Putting murder in the past: Son forgives mother for father’s death

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nearly three decades after the murder that tore them apart, the mother and son talk easily now. They laugh over little things. She stands on tiptoes to hug him and whispers: “I love you.” He smiles and hugs her back.

They often meet for lunch at the nonprofit where Gaile Owens works. On this day, she and Stephen sit side by side in a conference room, one glancing at the other as they answer a reporter’s questions about their tangled past. About the killing of Stephen’s father and Gaile’s years on death row for her role in the crime. About Stephen’s burden of resentment and anger and, finally, his decision to move past it all.

They don’t want to dwell on the past. She says it can’t be changed. He adds that you can’t absolve someone and then keep rehashing the things they have done to hurt you. For Stephen, now 40 years old, it took much of his adult life to get to this point.

The decision to forgive, Stephen says, “opened a life for me that I would have never had.”

As a boy, Stephen adored his father. As a man, he mourned his absence: at his basketball games, his wedding, the birth of his children.

For years Stephen wanted nothing to do with the woman who had caused all of this pain and grief. But slowly, he started down a different path. And when he finally found a way to forgive his mother, Stephen also decided to fight for her freedom.


In early 1985, Gaile Owens set in motion her husband’s murder.

The middle-class mother would later admit that she spent months driving around crime-ridden sections of Memphis, looking for someone willing to harm Ron Owens. By Feb. 17 of that year, she had found her man — a mechanic with a rap sheet.

That night, she returned home after church with Stephen, 12, and his brother Brian, 8, in tow. Stephen saw his father first. He lay bleeding into the living room carpet, having been beaten with a tire iron. Days later, Gaile was arrested as an accessory to murder. A pastor and an aunt broke the news to the boys.

Stephen’s father had been his hero. A hospital administrator, Ron Owens coached the church basketball team before his death. Gaile sang in the choir. Stephen had never even seen the two fight, and presumed — as children do — that they were happy.

In reality, Gaile had begun taking diet pills and anti-depressants after she gained weight while pregnant with Stephen. She pilfered money from the doctors’ offices where she worked as a receptionist, and one employer pressed charges.

After her arrest in Ron’s death, Gaile claimed that her husband had been abusive and unfaithful. She had wanted a divorce, but her husband had threatened to take the children, she said. She felt trapped.

Stephen knew none of this at the time. Prosecutors told jurors at Gaile’s trial that she had gotten the household into financial trouble and wanted Ron killed for insurance money. Stephen even testified for the prosecution, saying he had seen his mother hide bank statements under a mattress. He barely looked at her from the witness stand.

“I hated my mother,” he writes in a new book, “Set Free,” chronicling their journey together.

When she was sentenced to die, it mattered little to him. Stephen already considered her dead.


For 17 years, his feelings never wavered. Then his own son was born, and Stephen began to reconsider his relationship with the only parent he had left.

It started with Stephen wanting to let Gaile know that she was a grandmother. He sent her a Christmas card in 2001 with a picture and a brief note: “Mom, I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. I also wanted to introduce you to Mr. Zachary Stephen Owens.”

He signed off, “Love ya.”

Stephen didn’t know where he wanted the relationship to go, but Zachary’s arrival and then that of a second son, Joshua, left him mulling what he would tell his kids about their grandparents.

He and Gaile corresponded sporadically for several more years. He was often too busy to write, or felt that he had nothing to say. But something kept gnawing at him. God, he believes, teaches us to forgive those who hurt us, and “you can’t just pick what you want to forgive.”

Then Stephen was offered a job teaching in a prison, and he found many of the prisoners to be not much different from him.

Later, he began teaching at a Christian school and discovered that a colleague was leading a prison Bible study attended by his mother. The man told Stephen his mother was a spiritual leader who acted as a great influence on her fellow inmates.

“Those things don’t just happen,” Stephen said, and they served as affirmation “that I was doing what I was supposed to do.”

Still, it wasn’t easy to reconcile with the woman who had taken everything from him as a boy. He had to work past the idea that forgiving her meant betraying the memory of the father. His unwavering faith helped, and slowly Stephen came to believe that “doing what God had led me to do to forgive mom did not mean that I didn’t still have feelings for dad …”

Eight years after sending that first Christmas card, Stephen decided it was time for a face-to-face meeting. Aug. 23, 2009, was a Sunday, so Stephen and his wife went to church, as usual. Then they drove together to the Tennessee Prison for Women.

