After three decades, a death warrant may be near
for Palm Beach County’s most notorious killer.
We look back at the case that still haunts our memories.
Why we chose to do this story | Duane Owen: Debate over his fate
By Randy Schultz
She last spoke with her mother at 10 that Saturday night. The sisters she was babysitting, ages 7 and 2, were asleep. She told her mother that no one else was in the house. Karen Slattery knew that no visitors were allowed when she babysat.
But there was someone else in the white house on that Delray Beach cul-de-sac. Harbor Drive offered lots of foliage for cover, especially late on that March evening 31 years ago when dark of the moon was approaching. He had been in the house earlier and left, unnoticed, waiting until the children went to sleep.
To pass the time, he had pedaled his bicycle south to a bar on A1A called The Gipper. He drank some beer and smoked some marijuana. Still, he had made sure to assess the house that first time and, in his way, to assess the 14-year-old freshman at Pope John Paul High School.
After he came back, he struck — perhaps as Karen Slattery was hanging up the phone.
Shortly after midnight, the parents came home to find their floors covered with blood. As March 24 became March 25, Delray Beach started to learn that evil could cross the Intracoastal Waterway.
This portrait of Karen Slattery, who was murdered in coastal Delray Beach at age 14, hangs at the Karen Slattery Education Research Center for Child Development at Florida Atlantic University.
It was the worst crime scene Rick Lincoln would see in his 37 years as a cop.
Karen Slattery had been stabbed 18 times — in her back, neck and throat. After attacking her in the kitchen, the killer dragged her to the master bedroom, where he raped her. Karen’s green blouse had been pulled over her face.
It has long been believed that the sisters slept through the whole thing, even though the killer went into their room to make sure they had not awakened. Lincoln, though, said recently in an interview that the younger sister talked about the “bad Indian with blood on his mouth.” Pause. “That was really creepy.”
Lincoln, then a lieutenant, was running the Slattery investigation for the Delray Beach Police Department. He was at the house until nearly 4 a.m., after which he went to Karen’s home in the Lake Ida neighborhood to speak with Carolyn and Eugene Slattery — “a strong and insistent guy.” The parents, Lincoln said, “were trying to process” what had happened.
So was the community. Delray Beach police would investigate just six murders that year, and certainly none like this one. The violation of Karen Slattery became a violation of Delray Beach, especially the coastal neighborhoods. Fourteen priests presided at the funeral at St. Vincent Ferrer, just blocks from the crime scene. Karen was buried with a rosary in her hands. The coffin contained a teddy bear.
For weeks, investigators chased leads from Miami to Ohio. They interviewed neighbors. They interviewed Slattery’s supposed boyfriends. They interviewed fathers who had seen suspicious people following their daughters. They checked reports of creepy-looking men on bicycles. They checked out towels and bloodstained pants. They checked out similar cases. They checked out a guy who had stolen a tire in Gulf Stream. They questioned a Pope John Paul student who had scratches on his arms and had carved the initials “TNO,” for “Trust No One.” They checked out peepers. They checked out a carrier for The Palm Beach Post and Evening Times. They checked out a parolee who was acting suspicious. They checked out blood trails. They checked out footprint impressions. They checked out Christopher Wilder, who in March and April of 1984 killed eight women on a nationwide spree that began in South Florida. Wilder had been in Oklahoma City on March 24.
After nearly two months, the investigators had spent untold hours, and they had nothing. On May 18, Sgt. Ross Licata wrote: “At this time the case remains active pending further leads. END OF REPORT.”
The murder of Karen Slattery dominated local headlines for months in 1984
Georgianna Worden’s two daughters, ages 13 and 9, often slept in the same room because the younger one was scared to sleep alone.
They did so on May 28, 1984, after watching a TV movie that ended at 11 p.m. They lived on Northwest 35th Street in the Boca Raton Hills neighborhood south of Spanish River Boulevard. Then, as now, it was a place of small, moderate-income homes.
Their mother was still up when the girls went to bed. Thirty-eight-year-old Georgianna Worden was an instructor at the College of Boca Raton — now Lynn University. Like Karen Slattery, Georgianna Worden was small, weighing barely 100 pounds. Her husband had run off eight years earlier. The girls remembered their mother dating several men, none of them seriously.
When the girls awoke on May 29, they found their mother’s door locked. That wasn’t unusual. It was unusual, though, that the bedroom window’s glass was broken.
As they had done before, the girls used a tool to pop the lock on the bedroom door. This time, the monster had come for their mother. The girls called a neighbor. His wife carpooled with their daughters and Georgianna Worden’s daughters. It had been Georgianna’s day to drive.
The medical examiner listed the cause of death for Georgianna Worden — the only homicide in Boca Raton that year — as “craniocerebral injury.” The monster had not stabbed her, as he had stabbed Karen Slattery. He had beaten her head with a hammer. Over and over.
Among other things, according to the medical examiner’s report, Georgianna Worden suffered:
“Multiple depressed fractures of skull involving left orbit, frontal area, and right temporal area.”
