Have you ever heard of Sean Ethan Owen? You’ve heard of Matthew Shepard. You’ve heard of Brandon Teena. You’ve probably even heard of Sakiah Gunn, Scotty Joe Weaver, and Sean William Kennedy. But you probably haven’t heard of Sean Ethan Owen, even though he died just one state north of Sean William Kennedy, and about three years earlier. I won’t speculate as to why, though I find it interesting that I can find all kinds of images of Sean William Kennedy, but not a single one of Sean Ethan Owen (though images of Owen’s killers are available online). It’s almost as if he not only died, but disappeared.
One of the reasons I started the LGBT Hate Crimes Project, was to tell the stories of people like Sean Ethan Owen, who were targets and/or victims of violence because they were LGBT, but whose names never made headlines. And it’s the reason I moved this project from Wikipedia to its own domain, because it’s likely that Sean Ethan Owen’s death would not be notable enough for Wikipedia. It wasn’t covered much outside of North Carolina, except for some gay publications. Sean Ethan Owen’s murder did not make national headlines. It didn’t inspire widespread protests. It didn’t inspire new legislation, let alone legislation that bears his name, not did it result in landmark court rulings. Probably the only people who even wept for him were his family and those who knew him personally. In my research, I didn’t read about candlelight vigils or public outpourings of emotion from perfect strangers, as happened in response to previous cases.
But Sean Ethan Owen was black gay man who was targeted for robbery by a man he met on a chat line; a man who wasn’t gay himself, thought that gay men on the chat line were easy targets for crime (maybe because he thought they’d be less likely to resist, less likely to report the crime, or that police would be less likely to pursue it). He was lured into meeting, and when he arrived found two other men there with the man he came to meet. He gave all three of them a ride, and then returned with them to a park where the men intended to smoke marijuana. Owen was shot in the head, but did not fall.
He pleaded for his life. He fought for his life. Owen was shot in the head a second time, and still wouldn’t die. He was beaten, kicked, and stomped by his three attackers before being kicked into a river. It would have been something of a mercy if Owen had been dead when he hit the water. But after being shot twice, beaten, kicked and stomped, he was still alive when he hit the water. His cause of death was drowning, a slower death than another bullet to the head might have provided.
And all because he was gay. That, to me, makes what happened to Sean Ethan Owen notable.
Sean Ethan Owen (1981 – February 17, 2004), a black white gay male, was shot, choked, beaten, kicked stomped and left to drown on February 17, 2004, in Durham, NC, by three men who intended to steal his car. One of them men met Owen online by posing as a gay man and, via chat and text messages, lured Owen to the meeting where he was attacked.
Owen, 23, lived in Franklinton, NC, with his parents and sister. He was originally named Michael Owens Jr., but changed his his first name to Sean and dropped the “s” from his last name after someone stole his identity and wrecked his credit.1) He worked at Wireless XPress on Creedmore Road in Raleigh.2)
When he was 18, he told his mother he was gay, and she told him she already knew. Owen’s father said he knew his son was gay, but that they never talked about it.3)
On the morning of February 17, 2004, Owen walked into the kitchen of his parents home where his half-sister, Tiffany McFall, was washing dishes. He showed her his cell phone and told her of his plans to meet up with a man he had met on a chat line.4) Owen said he was going to pick up a black man named “Blue.”5)
Owen met “Blue” on a chat line in February 2004, and the two exchanged text messages in which they discussed spending a night together. Owen would drive from Franklinton to Durham. “Blue” asked what kind of car Owen would be driving, and Owen answered that he would be driving a burgundy 1989 Ford Contour.
“Blue” would turn out to be Michael Taylor, 16, who saw gay men on the chat line as easy targets for crime.6)Taylor was a student and football player at Northern High School. He shared a room with his cousin, Shelton Deangelo Epps, 21, at his grandmother’s house on Lazy River Drive in Durham.7)
According to Epps’ statement to police he, Taylor, and Derrick Arness Maiden, 18, gathered at the Lazy River Drive house on February 17. Taylor told them about another guy who had used the chat line to steal a car and said he wanted to try it. He used his cell phone to call Owen, and arranged to meet him at a nearby “clubhouse.”8)
On the way out, Taylor grabbed his .32 caliber revolver. It was loaded with just two bullets.9)
According to Epps’ account, when Owen arrived, the three men asked him for a ride. Owen drove them to a store in Roxbury, where Epps bought a cigar they planned to use to smoke marijuana. Owen then drove them to Old Farm Park, where Epps broke up the cigar and brought out the marijuana.
