Where the Crawdads Sing Author Wanted for Questioning in Murder

A televised 1990s killing in Zambia has striking similarities to Delia Owens’s best-selling book turned movie.

A photo collage
Getty; The Atlantic

Updated on Monday, July 18, 2022, at 6:18 p.m. ET

On March 30, 1996, the ABC news-magazine show Turning Point featured a documentary about a pair of American conservationists titled “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story.” The show’s co-anchor Diane Sawyer introduced the broadcast this way: “They went halfway around the world to follow a dream. An idealistic American couple—young, in love. But a strange place and time would test that love.”

The “strange place” was the south-central African nation of Zambia, a former British colony once known as Northern Rhodesia, and the documentary is in many ways a typical white-savior story, an emotion-saturated tale of two telegenic Americans on a mission to save elephants from poachers and corrupt African officials. What is most notable about the documentary, though, is that it is also—and I write this without exaggeration—a snuff film.

ABC producers included in this documentary the filmed murder of an alleged poacher, executed while lying collapsed on the ground after having already been shot. The victim is not identified by the story’s narrator, the journalist Meredith Vieira. Nor is the identity of the person or persons who fired the fatal shots off-camera disclosed. There is little in the video to suggest that the person killed was a poacher, and indeed, the ABC script refers to the victim as a “trespasser,” though it is also unclear where this trespassing might have taken place.

I missed this episode when it was first aired, but received a videotape copy several years later, from conservationists interested in African wildlife protection. These were people who believed that the on-air execution of a supposed poacher represented just a small part of a larger story, one that more closely resembled Heart of Darkness than Born Free.

Today, Delia Owens is best known as the author of the immensely popular 2018 novel Where the Crawdads Sing, which has sold more than 12 million copies to date and has been turned into a feature film, produced by Reese Witherspoon and premiering later this week. But Delia and Mark Owens have been famous for decades, since the publication of their first book, the best-selling Cry of the Kalahari, an account of their time as lion conservationists in Botswana. It was their second book, The Eye of the Elephant, about their battles against poachers in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park, that drew the interest of ABC producers.

Shortly after I saw the ABC documentary, I visited North Luangwa for the first time. The Owenses had left the country after the broadcast sparked a Zambian police investigation of their activities. I learned on this first visit, and subsequent visits, that Mark Owens had gradually come to command a corps of game scouts in North Luangwa, outside of Zambian-government oversight, by buying their loyalty through the provision of weapons, boots, and money; that they had militarized the 2,400-square-mile park (Delia wrote in one of their books that Mark created a special unit of scouts who would earn new guns, jungle knives, binoculars, and compasses for standout performance); that Mark Owens had led airborne raids against suspected poaching camps; that Mark’s adult son from his first marriage, Christopher Owens, had been placed in charge of training the game scouts in hand-to-hand combat; and that Christopher Owens frequently beat the game scouts as a form of discipline.

The Owenses’ scouts, multiple sources told me, would tie suspected poachers to stakes to let them bake in the sun. One scout from that period, Henry Kampamba, said, “Mark Owens told us that anyone with meat or a weapon should have a beating.” (The Owenses’ attorneys denied that Mark commanded scouts and said he was not responsible for their actions, and denied that anyone was tied to a stake or beaten. “Scouts occasionally passed through or near their camp with captured poachers, and they would stop for water or a brief rest,” one of their attorneys, Donald Zachary, told me at the time. The scouts would handcuff prisoners to a tree, but for a few minutes and “in the shade,” he said.)

I also learned that Mark Owens himself bragged about the killing of poachers on his watch. A professional hunter named P. J. Fouche, who managed a government-licensed hunting concession adjacent to North Luangwa, provided me with a letter Mark Owens had faxed him: “To date I have flown eight airborne antipoaching operations over your area, including four in which I inserted scouts on ambush,” Owens wrote. “Two poachers have been killed and one wounded that I know of thus far, and we are just getting warmed up.” Owens followed this assertion with a plea for help: “Anything you can do to help keep our anti-poaching efforts alive in your area will, I guarantee, pay big dividends for your safari business, and very soon. On that note, would it be possible for you to bring back as much ammo as you can: 12 gauge 00B, 30.06, 300, 7.62 short (AK), and some cracker shells (for pest control)?”

