Robert Hayner walked into a small room inside the Crossroads Correctional Center on March 14 of this year to face a parole board for the fourth time. As on his previous attempts, he was denied.
His previous denials were likely in large part due to his victim’s family speaking out. After all, he was involved in the 1994 murder of 20-year-old Stephen “Shorty” Owen. Hayner’s fourth denial, though, differed from the others.
“Every time I’ve gone up for parole it’s taken six to eight weeks (to get a decision),” Hayner said. “This time it took one day.”
Hayner’s cousin, Gary Hayner, described the process as he saw it this March.
“It’s a little intimidating. There’s a partition where the victim’s family is sitting and there’s a smaller area with a couple persons sitting in front of you,” Gary Hayner said. “In this particular hearing, there was a big TV screen and off to the right was a sixth person.”
That sixth person, Carrie Owen, a district administrator for the Missouri Department of Corrections, shares the same last name as the victim in this case. That’s no coincidence. Carrie Owen is married to victim Stephen Owen’s cousin. It’s unclear if district administrators are normally part of parole hearings.
Two days after the March parole hearing, Gary Hayner said he saw a Facebook post made by an Owen family member that said the family had found out a day before that Robert Hayer was denied parole.
“Not even my cousin had known (about that),” Gary Hayner said. “So the person who was actually incarcerated and went in front of the board hadn’t been told but the (victim’s) family had been told.”
The Missouri Department of Corrections denied repeated requests by News-Press NOW for an interview, but officials did send a statement by email.
“I’ve talked some more with probation and parole staff and confirmed that the district administrator did not have a vote in the parole hearing on this case,” said spokesperson Karen Pojmann. “All participants followed proper processes and protocol, and all pertinent information was provided to the board.”
But Robert Hayner said just the presence of a family member is enough to sway the parole board.
“I would say it is a conflict of interest because I don’t know if she said anything to them outside of the hearing,” Robert Hayner said. “They work with her. They have some type of working relationship with her. It has to be a conflict of interest.”
The murder of Stephen “Shorty” Owen
On Feb. 13, 1994 Robert Hayner, Ramsey Pickens and Shawn Hoffman committed armed robbery and murder. The why has never been answered, and maybe it never will be. Hayner was 16 at the time, Hoffman and Pickens were 20 and 21.
According to accounts presented in the original court proceedings, three men were looking for someone to rob on the North Belt Highway that February night. They zeroed in on Owen, who according to his mother, was talking to his girlfriend on a pay phone next to a pizza joint.
According to News-Press reports of the 1994 court hearings in the case, Hoffman pistol whipped Owen and forced him to drive his truck, with the trio inside, to a secluded area near West Highland Avenue and McArthur Drive. Owen was forced from his truck by Hoffman, marched to a field, and then shot.
“The first man shot him the back of the head and he fell to his knees and still, the second man shot him in the temple after hearing him mumbling, ‘You busted my stitches,’ or, ‘I need stitches,’” Nichols said in a letter.
The original court accounts indicate Hoffman was the first to fire, and then Hoffman and Hayner returned to the body to see if Owen was dead.
“They were both laughing when they came back,” Pickens said in court. “That’s why I didn’t believe they killed him.”
“This was an execution-style murder beyond anything that I can comprehend,” Circuit Judge Edwin Smith said at Hayner’s sentencing. “I have no mercy for you.”
Hayner said in his most recent interview that he isn’t sure he should be released, but he does think he deserves the same treatment as other offenders.
“I can’t specifically say a certain number of years, because when it comes down to it, there’s a person who’s never coming back,” Hayner said. “All I want is a parole hearing that’s fair and impartial.”
Just like Hayner’s parole hearing, the events of Feb. 13, 1994, have an irregularity. Original court accounts indicate each of three suspects shot Owen, but Hayner contends his shot may have missed.
“One thing that’s always bothered me is that it’s been put out there that there was a shot that was fired that actually missed the victim,” Hayner said. “I’ve always believed that I’ve missed.”
Hayner concedes that regardless of whether or not he actually shot Owen, he’s still guilty of murder. But still, that missing shot lingers.
“We fired four shots, and he was shot three times,” Hayner said. He contends Hoffman fired twice.
Last straw vs. second chance
Stephen Owen’s mother, Veronica Nichols, also wouldn’t agree to an interview with News-Press NOW, but she has spoken out about the case.
In a February letter to Buchanan County Judge Daniel Kellogg, Nichols asked for the judge to write to the parole board urging them to deny Robert Hayner and his co-conspirators parole.
“Our family and all of Shorty’s (Stephen’s) friends have greatly suffered over all these 25 years because of this heinous crime against a very loving son, brother and friend,” Nichols wrote in her letter.
“These three men made a choice to do what they did, and they deserve to stay in prison for much more time!” she added.
It’s unknown if Judge Kellogg, or anyone else, wrote a letter to the board. According to Pojmann, parole hearings are not subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Laws and thus the DOC did not provide any documents following a request from News-Press NOW.
According to Nichols, former Buchanan County Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Scroggins wrote a letter to the parole board for a 2014 hearing urging that parole be denied at that time.
“I’m not looking for nothing special, no sympathy. I just want to be treated like everyone else is being treated,” Hayner said.
Hayner’s co-conspirators in the murder case, Ramsey Pickens and Shawn Hoffman, both remain in prison. Hoffman was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Hayner plead guilty to second-degree murder and armed criminal action, receiving a life sentence with the possibility of parole on both counts.
Pickens also has been denied parole several times.
“There’s factors of the crime that people need to consider, like the involvement of each one of us and our ages,” Robert Hayner said. “You can’t forgive on something like that. I’m not the same person, and I just ask that I’m given a chance.”
As things stand, Hayner is next eligible for parole in March of 2022. Donald E. Phillips, the chairman of the Missouri Parole Board, sent a letter to Hayner in April that said the board’s decision will stand.
Matt Hoffmann can be reached
Follow him on Twitter: @NpNowHoffmann.