Briefing

Why the author of Where the Crawdads Sing is wanted for questioning in an alleged murder

Delia Owens' novel is a bestseller and now a film — but does it have a chilling 'deeper meaning'?

An adaptation of the hit novel Where the Crawdads Sing is now playing in theaters — and the book's author, Delia Owens, is reportedly wanted for questioning in connection with an alleged murder. Here's what you need to know: 

Who is Delia Owens?

Delia Owens is an author and conservationist who wrote the 2018 novel Where the Crawdads Sing, which follows a girl who grew up in the North Carolina marsh and becomes a suspect in a murder. It was one of the best-selling books of that year, and the film adaptation was produced by Reese Witherspoon, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and featuring an original song by Taylor Swift. 

Decades before writing Crawdads, Owens, who is originally from Georgia, moved to Africa with her husband Mark Owens in the 1970s, and they've written several non-fiction books about their experiences as conservationists, including Cry of the Kalahari and The Eye of the Elephant

What are Owens' ties to an alleged murder? 

In 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg published an in-depth investigation at The New Yorker titled "The Hunted," which describes Mark and Delia Owens' efforts to fight poaching and save elephants at North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Their story earned the attention of ABC News, which in 1996 aired an hour-long report with Meredith Vieira called "Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story."

This ABC special includes a shocking moment where an alleged poacher is executed on screen. 

As Goldberg recounts, a "scout, his face blotted out electronically, fires a single shot at [an alleged poacher]. At this moment, a second figure is seen in the background. His face and upper body are blurred, so that even his race is obscured, but he is dressed in green and appears to be carrying a rifle. … Then, from offscreen, come three more shots. The camera stays focused on the wounded man, lying on the ground. His body jerks at the first and third shots. Then it is still."

At one point in the broadcast, Mark Owens reportedly tells game scouts, whom he was allegedly in command of, that "if you see poachers in the national park with a firearm, you don't wait for them to shoot at you. You shoot at them first."

Over a decade later, Goldberg published a follow-up at The Atlantic in 2022 reporting that Mark and Delia, who left Zambia in 1996, are still wanted for questioning over the killing, as is Mark's son from another marriage, Christopher Owens. Zambian police reportedly launched an investigation after the ABC broadcast, but no charges were filed, in part because the body was never found. It has never been proven that the person shot, described on the broadcast as a "trespasser," actually was a poacher.

Who's alleged to have fired the shots?

There were multiple shots fired in the broadcast, but ABC cameraman Chris Everson alleged to The New Yorker that Mark Owens' then-25-year-old son, Christopher Owens, fired the first and last ones. 

Owens allegedly opened fire on the supposed poacher before Everson began filming. A scout allegedly then fired another shot, and then, Everson claims, Christopher fired the final three. A Zambian police detective alleged to The New Yorker that Mark Owens disposed of the body by dropping it in a lagoon, which he denies.

Delia Owens hasn't been accused of direct involvement in the shooting, but Goldberg writes at The Atlantic that she's wanted for questioning as a "possible witness, co-conspirator, and accessory to felony crimes." She and Mark have reportedly since divorced.

What has Owens said? 

Speaking with Goldberg for the 2010 New Yorker article, Delia Owens said she and Mark don't know anything about the shooting and that Christopher wasn't there when it occurred.

"We don't even know where that event took place," she said. She also claimed she and Mark didn't know about any poachers ever being killed. "The only thing Mark ever did was throw firecrackers out of his plane, but just to scare poachers, not to hurt anyone," she said. 

After the ABC special aired, the Owens reportedly wrote in a letter to donors that "the 'shoot to kill policy' is only used by Zambian government game scouts in self-defense" and that they were "not involved in this incident" shown on the broadcast, per the New Yorker investigation, though Goldberg noted Zambia has no formal shoot-to-kill policy against poachers. 

A lawyer for the Owens also told The New Yorker that Mark wasn't responsible for what the game scouts did and didn't command them, despite the fact that he reportedly writes in The Eye of the Elephant that "I have full authority over the scouts." But Goldberg interviewed a hunter who showed him a letter allegedly written by Owens stating that "two poachers have been killed" during anti-poaching operations he has flown in the area, and "we are just getting warmed up." Owens claims he "did not mean that anyone was just getting started shooting poachers."

What's ABC's role in this? 

In the original 2010 New Yorker report, ABC News said it wouldn't make Everson's video available, though the article said ABC producer Janice Tomlin previously wrote a letter to the U.S. ambassador in Zambia maintaining that "neither Mark nor Delia Owens nor any other North Luangwa Conservation Project staff was even in the area at the time of this shooting." Meredith Vieira, meanwhile, told The New Yorker she doesn't know the identity of the shooter.

But Zambian police detective Biemba Musole alleged to The New Yorker that ABC is "an accessory to murder, either after the fact or during the committing of this murder."

How does 'Where the Crawdads Sing' factor into the controversy?

In 2019, Slate writer Laura Miller observed purported parallels between Owens' debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing and the Zambia killing, calling it "eyebrow-raising" that the book ultimately reveals — spoilers ahead — that the protagonist, who shares some similarities with the author, is guilty of the central murder. But the book suggests the murder victim, "like that nameless poacher," is "a bad man, who got his just deserts even if his killing technically violates the law of the land," Miller writes. 

Slate also pointed to a 2019 interview Owens gave to Amazon, in which she noted, "Almost every part of the book has some deeper meaning." 

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