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2 words, one theme in trial of Bowen

By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 1999


If only: They're the two saddest words in the language, and they get used frequently in conversations about Hank Carr and his girlfriend Bernice Bowen and the four people left dead on that hideous day, May 19, 1998.

Review the Times coverage of Hank Earl Carr's rampage
Bowen's prosecutors are using these two saddest words: If only Bowen had revealed Carr's identity as soon as Carr shot her son Joey, and not hours later, Tampa detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell would have known who they were dealing with, a man with a long record, on the run from out-of-state drug charges, and would have acted accordingly. That's why Bowen is accused of being an accessory to the four killings.

If only. The words come up in another context in this case.

If only Childers and Bell had been more cop-like, more suspicious. If only they had put Carr in a police car with a cage, the metal screen that separates the front seat from the back. If only they'd taken a hint from his attempt to run off. If only they had kept his hands cuffed behind his back. If only they'd found the handcuff key he wore.

It's terrible, also true. If only they had been more vigilant on May 19, 1998, Childers and Bell would have lived. In silent acknowledgment of this, the Tampa Police Department has tightened up its cuffing policy. No longer do suspects ride in cars without cages. No longer are they handcuffed in front.

But these if onlys don't do a thing to change the autopsy photographs in evidence at Bowen's trial.

The photographs show a large, ragged hole bored into the chin of 4-year-old Joey Bennett by a bullet that exited at the nape of his neck. "A through and through gunshot wound," a medical examiner called it.

They reveal that Detective Childers was shot in the back of the head, execution style, and that his partner, Bell, was shot twice, once in the forehead. The area around the wound was splattered with tiny powder burns. The second shot was to his neck. A medical examiner testified that Bell was facing the direction from which the bullets were fired, as though he had turned around to face Carr at the last moment.

The photos also show that state Trooper Brad Crooks was shot twice, including once through the nose. He'd never had time to unbuckle his seat belt, let alone unholster his gun.

If only: The defense has had one of its own. If only Carr had lived, he'd be on trial, not Bowen. By this argument, Bowen's prosecution is pure revenge, born of the disappointment that Carr, with his suicide, deprived the state of the chance to execute him.

This last if only sounds coolly neat as a piece of logic. But logic is not life, and Bowen's lawyer, John Kromholz, knows it. So he isn't relying on this argument in court, except by indirection.

On Wednesday, he was cross-examining another detective who worked the Carr killings, Jackie Keene. Her expression tightened as she recalled the day her friends, Childers and Bell, died, as if she believed that scrunching her face muscles would hold back the tears.

"You were angry at my client that day, weren't you?" Kromholz asked.

"Yes."

When Kromholz asked why she was angry, Jackie Keene spoke of what anyone would wonder.

"I was having a hard time understanding how the mother of a 4-year-old boy who had been shot in the face by this man wasn't telling us everything." Her answer seemed to clear the air in the courtroom. This isn't a case about hypotheticals, but about why Bernice Bowen failed to act like an ordinary mother.

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