CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – Jason Arnie Owens helped carry his father’s casket into the hearse, then turned to hug a relative. He never made it to the cemetery.
As mourners gathered outside a funeral home in northern West Virginia on August 24, two plainclothes police officers with a fugitive warrant poured out of separate vehicles, shouted Owens’ name and shot and killed him, splattering his 18-year-old son’s shirt with blood as horror. loved ones looked on.
“There was no warning,” said family friend Cassandra Whitecotton.
In the blink of an eye, stunned friends and family already grieving one member lost another. Now, they want answers — not just why Owens was shot, but why the encounter happened the way it did.
Law enforcement officials are not commenting much at this time, citing an ongoing investigation. Owens, 37, is wanted on a fugitive warrant, but the US Marshals Service has not said what he is for. The agency also said in a statement that he had a gun when approached by members of a fugitive task force. Many witnesses argue that this is not true.
Whitecotton and others standing a few feet away said Owens was unarmed, hugging his aunt, Evelyn O’Dell, and was shot just after his name was called. Witnesses also dispute the US military’s claim that first aid was administered immediately, before emergency medical services arrived.
“They called out Jason’s name. They just said, ‘Jason,’ and then they started shooting,” Whitecotton said. “There was no identification that it was US Marshals – nothing. They offered this man absolutely no assistance. They never touched him to provide any assistance.”
As relatives prepared for services Friday for Owens, a state police investigation into the shooting was underway. But patience in the community is running out.
Relatives and supporters demonstrated outside the Harrison County Courthouse last week, accusing law enforcement of overkill in the death of Owens, who was white. A Facebook page called Justice for Jason Owens has swelled to about 800 members — more than half the population of Nutter Fort, where Owens was killed.
Underlying the unanswered questions is whether any line of decency had been crossed in arresting a man in the middle of his father’s burial.
“If they were looking for somebody and they finally know where they are, they’re going to find them,” said Tracy L. Hahn, a Columbus, Ohio-based security consultant who retired after 32 years in law enforcement. including deputy chief of police at Ohio State University.
Hahn said she knows of agencies that have gone to funerals but waited until afterward to reach out to the person.
“There has to be some mitigating circumstance that they felt the urgency to arrest him then instead of waiting, if there was any risk factor, flight risk or something like that,” Hahn said.
Family members aren’t so sure. They say it just adds to the sense of disrespect that the agencies involved feel no obligation to answer their questions.
“We want to know why you would do that in front of his family,” said Owens’ cousin Maddy Swiger. “And what gives you the right to do that to an unarmed person?”
Acting U.S. Marshal Terry Moore said he could not answer questions during the investigation, and messages left with state police were not returned.
It is not clear if there is video from police body cameras, police vehicle dashboards or the funeral home itself. Unlike big cities where detailed incident reports and videos are released after fatal police shootings — sometimes within hours — that rarely happens in West Virginia.
West Virginia law exempts police from having to release video during an investigation. And the U.S. Marshals Service office said it did not compile a detailed incident report on the shooting, citing the news release that withheld Owens’ name and other details.
Owens has been in trouble with the law in the past. He was sentenced in 2018 to three to 13 years in prison for fleeing a Harrison County sheriff’s deputy and trying to strangle him during a fight. He was released on parole in April 2021.
But Swiger said he committed a parole violation “because he didn’t check in just one time. And that’s why he promised his mom after the funeral that he would turn himself in.”
Whitecotton said she was smoking a cigarette after the service when an SUV pulled into the side street where the hearse would pull out.
“He’s about to hit me, so I jumped back on the curb and looked at him like, ‘What’s your problem?’ he said. A man in shorts and a T-shirt jumped out, leaving his door open.
Swiger said a white truck carrying another plainclothes officer nearly hit her mother’s vehicle as the truck sped into the parking lot. Swiger said Owens was shot from different directions and estimated that about 40 people were in the area. He also said he did not see a gun in Owens’ hands.
Some mourners instinctively rushed toward Owens after he fell to the ground, Swiger said, but one of the officers told them, “Get back or I’ll shoot you.”
Whitecotton said she has lived in much larger cities such as Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth.
“I’ve never dealt with anything like this in my life,” he said. “I would expect it there, honestly. But not here.”