Lavish life made elderly Cedar Rapids homicide victim vulnerable
Gazette investigation uncovers factors that may have led to man's death
Editor's note: The Gazette agreed not to identify some sources in this story, because those sources are afraid of retribution.
CEDAR RAPIDS -- The more M. John Owen talked about how wealthy he was, the more vulnerable he became.
Wrinkled, balding and connected to an oxygen machine at all times, the 90-year-old appeared his age. Not a shy man, Owen often bragged about his finances. He was known to wear tens of thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry on his hands and even boasted of spending $4,000 on the oxygen machine that kept him alive.
The only thing Owen talked about as much as his money was women, according to multiple sources. Court records and interviews indicate Owen had relationships with at least six women between the ages of 18 and 23 in the months leading up to his death.
On the morning of Jan. 18, Cedar Rapids police officers found Owen’s front door standing open and his body on the kitchen floor. He had been beaten to death.
Now police are trying to determine why someone would want him dead.
Bells and whistles
Owen spent much of his adult life on a farm in rural Keota. He raised hogs, collected antiques and spent thousands of dollars on jewelry from shopping channels.
His third wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1956, liked to collect buttons. She had inherited the 440-acre farm from family. Together, they became wealthy by renting the land and from a few investments, including a house in Yuma, Ariz., that tripled in value after they bought it in 1978.
Cash went to all sorts of things, including the purchase of a 40-foot Holiday Rambler motor home. During a 2010 deposition regarding his wife’s estate, Owen told a lawyer: “It’s got all the bells and whistles, or I wouldn’t have bought it.”
Owen was mostly attracted to jewelry, though. He claimed in the deposition to have bought more than $90,000 in “investment stones” during one year in the early 1990s. Diamonds and tanzanite were his favorites. Nothing was considered too extravagant.
“After I was operated on, I lost one 3-carat (diamond),” Owen said in the deposition. “It just fell off my hands somewhere. There went $40,000.”
The couple’s relationship grew strained over time, family members said. Owen admitted to keeping between $10,000 and $20,000 in cash in the motor home, which irritated Ruth, court documents show.
After 52 years of marriage, Owen filed for divorce in May 2009 while Ruth was in a nursing home. She died about six months later, before the divorce was finalized.
An estate battle followed. The court ruled that before Ruth’s death, Owen withdrew at least $150,000 from joint accounts without Ruth’s knowledge and deposited the money into an account that only he and his son could access.
Sharon Hahn, Ruth’s daughter from a previous marriage, said Owen always liked to live on the edge. Her mother had a way of controlling him.
“She didn’t let him get into the messes he’s in now,” Hahn said.
From an apartment in Washington, Iowa, and later from a quarter-million-dollar house in Cedar Rapids, the lavish lifestyle that Owen led continued for three more years after his wife’s death.
He frequented strip clubs, flashed his diamonds and spent large amounts of cash. He once told a relative of his late wife that he had come into the world with nothing and would leave the world in the same fashion.
Three young women told The Gazette how Owen drew them into his life, offering to pay them to clean his house and drive him where he needed to go. The cash continued to flow as the relationships grew.
Owen spent thousands of dollars to pay for housing, phones, clothes and tattoos for young women, and according to one of them, he knew some of his money was being used to buy drugs. He referred to the girls as his “chickies.”
In time, Owen would hint that he expected more in return.
“He wanted her to come over to clean the house, take him to the doctor or whatever,” said Wanda Ciha of Cedar Rapids, referring to her 18-year-old daughter, “but then he started asking her for ‘the woman.’ That’s what he called the private area – ‘the woman.’ ”
Katie Pencil, 23, of Cedar Rapids, said she met Owen through a stripper at Woody’s Show Club in Cedar Rapids. She and two other women, both 18, admitted to The Gazette they slept in the same bed with Owen on multiple occasions, but they all denied any sexual involvement.
“He just kept giving us money, so we stayed,” Pencil said. “He started asking for sexual favors, and we were not into that.”
Brittany Creamer, 18, of Cedar Rapids, said Owen paid for the braces on her teeth and offered to pay for breast enhancement surgery.
“I would drive him around, and he’d try to touch you,” Creamer said.
In addition to the money, Owen occasionally tried to give the young women advice. In one conversation, he tried to convince a stripper that she needed to have comprehensive car insurance. He told her she should never need to use credit, and while watching a shopping channel, he told her which jewelry was the best.
“I didn’t really care about jewelry,” she said, “but I just pretended, gave him the company.”
Several of the young women who knew Owen said he turned on them if they tried to cut off communication or didn’t do what he wanted.
In a bizarre sequence last year, he accused Pencil of stealing more than $17,000 from him by forging 23 of his checks. Then, Pencil said, he spent $5,000 to retain an attorney for her defense.
Forgery charges were filed in Washington County against Pencil and Kierra Rowe, 20. In court documents, Owen accused Creamer of forging $14,150 in checks, but formal charges were never filed because she had been hospitalized after a serious car accident, officials said.
Washington County Attorney Larry Brock said all the charges were dismissed in the days after Owen’s death, because without his testimony, there was no way to prove he didn’t authorize the purchases.
Owen referred to the girls as his cleaning ladies during interviews with police. Brock said an investigator asked Owen directly if the money was connected to any illicit services.
“He swore to the officer that it was not, that they were forged checks and that he never authorized them,” Brock said.
Owen moved to 107 Gas Light Ct. SW in Cedar Rapids in November, using cash to buy the $250,000 house on a quiet cul-de-sac across the street from Kirkwood Community College. He became a regular at Woody’s Show Club and was known there by name, multiple sources said.
Police made seven visits to Owen’s house in the nine weeks between the day he moved in and the day he died, mostly for reports of burglary and theft. Jewelry, cash and a television were reported stolen, according to police reports. No arrests were ever made.
Owen told an 18-year-old girl he bought the house for them to live in together. She was living there when Owen agreed to let Pencil, another woman and her young daughter move into his basement for $400 a month.
Pencil said they moved in their possessions but only stayed a day because of a spat between her and the 18-year-old who was already there.
Hahn, who represented her mother in the estate battle with Owen, said he put himself in a vulnerable position with his behavior.
“He liked to brag a little too much,” Hahn said. “If you’re ever at the wrong places, brag about how much you have and flaunt your diamonds around, that would be bad. Some of us have enough common sense not to do that.”
One of the young women Owen met told The Gazette that she and her 2-year-old niece were at Owen’s house the night before he was found dead. She said they were eating Chinese food when Owen got a call from a young man he knew.
According to the 18-year-old woman, the young man told Owen he had the stolen jewelry. She said Owen had arranged to pay the young man to get the jewelry back. The woman said the caller told Owen he was coming over to the house and to be home alone.
“We didn’t even get to finish eating our meal,” the woman said. “He told us to go, and then I didn’t hear nothing from him.”
The woman returned to the house the next morning and found a crime scene.
Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said investigators believe Owen knew whoever is responsible for his death. Two women questioned in the case said police are aware of Owen’s connections to several young women.
Jerman said he has no knowledge that Owen was ever involved in any illegal activity in Cedar Rapids. He declined to answer specific questions about the case but alluded to its depth.
“All cases are unique, and they need to be treated that way,” Jerman said. “This case has some uniqueness to it.”