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Tampa club drug death spurs unusual murder charge

Stephen Elbert Bowman is accused of giving GHB, known as a ‘date rape’ drug, to a man who later died.
Deputies say 25-year-old Hanibal Mowery, left, was killed last year after he consumed a drug given to him by Stephen Bowman, 59, on the right.
Deputies say 25-year-old Hanibal Mowery, left, was killed last year after he consumed a drug given to him by Stephen Bowman, 59, on the right. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]
Published Aug. 6
Updated Aug. 6

TAMPA — When a man died in November after he was said to have ingested a well-known club drug, his death became the focus of a criminal investigation.

Almost nine months later came a murder charge.

Stephen Elbert Bowman, an accountant and salesman who lives in a Carrollwood apartment, is accused of first-degree murder in the death of 25-year-old Hanibal Mowery.

But the circumstances that culminated with Bowman’s arrest Wednesday are not those of a typical homicide case.

Bowman, 59, is charged under an obscure portion of Florida’s law, which deems it murder when a death results from the unlawful distribution of drugs. It’s a controversial legal tool, but one that’s been used more frequently in recent years as a means of combatting the opioid crisis.

In Hillsborough County alone, more than a half-dozen defendants in recent years have been accused of murder based on allegations that they gave drugs to someone who later overdosed and died. They include Garland Ryan Layton, known as Yoda, who is accused of selling the heroin that caused the 2017 death of 17-year-old Katie Golden on Harbour Island.

“We have more overdose deaths than we can count,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said Friday in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “While we’re doing everything we can in the system to promote treatment for people who are using drugs, we’re also using the full weight of the system to prosecute the dealers and distributors who are killing our neighbors.”

Critics say that such prosecutions are misguided and can have the effect of punishing the friends and family members of drug users.

Bowman, 59, is the first local defendant charged with murder in a case where the drug in question was not an opioid. He is accused of giving GHB — or gamma-hydroxybutyrate — to a friend who died.

His attorney, Brian Gonzalez, described the circumstances as “voluntary” and said that there was no intent to cause harm.

“He’s distraught,” Gonzalez said. “He’s terribly sad over the passing of this person.”

A search warrant application unsealed this week offers a glimpse into the unusual case.

It began with a 911 call the morning of Nov. 8. Bowman told a call-taker he’d found his friend unresponsive, according to the affidavit. He said he last saw him in a “normal” condition around midnight.

Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies were summoned to Bowman’s apartment on Arbor Reserve Circle, in the Carrollwood area. They identified the friend as Mowery. Emergency personnel pronounced him dead.

Bowman claimed Mowery had used GHB. The drug, which became popular among club-goers in the 1990s, is sometimes used as a means of building muscle, but is also known for its euphoric and aphrodisiac effects. It’s commonly referred to as a “date rape drug” due to its ability to increase libido, suggestibility and memory loss.

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According to the affidavit, Bowman said in an interview with deputies that Mowery was already under the influence of the drug when he came to the apartment late the previous evening. He claimed Mowery asked him to get an additional quantity of GHB, according to the affidavit. Bowman told deputies he obtained an ounce of the drug from “an unknown person through a mutual friend,” but would not identify the people.

He later gave the drug to Mowery, according to the affidavit. Bowman said they went to sleep around 2 a.m., the document states. The 911 call came at 8:17 a.m.

Bowman tried to “render assistance” to Mowery for 30 minutes before calling 911, according to an arrest report.

Bowman said he’d exchanged text messages with Mowery the previous evening. He said he’d deleted the messages after he found Mowery unresponsive, but before he called 911, the document states. An arrest report states that he admitted he poured a beverage that contained GHB down a drain before deputies arrived.

That became part of the basis for an evidence tampering charge. Bowman was arrested on the charge the same day. He later posted a $2,000 bond and was released.

He was arrested again Wednesday after a grand jury returned a murder indictment. A judge set bail at $50,000. Bowman posted a bond for that amount Friday and was released.

In a statement accompanying a news release, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister described the crime as a “reckless decision that led to the loss of a human life.”

“While regret will not do much for him at this point, we hope this case serves as a warning to others,” the sheriff’s statement said.

The warrant application notes that Bowman was involved in a similar death investigation in 2019. On Feb. 13 that year, a person described as a “sexual partner” died from an overdose of GHB and methamphetamine, according to the document. Further details about that case were not immediately available.

Gonzalez, the defense attorney, noted that Bowman has no criminal history.

“He’s very close with his family and they’re supportive of him even in a very dark situation,” Gonzalez said.

He declined to discuss the specifics of the case, noting that it was only recently filed. Speaking generally, Gonzalez said the state often has a tough task to prove that a particular batch of drugs was what caused the death or that a particular person was responsible. He questioned whether the law is being used as intended, noting such cases are unlike what’s typically seen in homicide.

“It’s a much more complicated set of facts than a simple first-degree murder in the ways we foresee them,” he said.

Warren, the state attorney, said his office takes an aggressive approach in such cases as a means of furthering drug investigations. In some cases, they work to get defendants to provide information about drug suppliers.

“We’re trying to find the people most responsible for bringing this poison into the community,” he said.