The camp was one of several by the river. Homeless people flowed in and out of the clearing in the woods, just off a gravel road that ran past the mission and south of the humming grain elevators in north Topeka.
The four were guests in the camp, invited to stay by a man named Mark Brown. Kimberly Danielle Sharp, recently divorced and a few days away from her 27th birthday, had battled a meth addiction from age 14. In the past seven months, she had twice been arrested for domestic battery in Emporia.
Her new lover, 18-year-old Charles Hollingsworth III, was a muscular teenager who had passed through the juvenile justice system. The 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound Hollingsworth always kept a knife with him, and he had a habit of flicking the blade open and shut.
Sharp and Hollingsworth had met in Garfield Park a couple of weeks earlier. She was hanging out with a friend when she spotted Hollingsworth drinking whiskey and went to talk to him.
Later, Sharp would tell the Pitch that she needed a companion. "I basically dumped my friend and stayed with him that night. He didn't yell at me. He didn't hit me. I just wanted somebody who was nice."
In the two weeks they'd been together, Hollingsworth had talked about marrying Sharp. After her own marriage had failed earlier in the year, Sharp wasn't thinking about that. But Sharp's two children 3-year-old Autumn and 6-year-old Edward had taken to calling Hollingsworth "Daddy."
Sharp's children called another camper, Carl Lee Baker, "Grandpa." (That night, her children were staying with Sharp's mother in Emporia.) Other campers had a different nickname for Baker; they called him "Outlaw."
Baker, 60, was a registered sex offender. Ten years earlier, he had been convicted of raping his former sister-in-law at gunpoint. Baker had a rap sheet in Kansas dating back to the mid-60s attempted robberies, aggravated burglaries, assault and parole violations for which he spent time in correctional facilities across Kansas until 1980.
Baker rarely spoke. His skin had a pinkish hue, which accentuated his white beard and eyebrows.
The last camper, 35-year-old John Ray Cornell, was a high school dropout whose 250-pound body and untrimmed brown beard made him look like a mountain man "Big John," the other campers called him. (Hollingsworth would later describe Cornell as a "fat motherfucker.")
Six months earlier, Cornell had hopped a train out of Poteau, Oklahoma, and ridden the rail to Kansas City. Then he'd hitchhiked from Kansas City to Topeka. Cornell was wanted in California for a parole violation from 1994 on, he had bounced in and out of California correctional facilities; in 2001, he was arrested for auto theft.
Cornell had been living at the Topeka Rescue Mission but was booted for drinking and staying out late. He was living under the Kansas Avenue Bridge when he met Brown, who invited him to his camp.
During the day, they'd all leave to hustle money by panhandling or working odd jobs. Fearing another arrest, Baker never ate at the mission. The others brought him food.
That night, an unexpected visitor barged into the camp a little after 7. Cornell was recovering from a hangover but recognized the man from under the Kansas Avenue Bridge. The man had once invited him to an all-night prayer vigil and talked with him about calling home to his family. He had shown Cornell a photo album. As Cornell leafed through the pages, he saw pictures of torn-up homeless camps. The man told Cornell that sometimes he had to get "Nazi" with the homeless. He didn't want them getting comfortable living outdoors.
The man was David Patrick Owen, a 38-year-old self-appointed advocate for the homeless (The Lonely Guy, March 9, 2006). Owen had registered as a lobbyist for his one-man organization, Homeless Come Home, and he spent most of his days roaming the halls of the state Capitol. He was also a registered sex offender. In 1998, Owen was arrested for downloading child pornography at the Wichita State University library. A psychologist who evaluated Owen said he was so aggressive that other inmates would probably harm him if he went to prison. The psychologist also suggested that Owen may be a paranoid schizophrenic.
In 1999, a judge sentenced Owen to four days in jail for the pornography charge; he then served three years of probation under house arrest at his parents' home in Cimarron, Kansas, a small farming town in southwestern Kansas. In 2002, Owen moved to Topeka to lobby the Kansas Legislature. His message was simple: He wanted to reunite homeless people with their families. He would offer homeless people phone cards or his cell phone to make the calls.
He believed that he could end homelessness by reuniting families, but his tactics were confrontational. Owen told the Pitch that he'd been beaten up at least four times by homeless men. He also said his father had bought him a burial plot in case a homeless person killed him.
In the statehouse, Owen had no pull. He lobbied without a budget and found few supporters. A Social Security disability check Owen had cerebral palsy paid his rent on a small apartment near the Capitol.
