The alleged murder was shockingly televised to a nationwide audience in 1996. At the time, Delia and her then-husband were the subject of an American ABC documentary called Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story.
The American couple, who are both biologists, moved to Africa in 1974 to conduct wildlife research, first settling in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert before shifting to Zambia.
But the couple also stoked controversy with their fight against poaching (the illegal killing of wildlife), which was on display in Deadly Game. Introduced by Diane Sawyer for the ABC news-magazine show, Turning Point, the documentary included a scene in Zambia’s North Luangwa, where a local ‘scout’ finds evidence of a campsite presumably belonging to a poacher.
“On this mission, we would witness the ultimate price paid by a suspected poacher,” explained the program’s narrator.
The vision cuts to a moment where the victim has returned to the campsite and has been shot by an unknown person. At that stage the man is still alive, slowly writhing in the dirt.
The camera captures two people at the scene – the scout and another person whose identity is obscured. The scout is shown to be shooting toward the person again.
And then new vision shows the ‘poacher’ being shot multiple times by someone off-screen, after which the man no longer moves.
“It’s not every day that television news magazines show the killing of another human,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, an investigative journalist who covered the story for The New Yorker magazine in 2010.
“When this film was screened in Zambia, it caused a bit of an uproar.” Indeed, the Owens family was forced to flee Zambia and “never came back”, said Goldberg – who is now the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic.
Authorities now want Delia, Mark and Christopher, who was also working with the couple, to return in an attempt to bring closure to the cold case.
“I was not involved,” Delia told The New York Times in 2019. “There was never a case, there was nothing.”
In fact, there was a case, but a body was never found and the victim was never identified, which hindered the police’s investigation.
“The bush is the perfect place to commit a crime,” former Zambian national police commissioner, Graphael Musamba, told The New Yorker. “The animals eat the evidence.”
Either that, or maybe the body was hidden. Biemba Musole, the Zambian police detective in charge of the investigation, believes the victim’s body was put into a helicopter and dropped in a lagoon.
Even though police wish to question Delia, she insists she has no information that would help in the case.
“We don’t even know where that event took place,” she has said of the incident. “It was horrible – a person being shot like that.”
After returning to the US, Delia lived in Idaho before moving to the mountains of North Carolina, where she grew up. Where the Crawdads Sing, a decade-long labour of love which has become one of the most popular novels of all time, was inspired by her years in nature.
“I had this burning desire to write a novel that would explore how much we can learn about ourselves from nature,” she said.
“Almost every part of the book has some deeper meaning. There’s a lot of symbolism in this book,” she adds of her choice to write about animal behaviours and murder.
Whatever the extent of her knowledge of the alleged events of 1995, bestselling author Delia is now learning the Zambian authorities will not give up their quest for the truth in a case that’s cast a shadow over her celebrated life.
“Why don’t you understand that we’re good people?” she asked Goldberg of her time in Zambia. “We were just trying to help.”
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