116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa freshmen who earlier this month sparked widespread outrage with his report of being assaulted during a racially-fueled attack will not be charged for making up the story so the community can begin to heal.
And Iowa City authorities said that is important because this community has real social justice issues needing attention.
Like in communities and on college campuses nationally, Iowa City and university leaders have been working to address concerns around race relations and tensions, and Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness on Tuesday said she worries Marcus Owens' false report of a hate crime might set back those efforts.
'I fear it will,' Lyness said. 'I do think people make racist comments in Iowa City and elsewhere, and I fear people don't report it.'
Owens, 19, could have faced a false-report charge — not to mention underage drinking and disorderly conduct charges, but Lyness said filing charges would have kept the community from learning the truth until much later.
'We felt it was more important at this time to make sure the community had the information about what was going on,' Lyness said. 'We felt also that getting an apology from Marcus and his family — so that people are clear on what happened and what did not happen — was really more important.'
What happened involved Owens — fueled by alcohol — engaging in or instigating three separate fights early May 1.
Owens' original story — the one he and his family shared with numerous news outlets across Chicago and the Iowa City area — is what did not happen, according to Iowa City police.
Owens did not get to Eden Lounge and Nightclub in downtown Iowa City at 9 p.m. He did not step outside to make a phone call between 10 and 11 p.m. He was not jumped by three white men shouting racial slurs. And he did not promptly return to his dorm room, according to police.
Instead, security camera footage — along with witness reports — show Owens entering Eden at 11:43 p.m. and then getting involved in a larger bar melee about 1:35 a.m. Bar staff removed Owens, who then tried to re-enter, according to the video recording.
A short time later, at 1:41 a.m., Owens got involved in a fight at the corner of Iowa Avenue and Linn Street before throwing punches in a third fight just three minutes later. All the footage show Owens acting aggressively, shoving and pushing and yelling.
'We very quickly learned through video evidence that the events as reported by Marcus just did not happen,' said Iowa City police Capt. Troy Kelsay. 'Marcus was not even present yet at the bar at the time he reported he was assaulted.'
Investigators said they do believe someone used a racial slur during one of the fights, possibly fueling the violence but not qualifying the incident as a hate crime.
And Owens' attorney Leon Spies said he doesn't think 'fabrication' is a fair characterization of Owens' report.
'When alcohol and youth and excited emotions mix ... recollections are vague, and embarrassment comes into play,' Spies said. 'I think that, as with any complicated situation involving darkness, alcohol, and youth, as Oscar Wilde said, 'The truth is rarely pure and never simple.''
'Marcus was not the victim'
But Iowa City police said Owens story quickly crumbled thanks to help from bar staff and 'numerous' witnesses who were with Owens that night and were concerned about the way he reported the events.
'Marcus was not the victim of an assault,' Kelsay said. 'Marcus was an active participant, and even an instigator, in three separate physical confrontations or assaults that occurred at bar close.'
He suffered injuries during at least one of those, 'which is unfortunate,' Kelsay said. 'But when you go looking for multiple fights, that is going to happen.'
Owens promptly hired Spies after reporting the alleged hate crime to Iowa City police, and investigators recently presented their findings — those revealing Owens was not attacked — to the family via Spies. The family responded with an apology letter, although investigators said they have not heard directly from Owens or any of his family members since their initial report.
'Marcus Owens and the entire Owens family would like to issue their deepest apologize to Marcus' friends, the Iowa City community, the University of Iowa, and the Iowa City Police Department for the misunderstandings and anxiety stemming from Marcus' involvement in a violent incident in downtown Iowa City on May 1,' according to the family's letter.
They reaffirmed that racist slurs were used during the attack, fueling the violence, but said 'Marcus now knows that his account of events was inconsistent with police findings, in part due to alcohol being involved.'
Owens' uncle, Darrell Owens, who spoke with The Gazette after the incident and offered details about what happened couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.
