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Insurance scam left soldier buried under wrong name

Folded flag resting on a headstone. (MaxPixel/Released/TNS)

Lillian Barnes’ son Kenneth didn’t come home for Thanksgiving in 1972.

The Army told her the Fort Gordon private had gone AWOL and deserted.

But he hadn’t.

Nine years later, investigators said Barnes had been eight miles away all along, buried in Hillcrest Memorial Gardens under the name of John Henry Owens.

Most of this came out in 1981 when three people admitted their roles in what appeared to be a $100,000 insurance scam. One was the real John Henry Owens, formerly of Martinez. A second was his wife, Nellie Pearl, and a third was an Army sergeant named Robert McMahon.

All pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison.

There were few details about the crime revealed that fall in Richmond County Superior Court. It was generally accepted, however, that Barnes, an 18-year-old from Ohio, had been killed and his body placed in Owens’ vehicle, which was wrecked in a fiery crash near the quarry where Owens worked.

The body was so badly burned that no positive identification could be made, but it was assumed to be Owens. A brief item mentioning the death appeared in the Nov. 13, 1972, edition of The Augusta Chronicle along with an obituary from Elliott’s Funeral Home.

Owens’ wife collected on the insurance policy taken out 10 months earlier. She would move to DeLand, Fla., change her name to Nellie Pearl Parks and live with her husband, who called himself Joe Parks. They started a new life with a tree-trimming business, which did not do well.

Police would be tipped off by family that the couple was hiding something, and with some investigation the story came out.

Almost nine years to the day of that fiery 1972 crash, John Henry and Nellie Pearl Owens pleaded guilty. He was given a 20-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and a 10-year sentence for theft by deception, with a $10,000 fine. His wife was given 10 years for one count of theft.

Both agreed to testify against McMahon, said to have been a Fort Gordon military policeman in 1972. Their attorney, John Fleming, said the couple admitted they “had made a mistake” and would accept their punishment.

A week later, McMahon, who had been 19 at the time of Barnes’ disappearance, would abruptly plead guilty to manslaughter and get 20 years.

Some complained about the lenient plea deal worked out by District Attorney Sam Sibley that converted the grisly death of a young soldier into manslaughter, but Judge Franklin Pierce would defend the strategy. In a Chronicle interview weeks after the trial, he said there was not enough evidence to prove the charred remains were definitively the young soldier. It was also uncertain whether McMahon could be convicted without testimony from the Owenses.

Pierce also pointed out a gap in the law. When the death occurred in 1972, Georgia had temporarily suspended the death penalty. Anyone convicted for a 1972 crime would not only escape the ultimate punishment, he said, but eventually qualify for parole. The court offered the harshest justice that the system could assure.

Back in Amherst, Ohio, the Army – with some pressure from U.S. Sen. John Glenn – came through for the soldier it had called a deserter for almost a decade.

Officially it declared the remains from Augusta to be those of Pvt. Kenneth W. Barnes. He was buried with full military honors in a funeral covered by national media.

John and Nellie Owens would do their time and be released. She would die in 2001 and he in 2006, according to Chronicle archives. The Georgia parole board released McMahon after three years, and he returned to his family in Arizona.


© 2019 The Augusta Chronicle