Owen was a lanky guy with a nasally voice. His Coke-bottle glasses sat askew on his oversized nose. That night, he wore a blue-and-white-checked short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. In his messenger bag, he kept a pair of cell phones, phone cards, a Bible, notebooks, and a photo album of homeless camps he'd destroyed. He thought the campers would be eating at the mission, and he'd be free to wreck their camp and disappear into the night.
Owen remembered Cornell.
"Why don't you call your mom?" Owen asked, offering Cornell his cell phone.
"I don't want my mother's phone number in your phone," Cornell told Owen. He knew Owen would badger his mother about getting her son home.
Owen offered him a phone card.
"I don't want it."
Owen was undeterred. He moved on to Baker, telling him that he was too old to be camping in the woods. When was the last time he contacted his family, Owen wanted to know.
"I talked with my sister yesterday," Baker said. But Baker explained that he couldn't live with his family. When Owen persisted, Baker grew angry. "If I wanted to get in touch with my family, I'd have gotten in touch with them," he yelled.
Owen wouldn't stop badgering him.
"Why don't you just get the fuck out of here?" Baker screamed.
"I got the right to be here, too," Owen fired back.
"Then shut up."
Owen turned to Sharp, not realizing that his opportunity to leave was passing.
"I'm not going home," Sharp told him. "My mom's a drug addict."
Sharp broke down. She claimed that her mother didn't care about her. Neither did her family.
Owen wouldn't listen.
"You want me to call the police?" Owen threatened. Threatening to call the cops was another one of his tactics for reuniting homeless people with their families. He reached into his bag.
Hollingsworth, his companions would later testify, pounced on Owen, throwing him to the ground and ripping the cell phone from his hand. Hollingsworth elbowed Owen in the face, then lifted him up and slammed him on a bench.
"Please don't hurt me," Owen begged. "I won't call the cops."
Sharp rifled through Owen's bag. She pulled out the photo album and flipped through its pages, growing incensed. The pictures were arranged in before-and-after style showing tents before Owen destroyed them, and the wrecked aftermath. If they hadn't been in the camp, Owen admitted, he would have destroyed their stuff.
"What do you think of this?" Sharp yelled as she threw the photos in the fire. "How do you like it? People destroying your things?"
"That's my stuff," Owen screamed. "Why are you doing that to my things?"
Sharp burned all of the photos. She threw his phones in the fire. And then his bag.
"But that's my stuff," Owen screamed.
Last year, the Kansas Legislature was obsessed with sex offenders, and lawmakers targeted David Owen.
The attention started in January, when, in her State of the State speech, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius called on legislators to "double sentences for sex offenders who prey on children" and mandate electronic monitoring for repeat offenders. (Owen was in the audience; he stood and applauded the suggestion.) Legislators went on to propose lifetime electronic monitoring, longer prison sentences, and safety zones around schools and day-care centers.
One of the Legislature's highest-profile accomplishments was the passage of Jessica's Law, which mandated 25-year prison sentences for first-time child predators and life terms for third strikers.
The House Committee on Federal and State Affairs considered Owen-specific legislation that would have outlawed sex offenders from lobbying the Legislature, though the bill never made it out of committee. Owen pushed several legislators' buttons, particularly former Rep. Eric Carter, who later ran unsuccessfully for insurance commissioner. "He is superconservative, and I love him to death, but he hates me because I am a sex offender," Owen told the Pitch last March. Sen. Anthony Hensley and other legislators had barred Owen from their offices unless the lobbyist scheduled an appointment.
They wanted him to go away.
Owen was the middle child of Darrell and Ann Owen. He always called home on Father's Day, but that Sunday, June 18, the phone never rang. Darrell Owen had spoken with David on June 14, and David left a message on his parents' answering machine two days later, but they hadn't heard from him since.
The following Wednesday, Darrell called the Topeka Police Department to ask that someone check on his son. The police couldn't find David. The Owens left for Topeka the next day. David's landlord let them into their son's apartment in the 1300 block of South West Van Buren Street. He wasn't there. Nothing looked out of place. The Owens went to the Capitol, but David was nowhere to be found.
The Owens returned to Cimarron on Friday. They requested that the police keep an eye out for David.
On Saturday, David Owen was officially declared a missing person. In the camp that mid-June night, Hollingsworth had grown tired of Owen. According to court testimony, Hollingsworth grabbed him by the arm and led him to a wooded area away about 30 yards from the camp. On the way, Hollingsworth snatched a homemade hatchet that was wedged into a nearby tree.