I published an article called “The Hunted,” about the Owenses and their activities, in The New Yorker in 2010, and I included an interview I conducted with Chris Everson, the ABC cameraman who filmed the killing of the alleged poacher. Everson told me that it was not a Zambian game scout, but Christopher Owens, who fired the fatal shots. And I reported that the Zambian police detective in charge of the subsequent investigation, Biemba Musole, had concluded that Mark Owens, with the help of his scouts, placed the victim’s body in a cargo net, attached it to his helicopter, and then dropped it into a nearby lagoon. Musole led an effort to identify the alleged poacher, but did not succeed. The former Zambian national police commissioner, Graphael Musamba, told me that the investigation had been stymied by the absence of a body: “The bush is the perfect place to commit murder … The animals eat the evidence.”

Zambian authorities today remain interested in bringing charges for the 1995 televised killing. On a visit last month to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, I spoke with several officials who expressed both displeasure and wry amusement about Delia Owens’s recent publishing and cinematic success. The country’s director of public prosecutions, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, confirmed what officials at the Criminal Investigation Department of the Zambian national police told me: Mark, Delia, and Christopher Owens are still wanted for questioning related to the killing of the alleged poacher, as well as other possible criminal activities in North Luangwa. “There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia,” Siyuni said. “They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens.”

Delia Owens told me, when I interviewed her 12 years ago in northern Idaho, where she and Mark had moved after leaving Zambia, that she had nothing to do with the killing of the alleged poacher. “We don’t know anything about it,” she said. “The only thing Mark ever did was throw firecrackers out of his plane, but just to scare poachers, not to hurt anyone.” She also told me that “Chris wasn’t there. We don’t even know where that event took place. It was horrible, a person being shot like that.” Lawyers for Mark and Christopher Owens have also issued denials concerning any wrongdoing or involvement.

When I raised the subject of Mark’s letter to P. J. Fouche, Delia said, “Why don’t you understand that we’re good people? We were just trying to help.”  And Mark Owens later said that his faxed claim to Fouche was actually an exaggeration designed to satisfy Fouche. Owens wrote, in a statement, “‘We are just getting started’ did not mean that anyone was just getting started shooting poachers, but only that we had just begun fielding antipoaching patrols in that area.”

Zambian police officials I met with are keen to interrogate Mark and Christopher Owens, but also believe that Delia Owens should be interrogated as a possible witness, co-conspirator, and accessory to felony crimes.

Siyuni, Zambia’s chief prosecutor, told me that the case interests her in part because it involves broader issues of race and politics. “I can’t even go into the U.S. embassy with a camera,” she said. “I want to know how Mark and Delia brought guns into Zambia and turned themselves into law-enforcement agents.” The investigation, Siyuni and others said, has been hampered by the lack of an extradition treaty between Zambia and the United States, and by ABC’s apparent refusal to cooperate in the investigation.

On one of my previous visits to Lusaka, Musole, the detective in charge of the initial investigation, who is now a senior national police official, said, “The ABC News show is an accessory to murder, either after the fact or during the committing of this murder. The cameraman and reporter are accomplices to this. The docket is still open on this case. Why won’t the cameraman come in and tell us what he saw and show us his film?”

I asked Everson in 2010 why he hadn’t reported the killing to the police in Lusaka. “That was way above my pay scale. I was working for ABC. It wasn’t my business to do that.” He nevertheless described the scene he filmed as “a very emotional thing” and a “very bad thing.” “It’s something that never should have happened,” he said. (A spokesperson for ABC News told me at the time that the network would not make available the video that Chris Everson shot in the Luangwa Valley to Zambian authorities or to me.)

Today, Delia and Mark Owens are said to be divorced, though they are apparently on friendly terms: Delia thanks Mark in the acknowledgments of Crawdads for serving as an early reader of the book. There have also been reports that they have continued to live on the same compound in Idaho, though other reports have Delia living in North Carolina, the setting for Crawdads.

