"The last thing I remember Al saying to me," recalled Linda Owens, his former wife, "was 'Take care of my babies.'"
Two weeks later Albert Owens was dead. He was found in the storage room of a
7-Eleven in Whittier, killed by two shotgun blasts in the back. A little more than $100 was taken from the cash register.
More than two decades after Owens' murder, the state of California is scheduled to execute Stanley Tookie Williams at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday should final clemency appeals, including a closed-door meeting Thursday with the governor, fail.
Williams, 51, co-founder of the infamous Crips street gang in Los Angeles, was condemned for killing Owens in a 1979 robbery and three members of an immigrant family at a motel two weeks later. He has maintained his innocence.
In the weeks leading to the scheduled execution, much has been written and aired about Williams' plight as a condemned man and his "redemption" his decade-long mission to save youths from gangs.
But members of the Owens family say their anger and pain have become more pronounced as Williams' supporters, in their clamor for clemency, appear to forget the lives Williams stole. They say they have been irrevocably shaped by their loss. Some family members have grown estranged in trying to find some peace in the
In 1979 Linda Owens was in Willmathsville, Mo., washing the dishes when the phone rang.
"Linda, I want you to sit down," Chuck Owens, her former brother-in-law, said. "Al was killed."
Eight-year-old Rebecca and 5-year-old Andrea were standing behind their mother in the kitchen. They watched her crumble, crying over the dishes. About 15 minutes later Linda Owens explained to her girls that their father had been killed and that police had arrested the people responsible.
"What the hell do you say to kids at that age?" Owens said in an interview this week.
"I felt the kids were upset. I felt it best to leave it alone. They never asked," said Owens, who asked to be identified by her first husband's last name out of lingering concerns for her family's safety.
Albert Owens had been her high school sweetheart. The two had known each other since they were 12, when she helped "that ornery little monkey" with his English homework. They began dating when they were 16 at Ruskin High School in Kansas City. Two years later, they wed.
He stands tall in his crisp Army uniform and clasps his new wife's hand in their 1969 black-and-white wedding photo. In another snapshot, he is seen holding onto 1-year-old Rebecca's tiny hand, caught laughing on Virginia Beach.
Linda Owens watched as the tall, freckle-faced boy with a buzz haircut matured into a husband and father. He doted on his two daughters. He always tried to make his little girls laugh.
Four years into the marriage, the couple separated. They agreed they had married too young. Nine months after their divorce, Albert Owens, 26, started a new life in California.
, working at a factory and a part-time shift at the 7-Eleven.
Years later, Linda Owens said it was a mistake to not tell her daughters the entire truth about their father's murder.
The oldest daughter, Rebecca Owens, now 35, remembered that she and her little sister, Andrea, were allowed just one day to grieve for their father. The man who had briefly married their mother at the time of Owens' death had told the girls in vain to call him their dad. She said they were not allowed to talk about their father again. They could not attend his funeral in California.
"As a kid," Rebecca Owens said, "I didn't have time to mourn my dad."
Growing up, she was led to believe that the man responsible had been put to death. Then, in 2001, she said a representative from the California attorney general's office called to gauge whether she would be willing to speak with reporters about some news: Williams had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Rebecca Owens said she didn't know who Williams was.
"What I had been told growing up was not the case," she said, "and then to be told that the man who killed my father and three other people was now nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize? I was aghast."
The phone conversation lasted more than three hours, followed by years of probing, reading court transcripts and other legal documents on the case and following press accounts of Williams' "redemption." She has not spoken to her mother since then.
"Over the past four years, it was like losing Dad all over again; the anger was there. All the anger I couldn't feel as a kid, the atrocity of what had happened."
Andrea Owens, 32, said she has no clear memories of her father. In her mind, she can see a shadow of a man. She cannot remember his laughter.
When she learned that Williams, her father's killer, was still alive decades after a jury had sentenced him to die, she said it felt as though he had gotten away with murder.
"He's done something wrong, and I've been punished for it," she said. "I had to grow up without my father."
The Owens daughters now have children of their own. Rebecca Owens' 7-year-old son, relatives say, looks just like Albert Owens.
Some of the children have heard about their grandfather. Some of them, when they're older, may learn about what happened to him in California and about Williams, the man whose face appears on the news.
On Feb. 28, 1979, Williams and three of his acquaintances, after smoking PCP-laced cigarettes, went looking for a way to get some money. They drove across Los Angeles and stopped at a convenience store where their first robbery attempt failed. A few minutes later, they came upon a 7-Eleven on Whittier Boulevard.
Owens was outside, sweeping the parking lot. Williams and the men approached him, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's petition against clemency.
Williams pointed a shotgun at Owens' back and walked him to a rear storage room. Owens was forced to lie facedown on the floor.
Williams then chambered the shotgun and fired a round into a security monitor nearby. He loaded the gun a second time and fired into Owens' back. He loaded the gun, again, and fired again.
Two weeks later, Williams broke into Brookhaven Motel in Los Angeles and opened fire on the family who ran the motel, killing 76-year-old Yen-I Yang; Tsai-Shai Yang, 63; and their daughter, Yee-Chen Lin, 43, who was visiting from Taiwan.
In early 1981, Williams was sentenced to die for his crimes.
On Tuesday morning, some members of the Owens family will wait by their phones for a call from the attorney general's office. They expect a call after midnight on the West Coast.
"I will say a silent prayer and hope that Albert's in peace," Linda Owens said. "And then, I'll get up and start the day. Send my 12-year-old to school and go to work."
She said the day would pass like any other day. But maybe, someday, she will make it to California.
"I want to put flowers on my husband's grave, and say good-bye," she said. "Until that's done, it's not over."
(Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, http://www.shns.com.)