A grandmother grieves for the boy she raised
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 1998
ARIETTA, Ohio -- Connie Bowen's Mother's Day card arrived in a big pink envelope about noon Tuesday, nine days late but full of hopeful tidings from her young family in Tampa.
"We are all doing fine," wrote her 24-year-old daughter, Bernice Bowen. Snapshots showed Joey Bennett, 4, and Kayla Bennett, 5, all smiles. They sent coloring book artwork for their grandma. "We are sitting her watching Species," Bernice wrote. "Love you always."
There was no mention of Hank "Boo" Carr, Bernice Bowen's violent live-in boyfriend. That came just hours after the card arrived, when word filtered up from Tampa about Carr's bloody rampage and the death of little Joey.
On Wednesday, Connie Bowen clutched the Mother's Day card and wailed over her family's loss and the uncertainty that now hangs over Kayla.
Bowen said she practically raised both grandchildren from birth and still has a document giving her custody in 1995. But Florida authorities have placed Kayla in protective custody while they sort things out. And that could take as long as six months, Bowen said she was told.
"I just want my grandson back so I can bury him," Bowen said. "I just want to have my arms around Kayla and tell her that it's going to be all right."
Joseph Bennett, the children's biological father who lives in nearby Watertown, also wants custody and plans to head to Florida as soon as he gets more details from state officials.
Bennett, 33, acknowledged that he has had little input in his children's lives since he and their mother divorced three years ago. He has no steady job and his rental house faces foreclosure in three days. But at least his side of the family can keep Kayla safe, he said Wednesday.
Connie Bowen "is the one that sent them down there" a year ago, Bennett said. "If they would have given me my babies, I don't think any of this would have happened."
Bernice Bowen reportedly was staying with Carr's mother in Tampa and could not be reached for comment. But family and friends in Ohio described her as a troubled young woman whose motherly instincts sometimes took a back seat to her stormy relationships with men.
Marietta, at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, is surrounded by rolling, forested hills and resembles neighboring West Virginia more than the flatter farmland of central and western Ohio.
For teenaged Bernice Bowen, a gravel road and small home high above the city also meant boredom at times. When Joe Bennett, nine years her senior, came calling, she quit high school, ditched her plans of becoming a hair dresser and lost all direction, her mother said.
"She fell in love with the first guy that ever paid any attention to her," said a neighbor, James Bennett, no relation.
Joe Bennett, a West Virginia native with a ninth-grade education, worked in an oil field. Bernice had a job at Wendy's for a while, but never held a steady job. When she became pregnant with Kayla, the couple got married and moved in with her parents.
Soon after Joey was born, the couple's fortunes improved. Anthony Bowen, Bernice's father, had died of a heart attack. The Bowen family contends the hospital misdiagnosed his condition as indigestion and sent him home, where he died. In a settlement, Connie Bowen and both of her daughters received about $90,000 each.
Bernice and Joseph Bennett bought a house in the country with a fence around it for $42,000, a used Jeep for him and a Ford Ranger for her. Their marriage, however, was breaking up.
"I would come home from work and she would take off until 2 or 3 in the morning," Bennett said. "Sometimes, she'd just leave the kids with her mother and take off during the day."
In late 1994, he said, he found her at home in bed with another man. So he left. Shortly thereafter, he said, she took up with Carr, a man known to Marietta authorities as a small-time drug dealer prone to capricious violence.
In one altercation, he bit off a man's ear, one police report says.
In early 1995, Carr was indicted on three felony counts of drug trafficking and warrants were issued for his arrest. But authorities couldn't track him down.
Meanwhile, Bernice Bowen had signed over custody of her two children to her mother, divorced Bennett and sold her house. Bennett went along with the arrangement, he said, because he was out of a job, living with friends and was told by his former in-laws that it was just temporary "until I got my feet back on the ground."
That May, Bernice Bowen stole her mother's 1988 Chevrolet Camaro, picked up Carr and headed South. Carr called her from the road, Connie Bowen said. "He said that if I reported it stolen, he would personally come back, shoot me and watch the blood run down my face."
For nearly a year, Bowen said, her daughter moved around with Carr while she raised the children. By early 1996, Bernice called from Tampa to say she had ditched Carr, met a new boyfriend named "J.T.," had a job at Kmart and an apartment.
She also wanted the children back. For a year, Connie Bowen called Tampa every other week and "things seemed to be fine," she said.
In the summer of 1997, Bernice spent about six weeks in Marietta and handled herself well. So her mother let her take the kids to Florida. If she had known Carr was still around, "those kids would never have been there," Connie Bowen insisted.
But at Thanksgiving 1997 she learned the truth. Her daughter and kids came to visit. There was a knock at the door, and, "the kids came down and said, "Grandma, come meet our new daddy,' " Bowen said.
It was Carr.
For two weeks, Bowen watched him interact with the children with no trouble. And he had some kind of paper showing he was attending a drug rehabilitation program. "So I let the kids stay. I thought they should have a chance to be with their mother."