CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charges won’t be brought against members of a West Virginia task force who fatally shot a pallbearer at his father’s funeral after an investigation found the fugitive was reaching for a concealed weapon, a special prosecutor said Tuesday.
Grant County Prosecutor John Ours said in a telephone interview that he reviewed the State Police investigation into the shooting of Jason Arnie Owens and determined that “it was justified.” He found no probable cause to charge the officers.
The shooting happened as mourners gathered outside the funeral home in the Harrison County community of Nutter Fort on Aug. 24, 2022. Owens had helped to carry his father’s casket to a hearse, and then turned to embrace a relative, according to witnesses previously interviewed by The Associated Press.
Two officers with a fugitive warrant then sought to arrest Owens on a parole violation, calling his name and shooting him dead. Owens’ blood spattered his 18-year-old son’s shirt with blood as horrified loved ones looked on.
The State Police investigation determined Owens had a holster with a 9mm pistol under his shirt, refuting previous witness statements that Owens was unarmed. The two officers said Owens reached for his weapon, although some witnesses said otherwise, the report noted.
“The involved officers acted appropriately and were involved in no wrongdoing or criminal actions,” State Police Sgt. C.D. Whetzel, the lead investigator, said in the report.
Whetzel said he attended Owens’ autopsy at the state medical examiner’s office and observed the brown leather holster still fastened to Owens’ belt on his right side. There also were 9mm bullets in his pockets. Owens, 37, had several illegal drugs in his system, including methamphetamine, fentanyl and norfentanyl, and a bag containing methamphetamine was removed from his pocket, according to the report.
Bridgeport Police Detective Cameron Golden, who was a member of a local drug and violent crimes task force, said the owner of the funeral home confirmed that Owens had been inside the facility at his father’s service. Owens helped set the casket into the hearse and moved away when Golden said he and Harrison County Sheriff’s Sgt. Corey Heater announced themselves as police and told Owens not to move.
Golden said he grabbed Owens’ left hand and started to get his handcuffs when he heard Heater yell ”‘He’s reaching,’ and at that point Owens started to turn toward me. I saw his right hand pulling the right side of his shirt up from his hip, and I saw his right-hand wrap around the handle of a black pistol, which was concealed in his waistband, as he was pulling it.”
As Golden tried to step away, Heater shot Owens while Golden pulled his service weapon and fired as well.
“I firmly believe if Sgt. Heater had not been with me at that time to alert me, Owens would have pulled (the) pistol and killed me,” Golden said in the report.
State Police crime scene specialist Michael Kief said in an incident report that as the two officers tried to apprehend Owens, the “suspect moved toward a firearm located on his right side” before he was shot.
Other witnesses described what happened differently.
Witness Josh Owens, whose relation to Jason Owens wasn’t disclosed in the report, said in his statement to police that Owens “never made an attempt to flee, fight, or any sudden movements. On the right side of him, his shirt moved and you could see a gun. It was in a brown looking holster. His right hand never grabbed the gun. The gun never came out of the holster.”
And a statement from Owens’ son Justin said his father had a weapon in a holster but had placed his hands behind his back and was “giving up,” according to the report.
Owens, who was white, was released on parole in April 2021 after serving a sentence for fleeing a Harrison County sheriff’s deputy and trying to strangle him during a scuffle. Owens’ cousin, Mandy Swiger, said after the funeral home shooting that Owens committed a parole violation “for not checking in just once. And that’s why he promised his mom after the funeral he would turn himself in.”
But Whetzel wrote that Owens had made statements to others that he “would put up a fight to prevent his incarceration.” According to a warrant obtained by Whetzel to search Owens’ Facebook account, Owens had made threats toward others on social media. Whetzel said one such Facebook post indicated that Owens “would leave this world ‘covered in someone else’s blood.’”
And Brad Vincent, who worked with Owens at a meat market and was a pallbearer at the funeral, said in a statement to police a week after the shooting that Owens had been carrying firearms and had indicated he “wouldn’t be taken without a fight.”
As part of their initial response coordinated by the U.S. Marshals Service, some officers parked between the funeral home and Owens’ SUV to prevent Owens from getting to his vehicle, where a revolver and a rifle were later confiscated along with multiple rounds of ammunition and drug paraphernalia, the report said.
Among the items redacted from the report were a photograph and a sheriff’s deputy’s body-cam video showing Owens on the ground.