When he saw his mother for the first time in 23 years, he opened his arms to embrace her.

Gaile sobbed and told Stephen she was sorry, then they talked for nearly three hours. When the guard gave them a five-minute warning, Gaile provided the opening Stephen had been praying for. She told Stephen again that she was sorry, and asked for his forgiveness.

“I forgive you, Mom,” he said.

Stephen felt elated. The anger that had weighed him down all those years was gone. Once he was able to process his feelings, Stephen told his wife that he now knew he had to help his mother.

He just didn’t yet know how.


Two months later, the letter arrived. Gaile’s appeals had been exhausted, meaning an execution date would soon be set. It even noted that Stephen might be asked if he wanted to witness the death.

Stephen struggled with what to do next. He was reluctant to get publicly involved in the case. At the trial, he had been mobbed by the media, and had chosen ever since to live a very private life.

Stephen also was concerned about the reaction from other members of his family. And even Gaile herself did not support his involvement, believing it a hopeless endeavor that would cause her son even more pain when it failed.

On April 19, 2010, the Tennessee Supreme Court set a date — just five months away — for Gaile’s execution. The only hope left was a long-shot request to the governor for clemency.

The very next day, Stephen faced the media for the first time in 24 years, and read from a prepared statement.

“Please,” he said, “do not leave me with the responsibility of looking into my son’s eyes and explaining that their grandmother was executed. Please do not allow a death penalty to be the legacy of my family. I am asking for your mercy.”

Three months later, Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted Gaile’s sentence, saying her punishment was out of line with that of others who committed similar crimes. He gave her life in prison but with the possibility of parole.

With time off for good behavior, Gaile Owens walked free on Oct. 7, 2011.


Today, at 61, Gaile is nearly unrecognizable. She wears makeup and boot cut jeans, with her gray hair cut short and spiky. It’s a far cry from the woman who left prison in baggy clothes, pushing a laundry cart containing a few belongings.

On that day, Gaile issued a brief statement saying she couldn’t wait to see her grandchildren and just walk in the park with her family. “I’m looking forward to being a mother and a grandmother.”

Now her dream is a reality.

“I get to go to the games, and I get to tousle Joshua’s red hair, and they sit on my lap and they hug me and … it couldn’t be any better,” she said in an interview last week with Stephen by her side.

Stephen said Gaile tries to come to all of Joshua’s basketball and flag football games, where they all hang out as a family. She attends Grandparents Day at school. And when the family took her to dinner for her birthday, the children couldn’t wait to have their pictures taken with “G.G.”

It took Gaile only two weeks after leaving prison to find a job that she loves and where she is able to mentor women who are victims of prostitution and drug abuse. They tell her she’s helped make a difference in their lives.

“But I don’t keep a score of all that. It’s not about what has Gaile’s done, it’s about ‘How can I help?’ because those to whom grace is given, there’s much that is required, too,” she said, paraphrasing a passage from Luke.

But there are also regrets. Gaile has not reconciled with other family members, including her son Brian and her sister, Carolyn. And she says she never forgets that she was, ultimately, responsible for her husband’s death.

“I live with that regret every single day,” she said.

Stephen says he wrote the book to help others. He believes most people have someone they need to forgive.

“Forgiveness is a hard thing to maneuver,” he said. “It’s one of those situations where you look back on it and if you’d known you were going to feel like this, you’d have done it earlier.

“But,” he said, “it was in God’s timing.”

Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
1 dead, 1 wounded in North Las Vegas standoff
A woman was hospitalized with serious injuries on Thursday morning after being shot inside a North Las Vegas house. Police responded about 11 p.m. to a shooting at a home on the 5600 block of Tropic Breeze Street, near Ann Road and Bruce Street. The wounded woman, police believe, was shot by a man, who later barricaded himself inside the house. SWAT was called to assist, and when officers entered the house, they discovered the man dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Las Vegas Teen Makes Clothing Resale His Side Hustle
Las Vegas resident Reanu Elises, 18, started buying and selling streetwear online when he was a high school junior. Like many other young adults, the world of online resale applications like Depop and Mercari have made selling clothing online for a profit easy. Now, Elises spends his free time at thrift shops looking for rare and vintage clothing he can list on his on his shop. Now in his freshman year at UNLV as a business marketing major, Elises hopes to open a shop of his own one day and start his own clothing brand. He estimates that he's made about $1000 from just thrifted finds in the past year, which he'll use to buy more thrift clothing and help pay for expenses in college. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Fruition Vineyards Encourages Young Entrepreneurs to "Buy, Flip, Dream"
Once a month, young adults gather at Fruition Vineyards on South Maryland Parkway near UNLV to dig through a stack of rare, vintage and designer clothing that's marked down well below it's resale value. Shop founder Valerie Julian began the vent, dubbed "Fruition Vineyards" in August after running her streetwear shop since 2005. The event gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to "buy, flip, dream" according to Jean. Meaning that they're encouraged to buy the clothing for sale and find a way to resell it for a profit, then reinvest that into whatever dream they pursue: college, a hobby or their own resale business. Shoppers lined up starting an hour before noon on the last Saturday in April for the opportunity and spoke about what they hoped to do with their finds and profits. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Local man goes under cover searching for answers to homelessness
Licensed mental health therapist Sheldon Jacobs spent 48 hours under cover posing as a homeless man in an attempt to gain perspective on the complex issue.
Social Work UNLV Lecturer's Calling
Ivet Aldaba-Valera was the first person in her family to graduate from both high school and college. The 33-year-old UNLV lecturer is now pursuing her Ph. D in public policy at the school and has used her degree in social work to engage with the young Latino and Latina community of Las Vegas. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
The world's longest racetrack could be coming to Pahrump
Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club in Pahrump might be the first racetrack in the world longer than 16 miles long once the expansion is complete. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Gold Point townsperson talks about why he choose to live in a ghost town
Gold Point townsperson Walt Kremin talks about the ghost town in Nevada he calls home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Search for missing 3-year-old boy at Sunset Park
Las Vegas police and Red Rock Search and Rescue team search for a missing child at Sunset Park in southeast Las Vegas on Sunday, Sept.2, 2018. (Chitose Suzuki/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai speaks at Las Vegas tech conference
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban on her way home from school in Pakistan after advocating for girls' education, spoke at VMworld 2018 at Mandalay Bay. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren addresses Oct. 1 lawsuits
MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO Jim Murren addresses criticism his company has received for filing a lawsuit against the survivors of the Oct. 1 shooting. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Father recalls the night his 14-year-old son died jumping into moving traffic
From the Clark County Detention Center, Ezequiel Anorve Serrano talks about the night his 14-year-old son, Silas Anorve, died jumping into moving traffic on U.S. 95. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Palace Station unveils new sports book
Palace Station talks about the new sports book Thursday, August 23, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
One of world's longest racetracks planned in Pahrump by 2020
The racetrack will be 16 miles long by the year 2020 according to Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club owner John Morris. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Henderson police bodycam footage of officer-involved shooting
Henderson police released body-worn camera footage of an officer-involved shooting in a grocery store parking lot at 2667 Windmill Parkway on Aug. 12, 2018. (Henderson Police Department)
Robotics takes off at Las Vegas Academy
Las Vegas Academy’s robotics team made it all the way to the world competition last year, the first year the team competed. Zackary Perry describes how they programmed their robot to compete. The team is an example of what Tesla wants to have in every school in the state. (Meghin Delaney/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bicyclist suffers major head trauma in hit-and-run
A bicyclist was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries after a Thursday morning hit-and-run crash near the school formerly known as Agassi Prep. Police said the bicyclist was hit by a white SUV, which fled the scene. The injured man suffered multiple injuries including major head trauma. As of 9 a.m., Lake Mead remained closed between Martin Luther King and Revere Street while police investigate.
