Story by Loyd McIntosh and photos by Brit Huckabay and Jack Owens
Jack Owens has lived one heck of a life. Spend a few minutes talking with the retired FBI agent and it’s hard not to feel slightly boring.
Owens spent more than 30 years in the FBI (mostly in Birmingham) doing everything from tamping down prison riots to catching draft dodgers and bringing serial killers to justice. Since then he’s become an in-demand public speaker and interview subject on topics as wide-ranging as criminal justice to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He even competed on season four of the CBS reality series Big Brother, finishing sixth while competing against others half his age. Now he can add writer to his increasingly impressive resume.
Owens has four books under his belt, including his memoir recounting some of the more humorous stories from his days with the feds. Titled Don’t Shoot, We’re Republicans, published in 2009, Owens peels back the curtain on a career that, at times, didn’t always follow official FBI protocol. For instance, Owens’ own account of finally catching a Vietnam-era draft dodger in which he drove to the prospect’s home in Leeds, Alabama, in his beat-up Volkswagen Beetle instead of an FBI-approved sedan.
“I broke every rule in the book,” says Owens. “It’s almost farcical to see an FBI agent drive a VW to Leeds to arrest a guy.”
In an even odder twist to the story, Owens sat down with his newly-caught and handcuffed suspect to a plate of delicious-smelling collard greens before booking him in the FBI office downtown.
“What I told headquarters is not exactly what always happened,” says Owens. “You treat headquarters like a mushroom. Best to keep some things in the dark.”
Then there is the story of the night Owens and a group of agents accidentally ensnared a pair of older ladies on their way home from a rally with President Ronald Reagan at a roadblock while lying in wait for a dangerous suspect. “We had our guns drawn, ready to charge and the poor ladies, frightened out of their wits, threw their arms in the air while one yelled, ‘Don’t shoot. We’re Republicans.'”
During his 30-year FBI career, Owens was involved in many high-profile and, at times, dangerous cases. For instance, he was a member of the team that successfully defused a 1991 prison riot at the Federal Correction Institution maximum-security prison in Talladega in which 120 Cuban detainees armed with homemade weapons took seven Bureau of Prisons and three Immigration and Naturalization Service employees hostage.
The standoff began after the men, who had exhausted their appeals through the legal system, demanded they not be sent back to Cuba. After 10 days of tense negotiations, the situation soured to the point that the George H.W. Bush administration feared it was turning deadly and the order came to “blow the doors and rescue the hostages,” Owens explains. “The inmates had drawn names out of a hat to see which guard they were going to kill, so we had to go in.”
Owens was one of approximately 180 FBI agents from Birmingham and Atlanta who entered the FCI Talladega Alpha Unit using shaped charges, rescuing all hostages without injury.
Owens was also part of the team that in 1981 brought to justice Wayne Williams, a serial killer believed to be behind almost two dozen murders in Atlanta. He also assisted in the investigation of the mail bomb assassination of Mountain Brook resident and United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit judge Robert Vance in 1989, resulting in the conviction and 2018 execution by lethal injection of Walter Moody. Owens and Judge Vance had become friends earlier in Jack’s career and this brutal murder was one he took personally.
Far from the popular culture depiction of an FBI agent getting into gun fights left and right, Owens only fired his weapon once during a drug investigation in rural north Alabama, though he was a crack shot at the range and trained regularly. The majority of his time in the field was spent investigating crimes, interviewing people, and anticipating the bad guy’s next move.
One such anticipation saved his life in the Pickwick Hotel. Jack went up to the fifth floor alone to arrest a guy who seemed willing enough, but Jack felt something was amiss. The guy was nonchalantly reaching for a gun in his sock when Jack pinned him down and cuffed him. As he later admitted, “I broke the cardinal rule which is ‘always call for backup.’”
These days, Owens is putting his FBI training to good use as a fiction writer. To date, he’s written three novels beginning with a fictionalized story of the aforementioned Kennedy assassination, Watchman: JFK’s Last Ride, published in 2013. His newest novel is titled Pock: Give Them Over To Death, the second installment in a planned trilogy of dark comedies centered around a disfigured but highly intelligent serial killer.
Owens introduced the troubled character in 2016 in the first novel of the series, simply titled Pock. Pock’s life is a tragic one, often gaining sympathy from the reader even as he enacts his own twisted sense of religious justice. Pock is born horribly disfigured with a face not even his mother could love. “People call him ‘Pock’ to mock him. He’s got bad ideas about how to live his life,” Owens says.
Despite his tragic life, Pock is highly intelligent and possesses some interesting supernatural abilities. “He talks to plants and they bend at his will,” says Owens.
Jack will tell you that life has been good to him and luck played a part of it all. “Being assigned to the Birmingham FBI office was a stroke of luck that I still can’t believe. I got to know Bear Bryant, chase bad guys, and raise my family in an incredible community. What more could I ask for?”