Closure at last
Scrolling through Butte County’s list of missing persons, it’s impossible not to imagine the lives that could have been and the lack of closure friends and family must feel not knowing what became of their loved one. Surely, some of the stories have unexpectedly happy endings, such as that of Chicoan Dena Ardell Russell, who was reported missing in 1976 but found alive and well in another state just last year.
The story of Deborah Diane Owens didn’t end so well. After 36 years, thanks to vigilant police work, willing witnesses and a confession, we finally know what happened.
Deborah was a petite, blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty who lived in Oroville with her husband, Marvin Owens, and their two daughters, Lois and Kathea. Marvin, an engineer and Navy veteran, reported her missing on Nov. 19, 1978. He told deputies that she’d recently been depressed. She’d also been smoking pot, he said, and he’d heard she might have left town with a “dope pusher” named Terry. The only things she took with her, Marvin said, were her purse and roller skates. Deborah was never seen or heard from again.
Years later, in 1987, Butte County Sheriff’s Office deputies received an anonymous call suggesting that Marvin may have buried Deborah’s body underneath his deck. A subsequent search revealed no body, but new interviews were conducted. Friends and family recounted the Owenses’ rocky marriage, Marvin’s jealousy and penchant for violence. His second wife, Cathy, with whom he had another child, told stories of guns put to her head, being slammed into walls and death threats.
About two years later, after Cathy left Marvin, he was admitted into the psychiatric ward of the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in San Francisco. He was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and a history of polysubstance abuse.
It was around this time deputies deemed Deborah’s disappearance a homicide. Marvin’s brother had reported that he’d apparently made statements to their other brother to the effect of, “If [Cathy] doesn’t straighten up, I’ll put her in the ground like I did Debbie.”
But there was still no evidence, and for the next couple of decades, Kathea and Lois continued to believe their mother had abandoned them. In the mid-1990s, Lois contacted the BCSO about her mother. She said their father had told her that Deborah couldn’t handle the two girls, who were very young at the time, and that she’d run off with another man. Kathea told deputies of a recurring dream in which she and her father were riding in a station wagon with her mother’s body wrapped in the back.
It was early in 2013 when Lois called BCSO once again, this time to report that her father had confessed to her that he’d strangled her mother. He still denied it to law enforcement, but two years later deputies got a warrant for his arrest and he was taken into custody in Nebraska, then brought to Butte County.
Upon his arrest, Marvin finally confessed in writing. He says he was extremely involved in the Pentecostal church in 1978 but that his wife had lost her faith and was smoking pot and hanging around young men. On this particular November day, he’d seen her flirt with an ex-lover. Back at home, “I attempted asking her to return to church and help save our marriage but she responded negatively,” he writes. “I snapped mentally and choked her with one hand against a wall …”
The strangulation didn’t kill Deborah, however, and he attempted to revive her by placing her in a bathtub with cold water. The phone rang in the midst of filling the tub. He stopped the water, and when he returned, she was drowning. “I froze, failing to react and allowed Debbie to die.”
Marvin said he buried her body in a wildlife area off of Pacific Heights Road, but deputies have been unable to find it. He pleaded guilty in court and last week was sentenced to four years in prison, the maximum penalty for voluntary manslaughter in 1978. The maximum sentence now for the same crime is 11 years.
“In some sense, the real crime is the big lie that’s gone on for 36 years for those children,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who’s been involved in the case for his 27 years in office, alongside former Sheriff Perry Reniff.