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Meet Rich Owens, Oklahoma's most infamous executioner

by Graham Lee Brewer Modified: February 28, 2014 at 4:45 pm •  Published: February 27, 2014
9/27/1977 McAlester Prison, Death Row Execution Chamber Electric Chair aka "Old Sparky." Staff photo By Paul B. Southerland
9/27/1977 McAlester Prison, Death Row Execution Chamber Electric Chair aka "Old Sparky." Staff photo By Paul B. Southerland

Given all of the news recently surrounding Oklahoma’s lethal injection process, I thought it would be timely to take a look back at an interesting part of the state’s execution history, in particular the career of one of Oklahoma’s most notorious killers.

Enter Rich Owens, a hard-nosed work crew boss at the state penitentiary with 65 executions and 10 other killings to his name. Not only did Owens build the state’s first electrocution chair, he manned the switch on “Old Sparky” for 33 years, became a nationally-recognized execution expert, executed men in four states, and personally killed a handful of inmates who dared to escape from Bic Mac during his tenure as a guard, including one man he beat to death with a shovel before stomping on his skull until it broke.

However, there could have been more. Speaking about the men he killed, Owens said “I never count peckerwoods,” a term often used to refer to inmates.

In this 1948 piece, reporter Ray Parr interviews Owens days before he died of cancer, giving a graphic and colorful take on his career. It might be the most fascinating Oklahoman story I have ever read. The second page of the article is here.

The story details how Owens became the state’s executioner by simply walking up and throwing the switch when the man who held the job at the time showed up too drunk to stand, and it quotes Owens extensively on a couple of the inmates he killed in the prison yard.

Love him or hate him, one thing is for sure, Rich Owens was tough as nails, both physically and emotionally.


by Graham Lee Brewer
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Graham Lee Brewer began his career as a journalist covering Oklahoma's vibrant music scene in 2006. After working as a public radio reporter for KGOU and then Oklahoma Watch, where he covered areas such as immigration and drug addiction, he went...
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