Hollingsworth and Owen disappeared into the woods. In a clearing, Hollingsworth made Owen kneel before him. Owen sat with his back erect, his hands at his sides. Hollingsworth stood behind him and drew the ax over his head as if he were going to split a log.
Sharp walked into the clearing and saw Hollingsworth with the ax.
"No, no, no, no!" she screamed. "Don't do that. I can't be an accessory to this shit. I've got two kids." (Later, lawyers would argue over whether she said, "Don't kill him" or "Don't kill him here.")
Hollingsworth lowered the ax.
"You're lucky," he told Owen.
But Hollingsworth wasn't finished. "I need some rope," he yelled.
Baker went to his tent and retrieved a yellow nylon rope he used for raising tents and hammocks. He grabbed a machete and told Cornell to take the rope to Hollingsworth.
"You're going to camp out, motherfucker," Hollingsworth yelled at Owen. "You're going to see what it's like."
"Don't worry," Sharp assured Cornell. "We're just going to tie him up and make him sleep out with the mosquitoes and the snakes."
Hollingsworth tied Owen's right arm behind his back. He looped the rope around Owen's neck and then tied Owen's left arm behind his back. If Owen dropped his hands, the rope would choke him.
Owen was babbling, so Hollingsworth shoved a washcloth in his mouth, marched him back into the camp and sat him on a milk crate.
The trampled pathway into the camp brought another unexpected visitor, Ron Greene, a slow-speaking 35-year-old who was looking to score sleeping pills from Mark Brown.
"Who's this guy?" Hollingsworth asked.
"I met him at the mission," Cornell vouched. "He's all right."
Greene had worked kitchen detail with Sharp at the mission. She also spoke up for him.
Hollingsworth's attention returned to Owen. He set down the ax. Greene saw an opening to leave and slipped out of the camp.
Seeing Greene freely leave eased Cornell's fears.
Hollingsworth and Baker rolled a couple of cigarettes and lit up.
Baker would later tell detectives that Hollingsworth told him, "We got to get him out of here. You're going to help me because this bastard needs to die."
Hollingsworth and Baker hooked Owen under his armpits and led him from the camp. They led him to the steep, rock-covered levee. Owen sat down on the jagged rocks and refused to walk.
Owen had once led a Pitch reporter down the levee in search of homeless people living by the river. He'd warned the reporter that several people had split their heads attempting to climb down the steep incline of rocks. He said this was where he'd been beaten a few times.
Hollingsworth and Baker forced Owen to keep going. They dragged him down the rocks and through the brushy grass field near the railroad bridge. A police helicopter flew overhead. Baker and Hollingsworth ducked under the bridge until the helicopter was out of sight.
They led him past the graffiti-covered pillars to a sapling on the riverbank. Hollingsworth told Baker that he didn't want to leave fingerprints at the scene, so he took off Owen's shoes, socks and glasses. He strung Owen's feet in the air, looped the rope around the tree and then cinched it around Owen's neck if his feet dropped, the rope would strangle him.
"Just sit still and you'll be all right," Hollingsworth told Owen. "If you move, you'll choke."
Owen cried and begged for his life, but his pleas were mostly unintelligible because of the rag in his mouth.
Before they left, Hollingsworth took a step back and then kicked Owen in the head twice with his steel-toed boots. Owen's head slumped. Later, Baker told detectives that Owen was unconscious when they left.
Twenty minutes later, Baker and Hollingsworth returned to the camp. Baker carried Owen's broken glasses and socks. Hollingsworth had his shoes. They threw them in the fire.
"How's David?" Sharp asked. "You didn't kill him, did you?"
"He's probably dead by now," Hollingsworth said, looking down at his wrist as if he were telling the time. "He was turning blue when we left."
It was Baker and Cornell's night to gather firewood. As they picked up branches for the fire, Baker told Cornell, "Charles lynched him."
Someone flipped on the battery-operated TV.
At 8 a.m. Sunday, July 2, detective Michael Barron launched the third search for David Owen. Barron, a 15-year veteran of the Topeka Police Department, is a slim 5 feet, 11 inches tall, with shaggy black hair. His team was scouring the north side of the Kansas River, where the tall grass was well above Barron's head. This time, they had a cadaver-sniffing dog.
Half an hour later, Mary Jo Meek of the Kansas Search and Rescue Dog Association watched as her border collie mix, Sierra, darted into an area of trees and saplings near the Santa Fe Railway Bridge.
