TAMPA — She was a young woman when her boyfriend killed her son, two detectives and a state trooper in a matter of hours. The boyfriend, Hank Earl Carr, then took his own life, leaving her to face the courts alone.
She was charged as an accessory to the murders and given the maximum sentence. But now, 18 years later, Bernice Bowen is once again free.
Bowen, 42, was released from prison Sunday to live with her parents in East Canton, Ohio, state records show.
The family turned away a reporter's questions.
"I'll tell you everything you need to know," said her father, Michael Bowen. "She served 181/2 years in prison, the state of Florida got their pound of flesh and this is ancient history."
Bowen was tried as an accessory-after-the-fact to both first-degree murder and Carr's escape, after she lied to police about his identity. Her daughter, Kayla Bennett, has lived with her maternal grandparents since 2003, after a stay in foster care and with her great-aunt and uncle.
All these years, Bowen has been Florida Department of Corrections inmate No. T17226. While in Homestead Correctional Institution, she earned her high school diploma and finished parent education classes. She worked in the prison law library.
Her lawyer, Claude Tison, remembers her as a woman who was a "natural victim, the kind that predators recognize and prey on instinctively."
"She would fade into the woodwork and, at times when I had contact with her, it was almost like there was nobody inside there," Tison said. "She was somebody expecting to be harmed and waiting to be harmed. But I know some changes happened to her over time in prison, and it's my sincere hope that now she is developing a personality of her own."
On May 19, 1998, Carr shot Bowen's 4-year-old son, Joey, in front of Kayla in their upstairs apartment at 709 E Crenshaw St. in Tampa. Whether it was accidental or intentional was never known. Bowen was 24 at the time and had lived in the apartment with Carr for about a year. Neighbors said the relationship was physically and mentally abusive.
With no phone in the house, Carr and Bowen drove the boy to fire station No. 7 a few blocks away on Hanna Avenue, where he was pronounced dead. Carr said Joey accidentally shot himself while dragging the gun around, but later, after a police interrogation, his story changed.
Later, police would take note of the mother's behavior, telling each other that she rode in the front seat with Carr, rather than in back with her son. Some still remember that, even as they acknowledge her lengthy prison term.
"She could have ridden in the back seat with her wounded child or gone up front with her scumbag boyfriend and she chose to sit up front," said retired Tampa Police Department homicide detective Kevin Durkin.
"That's who just got released from prison."
At first, Bowen refused to give police Carr's real name and later provided false information that led detectives to believe he had no criminal record. In reality, he was a felon wanted in four states and known to be violent.
Two Tampa detectives, Rick Childers, 46, and Randy Bell, 44, placed Carr in the back of an unmarked vehicle with no protective screen and began driving to police headquarters. Carr slipped out of his handcuffs with the aid of a hidden handcuff key he kept around his neck.
He got a pistol away from Childers and killed both, hijacking the car and spraying passing vehicles and patrol cars with gunfire in a 22-mile chase. State Trooper James B. Crooks, 23, was killed in the pursuit.
Carr later pulled into a Shell station near the State Road 50 exit ramp on Interstate 75, firing at more than 75 police cars, and took clerk Stephanie Kramer, then 27, hostage.
Carr demanded to talk to Bowen several times while barricaded in the store for four hours. He insisted her son's death was an accident before releasing Kramer and taking his own life. In addition to her other charges, Bowen was charged with child abuse for leaving her children in Carr's care.
Still, whether she deserved to spend 18 years behind bars has weighed on Tison's mind, he said.
"I thought then and I still think now that she got a bum rap, and there was her status as a natural victim all over again," Tison said. "It wasn't enough that the man she was with victimized her, the state had to victimize her again."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.