December 3, 2013
I’ll never forget Johnie Owens, who died Saturday, for many reasons.
I wish I could forget many things that Owens did, but I can say that about many other people I’ve interacted with over the years.
I won’t go into the details of the many things Owens has been accused of, not to mention convicted of. You can still find many people in Mingo County who know more about that than I do.
I knew Johnie Owens before he was involved in Mingo County politics. I found him to be a likeable enough fellow.
As a human being, as they like to say around here, if he knew you, he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
Later, as a politician, you could add to that: if he didn’t like you, you better watch out, because he would steamroll you.
I wouldn’t say Johnie didn’t like me. He understood that, as a politician, he had to maintain a tenuous relationship with a skeptical press that held the feet of all the county politicians of that era to the fire.
I will say that Johnie was a colorful character, at the least, and that our personal and professional relationship was contentious, also at the least.
This was probably best illustrated by an incident that occurred after a ceremony on the courthouse lawn, where a flag obtained for the county by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall after it had been flown over the U.S. Capitol was raised.
After documenting the event and taking some photos, I was getting quotes from politicians and others who had witnessed the ceremony when I approached Johnie, who had already been the subject of some unflattering stories in the Daily News.
When I asked Johnie what he thought of the flag raising, he said something to the effect of: “I’m not going to talk to you or anybody else from the Daily News. In fact, one of these days, I’m gonna go in the lower door of the Daily News office, and I’m gonna start whippin’ asses, and I’m not gonna stop whippin’ asses ‘til I come out the door on the other end.”
My response was, “Well, sheriff, our door’s always open.”
Of course, he never followed through on his threat.
Life for Johnie Owens took a downward turn after that. He was arrested and convicted in federal court of what amounted to selling the sheriff’s office to Eddie Hilbert, who was convicted of buying it. Hilbert himself died not that long ago. At least it doesn’t seem like that long ago to me.
And he and Hilbert weren’t the only ones that were caught in the political corruption net cast by federal investigators in Mingo County more than 25 years ago. Sound familiar?
I can’t say I didn’t feel sorry for Johnie as I watched him go through the criminal justice system.
A man who had once achieved the pinnacle of political power in Mingo County as chairman of the Democrats’ county executive committee and sheriff was laid low by a certain amount of arrogance and by putting his trust in the wrong people.
I’m not sure Johnie would have wanted my sympathy, but I felt just a tinge of it.
I’ll miss Johnie, because for better or worse, life was more interesting with him around, and I wonder what might have happened if he had made some better decisions.
And I also can say that about a lot of other people I’ve met.