LAWRENCE CO., Tenn. (WKRN) — A Lawrence County sheriff’s deputy is on administrative leave pending the results of an investigation. This comes after multiple bags of forensic evidence from a 2009 murder case was discovered in an unsecured outbuilding of a home he once owned.
The home is in Lawrence County, the same county where the murder took place.
That county is represented by District Attorney Brent Cooper of the 22nd Judicial District.
Cooper acknowledged his investigators are looking into the improperly stored evidence.
Cooper also told News 2’s Andy Cordan, evidence in a murder investigation must always be stored in a secured location, and it can only be disposed of by a court order. The DA said that’s rare in murder cases.
The evidence centers around the man found guilty of murder, 69-year-old Danny Owens.
Owens is currently in prison serving 20 years of a second degree murder charge.
The Lawrence County man was convicted of killing his wife, Vicki Owens, in February of 2009 in their home.
Danny Owens’ son, Greg Owens, told News 2, he stays in touch with his dad in prison.
“We talk about every other week. He’s doing good health wise.”
According to the 40-year-old, an acquaintance of his called him last week and told him that she made a surprising discovery in the outbuilding of the home she purchased a few months ago.
She told him this past Friday she found boxes and bags of evidence from the 2009 murder case involving his father.
The woman said she recently purchased the home from the lead investigator in that murder case.
Greg Owens said he collected the items and then contacted law enforcement.
“She called me and I went over there and got it. A DA investigator and a lawman showed up to pick it up. She found a box of evidence that had 25 pieces of sealed evidence,” Owens said.
Owens said most of the bags were sealed, but two bags were opened, and the evidence inside missing. Owens said the bags described the evidence as a ring and a cell phone.
Cooper said some of the evidence used in the trial is still in the Clerk’s office, and he suspects those two bags were empty because the ring and cell phone were presented as evidence in the trial.
Owens showed News 2 multiple pictures of the evidence containers. They were brown with chain of custody clearly shown. They also had the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department labeled on them and the victims’ name, Vicki Owens, on them.
One bag described its contents as a shirt, sweat pants, slippers and other personal effects taken from the victim.
One bag appeared sealed with bright yellow evidence tape at the top. The date listed on the bag is February 9, 2009.
Owens said, “My first thought is why is it out there? Was there something in there that proved his innocence that he was trying to hide? Was it a trophy? Was it for the money? Who knows. Was it personal? I don’t know.”
Cooper said his agency is vigorously investigating this violation of evidence storage.
The DA said none of the evidence from the Owens murder case appears to have been tampered with, and Cooper said it is unlikely that finding it in the outbuilding, regardless of how strange, will change the guilty verdict against Danny Owens.
Owens said the DA investigators were shocked when he delivered the bags of evidence to them.
“Yes, the DA investigator was pretty floored by it. It’s something you shouldn’t see.”
For Owens, questions remain unanswered. Why is murder evidence from his father’s case stored at the lead investigators unsecured home? Why is it subjected to extreme heat and cold possibly disintegrating evidence that he said might one day be used to exonerate his father?
Owens, a father of two, said the evidence bags bring back bad memories for his family.
“It does. It makes you think. Was there something to hide? Something could have been in there to prove his innocence and set him free, you know. We’d just like to get some answers.”
Lawrence County Sheriff John Myers was not the sheriff in 2009.
But told us the deputy involved in this case still works in his department.
He said they have also launched an internal investigation into the matter and until they get to the bottom of what happened, that deputy is on administrative leave.
Thursday, Sheriff Myers sent us this statement that reads in part:
“I can tell you that under this administration we have a very strict policy on the handling of evidence. Anytime evidence that is attached to a criminal offense is found outside of law-enforcement or court custody it is a concern. I am aware the DA’s office is looking into this matter and we are also looking at this internally.”