Delia Owens, author of the novel “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the basis of a Reese Witherspoon movie opening this week, is wanted for questioning by Zambian authorities in the death of a man whose execution-style killing was caught by an ABC News documentary crew in 1996.
The revelation comes from a piece published Monday in The Atlantic written by Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, whose exhaustive reporting and personal experience in the matter can be read in full here. The movie will be released by Sony this weekend.
In his words, Mark and Delia Owens, a crusading American animal-conservationist couple on a mission to save elephants from poachers and corrupt officials in the ’90s, allegedly raised, trained, outfitted and commanded a brutal local militia that did their bidding – in a tale that “more closely resembled ‘Heart of Darkness’ than ‘Born Free.’”
Goldberg reports that the military-style operation, outfitted with guns, knives and other weapons supplied by Mark Owens, used ruthless tactics against anyone deemed a threat to the reserve they patrolled – including torture, kidnapping and murder.
In 1996, an ABC News crew filming the couple for the news-magazine show “Turning Point” caught a man – who may have been a poacher, though his identity was never confirmed – being shot to death while he lay on the ground. The shooter is not seen on camera. Goldberg’s reporting implicates Mark Owens in the killing, and suggests it might not be the only blood on the activist’s hands.
A representative for Delia Owens at her literary agency Scovil Galen Ghosh did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Messages sent to Hello Sunshine, Witherspoon’s production shingle, were not immediately returned Monday.A representative for Sony did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Atlantic piece also references a 2010 article that Goldberg wrote for The New Yorker about the Owens’ activities called “The Hunted.” In it, one of the ABC cameramen who filmed the killing – which ABC aired as part of its documentary, though it glossed over the details – said it was Owens who fired the fatal shots. Goldberg says a subsequent interview with a detective in charge of the investigation concluded that Owens, “with the help of his scouts, placed the victim’s body in a cargo net, attached it to his helicopter, and then dropped it into a nearby lagoon.”
The body was never found, and former Zambian national police commissioner Graphael Musamba told Goldberg that the investigation stalled with no body: “The bush is the perfect place to commit murder … The animals eat the evidence.”
A representative for Mark Owens, who lived most of his life in Africa and is no longer married to Delia, could not be located. He’s believed to be living in Idaho, where Goldberg said he had alienated his new neighbors by trying to aggressively educate them on bear conservation.
Like most countries, Zambia has no statute of limitations on murder charges; but it also has no extradition deal with the United States. Though neither of the Owens has been formally charged with a crime, Zambian authorities say both are wanted for questioning in not just the on-camera death, but the extent of their activities during their time in Africa.
While Zambian officials say they are most eager to speak with Mark Owens, as well as the couple’s son Chris – allegedly placed in charge of training and disciplining recruits – they “also believe that Delia Owens should be interrogated as a possible witness, co-conspirator, and accessory to felony crimes.”