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Bernice Bowen pleads guilty to neglect

But she still faces one more charge: that by neglecting her son, she caused his death.

By SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 1999


TAMPA -- A year after her 4-year-old son was killed by Hank Earl Carr, Bernice Bowen pleaded guilty Tuesday to neglecting the daughter who witnessed the fatal shooting.

Bowen admitted to abusing her daughter, Kayla, by exposing the girl to Carr, a gun-collecting ex-con the children called Daddy.

"Hank Carr is a monster," Bowen said after Tuesday's hearing. "And he destroyed my life and many other people's lives."

But Tuesday's guilty plea doesn't end the case against Bowen, 25.

Bowen was convicted last week of helping Carr after he shot her son, Joey, escaped police and killed three officers before shooting himself. She still faces a single count of child neglect regarding her son.

The remaining charge left lawyers at a standoff Tuesday. It also left unanswered the question of whether Kayla, now 6, will be put on the witness stand to testify against her mother if the case goes to trial as scheduled next week.

The legal tussle comes down to language in the charge that says that in neglecting Joey, Bowen caused his death. It also comes down to the risk of up to an additional 10 years in prison.

The neglect charge regarding Kayla was a third-degree felony, while the charge regarding Joey is a second-degree felony. The difference is that Joey was killed.

Defense attorney John Kromholz said Bowen would plead guilty only if the state would reduce the remaining charge to a third-degree felony.

"She's willing to plead to the entire case . . . for negligent acts," he said. "What we're contesting is, she's not responsible for the death of Joey Bennett."

Prosecutor Michael Sinacore said the state has made no offer to reduce the charge.

"We want her to plead to what we feel she's responsible for," he said.

Witnesses in Bowen's trial last week on accessory charges gave jurors a glimpse into life in the tiny garage apartment that Bowen, Carr and her two children shared last year.

The walls were riddled with bullet holes, and investigators found numerous guns, gun parts and ammunition inside. Friends and neighbors said Carr was never without a pistol in his pants, that he taught little Joey how to "quick-draw" a lethal-looking BB gun while Carr pointed his own loaded Glock at the boy like a gunslinger. A witness said Carr was proud that Joey could reassemble a gun with flourish.

Kayla was in the room that May morning last year when Carr shot the blond little brother she called "Bubba Dude." Though Bowen originally said she was outside when the gun went off, Kayla told investigators her mother was in the room, a version backed up by a neighbor and blood stains on Bowen's dress.

Kayla is also a living witness to life with Carr, who kept a hidden handcuff key, was wanted in several states and was determined he would not be taken back to prison.

Kayla now lives with a great-aunt in Ohio and recently finished kindergarten. Tuesday, Sinacore said the decision has not been made about whether the child will be called as a witness.

Sinacore said the state is still evaluating the situation, "with our goal being what's in the best interest of Kayla."

From jail, Bowen, who has regular supervised phone conversations with her daughter, said Kayla "has been through totally too much."

"It's bad enough she had to live it one time," she said. "Why have to live it a second time?"

Though there has been talk of Kayla testifying via videotape or close-circuit TV, Bowen's attorney said if the state calls her, he will ask for her to testify in the courtroom.

"I think it's important for the jury to see that Kayla does love her mother," Kromholz said.

Tuesday, Bowen said she had prepared herself for last week's guilty verdicts on charges that she deliberately lied to police to protect Carr's identity while he was on the run that day.

"I don't feel I got a fair trial, I really don't," she said.

When the verdicts were announced, she said, she wanted to kill Carr.

"I feel that he's the one that needs to be up on that stand," she said. "I don't feel I belong here."

"It's all about Hank Carr," she said. "It's not about me."

Bowen, described by a witness as having no remorse following Carr's rampage, said Tuesday she was sorry for the pain of the families of the slain officers.

"They didn't deserve this," she said.

"If (a jail sentence) heals their pain or makes them feel any better, then I've served a purpose," she said. But Bowen also said she hopes they will come to realize that he and her children were also victims of Carr. She said she didn't like guns in her house, but was struck by Carr when she expressed an opinion.

"I had no choice in the matter," she said.

Bowen, who has worked as a topless dancer and a Kmart clerk, said she spends her days in jail playing cards with other inmates. She said she recently earned her GED.

She said she doesn't know if she will ever see Joey's grave in Marietta, Ohio, where the boy was buried with his love-worn toy puppy one year ago Tuesday.

"This isn't no kind of life, to be behind walls every day," she said.

Bowen faces up to 29 years in prison on all charges. Her sentencing is scheduled before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Dan Perry on July 6.

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