Las Vegas artist Dave Dave dies at 42
Dave Dave talks about his art and his life in 2016. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dave Dave, whose dad set him on fire in 1983, dies
Dave Dave, a respected Las Vegas artist who was badly scarred as a boy when his father tried to burn him to death in Southern California, died at Sunrise Hospital on July 15. He was 42. When he was 6, Dave's father tried to kill him by setting him on fire. He was given a sleeping pill and his bed at a Buena Park, California, motel was doused with kerosene. “I remembered being in a lot of pain,” Dave told the Review-Journal in 2016. “When stuff happens to you at that young of an age, you tend to block it out, but I remember the pain was excruciating.” Dave, who was born David Rothenberg, became close friends with Michael Jackson, who met him after the attack, which burned more than 90 percent of his body. “I wanted to meet him, and he wanted to meet me, and that just turned into a lifelong relationship that never ended,” Dave said. “It was amazing being friends with Michael Jackson. He was an amazing person.” Dave attended ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, and collaborated with various artists around Las Vegas, eventually selling his art to private collectors. Despite his challenges, he continued to live, thrive and create. Dave Dave
Homicide detectives investigate woman's death
Las Vegas police were called to Tahiti Village Resort early Wednesday after calls that someone had been shot. Police found a woman’s body between a parking garage and boiler room on the resort's property. A guest first reported hearing gunfire. There are no witnesses, but police will examine surveillance videos and look for clues. The woman was not identified, but a purse was found near the body. She did not appear to be a guest at the resort.
LVMPD Discusses Ross Dress for Less Shooting
LVMPD Assistant Sheriff Charles Hank discussed the 15th officer-involved shooting of the year at a press conference at Metro headquarters on Tuesday, Aug. 14. The active-shooter incident took place at the Ross Dress for Less store at the 4000 block Blue Diamond Road in the south Las Vegas Valley. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Metro Asst. Sheriff Brett Zimmerman on Aug. 8 officer-involved shooting
Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman met with media Monday to discuss the details of the 14th officer-involved shooting of the year. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County School Board president Deanna Wright on travel expenses
Clark County School Board President Deanna Wright says she followed proper expense protocol in trip to Florida last year.
Matt Kelly Elementary School hosted its third annual Back-to-School Red Carpet Program
Matt Kelly Elementary School hosted its third annual Back-to-School Red Carpet Program where community and business leaders joined to welcome students back with an inspirational welcome. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Shooting leaves 1 dead in southeast valley
A man was found fatally shot in the doorway of a squatter apartment after an argument ended in gunfire on Sunday night. Officers responded about 10:30 p.m. to the Silver Pines apartments and discovered the man in a breezeway in one of the buildings. The wounded man died at the scene, despite the efforts of another person, who tried to administer medical aid. Witnesses saw a man and a woman flee the scene, but were unable to give police a clear description.
North Las Vegas unveils new school crosswalk
North Las Vegas councilman Isaac Barron talks about the new school crosswalk in front of CP Squires Elementary School Monday, August 6, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
LVMPD Briefing on OIS #13
Assistant Sheriff Tim Kelly held a press conference to discuss details of the 13th officer-involved-shoot for the department in 2018. Video shows the moments before the suspect was shot. The shooting, which has been edited out, occurred as the suspect lunged at an officer outside the apartment. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sedan and semitrailer collide in south Las Vegas
An early Wednesday morning crash has left one person in critical condition. A sedan and semitrailer collided around 4 a.m. at the corner of Spencer Street and Serene Avenue. Police do not believe impairment is a factor in the crash. Spencer has been blocked off north of Serene while police continue their investigation.
Cybersecurity Professionals Flock to Las Vegas for Black Hat
Black Hat USA, the largest annual cybersecurity conference, is expecting a record 17,000 attendees during its six-day run at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center this week. One thing attendees have in mind is making sure they don't get hacked while they're there. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police chase ends with suspects captured in east Las Vegas
An early Tuesday morning chase ended with a car crash in an east Las Vegas neighborhood. Police were pursuing the vehicle, which they say was involved in robberies in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, when the driver crashed at Owens and Statz Street. A man was taken into custody. A woman was ejected from a vehicle and taken to a hospital with non-life threatening injuries. The intersection at Mojave Road and Owens Avenue was shut down while police officers searched for the suspect and investigated. The intersection will remain closed for most of the morning.
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like