In front of the car, Taylor drew the gun, cocked the hammer, and put the gun to Owen’s head. Owen said “Please don’t do this to me,” and stated to run. Taylor then fired.
Taylor told authorities that the four were walking towards a picnic table, and he was in front of the group when he heard a gunshot behind him. Taylor said he turned and saw Epps chasing Owen.10)
Owen was shot in the head, but he did not fall. The three men ran after him and each punched him in the face. Owen attempted to get back into his car. Epps, now holding the gun, tried to get a clear shot, but could not do so because Owen kept fighting. Taylor then took the gun and shot Owen again, shooting him in the heat a second time and kept firing the empty gun at him.
Owen was still alive, and the attack continued. “The old boy is still moving,” Epps said in his statement, “I’m thinking the old boy is a soldier.”11) Epps said he kicked Owen in the head once, and stomped on his head twice, and Maiden kicked him in the side. With Owen nearly dead, the three men dragged him to the edge of the Eno River and rolled him into the water.12) According to Taylor, Epps and Maiden kicked and beat Owen, Epps shot Owen in the head a second time, and then Epps and Maiden threw Owen’s body into the river.13)
McFall became worried when she could not reach Owen, and he did not return home by 5:00 p.m.14) On February 20, 2004, when Owen failed to return home, his mother and step-father filed a missing persons report with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.
On February 21, 2004, Owen’s body was found in a shallow area of the Eno River15), by a group of teenagers who were playing soccer near Old Farm Park.16) He had been shot twice in the head. The cause of death was later determined to be drowning, which meant Owen was still alive when he was rolled into the water, after having been shot, beaten, kicked, and stomped.17)
Taylor drove the car to his school school where he parked it in a fire zone18) and, on February 18, police placed a boot on the car.19) Taylor said Maiden drove the car from the scene, and gave student Jimetrius Harris the money to have the boot removed.20) Harris, however, told authorities that a student named “Matt” – also known as “Blue” – had given him the money for the fine, and the car keys. Harris mentioned that “Matt” played football, and identified Taylor in a football catalog.21)
On February 21, after Owen’s body was discovered, Taylor learned from a friend that the police were looking for him and for Owen’s car. 22) On February 22, Taylor, Maiden, and Epps drove Owen’s car to Shepherd Street, wiped down the interior with bleach to remove any fingerprints, and doused the interior with lighter fluid. Epps used his lighter to set fire to the interior. Police said the fire went out later, leaving the interior intact.23)
Police found Owen’s car on February 21, in the 600 block of Shepherd Street. Authorities then cellular records for Owen and Taylor, which revealed that Owen was planning to meet Taylor, a.k.a. “Blue,” in Durham on February 17. Owen’s cell number appeared on Taylor’s cell records for February 16 and 17.
Owen’s stepfather, Calvin Bicknell, told police that several items were missing from the car, including a pack of compact discs and a pair of Timberland boots. When police served a search warrant at Taylor’s home, they seized several pair of Timberland boots, compact discs, .32 caliber shell casings, and three cell phones.24)
Epps told investigators that it was Taylor’s plan to lure Owen to Durham and steal his car.25)
On March 4, 2004, Taylor, Epps, and Maiden were arrested and charged with Owen’s murder.26)
On March 19, 2004, Taylor, Epps, and Maiden were indicted for kidnapping, robbing, and killing Owen.27)
On July 21, 2005, Taylor was found guilty of first degree murder.28) Because of his age at the time of Owen’s murder, Taylor was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
On February 8, 2006, Epps was found guilty of first degree murder.29) On February 8, 2006, He was sentencted to life in prison without parole.30)
Maiden agreed to testify against Epps and Taylor in exchange for the change to plead guilty to a lesser charge.31) He was sentenced to at least nine years in prison.32)
North Carolina’s hate crimes law makes “ethnic intimidation” a felony, but does not include sexual orientation.33)