I read the book in 2019, the year after it was published, and after Reese Witherspoon made it a selection of her enormously popular book club. I was surprised that its themes so obviously echoed aspects of Delia Owens’s life in Zambia. Crawdads is the story of a girl in 1950s North Carolina who, through a series of improbable events, is forced to raise herself in an isolated swamp. Kya Clark, the protagonist, is, like Delia, a naturalist and loner, who, for reasons too involved to explain here (however: spoiler alert), commits what is described as a righteously motivated murder of a caddish local bigshot, Chase Andrews.

“Almost every part of the book has some deeper meaning,” Delia said in an interview with Amazon. “There’s a lot of symbolism in this book.” The Slate critic Laura Miller, who had read my New Yorker investigation of the Owenses and their activities, wrote in 2019, as Crawdads was exploding in popularity, “To anyone who has read ‘The Hunted,’ those [Amazon] lines are tantalizing, even if Owens doesn’t mean them to be. Having her heroine stand accused of murder echoes the Owens’ Zambian experience and the subsequent ordeal of becoming the subject of a 18,000-word exposé in a prominent magazine. Even more eyebrow-raising is the plot twist in the novel’s final pages: It turns out Kya did, after all, murder Chase.”

Miller goes on to write,

Kya’s similarities to Delia Owens, who grew up in Georgia, are manifest. Both are lonely, yet prefer the company of animals to people; the Owenses’ memoirs recount one long search for life outside the human fold … Kya is depicted as a misunderstood victim, cast out of society by the small-minded prejudices of her neighbors. In his closing statements, her defense attorney exhorts the jury and the town itself to examine its conscience: “We labeled and rejected her because we thought she was different. But, ladies and gentlemen, did we exclude Miss Clark because she was different, or was she different because we excluded her?”

What was noteworthy to me, and to Miller as well, were the deliberate callbacks to Delia’s Zambia experience. The novel’s jailhouse cat, for instance, is named after a Zambian man, Sunday Justice, who once worked in the Owenses’ camp as a cook. In their books about Africa, the Owenses frequently describe adult Africans in childlike terms, and Sunday Justice received this treatment. In The Eye of the Elephant, Delia Owens quotes Justice as saying, “I myself always wanted to talk to someone who has flown up in the sky with a plane. I myself always wanted to know, Madam, if you fly at night, do you go close to the stars?” But when I met Sunday Justice in Zambia, he spoke like an adult and told me that he had flown in airplanes as a child and also that he was a veteran of the Zambian Air Force. When I showed him this passage, he laughed.

Crawdads, Miller notes, is filled with improbable and condescending portraits of Black people, characters who say things like “Ya know ya can tell me. In fact, we gwine stand right here tills ya tell me.” This is of a piece with the Owenses’ apparent attitude toward Africans, as evidenced by eyewitnesses and even a cursory reading of their own writing. The Owenses’ website referred to Africa as the “dark continent” until I noted this fact in The New Yorker. Throughout their experiences in Botswana and Zambia, the Owenses gained a reputation for resenting the presence of Africans amid the animals they had come to study and protect. “Their whole attitude was ‘Nice continent. Pity about the Africans,’” a local conservationist, Mark Harvey, once told me.

I reported 12 years ago that after they left Zambia, Mark and Delia Owens expressed worries that North Luangwa would be overrun by corrupt government officials and poachers, but the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which had provided them with funding until it severed ties following the ABC broadcast, took over their conservation operation and, by all accounts, continues to do a credible and humane job of animal protection today. When I interviewed the Frankfurt representative in the park, a South African named Hugo van der Westhuizen, he said that he had to tell the game scouts trained by Mark Owens “to stop saluting me. I’m not the big bwana. I’m not the commander. I’m an adviser. It’s not the role of foreign visitors to Zambia to run around with guns.”

After the Owenses settled in northern Idaho, they quickly alienated local residents by attempting to instruct them on bear conservation. Darrell Kerby, a former mayor of Bonners Ferry, the closest town to the Owenses’ ranch, told me that Mark eventually learned how to behave. “He realized he couldn’t come in and just tell people what to do,” Kerby said. “This isn’t Africa.”

This article previously misattributed a quotation by Mark Harvey.