If you’ve visited a bookstore in the past few years, chances are you’ve seen Where the Crawdads Sing’s hazy orange hardcover grace a display shelf or two. The bestselling novel about a murder in a North Carolina marsh by Delia Owens, a former conservationist, has been praised as “painfully beautiful” by critics. Actress, producer, and Southerner Reese Witherspoon chose the book for her book club. Her production company, Hello Sunshine, adapted it into a 2022 film starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, with Taylor Swift on the soundtrack.
But Owens’s career started long before her novel became a huge success. Delia Owens and her ex-husband, Mark Owens, were prominent conservationists, and in the 1990s they lived in Zambia, making it their life’s work to prevent poaching. But in 1995, their methods went a step too far when a suspected poacher was shot and killed. At the time, an ABC News crew was filming a documentary about the Owenses, but they didn’t film the shooter — only the bullets being fired into the man’s body. The couple left Zambia soon afterward and went back home to the United States. They are still wanted for questioning by the Zambian government.
Fast-forward a couple of decades later, and Delia Owens is now the author of the bestselling book Where the Crawdads Sing. But as journalist and editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Jeff Goldberg tells Today Explained’s Noel King, the book draws on her past life in conservation — and for the past 14 years, he has tried to get to the bottom of what happened on that fateful day in 1995.
“It just doesn’t seem right that it happened,” Goldberg says.
What is Delia Owens’s story, and what does it have in common with her novel that’s sold over 15 million copies? A partial transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Jeff, your reporting found that Delia’s husband Mark and his son, Chris, were present the night of the murder. Tell me about how this American couple ended up in Zambia.
They had, early in life, decided that they were going to go save the animals in Africa. They were naturalists. They moved first to Botswana, and were very young conservationists, and they wrote a book out of their experience, called The Cry of the Kalahari, which became quite popular. They went to Zambia. They found this park north of Luangwa — it has great wildlife and these very, very remote parks — and in this particular park north of Luangwa, there was a poaching problem with elephants and rhinos. And they set themselves up there.
Over time, Mark got more and more militant in his efforts to fight poaching and would fly nighttime missions. He kept talking about Vietnam. He had never served in Vietnam, but he kept, in books and other talks, talking about it as if it were Vietnam. They were throwing cherry bombs and other things out of planes at night, burning the tents of poaching groups. And as things got darker and darker, [Mark and Delia Owens] started claiming to other people in the region that they were killing poachers, that the scouts under Mark Owens’s command were killing poachers. Delia refers to this in a couple of their books, and she expresses ambivalence about it. But she was part of this operation. She co-ran this operation with Mark Owens. And eventually I think what happened, to put it bluntly, is they became so enamored with it all that they thought, “you know what, we need a lot of publicity for this.” That’s when they invited ABC News in.
And that’s how we get to the night when someone kills an alleged poacher, while an ABC News camera is running. Tell me about that night.
On the night in question, Mark Owens flew an ABC cameraman, a producer, and his son Chris Owens, who was then helping him in this operation, out to an unknown location. We don’t know where it was exactly in the park, but it was on the outskirts of the park, near what they said was an abandoned poacher camp. And at a certain point in the night, an unidentified person came into the camp and was shot.
This person who is shot — and we can’t really tell — is a Black person, but we don’t know anything about this man’s identity other than that. He’s allegedly a poacher coming into this camp and is on the ground. We can visibly see that he’s moving. So he’s wounded, he’s not dead. Then there are three more shots from off camera.
The camera doesn’t pivot to show us who the shooter is. We don’t see who is firing, but the bullets are fired into this body.
And that’s the last we see of this. My investigation, 13, 14 years ago, learned that the shots from off camera were fired by Chris Owens. The person who told me that was the ABC cameraman. Chris Everson is a South African cameraman and very prominent journalist. Chris Owens disappeared from the camp, witnesses told me after that, and was sent out to America. He’s never been back to Zambia. Nobody calls the authorities.
Can I ask you about the moment you realize this woman whose trail you’ve been on for many years has written a book that is in Reese Witherspoon’s book club. What the hell was that like?
It started with one or two emails from people who remembered my New Yorker piece from 2010 who said, “Hey, I don’t know if you know this, but Delia Owens is on the New York Times Best Seller list.” And so it piqued my curiosity. I went out and got the book and — this is the strange part — the book is kind of Edgar Allan Poe-ish in a certain way. There are all these hints and allusions to earlier dark events in Zambia. I mean, spoiler alert, to the extent that there’s anybody in America who doesn’t know what this book is about, the book is about a strange, awkward, loner, naturalist Southern girl who commits a described-as-righteous murder in what would in the African context be known as the bush, and what in the American context would be known as the wilderness or the swamps or whatever.
And I’m reading it and I’m going, “Oh, my goodness.” And by the way, it makes references to people that they knew in Zambia. I mean, the name of the jailhouse cat is Sunday Justice, which is the name of their cook and aide in their camp in North Luangwa. A guy I met. And I come across that, I’m like, “Oh my goodness.” Not to make this self-referential, but I thought she was trolling me from a distance kind of way. I was like, “Why are you planting all these clues? Why are you doing this?”
At the end of the day, Jeff, what would you like to happen here? What do you think justice would look like? Is justice what you want? Or do you just want to keep chasing the Owenses around the world?
No, I don’t. I had done my thing 12 years ago, wrote my piece, put it out in the world. Thank you very much, on to the next thing. You know, I’ll tell you what bothers me. What bothers me is the idea that somebody was murdered in a remote part of Zambia, a remote part of Africa, and no one cares.
I would like to know who the person was. It was a male. Probably had a family, disappeared into the bush. If the body was dumped in a lagoon, it means it was eaten by crocodiles. It doesn’t seem right, is my point. It just doesn’t seem right that this happened. And I include ABC News in the category of people who have done wrong things here because they were just out looking for some violence, right? And they know what happened.
And Chris Everson, the ABC News cameraman, his conscience obviously was bothering him when I called him in South Africa. He told me what happened. He didn’t say “no comment.” He didn’t say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He didn’t lie. He told me the truth. He said, “This is a terrible thing that happened. And I saw it.” And it was almost like he was waiting for years for somebody to call him, and I just think it’s wrong. And I know that some combination of Mark, Chris, and Delia Owens know exactly what happened to this person and they know where the body was taken. And that just doesn’t seem right.