On the morning of the incident, Owens was treated at the UI Hospitals and Clinics for injuries to his eye, lip, and teeth, and officers reported Owens' blood-alcohol level at that time was .116. That means it likely had been around .175 at the time of the incident downtown — more than twice the legal limit, according to Kelsay.
Later that day, some of the men who had fought with Owens hours earlier came to his dorm room to discuss their differences, according to police.
'They wanted to talk to him about the altercation and just kind of put an end to the fighting between these two,' Kelsay said.
The next night, Owens went to the UI Department of Public Safety and then to Iowa City police to report the hate crime. And the following day, Owens reached out to Chicago media and then spoke with Iowa City reporters about the attack.
His allegations fueled outrage and prompted accusations that UI administrators and law enforcement fell short in notifying and protecting the campus community. Dozens of people took to social media demanding action with the hashtag, #ExplainIowa. Students sat in silent protest and more men and women came forward with stories about racist experiences on or near campus.
'I hope that he learned a lesson'
In a statement from the office of UI President Bruce Harreld on Tuesday, signed by 10 administrators including Provost Barry Butler and interim UI public safety director Lucy Wiederholt, the campus affirmed its commitment to ensuring students, faculty, and staff feel safe and supported.
'That requires relationships built on trust and respect,' according to the statement. 'Regardless of the outcome, this incident highlighted a level of fear and distrust on our campus that must and will be addressed.'
Administrators through the statement vowed to work with student leaders over the summer to 'prioritize actions we can take to improve our campus climate for everyone.' They said the incident also made the university aware of opportunities to improve protocol when students report off-campus incidents to the Department of Public Safety.
Owens said UI police turned him away when he went to report the hate crime and sent him to Iowa City authorities without asking questions, including whether he was a student and when he was attacked — information that might have prompted a campuswide warning.
Even though the report turned out to be false, administrators said in the statement they are using the opportunity to find ways to better serve students — including launching a 'Bias Assessment and Response Team' in the fall.
'The report of a racially motivated attack and subsequent investigation has been difficult for our University of Iowa community,' according to the statement. 'We will continue to reach out to everyone involved, including Marcus, in order to provide support and assistance.'
Following the attack, UI administrators offered academic accommodations to Owens, as his report came just before finals, and Lyness on Tuesday said she believes he accepted.
UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said Owens could face university sanctions as the Student Conduct office is investigating to determine if he violated the Code of Student Life. But, she said, any outcomes from that investigation will be kept private.
Spies said Owens is planning to return to the university in the fall to resume his pursuit of a UI degree.
Johnson County and Iowa City authorities said they could have sought restitution through a civil action against Owens — as they spent extensive resources and time digging into his allegations and pulled people away from other pressing investigations. But, again, a civil prosecution would have prevented the truth from coming out immediately, Capt. Kelsay said.
'So, no, we are not going to be counting pennies or going back to get restitution,' he said.
When asked about how Owens' false report might affect the larger national conversation about race relations and tensions, Iowa City authorities said they hope it doesn't detract from legitimate concerns and real acts of racism that do exist and occur in this community.
And Kelsay said they hope it doesn't keep people from coming forward to make reports — something detectives saw in this case when several witnesses expressed concern about sharing their accounts.
'You have people who knew the truth and were there and might have even been a participant in one or more of the scuffles, but you have the media and the community saying how they want to lock up anybody that was involved in this,' Kelsay said. 'Some people lawyered up, at least initially.'
Those witnesses wanted to be heard, Kelsay said.
'At the same time, the first liar is the one that's believed,' he said. 'Marcus, in this case.'
Kelsay said he doesn't know what led Owens to stick with his hate-crime report.
'There were many things that probably played into why Marcus came up with this story and maybe eventually felt painted into a corner on this,' Kelsay said. 'I hope that he learned a lesson from it, but it was more important to get the truth out to the community.'