend by his side as he lived his life deftly avoiding police. He wondered what might happen to her once he was gone.

"They're not charging you with anything?" he asked in the last moments of his life.

"I didn't do anything wrong, okay?" Bowen said.

Not everyone agreed.

Today, a year later, Bowen will leave her jail cell to face a jury as the living legacy of a madman's rage.

Authorities charge that she deliberately helped Carr that day after he shot her 4-year-old son in the face, escaped police custody and gunned down two veteran detectives and a highway patrol officer. They also say she neglected her own children by letting them live with Carr, the man they called Daddy, the felon with a fondness for automatic weapons, the man wanted in several states.

This week, amid the dry legalities of the charges, the jury will hear evidence of a deeper debate. There are those who say Bowen, a 25-year-old Kmart clerk, was herself a victim of Carr, jailed only because he did not live to satisfy a grieving city's thirst for justice.

And there are those who say Bowen deliberately took part in a cold-hearted plan for the day the law came to claim her man.

* * *

Officer Randy Bell, right, prepares to take Hank Earl Carr inside for questioning on May 19, 1998. [Times file photo]

They met four years ago in Ohio on Valentine's Day. Bowen, a 10th-grade dropout, left her husband for Carr, a man with a ponytail and a near-genius IQ who had once been accused of biting a man's ear in half in a bar fight.

By 1998, Carr and Bowen were living in the Tampa neighborhood of Sulphur Springs with her two small children in a walk-up apartment on Crenshaw Street.

On a May morning, Carr picked up an SKS semiautomatic rifle and fatally shot Bowen's 4-year-old son, Joey, in the face. As police investigated, Carr said it was an accident and gave his name as Joseph Lee Bennett, the name of Bowen's ex-husband, so they wouldn't realize they were dealing with a dangerous fugitive.

According to records, Bowen also identified him as Bennett that day and during questioning did not tell police he had vowed never to go back to prison and routinely carried a hidden handcuff key.

As Carr, 30, rode in the back of an unmarked police car that day, he got the cuffs off one hand, grabbed an officer's gun and shot veteran homicide detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell. On the run, he gunned down Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James Crooks before holing up in a Hernando County convenience store, where he took a clerk hostage and ultimately killed himself.

In his last moments, when police allowed Bowen to speak to him by phone, Carr wondered if they might blame her.

"Well, the cat's out of the bag, I'm not Joseph Lee Bennett . . .," Carr said. "Are you in any trouble for that?"

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Bowen's son, Joey.
She was later charged with being an accessory after the fact in his escape, in the deaths of the three officers and her son.

Timing might be critical to her defense, particularly regarding the charges involving the slayings of the officers.

To convict her, the state must prove Bowen aided Carr after she had been told that he killed the officers.

Bowen's attorney said that soon after being told the detectives had been shot, Bowen provided the last name "Carr" among other names, and in the same conversation, gave them his mother's address in Seminole Heights. (Carr had indeed stopped there to wash blood from his hands and say goodbye to his mother after shooting the detectives.)

Prosecutors, however, dispute the defense timeline and say Bowen did not come clean with Carr's name for nearly two hours after learning of the shootings. They say the couple had a plan in place for the day police came for Carr.

Jurors will hear from a neighbor who says Bowen watched her boyfriend practice getting out of handcuffs. A man who knew her is expected to testify that Bowen once said, "If the cops come for my man, I'll be right behind him, shooting away, and we'll both go down in a blaze of glory."

Prosecutors will be allowed to present evidence they say will show it was not the first time Bowen lied to try to help Carr avoid arrest. In 1995, after Carr beat a man unconscious in Sturgis, S.D., Bowen pretended to police that she didn't know his name, according to pretrial testimony.

"She did the exact same thing," prosecutor Shirley Williams said.

Bowen's attorney, John Kromholz, has said in the past that Bowen is jailed only because Carr is not alive to take responsibility for his crimes, a point of view held by people who wrote letters to the editor and to the court. Kromholz has said that Bowen was fearful of Carr, and that she was understandably traumatized and shocked in her conversations with police after her son's death.

But Kromholz said that in front of the jury this week, he will stick largely to the law.

"I'm going to go with the facts. I'm going to go with the timeline," Kromholz said. "I"m not going to try to create this as an emotional defense that she shouldn't be charged because Carr's not around."

* * *

Bowen also is accused of failing to protect her two young children from Carr, and she faces a separate trial on criminal child neglect charges. That trial is scheduled to start next week, either before or after her trial on the accessory charges. Her attorney said last week that she is ready to accept some responsibility for exposing her children to Carr.

In the apartment, police found two assault rifles and a trunk full of ammunition and gun parts. They found bullet holes everywhere.

"The house appears to be a shooting gallery," said child abuse prosecutor Michael Sinacore.

Both Kayla, then 5, and Joey, 4, were familiar with the assortment of guns Carr bought and sold and kept around the house, including the handgun he always kept tucked in his pants.

Kayla, who now lives with a great-aunt in Ohio and is expected to testify this week, told investigators her mother was in the apartment when Carr shot Joey. Bowen said she was outside at the time.

"What happened when Joey died is just the final act of negligence," Sinacore said. "She failed to protect her child to the very end."

Kromholz, her attorney, said in the year she has spent in jail, Bowen has come to realize there were things "she should have seen or been more aware of."

"I think she's prepared for responsibility for that," he said. No plea offer has been made, he said.

* * *

Bowen in a jailhouse interview. [Times file photo]
The solemn police funerals were broadcast. Story after story about the tragedy appeared in newspapers and on TV. Bowen gave interviews from jail, sounding alternately tough and tearful.

As her trial opens today in Circuit Judge Dan Perry's court, potential jurors will be questioned closely about how much they already know about the case, and more important, whether they have made up their minds about Bernice Bowen. Their answers will determine whether Kromholz will ask to select a jury in another Florida town, somewhere outside a community that is still mourning its slain officers.

If convicted of all charges, Bowen could face up to 29 years in prison.

Kromholz said Bowen wants to tell her story on the witness stand, but he might advise against it. The police officers who are expected to testify are seasoned courtroom veterans, he said, while she is not.

"Pretty much this case is going to be her against about 40 law enforcement officers," he said.

In the courtroom's spectator seats, victims' survivors usually sit on one side, and those supporting the defendant on the other. Officers and family members of Childers, Bell and Crooks are expected to fill the benches behind the state's table. Kromholz said he was not sure who would show up for Bowen.

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