Bowen on the River – The Murder of Brenda Bowen

Photo courtesy of our guest blogger, Ian

When Jerry Bowen asked Brenda Breckenridge to marry him in 1976, she eagerly said yes. When he asked her for a divorce 19 years later, a despondent Brenda, knowing the marriage had disintegrated, again said yes.

Two years later, Jerry asked Brenda to take him back, but this time her answer was no. Four days later, Brenda disappeared. Two months later, her body was found floating in the Coosa River, a few miles from the couple’s rural Westover, Alabama, home, approximately 20 miles southeast of Birmingham.

Jerry Bowen was convicted of his wife’s murder, and everyone in the tiny central Alabama town thought that was the end to the saga. On the day he was to be sentenced, Jerry was a no-show in court. He went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his identity, but in the end, he could not outwit forensic science.

Most of Jerry and Brenda’s 19-year-marriage was happy. They had two teenage children, a son Jason and a daughter Jinjer. (Yes, that is how she spelled her name.) The couple was well-off financially; Jerry worked as a contractor and Brenda as a real estate agent.

By 1995, the 42-year-old Brenda knew the marriage was falling apart as the 48-year-old Jerry was having an affair with a younger woman. It was the quintessential midlife crisis, and Jerry decided to quit the marriage. He asked Brenda for a divorce; though saddened, she agreed. The proceedings were finalized just over a year later.

The marriage ending was amicable, and Jerry agreed to give most of the couple’s joint assets to Brenda. They were still on good terms, so much so that they decided o an unusual living arrangement: Brenda would live in the main house while Jerry lived in the smaller guest house on the former couple’s property.

For six months, the arrangement worked out well. But then Jerry realized the young woman he had taken up with might not have been attracted to him for his looks or charisma. Jerry wished he had not been so generous in the divorce settlement as he was in severe financial trouble.

Just as quickly as Jerry Bowen had squandered his marriage, his lover had wasted his money.

Brenda, conversely, had no financial trouble as her real estate business continued to thrive. In desperation, Jerry turned for help to the woman he had turned away.

On January 24, 1997, Jerry asked Brenda that they re-marry to give him some financial relief. Brenda told friends of the request; her decision is not known for sure, but it most likely was no.

Four days later, two of Brenda’s friends came to her home, having not heard from her and concerned that she had not attended her regular prayer meeting. Not finding her there, they called the police.

Shelby County Deputies found some of Brenda’s clothes neatly folded and lying on her bed, her jewelry lying neatly on her dresser, and her curling iron turned on in the bathroom.

That evening, police found Brenda’s car, stuck in the mud, 43 miles away. Inside were her purse, cell phone, and checkbook. Police were struck that the driver’s seat was pushed to the back. Brenda was only 5’2″ tall, and it would have been impossible for her to have reached the car’s pedals with the seat in that position.

At 6’1″ tall, Jerry Bowen would have had the seat in that position to drive.

When questioned by police, Jerry showed no concern for Brenda’s well-being and gave evasive answers to detectives’ questions. The interview took place in the early morning hours, and he fell asleep at one point.

Nothing, however, linked Jerry to Brenda’s disappearance, and he was released.

Two months later, on March 29, 1997, three fishermen saw a body floating in the Coosa River. The Shelby County Coroner identified the remains as those of Brenda Bowen.

Her body was too decomposed for the cause of death to be determined.

A green bed sheet with a nylon rope tied around it covered Brenda’s body. The bedsheet was confirmed as having come from her home.

The rope around the sheet was tied with two specific knots, a bowline and a slip. The ends of the rope were burnt. Bowen’s son Jason recognized the unusual knots as the pattern used by his dad.

In addition, Jason said when his dad cut a piece of nylon rope, he always burned the ends.

Jerry Bowen had no alibi for the day Brenda disappeared. He was arrested and charged with the murder of his ex-wife.

The case against him was entirely circumstantial but strong enough for the jury to convict him. To everyone’s surprise, the judge allowed Bowen bail for $150,000 as he awaited sentencing.

On the day of his sentencing, in March 2000, Bowen emailed a letter to his sister. It read, in part: “This may be a dumb move on my part, sis [sic], but I don’t feel I should serve time for a crime that I didn’t commit. Therefore, I’m running.” Police believed he had fled the area six days before his scheduled sentencing.

On April 28, 2000, Jerry Bowen was sentenced in absentia to life in prison.

A search of Bowen’s home found thousands of violent and sadistic pornographic images on his computer. Among the images found were those of women being tied up, shackled, and tortured. Bowen seemed to have a particular fascination with naked pregnant women.

The disturbing images found on the computer showed that Bowen had disgusting fetishes, but they failed to provide clues to his whereabouts.

Jerry Bowen stayed off the radar for over four years before the public exposure of his flight led to his capture.

The fugitive had been profiled on Unsolved Mysteries twice, America’s Most Wanted three times, and several other national crime shows.

Following the Unsolved Mysteries re-broadcast on December 22, 2004, a viewer from North Charleston, South Carolina, believed she recognized him. A man she knew as Steven Starbuck had been dating her sister on and off for the previous three years.

When police went to the man’s home, he produced a birth certificate and driver’s license identifying him as Steven Starbuck. He agreed to come to the police department for questioning.

The police, confident they had their man, were surprised when his fingerprints did not appear to match Bowen’s. Upon closer examination, however, a crime scene technician saw that although the tips of the fingers did not look alike, the ridges above the first crease on the fingers were a match.

More extensive fingerprint tests were conducted, confirming Steven Starbuck was Jerry Bowen. Bowen confessed his identity and told police he had purposefully poured acid on his hands to alter his fingerprints.

Bowen then told of his life-on-the-run: He initially fled to Reno, Nevada, where he lived for several years before briefly relocating to Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in construction doing drywall in both cities before heading back east and settling in South Carolina.

Bowen also said he had been able to elude detection by befriending homeless people and assuming their identities; the real Stephen Starbuck was such a person and victim.

Jerry Bowen was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his ex-wife Brenda. He was also convicted of identity theft.

In a 2010 interview for the show “I (Almost) Got Away with It,” Bowen again expressed his innocence in the murder of his wife. He said he fled because he was told police were going to kill him.

Several family members and friends support Bowen’s claims of innocence. No physical or forensic evidence linked him to Brenda’s murder; he was convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence.

Bowen’s children, however, are not among those who believe he is innocent.

Bowen became eligible for but was denied parole on December 1, 2019.

Now 73-years-old, Jerry Bowen is imprisoned at the Limestone Correctional Center in Harvest, Alabama.


Further Reading:

Shelby County (Alabama) Reporter
Unsolved Mysteries


More About Our Wonderful Guest Blogger:

Ian Granstra is a writer and a native Iowan now living in  Arkansas. Growing up, he enjoyed watching real-life crime shows and further researching the stories featured. He wrote about many of them on his personal Facebook page, and several people suggested he should start a group featuring his writings. Ian founded the Facebook group “Murders, Missing People and More Mysteries” in August of 2018 he writes about many cold cases. The group also features many current criminal cases in the news. When Ian isn’t writing, he enjoys exercising, traveling and collecting sports cards. He’s also a big animal lover (his Facebook nickname is “beagle lover.”)

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