"I think she found something," Meek called to the detectives.
As Meek walked closer, she saw the midsection and rib cage of a badly decomposing body covered with maggots and bugs. The nearby grass was trampled.
Owen was lying on his back, his arms and legs outstretched like Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. His short-sleeved, checked shirt was ripped and pulled up over his chest. The pockets of his dirty blue jeans were turned inside out. His shoes and socks were missing. So were his glasses.
Part of the body's skeleton was exposed; skin and tissue were missing from the back of the head and neck. The front of the head was black and leathery.
The coroner, Dr. Donald Pojman, wouldn't arrive until that afternoon. Pojman would need dental records to identify Owen. He would later rule Owen's death a homicide, listing the cause of death as asphyxiation.
After finding the body, detectives searched a nearby homeless camp and found the charred remains of what appeared to be spiral notebooks, cell phones and keys. They also found an ax.
Detectives would later interview several people, including Ron Greene, who gave descriptions of Sharp, Hollingsworth, Baker and Cornell.
On July 13, Barron spotted a black man and a white woman in the 900 block of North Kansas Avenue, near the Topeka Rescue Mission Thrift Store. Hollingsworth and Sharp had left the camp for lunch.
The couple matched descriptions of the people they were looking for. Barron radioed detective Bryan Wheeles a thick, 12-year cop who wore his hair buzzed. Wheeles rolled up on the couple, then Barron arrived, and the detectives separated Sharp and Hollingsworth.
Barron asked Hollingsworth for his name. Hollingsworth lied, telling the detective that his name was Terry L. Bennett. When Barron didn't believe him, Hollingsworth came clean.
Wheeles, meanwhile, went with Sharp. He could tell that Sharp was afraid of Hollingsworth. The detective considered her a witness.
Before uniformed officers led Hollingsworth away in handcuffs, Sharp yelled that she loved him.
In July 19, the Shawnee County District Attorney charged Sharp, Baker, Hollingsworth and Cornell with first-degree felony murder and kidnapping.
In the months that followed, leading to Baker's January 12 conviction, the four would turn on one another.
Kansas' aiding-and-abetting laws hang responsibility on anyone who assists in committing a crime, regardless of how much he or she participates. Sharp and Cornell might not have helped string up Owen, but because they didn't do anything to stop the crime and burned Owen's belongings the state held them liable for his murder. A conviction for felony murder could have cost Cornell life in prison with the possibility of parole after a mandatory 20 years. Cornell cut a deal with the state on the afternoon of October 6 pleading guilty to reckless involuntary manslaughter and kidnapping and agreed to testify against Sharp, Baker and Hollingsworth. The burly man wore a forest-green Shawnee County Jail jumpsuit and shackles to the courtroom where he signed the deal. His sentencing was scheduled for February 9.
Two months later, Sharp and Baker were convicted in separate trials. Owen's family his father, Darrell; his mother, Ann; and his brothers, Paul and Andy watched as Baker, Cornell and Sharp fingered Hollingsworth.
On December 13, Darrell Owen took the stand as the first witness in Sharp's trial. The patriarch of the Owen family was stoic.
He recalled David's arrest in Sedgwick County for downloading child pornography. He revealed that a psychologist's evaluation of his son after the arrest led to a diagnosis of possible paranoid schizophrenia (though he backed off that statement while testifying at Baker's later trial).
But Owen sounded proud as he told the court that Homeless Come Home was his son's idea.
Sharp testified that she had been afraid of Hollingsworth "the whole time" the two had been together. She said she feared for Owen's life when Hollingsworth grabbed an ax and led Owen out of the camp. After she saw how Hollingsworth treated Owen in the camp, she was afraid of her lover.
But in two videotaped interviews, Sharp contradicted herself. After she was taken into police custody, she told detective Wheeles that Hollingsworth had told her to "burn everything" at the camp; later, in a video re-enactment at the crime scene, Sharp admitted that it was her idea to burn Owen's stuff. She said she wanted to destroy any evidence that he was ever at the camp.
Andy Owen cracked a sad smile when the prosecutor showed the jury a photo of his older brother's charred glasses. Later, during the part of the video re-enactment when Sharp told a detective that Baker and Hollingsworth returned to the camp with Owen's broken glasses, shoes and socks, Paul Owen cried.
When Deputy District Attorney David Debenham showed jurors photos of Owen's body at the scene of the crime, Darrell stayed while the rest of the family left the courtroom.
