By June Mathews
Sit down for an hour or so with Homewood author Jack Owens and the conversation could go in just about any direction.
A retired FBI agent, Owens has experienced life in a way few people do.
The 30-year veteran of the bureau wound up working for the FBI, he said, “because Annapolis turned me down. My whole life, since I was 3 or 4 years old, I was going to be in the Navy. But when they turned me down, it interrupted my Naval career.”
So, Owens decided to go to law school and then practice in the Navy. But that career plan, too, was interrupted during his senior year, when an FBI agent from Birmingham made a recruitment visit to the University of Alabama School of Law. Owens liked what he learned.
Thus began a crime-busting adventure that started in 1969 with a year of service in Denver followed by 29 years in the FBI’s Birmingham field office.
“The bureau was a natural home for me,” Owens said. “I considered it the perfect lifestyle, and I loved being an agent. And they even paid me to do it.”
Not only did Owens’ career involve foreign counterintelligence, terrorism, SWAT operations and the recruitment of women and minorities into the bureau, it gave him the chance to help crack some of the most notorious cases in the Southeast. Among the cases he worked on were the mail bomb assassination of U.S. Judge Robert Vance, the Atlanta child murders and the 1991 prison riot at the Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega.
“The bureau is fascinating to work for,” Owens said. “The variety is staggering, and so much stuff just unfolds before your eyes.”
When Owens retired in 1999, a different side of life began unfolding.
In 2003, he competed on the CBS reality show “Big Brother,” appearing for 36 episodes in the series’ fourth year. At 58, he was the “geezer” of the house in a cast mostly of 19- to 30-year-olds.
“Agents have to avoid cameras, so I went from never being photographed to being seen on TV by 7 million people, three episodes a week,” he said. “What a change.”
As it turns out, the personable West Virginia native who made his way to Alabama via Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., is as adept at storytelling as he was at cracking cases. About 15 years into his stint with the FBI, Owens began writing short stories and articles. But as an agent, he wasn’t allowed to publish them.
“So I shoved them under the bed and saved the ideas for later,” he said.
Some of those stories became the basis for his memoir, “Don’t Shoot! We’re Republicans!” published in 2009.
A great admirer of John F. Kennedy, Owens also wrote a chilling fictionalized account of the 1963 assassination of JFK in Dallas. That book was published in 2013.
“I just loved the guy, and I was inspired by him,” Owens said. “He asked my generation to go into government service.”
Owens is now working on the third installment of a satirical, dark comedy series featuring a serial killer named Pock, described by the author as “an evil, ugly person with a club foot and a pock-marked face who loves Victorian language, flowers and Jesus. In the first book, he gets away with stuff because people would avert their eyes from him and could never give a description.”
The first Pock book was set in Birmingham; in the second installment, the author moved his creepy character to Tuscaloosa.
But for all his post-retirement pursuits, Owens is living proof that once the FBI gets into your blood, it’s there to stay. He still refers to the bureau as “we,” and he holds some definite opinions about where the nation’s principal federal law enforcement agency stands in today’s climate of political intrigue and unrest.
“The Cold War never ended. We saw this in full stride during the 2016 election,” he said. “We know they did it, but what we don’t know is what they’ll do to affect things in the future. The FBI will be gearing up for the 2020 election to stop them from harming the process.”
Owens said one of the things he most appreciated about the bureau was that it wasn’t inherently a political organization.
“I love the culture of the FBI and how it operates,” he said. “It’s very conservative, and we’re all patriots. If we do our job, we will protect the American people.”
Jack Owens is available for speaking engagements. Visit his blog at fearofroosters.wordpress.com.