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Hopes were high for the big-screen adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing, the 2018 best-seller by Delia Owens set in the coastal marshland of North Carolina.
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, produced by Reese Witherspoon (who also gave Owens' debut novel an incalculable boost by making it one of her book club selections) and featuring an original song by Taylor Swift, the movie headed to theaters July 15 with an impressive pedigree and a built-in fandom.
But instead of all the twists taking place onscreen as the murder mystery ensnaring Crawdads' heroine heats up, a decades-old cold case linked to Delia and her ex-husband Mark Owens resurfaced in real life instead.
The wild story involving elephants, poachers and an alleged murder caught on camera in Africa has actually been hiding in plain sight, reported on over the years yet top of mind again as the rapturously received title continued to make headlines.
But the news was that the director of public prosecutions in Zambia recently told The Atlantic that her office would still like to question Delia, Mark and his son from a previous marriage, Christopher Owens, with regard to the alleged 1995 killing of a suspected poacher that was filmed by ABC News while they were making an episode of Turning Point about Mark and Delia.
"I've spoken with many leaders of the criminal investigation department of the Zambian national police, and they are very, very eager to speak to Delia Owens," Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, whose July 11 article catapulted this story into the spotlight, told NBC News' Joe Fryer July 15 on TODAY.
That being said, Goldberg continued, "Zambian authorities don't believe Delia was directly involved in the murder or the disposal of the body. What they believe is that she's the most important witness. Delia told me point blank that they knew nothing of this murder, and they had absolutely nothing to do with it."
A rep for Delia has not yet returned E! News' request for comment. The New York Times reported receiving a no comment from her publicist this week—but in 2019 (when the case was previously broached because her book was a raging success) she told the Times, "I was not involved. There was never a case, there was nothing."
Through their attorneys, Mark and Chris Owens have also denied any wrongdoing or involvement whatsoever with the alleged incident, according to the Times and The Atlantic.
ABC News and Zambian authorities had not yet returned NBC News' requests for comment.
Who Are Mark and Delia Owens?
Long before she made a massive splash with Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia had coauthored several nonfiction books with her then-husband Mark drawing from their experiences as wildlife conservationists living among the animals in Africa.
According to their best-selling 1984 memoir Cry of the Kalahari, Mark and Delia met in a protozoology class at the University of Georgia when they were both graduate students studying biology. They married in 1973 and, on Jan. 4, 1974, they boarded a plane to Johannesburg, South Africa, with "two backpacks, two sleeping bags, one pup tent, a small cooking kit, a camera, one change of clothes each and $6,000," Mark wrote. "It was all we had to set up our research."
They lived for a time in Botswana, as detailed in their first book, initially making camp in an isolated area of the Kalahari Desert known as Deception Valley. One day Mark happened upon what looked to him like systematic poaching of wildebeests, the shooters ostensibly allowed to pick off the animals en masse in order to protect the country's cattle industry.
He and Delia started speaking out about it, first locally and then as publicly as possible—and ultimately ran afoul of the government, which ordered them out of the country.
"We lost everything," Mark told People about becoming personae non gratae in Botswana. "It took a lot of healing to get over it."
He and Delia picked Zambia for their next destination, settling in North Luangwa National Park in 1986, another seemingly ideal location to immerse themselves in research. They eventually opened an office in Mpika, the largest nearby town.
What Did Mark and Delia Owens Do in Zambia?
In their 1992 book The Eye of the Elephant, they recalled the first time they saw evidence of poachers—elephant skulls and skeletons stripped clean—in their new surroundings as well. "Now we understand why we have not seen a single living elephant, or a sign of one, in the eight days since we entered the park," they wrote. "We are standing in the midst of a killing field."
Age-old issues with illegal poaching in a number of African nations and the struggle to ensure the survival of some of the world's most impressive animals native to those habitats—as well as the violence that has erupted between warring sides with opposing agendas—are well-documented.
Mark and Delia "went to study hyenas and lions and other large mammals, but got caught up in what could be best described as the poaching wars," Goldberg detailed in a 2014 New Yorker video commenting on the 1996 Turning Point episode. When they arrived at North Luangwa National Park, "poachers were decimating the park's elephant population. They found virtually no law enforcement presence at all. They found scouts assigned to the park who were bedraggled and essentially unarmed. They raised money and bought uniforms and food and weapons to take these newly trained scouts into the bush, bringing the fight to the poachers."
