Unsolved Homicides: Erie Police Corporal Robert Owen's Death
It was a crime that rocked the Erie community nearly 40 years ago, an Erie police officer killed in the line of duty, his death ruled a homicide.
The circumstances surrounding Corporal Robert Owen's murder sparked controversy, which is still talked about today.
Owen was shot and killed on December 29th, 1980.
Police corruption, a tainted crime scene, and division on just how he died, were all called into question.
His killer was never charged.
Erie News Now sat down with retired Erie Police Detective Dominick DiPaolo, the lead investigator on the case.
He recalls vividly arriving to the crime scene in the morning, to find it had been tarnished, “I went down to the crime scene, which was in the area of 18th and Cranberry, and unfortunately, the whole scene was trampled on, evidence was destroyed. I think that everybody wanted to help out, but they didn’t realize they were destroying the scene by being there and driving their cars there,” said DiPaolo.
Owen's body was discovered near his patrol car in a secluded industrial area, in the city.
He had been shot once in the chest.
There was no weapon found at the scene, and for some reason, when DiPaolo arrived, he says the entire scene was a sheet of ice, “One of the officers from ID, when the media got there, felt that it wasn't right for people to see Owen's blood, so he called for a fire rig, and they washed the scene down, the whole thing was screwed up from the beginning.”
Immediately, there was a division in the department about how Owen died. Was it a homicide or suicide?
The suicide theory developed because a month prior to his death, a diamond ring was stolen, as Owen and other Erie officers investigated the theft of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry from an Erie resident's home.
The owner accused an officer of stealing the ring.
When questioned, DiPaolo says Owen was one of three officers who failed a polygraph test about the theft, “On the 30th (of December) he was scheduled to take a second polygraph, so naturally, they find him dead and everybody's contention is, ‘Well, he killed himself because of the fact that he knew he had to take this other polygraph, and he probably took the ring,’ well that wasn't true, it wasn't true at all,” said DiPaolo.
DiPaolo says years later, they did determine what officer stole the ring, but the statue of limitations had passed, and it was too late to charge him.
So, what about the gun?
DiPaolo believes the murder weapon was Owen's service revolver, which an area resident picked up and moved from the scene before officers arrived. That person was eventually ruled out as a suspect.
And DiPaolo tells Erie News Now there were witnesses, two truck drivers they tracked down in South Dakota, who gave a crucial statement to police, “They saw the cruiser parked there with its lights on and two people talking, so that went the suicide theory out the window.”
Rumors of police corruption swirled, something Erie Mayor Louis Tullio at the time, adamantly denied, “I firmly believe in my heart that none of our police officers are guilty of anything, I've said that and I'll stick by that,” Tullio said during an interview with WICU’s Paul Wagner, in 1980.
DiPaolo says Owen was not killed by another cop, rather a business deal gone awry led someone to want to kill Corporal Owen, “We worked the case for about three or four months and we developed a suspect and unfortunately, we found out after trying to track this guy down, that he was killed in an automobile accident two months later out of state.”
The case was turned over to other detectives, the state, and district attorney's office, who have all accumulated piles of files on the case. But as the decades go by, DiPaolo feels one of the most notorious homicide cases of his career, will forever remain cold, “I know, I mean I really believe that I know who did it, but you can't prove it because unfortunately he's (the suspect) dead. So that's where we ended up with that case, that's why it's unsolved.”
Full interview with DiPaolo on case