Once a wife and mother in a deceptively perfect home, Gaile Owens is now the first woman sentenced to die in Tennessee in nearly 200 years. 

No Angel, No Devil

As it turns out, the jury never heard her whole story — and her life hangs in the balance amid a web of lies, doubts, inconsistencies, unanswered questions and judicial flaws. The first in a two-part series.

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She went to a single one-hour session with Dr. Max West — not enough to plumb Gaile's damaged psyche, but enough to scratch the surface. West suspected she suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which might explain the meticulousness with which she kept house. He concluded that she might have a severe personality disorder, coupled with poor problem-solving skills. These issues, he posited, expressed themselves in times of great stress, resulting in behavior that seemed utterly out of step with her closely held Christian values.

Gaile volunteered that she often found herself lying to those closest to her, especially her husband. West advised Gaile to schedule another session. She never did. Gaile went on to serve three months in jail.

Apparently it did little good. According to Ferguson, Ron insisted she work to pay back the money she'd stolen. He got her a job through a church friend who owned a music supply store. It wasn't long, though, before Gaile was caught stealing once again. Because the owner was friends with Ron, Ferguson says, he didn't press charges, instead allowing them to pay back the embezzled funds. "Her need for money was incredible," her former employer and fellow church member told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "And nobody has ever figured out what she was doing with all that money."

Stealing from employers seemed more like compulsive behavior than the hallmark of a savvy career criminal. Still, Ferguson says Gaile was shrewd enough to launder her stolen money through a joint checking account she shared with her sister. Gaile was in charge of maintaining the ledger. Carolyn deposited and cut checks from the account.

Others close to the family, as she confessed to Dr. West, noticed she struggled with the truth. State Rep. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), then a young doctor in his residency, married Carolyn in 1981. Gaile always claimed she hadn't embezzled, he tells the Scene. "She was a good person, but she was sort of a pathological liar. She just had a hard time telling the truth. Whether it was to cover up ... Or sometimes it was easier to tell the truth than it was telling lies, so sometimes you couldn't hardly believe what she said."

The year Gaile was arrested, the family was in a slightly better position to afford her transgressions. Ron moved to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis and became associate director of nursing. His new position required him to travel often. Gaile, meanwhile, was attempting to better herself. She began taking basic courses at Shelby State Community College.

Though the Owenses found themselves in constant legal, financial and marital turmoil, Ron's colleagues apparently were none the wiser. Lucy Shaw and Ron were a team at Baptist — they shared the same position and put their heads together in daily meetings. The Ron she knew was the consummate unruffled professional. He was "neat as a pin," as Shaw puts it; the only flaw she recalls is a sometimes reckless sense of humor. For a colleague's birthday, Ron once brought a penis-shaped cake to the hospital. Shaw declines to discuss specifics, but court documents indicate it didn't go over well.

Shaw also notes that his jokes often came at the expense of his wife. Still, Gaile struck Shaw as a woman whose world revolved around her husband. Despite her past, Gaile found a job across the street from Baptist as a receptionist. Shaw remembers Gaile dropping in from time to time to see Ron. She was almost unchanged from the unassuming girl who answered to Marcia instead of Gaile in class. She was pleasant, deferential, never without a warm and ready smile.

"She gave the picture of a woman who was very intent and preoccupied with trying to please her husband," Shaw tells the Scene. "Whether she was successful or not, I don't know. But one woman can always look at another woman and tell — boy, she's working hard to please her husband. It was things like being on time, or the kids — everything had to appear to be perfect."

Either Gaile had a poker face, Shaw says, or she was completely oblivious to the rumor swirling around the hospital: Ron was having an affair with a subordinate, a nurse. The former is more likely. Sometimes when she answered calls at the house, Gaile heard nothing but faint breathing on the line. Other times, whoever it was simply hung up. She claims she once received a message composed of letters cut from a magazine. It said, "Your husband is having an affair and everyone knows it."

Gaile began forging checks at work again. She was quickly found out and terminated, and the family was left to pay another stiff sum. Ron said he couldn't afford to absorb this latest financial blow alone. Gaile's parents chipped in by mortgaging their home and selling some rental property. Carolyn testified that her parents put themselves $20,000 in debt to keep Gaile out of prison — a debt they could ill afford.