According to a 2010 New Yorker piece by Goldberg, in 1979 there were roughly 1.3 million elephants in Africa, and 10 years later there were only half as many. A boom in the ivory trade had attracted AK-47-toting poachers to Luangwa and when the Owenses got there, they said, perhaps 5,000 elephants remained in the national park.
In Eye of the Elephant, they recount Mark patrolling the park in his small plane, trying to scare off poachers from on high.
Delia's quoted telling her husband that she didn't want him killing himself for nothing, that maybe his death would matter, so to speak, if it would actually stop the poachers, but it wouldn't—and she couldn't stick around and watch him keep risking his life. "You're doing what you believe is right, and I respect you for that," she told him. "You'll keep after the poachers until you either drive them out or fly into the ground trying."
She actually walked out, leaving a note reading, "I love you. Maybe if we survive this, we can start over" (as shared in their book) and set up her own camp along the Luangwa River. But they weren't apart for very long.
What Happened During Filming of the 1996 ABC News Special "Deadly Game"?
In 1994 and again in 1995, an ABC crew headed to Zambia to document Mark and Delia's work for Turning Point, a news magazine show that ran from 1994 to 1999. The interest was fueled by the publication of The Eye of the Elephant—in which they described offering a bounty of an extra month's pay to the park scouts for every five poachers they caught—and their rising celebrity status back home, including a congenial appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Mark and Delia noted in book's postscript that, since they'd begun their conservation project, poaching was down from a thousand elephants a year, as it was in 1986 when they first arrived, to only 12 in 1991—and they stood by Mark's militant efforts.
"There were several assassination teams that were sent down by poachers with the intent to kill us," Delia told Meredith Vieira, who hosted the episode, on location in North Luangwa. "I mean, lions don't frighten me nearly as much as humans."
Per the New Yorker, the Turning Point episode showed Mark telling the scouts, "If you see poachers in the national park with a firearm, you don't wait for them to shoot at you. You shoot at them first, all right? That means when you see the whites of his eyes, and if he has a firearm, you kill him before he kills you, because if you let him get—if you let him turn on you with an AK-47, he's going to cut you in two. So go out there and get them. Go get them, O.K.?"
He told Vieira, "I'm not comfortable at all with it. I'm absolutely uncomfortable with it. Sometimes poachers are killed and occasionally scouts have been killed." But if the scouts had killed anyone, Mark added, "they aren't going to tell me."
It was when the crew was riding along on a patrol (on the ground, not in Mark's Cessna) in broad daylight that they ended up filming what Vieira later reported in the broadcast was "the ultimate price paid by a suspected poacher."
According to what unfolded in "Deadly Game," a game scout happened upon what looked like an abandoned campsite, a few shotgun shells scattered on the ground. He waited to see if anyone would return, then, Vieira said in her narration, the "cameras begin rolling again after a shot is fired at the returning trespasser."
In the clip posted by The New Yorker, the scout is seen from behind running toward what appeared to be a wounded person on the ground, then fired another shot. Then a second person who appears to be carrying a rifle, face and torso blurred, is seen in the background. With camera directed at the figure on the ground, three more shots can be heard, the body moving slightly as they ring out.
The person allegedly shot has never been identified, by authorities or otherwise, nor have the people who appeared to fire the shots. At least not officially.
Goldberg reported in The New Yorker that no mention was made in the Turning Point episode of the ABC team pursuing any further investigation into what they witnessed. He wrote that ABC denied his request to view the raw footage, an ABC News spokesman calling it akin to "asking for another reporter's notebook."
He noted in his July 11 Atlantic piece that he didn't see the episode until a few years after it aired, when some conservationists involved in African wildlife protection sent him a tape.
What Delia and Mark Owens Have Said About the Alleged Killing
"It's the reality—the messy reality, I'm afraid," Mark told Vieira on camera about poaching-related violence." The host concurred, to which he replied, "But that's the reality. It's ugly why? Is it ugly because of the elephants? They haven't done anything wrong. It's people who make it ugly."
Without social media or other means by which even the most minimally eyebrow-raising moments on TV now go viral, the airing of Turning Point: "Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story" on March 30, 1996, didn't produce a massive outcry for answers as far as the shooting was concerned.
But in response to concerns they'd received over "some of the footage from that program," Mark and Delia wrote in a letter to donors the following month, they reiterated that the "'shoot to kill policy' is only used by Zambian government Game Scouts in self defense. It is not a policy of our project." Moreover, they stated, "We were not involved in this incident, or in any other incident of this nature."