She also had been raped, her body left naked and spread-eagled, head covered, face-up on the bed. She had been choked so hard that her neck was broken. The murder weapon was not a knife, but the common facts — female, head covered, sexually assaulted, entry through a window — got the Delray Beach and Boca Raton police departments thinking together.
They began talking just hours after Georgianna Worden was killed. Delray Beach investigators reviewed the crime scene. The two departments didn’t just have combined resources. They had something else.
At the home in Delray Beach, the killer of Karen Slattery had left only footprints. At the Worden house, the killer had left a print from his left little finger, on a paperback copy of the book Mistral’s Daughter. It would take seven days of processing to get the image, but get the image they did.
As the forensic work for the murders went on, investigators in Boca Raton were continuing to focus on a sex offender whom they suspected had been flashing female students at Florida Atlantic University. The week before Worden was murdered, a sketch artist had worked from a description one of the women gave. Afterward, police checked their mug book.
They found a burglary suspect who matched the sketch. The suspect had failed to appear in court, which meant that there was an open warrant. After the murder, which occurred not far from FAU, Boca Raton Police Sgt. Kevin McCoy circulated the suspect’s photo to all officers and issued a bulletin.
On May 30, Officer Kathleen Petracco — the wife of Police Chief Peter Petracco — spotted him walking on Country Club Boulevard, in the north end of the city, wearing jeans, a gray shirt and a painter’s cap. She stopped him, and asked for his name. He showed a military ID with a false name, for which Petracco arrested him.
Call it luck. Call it preparation meeting opportunity. The police still weren’t sure whom they were dealing with. At 12:35 p.m., however, the monster breathed as a free man for the last time.
Duane Eugene Owen was born on Feb. 13, 1961, and grew up in Gas City, Indiana, a town of about 5,000 between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. That is heartland America, but court documents show that the childhoods of Duane Owen and his brother, Mitchell, contained no Norman Rockwell moments.
In one of Duane Owen’s many appeals, his lawyer referenced a neighbor of the Owen family during the late 1960s and early 1970s in Gas City. According to court documents, Kenneth Richards “testified that the Owen household was the only family in the neighborhood to have their beer delivered by beer truck. Duane Owen’s parents were alcoholics. He testified that Duane and his brother Mitch were left in the Owen home to fend for themselves, and at other times they ran wild. He testified about physical abuse in the Owen household, including beatings of the Owen children at the hands of Duane’s father, Gene Owen.
“Easily accessible to the Owen children was beer, vodka, and whiskey. Mr. Richards recounted that when he and Duane were only about 9 years of age, Mrs. Owen herself would supply them with ‘pea pickers.’ A ‘pea picker’ is a drink containing vodka and Sprite.”
After their mother died and their father committed suicide, Duane Owen and his brother were sent to the VFW orphanage in Eaton Rapids, Mich., which is about the same size as Gas City and is near the state capital of Lansing. Owen would use the name Dana Brown as an alias to enlist in the Army. Dana Brown was another boy at the orphanage.
After leaving the orphanage in 1979 when he turned 18, Duane Owen pinballed from the Eaton County Jail to Lansing Community College to Dillon, Colo., to Las Vegas to Panama City, Fla., and finally, in February 1982, to Delray Beach, where his brother was living.
Soon after arriving, Owen was arrested for indecent exposure. He got to know Marc Woods, then a Delray Beach police officer and now the city’s director of code enforcement, after Woods arrested him. That relationship would come back into play two years later.
In July 1982, Owen was arrested for two burglaries in Delray Beach. In December, he was arrested at what then was University Bowl and Recreation Center on North Dixie Highway in Boca Raton. Owen had crawled into the ceiling above the women’s bathroom because he “wanted to watch girls.”
The sexual nature of Owen’s crimes would become profound. In an interview, Woods said he recommended that Owen receive “counseling for deviance” after that first arrest because of what he saw in the young offender. Owen stole pictures of women. He stole women’s underwear. “That was the trail he was headed down,” Woods said. “It was a clear escalation.” Woods doesn’t know if Owen got that counseling.
Either way, then he was gone — back to Michigan but still in trouble with the law. This time, it was a substance abuse charge in Mason, not far from Lansing.
While incarcerated, Owen participated in a drug treatment program. On Nov. 17, 1983, Owen got this evaluation from Mason Correctional Assessment and Treatment Services: “client … seems well on his way to stable employment. Progress good at this time as client followed up on positive plans for employment & strive for independence.” Owen was released.
Slattery murder investigation files are housed at the Delray Beach Police Department. Randy Schultz/The Coastal Star
Though the Delray Beach and Boca Raton cops now had Owen in custody, they didn’t have him for the crimes that mattered most — the murders of Karen Slattery and Georgianna Worden.
Work on the fingerprint and shoe prints was progressing, but the investigators wanted confessions. The Delray Beach investigators especially needed one. As Lincoln acknowledged, they had lots of circumstantial evidence in the Slattery case, but they didn’t have any physical evidence.
Also, Owen had tried to create an alibi by moving the clock back at his apartment after biking back from the Harbor Drive home, then waking up his brother and their roommate, so they would notice the time.