Depending on whom you ask, there seem to be two paradoxical Gaile Owens. One was the demure, unfailingly gracious and beaming wife — the generous one who always picked up the tab at dinner, even though her family was mired in the financial morass she made. The other Gaile behaved like a pathological thief caged by her own deceit. Keith Ferguson says Gaile had a way of manipulating her friends, whose social lives all centered on the church. Ferguson said if the social agenda wasn't to Gaile's liking, she'd play one friend against another to change it.

"Eventually it gets back to people," Ferguson says, "and they feel like they've been manipulated at that point."

According to Carolyn, Gaile involved her oldest son Stephen in her deceptions. Despite Gaile's obvious problems handling money, for example, Ron put her in charge of the family's finances. He provided the money to pay bills, family friends say, but the bills weren't getting paid. Gaile allegedly told Stephen to tell his father they'd gone to the bank, when in fact they hadn't.

Worse, she was losing control. Their bank account was in the red. Gaile was writing checks on her disabled aunt's empty account. She tried hiding unpaid bills, and the delinquent payment notices that kept rolling in.

"...[Dad] would come home, and they would fuss over some bank statements," Stephen testified. He and Brian had caught their mother stuffing sheets of paper and envelopes beneath the mattress in the guest bedroom. Gaile told them it was money. It looked to the boys like bank statements.

Those close to the family said the Owenses wouldn't be able to make their next mortgage payment. Gone would be the picture-book home, even Gaile's new Buick. She stood to lose even more. She knew if Ron found out what was going on, he'd divorce her. And if he did, she had no doubt he'd take her boys with him.

Meanwhile, Ron's romantic relationship with a subordinate blossomed. Ferguson says he never had any direct knowledge of his friend's affair. But he says it might have been one of the few good things Ron had going during that dark period, other than his sons.

"I think he was frustrated," Ferguson says. "Ron had become the associate director of nursing at Baptist Hospital, and I think he was embarrassed by [Gaile's embezzlements]. For Ron, in a lot of ways, he was just trying to maintain some sense of normalness given what had transpired. But we all make mistakes, and I'm sure Ron made his, too."

Finally, Gaile told a social worker, she followed Ron to work early one morning. As she pulled into the Baptist parking lot, she found Ron with a nurse who worked for him, Gala Scott. Scott could not be located to confirm Gaile's account, but Gaile says she confronted Ron. He slapped her, she says, slammed her against the car, and told her never to spy on him again.

At this point, assessors say, Gaile saw her fantasy of suburban perfection crumbling. Her perfect husband had hurt her where no one could see; now he was openly hurting her with his new lover. She would lose her perfect sons, her perfect life. Gaile fled the parking lot and drove toward the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge. She says her idea was to jump.

Some say what happened next happened because she was fed up with her abusive, philandering husband. Some have theorized she wasn't about to let him take her sons from her. The prosecution would later say that for Gaile, it was all about the money — always, from her first embezzlement to her last unpaid bill.

For reasons known only to her, and to the social workers she confided in, Gaile Owens didn't jump. Instead, she eased her late-model, two-tone Buick Cutlass off North Second Street into a rundown section of Memphis called Bearwater. She spotted a group of men on a street corner, and she decided to make them a proposition.

Bearwater, in the mid-1980s, was an all-black neighborhood composed partly of working-class folks employed at the now-shuttered Firestone tire plant or at the steel mill. It was also a place where cocaine and marijuana were available on demand from dealers who worked the street corners.

Despite the nice sedan and the upper-middle-class, suburban white woman behind the wheel, someone like Gaile would not have drawn that much attention from the men drinking Thunderbird wine on the sidewalk. North Second Street carried heavy traffic downtown, past row after row of two-room shotgun houses with slat siding. It wasn't uncommon for suburban whites to pull off onto one of these side streets, looking to score coke.

If there were a physical embodiment of a person who wasn't supposed to be in this part of town, Gaile would have been it. She usually wore her hair in a short bob, her features delicate, almost girlish. By this point, though, she had become a familiar face on the corner, where almost everyone knew her by the mocking nickname "Big Money."

According to corner regulars, who later turned witnesses for the prosecution, it was just after Christmas 1984 when she nosed the Cutlass up to the corner of Second and Keel.

She motioned three men over to her car — Michael Powell, known as Twin; a convicted murderer named George Sykes, aka "Bubba"; and a sometimes informant named George James.

James had heard of her. In fact, she was the talk of Bearwater. Every wino on the street with empty pockets knew hers were deep and generous. Plus it was really easy to get quick cash out of her. All you had to do was say that you would kill her husband.


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