The Zambian government has denied having a so-called "shoot-to-kill" policy in any scenario.
Zambian national police opened a homicide investigation in the summer of 1996 after the government finally acquired a tape of the documentary, according to Goldberg. But with no body and unable to readily question anyone involved with the production—Mark and Delia left Zambia for what they said was a regularly scheduled trip to America in September 1996—the case soon stalled. The government seized the couple's North Luangwa Conservation Project in the meantime.
Turning Point senior broadcast producer Janice Tomlin—who wasn't on location with the production but going by what the Owenses and crew who were there told her—wrote in a letter to the U.S. Ambassador in Zambia, "I can assure you in the strongest way possible that neither Mark nor Delia Owens nor any other North Luangwa Conservation Project staff were even in the area at the time of this shooting."
In a letter to the Zambian attorney general, also per Goldberg, Mark Owens maintained that the AR-15 rifle he was filmed carrying in the documentary wasn't even real. "I carried this replica in my helicopter from time to time," he wrote, "and let it be seen by scouts and a few captured poachers so that the word would spread that I was heavily armed and therefore not a 'soft target.'"
Vieira told Goldberg, "The guns looked real to me. I'd be freaked out if they weren't real. What was he going to do if the elephant charged? Yell 'Bang, bang'?"
Some supporters of that Owenses accused ABC News of sensationalizing, or perhaps even staging, events as opposed to accurately reflecting Mark's actions regarding poachers in Zambia. Andrew Tkach—"Deadly Game's" field producer, who spent a month at the park in 1994 and returned in 1995—told Goldberg in 2010 that the finished product was an accurate portrayal.
Tomlin, no longer with ABC by then but still working as a producer, told the writer, "I can categorically tell you that any project I've ever been involved with, any program—60 Minutes, any program—that there has been no staging of any event."
Chris Everson, the Africa-based cameraman who filmed the shooting, broke his years-long silence about it to Goldberg, telling him, "It's a very complicated story, it was a very emotional thing, it was a very bad thing. It's something that never should have happened."
Despite various efforts made to smooth relations over with police and the government, Mark and Delia never returned to Zambia after leaving in 1996. They made their next home on a 500-acre ranch in northern Idaho's Boundary County.
Delia told Goldberg for his 2010 piece that she and Mark didn't "know anything about" poachers getting killed. "The only thing Mark ever did was throw firecrackers out of his plane, but just to scare poachers, not to hurt anyone."
Lawyers for the couple also said at the time, "What the scouts did on the ground with poachers was simply not Mark's business."
As for her stepson, who had spent a few summers with them by 1995, Delia said, "Chris wasn't there. We don't even know where that event took place. It was horrible, a person being shot like that." (Information on her split from Mark is scarce, but Delia referred to him in a 2019 interview with Amazon as her "former husband."
What Is the State of the Murder Investigation in Zambia Now?
No arrests were ever made or charges ever filed—against anyone—in the case of the alleged killing of the suspected poacher.
Biemba Musole, deputy commissioner in charge of criminal investigations, detailed to Goldberg going from village to village in 1996 as a detective, playing the tape of the Turning Point piece for people and asking if they recognized anyone or otherwise knew anything about the incident. His team brought their own TV, VCR and generator on the road with them.
"We asked in every village if someone had gone missing in the time period," Musole said, "but no one in the immediate surrounding villages said, 'Yes, this is the person.'"
Graphael Musamba, Zambian national police commissioner in 2010, put it bluntly: "The bush is the perfect place to commit murder. We have this all the time in the Northern Province. The animals eat the evidence."
But authorities told Goldberg for his July 11 Atlantic story that they'd still like to bring charges in the 1995 case and they felt Delia, Mark and Chris could provide some answers.
Said Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, director of public prosecutions: "There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia. They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens."
In 2019, Delia marveled to the New York Times as Where the Crawdads Sing approached 5 million copies sold (it's since sold more than 12 million), "I never really thought I could write a novel."
She worked on it for 10 years at her ranch in Idaho and only dared hope that someone might read it one day.
Asked about any perceived parallels between her own story and that of her heroine, a scrappy girl named Kya who's abandoned by her mother, abused by her father and later stands trial for murder, she explained, "It's about trying to make it in a wild place."
Denying involvement in or knowledge of the Zambia shooting when the Times asked about it, Delia added, "It's painful to have that come up, but it's what Kya had to deal with, name-calling. You just have to put your head up or down, or whichever, you have to keep going and be strong. I've been charged by elephants before."
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