Anyone who looked at Gaile Owens, 32, in passing would have thought they were seeing the picture of suburban contentment. She was an adoring wife, a doting mother. She was a God-fearing member of the choir at Abundant Life Church in Memphis, which she attended each Sunday morning and evening (and on Wednesday nights). She had two fine-looking, well-adjusted boys, ages 12 and 8. She had a handsome husband, Ron Owens, the respected — even beloved — associate director of nursing at a local hospital. It was almost abnormal, how normal her life appeared.
It was 1985, and the family shared a two-story woodframe house with shutters flanking gabled windows. It sat on a quiet street lined with massive oaks in the conservative, mostly white Memphis suburb of Bartlett, Tenn. — the kind of place where people picket the 7-11 store because it carries Playboy. A colleague of Ron’s said they were almost anachronistic in their white-bread perfection, a sort of contemporary Cleaver family.
Yet the picture-book house — and within it, the family that occasionally wore matching polo shirts and looked as though they had been clipped out of a Christian Living magazine — was anything but a dream.
Gaile, the devout churchgoer, was a convicted embezzler who couldn’t stop herself. She’d been convicted of 35 counts of forgery for stealing thousands of dollars from a local doctor’s office, where she worked as a receptionist. It wasn’t the first time Gaile stole from employers. Nor would it be the last.
But she wasn’t the only one whose behavior undercut the flawless façade. Ron, as it turned out, had a mistress — a woman he affectionately referred to as “Lollipop.” What’s more, his respectable resume, including his supposed exploits in Vietnam, was riddled with lies. That was merely the preamble, though, to what Gaile would later claim was an abusive secret existence hidden away behind the pretty house’s firmly closed doors.
The couple’s sex life, she maintained, was a nightmare of “perversions” and painful “sexual humiliations” that began on their wedding night. And it didn’t end until 13 years later, on the night of Feb. 17, 1985 — when Ron Owens was found with his skull crushed on the living-room floor of that perfect home.
The bludgeoning, police and prosecutors would learn, had been perpetrated by a hitman. The person who put out the hit was Gaile Owens.
Ron’s was only the second murder the otherwise serene suburban enclave had seen in 80 years. It was a matter of days before someone stepped forward, one of several men claiming Gaile had solicited them to kill her husband.
What would make a churchgoing mother of two drive repeatedly to one of Memphis’ roughest districts, offering a rotating cast of thieves, drunks and criminals money to murder the father of her children? Gaile Owens knew — but she never took the stand in the trial that ensued. She told her attorneys she never wanted her two sons to hear what took place behind her closed bedroom doors. Instead, she sat in silence as the prosecution painted her as a cold-blooded murderess hungry for her husband’s multiple life-insurance policies.
The jury, therefore, never heard about Ron’s affair. Worse, they never learned that the “bad marriage” she mentioned to one hitman may in fact have been a litany of grotesque abuses. Without those possibly mitigating factors, the jury was untroubled. Following a short deliberation, they pronounced Gaile guilty and sentenced her to death — a first in Tennessee history. She has been on death row now for 25 years. Just this week, the state set her execution date: Sept. 28, 2010.