Over four interrogation sessions in early June 1984, Owen confessed to many burglaries and batteries. Two were especially serious.
On Nov. 1, 1982, Owen broke into a room at the Peter Pan Motel on North Federal Highway in Boca Raton. He clubbed a woman so hard that a portion of her skull broke off and was touching her brain. Owen raped her, then called Boca Raton police to report the crime.
On Feb. 9, 1984, Owen broke into an apartment near Boca Raton Regional Hospital. He left 18-year-old Marilee Manley “naked and bleeding from the head.” He had beaten her nearly to death, leaving her disfigured, with a wrench he took from a tow truck.
Owen had been “out on maneuvers,” as he called his searches for young women. He had spotted Manley and counted the windows to find the right apartment. Like Karen Slattery, she had attended Pope John Paul High School. Owen pawned her ring.
But Owen had not spoken about the murders. On June 18, he called Woods, the Delray Beach officer who had arrested Owen two years before. Woods had given Owen his card after Boca Raton had taken Owen into custody.
On June 21, Boca Raton investigators confronted Owen with the fingerprint evidence, and he confessed to killing Georgianna Worden. That left the Slattery case.
Owen and Woods began talking about Karen Slattery. “He was fishing,” recalled Woods, by then a sergeant working in crime analysis. “He wanted to see what we had.”
Owen “thought he was smarter” than the police, Lincoln said. Indeed, he had taunted investigators, once saying, “Roses are red/you pigs are blue/count up my victims/there will be quite a few.”
Lincoln added, though, that when Owen understood that his questioners had something solid, he would “give it up.” He had done so when confronted with the fingerprint in the Worden case.
During Woods’ questioning, Owen was dismissive. He said, as Lincoln recalled, “That all you got?” So they decided that Lincoln would take over, since he knew the case. Lincoln asked Owen if he had ever been to the house where Slattery was killed. “I’d rather not talk about it,” Owen said. Later, Lincoln asked Owen about the bicycle he had ridden to the house on Harbor Drive. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Owen said.
Pressed about the footprints, Owen finally talked about the murder, giving details that only the killer could know. Example: The master bedroom, where he dragged Slattery, had a pocket door. Example: He stole a pair of women’s gloves. When it was done, Delray Beach police also had their confession.
Karen Slattery’s murder struck fear across southern Palm Beach County for months.. She is buried in Boynton Beach Memorial Park; her body was exhumed for murderer Duane Owen’s retrial in 1990.
In 1985 and 1986, juries convicted Owen for the murders of Karen Slattery and Georgianna Worden and recommended the death penalty, which both judges imposed.
There had to be a second trial in the Slattery case. The Florida Supreme Court in 1990 ruled Owen’s confession inadmissible because of those two comments to Lincoln. “I was pissed,” Lincoln said. His anger was justified. Owen had initiated the conversation and quickly re-engaged after his defensiveness.
Seven years later, though, the state’s high court allowed the confession, based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding confessions. By then, there also was DNA. In 1999, Owen was convicted again, and again got the death penalty.
Many of the police reports on Owen are brown and faded. The officers who were involved have retired or moved on — not that they have forgotten him. Lincoln believes that, like Ted Bundy, Owen committed many crimes that won’t be connected to him. Still, the record is scary enough.
McCoy recalls the FAU professor whom Owen beat with a cinder block and later derided as “Professor Blockhead.”
Of course, Owen’s spree could have been even more terrible. Had he not been arrested in 1984 — Woods believes that he was heading out of town — he surely would have tried to kill again. Yet he staked out many other homes but didn’t go in or was thwarted. He didn’t kill the children at the murder scenes. “Too young,” Lincoln said. “Even for him.”
Eugene Slattery died in the crash of a light plane in June 1989, five months after Owen was convicted a second time for killing his daughter. Her body was exhumed for the trial. Carolyn Slattery has moved to Monroe County. Mitchell Owen is in Palm Beach County’s nursing home, having suffered brain damage from a fall. The home on Harbor Drive is still owned by the same family. A property management company owns Georgianna Worden’s old home.
The Karen Slattery Education Research Center for Child Development is part of the Florida Atlantic University College of Education. Its website notes that the Slattery family contributed more than $50,000 to help establish the center, which opened in October 1990.
Among the center’s goals is to “encourage the development of a positive self-concept.” Help a child at the right time, the thinking goes, and maybe he won’t turn into a monster.
Justice delayed is justice denied.
May i use your article for a podcast on missing persons? We cover little known cases which only run around 15-20min including the way to contact law inforcment regarding tips and leads. We were awarded that year with a very nice group of things we truly appreciated.
Karens case is quite different in those regards, but i'm a native who knew Karen as she was in my class at Pope. I remember her well and this horrific event that surely did affect us here immensely. That painting is stunning and looks so much like her!
Thank you so much for your consideration. I'd like to just read it as is since it's such a beautifully written article and I don't feel as if I could make it any better than it is now. Full transparency will be disclosed even if they do take too long as I think that there can't ever be anything too slow in being put to sea
Pope John Paul class of 88'(graduated at the Lake Worth Christian Academy in Lantana)