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Hank Earl Carr killed 4 people in 1998, but many lives were wounded in the wake

EAST CANTON, Ohio

A woman stares blankly from a photograph in Kayla Bennett's pink bedroom, near a bunk bed and a shelf of Barbie dolls still in plastic boxes.

The woman is Kayla's mother, Bernice Bowen, Florida Department of Corrections inmate No. T17226.

In 1998, Kayla saw her mother's boyfriend kill Kayla's little brother Joey, starting a deadly chain of events that claimed the lives of three law enforcement officers. Bowen, tried as an accessory because she lied to police about Carr's identity, got 21 years in prison.

A decade later, Kayla, 15, lives with her maternal grandmother in a small town nestled between farmlands and factories in the rolling hills of eastern Ohio.

Even now, even so far away, they feel the effects of Hank Earl Carr's violence.

"We live it every damn day," said grand­father Michael Bowen, 56, drawing on a cigarette.

In a tidy white house in East Canton, a town of fewer than 2,000 people, the family braces for more.

Kayla's grandmother, Connie Bowen, 53, lives with cervical and breast cancers. Multiple operations have kept her alive, but Connie wonders how long she will be here for Kayla.

"She misses her mother; that's a hard thing for a kid," the grandmother said. "This kid needs her mother home. I'm not always going to be here; neither is my husband."

They pay for the collect calls each week from Homestead Correctional Institution in Florida, 1,225 miles away.

Bernice and Kayla talk on the phone. At times, Kayla asks for advice. She remembers that her mother told her to stand up for herself and choose wisely when it comes to boys.

"She said make sure they're polite, nice, they don't rush into things, they kind of like to do what you do," Kayla said.

The two talk about school.

Kayla makes good marks at East Canton Middle School. In fifth and sixth grades, she was a cheerleader. Now, she plays softball. A photo of her as "student of the month" decorates the refrigerator. In it, she stands in front of a bulletin board stapled with words that describe her: "artistic," "friendly," "smiles a lot."

She dreams of becoming a veterinarian or a hair stylist.

Locked up, Bernice got her high school diploma and completed a parent education class. She works in the prison law library. Bernice, who declined to be interviewed by the Times, told her mother, "Mom, let them know I'm not trailer trash," Connie Bowen said.

The Bowens live in a two-story white house in the middle of town, next to a police station. Connie says the officers keep an eye out for Kayla.

Inside, the home feels warm and cozy, with entire walls of family photographs and shelves of dolphin figurines, snow globes and porcelain angels.

Two dogs, Earl and Rascal, try to get close to a tiny white kitten, Stewie.

Connie and Michael share a couch in the wood-paneled living room. Michael eases his aching feet out of dusty work boots. Connie complains that her dentures hurt. She works at a laundry. He's a plumber at construction sites.

Kayla rummages through the kitchen for ingredients to bake Amish Friendship Bread.

She has only been with her grandparents since 2003. After the shootings, she went into foster care. She remembers lots of Hamburger Helper. Years later, she scrunches up her nose at it.

A judge eventually sent her to live with a great-aunt and uncle in Ohio. After her great-uncle died, she moved in with her grandparents.

She pads around in flip-flops, her toenails bright blue with white polka dots.

Reminders of her mother and brother are everywhere.

Pictures drawn in prison hang on the walls in Ohio, one with a poem to Kayla:

"You'll always be my little one no matter how old, you are cradled in my heart if not in my arms, nurtured in my prayers if not in my presence."

Behind a sheet near Kayla's room are boxes of Bernice's and little Joey's belongings. Her round white suitcase. His tiny checkered vest.

Connie said her daughter had a suitcase packed to leave Carr.

None of the family makes excuses for Bernice, but they believe she has served enough time.

"She's just as human as everybody else," Connie said. "She's paid for her mistakes."

The Bowens think they were painted as villains because people needed someone to blame.

"We're just like everyday people. We don't go out to eat, we don't go out to restaurants. We're here for our granddaughter," Connie said.

Her family feels terrible for the families of the law enforcement officers who died, she said.

"Everybody knows that a lot of people were killed that day that everybody loved," she said.

In her room, Kayla keeps a family photo of her mother, father Joseph Bennett, herself and Joey. Her mother's high school volleyball team photo sits on a desk. Two miniature Ohio license plates hang on a wall. One says Kayla, the other says Joey.

Connie believes Kayla copes with her grief by caring for animals. When Kayla first arrived, she kept asking for pets.

Soon, they had a guinea pig, hamsters, dogs, cats, birds and fish. Kayla nurtured each one. Over the years, as the pets died, Connie told her that they went to live with her baby brother.

"It helped her to get through it, and it helped her to heal," Connie said. "When the animals died, she'd understand. She knows that her brother was put in the ground, but his soul is up in heaven. I just explained to her that every time one of the animals would go, I'd say, 'Joey's taken that one.' "

Connie watched Kayla pour milk into a red bowl. Kayla giggled as the kitten lapped it up.

Her grandfather left to buy vanilla for the bread.

As Kayla waited for him to return, she settled into a chair on the screened-in porch, cradling Stewie in her arms.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3373.

Hank Earl Carr killed 4 people in 1998, but many lives were wounded in the wake 05/16/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2008 5:27pm]
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