A Murdered Father, A Convicted Mother, and a Broken Son
By Randy Rudder
The 700 Club
CBN.com -February 17, 1985 is a day Stephen Owens has relived in his mind for 30 years.
“It was a Sunday. We had been at church,” he recalls. “We got home and pulled in, and my dad’s car door was open. And when I walked into the den, my dad was lying on the floor. When I saw him, there was blood that I remember, but he was alive at that point.” Stephen adds, “I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I just knew that he was in bad shape. And I was scared. I had no idea what had caused any of it.”
But Stephen would soon find out. His father, Ron Owens died in a hospital early the next morning. Five days later, Stephen’s mother, Gaile Owens, was arrested for her part in his murder.
“I got very angry quickly,” Stephen says. “Very angry, very resentful. I had a lot of questions, but I also realized a lot of those questions, I might never get the answer to.”
The Owens family always appeared to be the perfect, Christian family. But after the murder, a different picture emerged. Gaile accused her husband of infidelity and abuse - things Stephen never saw. “I did not recognize any of that. My parents were very protective of us, as most parents would be, and so I would expect that would be stuff they would have not wanted us to witness,” Stephen says.
Stephen and his brother Bryan moved in with an aunt, and waited for the trial.
“It was a year almost, before the trial came up, and so a lot more anger and bitterness resentment and had built up,” he says.
Stephen was stunned to discover that his mother had paid a man named Sidney Porterfield to kill her husband. During her trial, Stephen was called to the witness stand. “I went into the courtroom that day and had made up my mind that I was not going to look at her,” Stephen says.
Gaile and Porterfield were found guilty, and Gaile was sentenced to the electric chair. “You become numb to a lot of things.” Stephen says. “And we, as a family, had taken the stance that we would not get involved with any other court proceedings.”
Lawyers tried to appeal his mother’s death sentence several times over the years. Meanwhile, Stephen missed not having his parents in his life.
“They’re not present for things, for birthdays, or weddings or whatever--and your parents should be there. All of that continued to feed the resentment and the anger.”
Gayle tried to contact her sons from prison. “I had no desire to talk to her,” says Stephen. “She would send cards to me, and I did get them, but eventually I just didn’t read them.”
He grew up, graduated college, and married Lisa. The couple had two sons and moved to Nashville to start a new life. There, Stephen got a teaching job and tried to put the past behind him. Meanwhile, years of appeals dragged on while Gaile sat on death row. “We did not communicate for over twenty years,” Stephen says. “I had to do what I needed to do to continue to try to move forward in my life.”
One day, after sharing the story of his father’s murder at school, a fellow faculty member approached him. “He said, ‘Are you Stephen Owens?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, I am.” He said, ‘Well your mother has attended my Bible study groups at the prison for several years.”
Stephen could not believe what he was hearing. “How do you move 200 miles away from where everything happened, after all these years, and you end up at a school--you give your testimony, and a guy who has got a connection with your mom is co-teaching with you at that school? That was one of the first things where I knew God was at work.”
Stephen’s colleague encouraged him to restore the relationship with his mother.
“He would constantly say, ‘Have you ever thought about going to see her? She is your mother. She would like to see you. I know. She’s told me,’” Stephen recalls. “And it dawned on me one day that I’m teaching forgiveness in my home, and telling my kids, ‘Here’s how we should live.’ But if they had asked me if I had forgiven my mom, I would have to say, ‘no.’”
A year later, Stephen was listening to music while jogging, when the song, “My Redeemer Lives” by Nicole Mullen came on. He finally broke.
“I remember when the music came on, and the next thing I knew, I was just standing in my driveway. I really experienced God speaking to me, and telling me, ‘I’ve got you where you need to be. Now you know what you need to do.’ And I knew that I needed to go see her.”
Stephen made an appointment to see his mother on a Sunday afternoon in 2009.
“My family and I went to church that morning, as normal,” Stephen says. “I remember that church service being one of the most emotional church services I’ve ever encountered in my life. It was almost like every song that was sung, every word that was spoken in church that day, was directed right at me.”
His visit to the prison was an answered prayer for his mother. “My prayer for years was, ‘Lord, let me see my children. Let me see my sister.’ And then after years went by, I had one prayer and it was ‘Lord if I can just see Stephen one time. That’s all I ask for,’ Gaile Owens says. “So when he came to the prison to visit, I walked away from that visit, saying, ‘Lord you answered the prayer.”
“The last five minutes of the visit, mom looked at me and she said, ‘Stephen I can’t change what I’ve done. All I can ask is that you forgive me.’ And I knew that was the door that God had opened for me to tell her what I had come there that day to tell her: that she had been forgiven.”
Stephen visited his mother every week. During that time, she shared with him about her encounter with Christ in prison and how she had repented. “The one thing that I came to learn was that, there is a difference in going to church and a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ,” Gaile says. “I remember one day, I cried for eight hours. It was a whole day. I felt like I was dehydrated by the time it was over. The tears were from the very pit of my stomach and my heart, and all that had happened, and the choices I had made. And I thought, ‘Could God really forgive me?’ And ‘Was anyone ever going to love me again?’ And I got up from there and I said, ‘God, only with you can I do this.’”
Gaile’s execution day was finally set in 2010. She had 72 days to live. Then, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen called a press conference and made a stunning announcement. Gaile’s attorney called Stephen with the news.
One of the attorneys just said, ‘He has granted life with parole, and he has given her a thousand extra days toward that,” Stephen says. “I was just blown away. It’s one thing to get a phone call like that and hear that your mom is not going to be put to death. It’s another thing when you get a phone call like that and you realize that there might be hope that she might walk out one day.”
That hope became reality less than two years later when Gaile walked out of prison in September 2011. Gaile now works for a company called Thistle Farms that helps rehabilitate former prisoners. Stephen and Gaile have restored their relationship, and Gaile is hopeful that others will be mended one day as well.
“It’s a day-to-day journey to re-establish that relationship, but it’s well worth every tear you shed; it’s well worth every laugh that you have; and it’s well worth it every time you look into the eyes of your grandsons.” Gaile proclaims. “And we serve a God who made it all come together.”
Stephen and Gaile share their story of love, forgiveness, and redemption in their recently published book, Set Free.
“There’s freedom in knowing Christ and in knowing that you are forgiven, and you are redeemed,” Gaile says, “and such grace and mercy was given to me. I desire that for everybody, for the whole world. Forgiveness is not forgetting. None of my family will ever forget the loss, and the things that happened, but in Him, we do have freedom, and we can walk free.”
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