Sharp's attorney, Stacey Donovan, argued that her client burned Owen's belongings out of anger, not to destroy evidence. Sharp saw the photos of destroyed homeless camps and couldn't understand how Owen could have done that to the people he supposedly was trying to help. Donovan told the jury that her client made mistakes that night, but she wasn't guilty of Owen's murder.
Representing the state was Debenham, a polished deputy district attorney in Shawnee County.
"What do you think David Owen was thinking when he was tied to that tree?" Debenham asked the jury.
"Was he afraid or was he thinking, This is what it's like to be homeless?"
On December 18, four hours after beginning deliberations, the jury reached a verdict just after 5 p.m. Sharp's attorneys, Donovan and Wendell Betts, flanked her as the jury foreman read the verdict: guilty on both counts. Sharp sank in her chair. Tears streaked her cheeks. She wiped them away with a wadded-up tissue.
Judge Thomas Conklin set Sharp's sentencing for February 2. (Donovan told the Pitch that she would appeal the verdict.)
At Baker's trial, Darrell Owen repeated much of the testimony from Sharp's trial, talking about his son's "strong feeling of right and wrong." He said every issue was black or white in his son's mind.
"He was confrontational," the elder Owen testified. "That was his nature. He felt he had to argue them home."
But, Darrell Owen added, his son wasn't violent.
Testifying against Baker, Cornell claimed that he was afraid of Baker and Hollingsworth.
"A guy with a machete tells you to take rope to a guy with an ax, you better do it," Cornell said. He claimed that he didn't leave the camp the night of the murder because he didn't think he could outrun Hollingsworth or Baker.
Cornell added that Hollingsworth had threatened the others in the camp.
Pondering whether Owen deserved to spend a night in the woods, Cornell offered some perverse logic.
"Karmically, maybe he did deserve to be tied up and stay outside," Cornell testified. "If he would have survived it, it probably would have done him some good."
Baker, the 60-year-old convicted rapist known as "Grandpa" to Sharp's children and "Outlaw" to the other campers, had helped Hollingsworth carry out the lesson. Baker and Hollingsworth were the ones who had dragged Owen to the tree by the river. Baker had also helped Hollingsworth move Owen's body the next day.
But in his defense of Baker, attorney Tom Bartee claimed that his client was also afraid of the younger, stronger Hollingsworth. In his closing argument, Bartee told jurors that Baker followed Hollingsworth's lead because he was operating on a "survival instinct."
The jury didn't buy it. They found Baker guilty of felony first-degree murder and kidnapping. His sentencing is set for February 16.
Last February, while getting his picture taken by a Pitch photographer, David Owen noticed a uniformed Kansas Highway Patrol officer and a statehouse security guard watching him. "What's David up to now?" Owen asked, about himself, to no one in particular.
This January, as Baker's trial played out in the Shawnee County Courthouse just blocks away from the state Capitol, the Kansas Legislature reconvened. Melvin Neufeld, whom Owen credited as his inspiration for becoming a lobbyist, ascended to Speaker of the House. The 2007 session would be the first in four years without David Owen hanging around to pester lawmakers and draw the eyes of security guards. Secretaries no longer had his mug shot tacked to their bulletin boards.
Charles Hollingsworth's fate remains undetermined. Before his trial later this spring, he will undergo a psychological evaluation.
In a letter to the Pitch dated September 22, Hollingsworth referred to Sharp as his "fiancée," quoted Scripture as apparent evidence of his jailhouse conversion, and confessed to killing David Owen but only killing him a little bit.
"Some would read this and say who am I to be 'preaching the good news of the Kingdom' (Mathew 24:14)," Hollingsworth wrote. "But Saul, who was a Pharisee from birth, who later became the Apostle Paul, was a killer of Christians (the disciples of Jesus) before he became one himself and went preaching the good news of Kingdom and of Christ.
"I had to kill a man to realize that the lifestyle I was living wasn't getting me anywhere," he continued. "I had to kill a man just to realize that the path my father was trying lead me to was actually what I needed to do and was ... the best move for me. I say I had to kill a man because of killing a man I am guilty of, but of 1st degree murder, I am not guilty of, more like reckless second/voluntary manslaughter!!"
Hollingsworth added, "I also have the hope of David Owens [sic] and many others being resurrected either to everlasting life or to judgment here in the near future (John 5:28, 29)."
Hollingsworth's judgment day is slated for April 16.