Friends Reject Suicide in 'Suspicious' Death

Friends Reject Suicide in 'Suspicious' Death

Herndon flight attendant and union representative died falling from Reston parking garage.

Fairfax County Police continue to search for clues into the death of a United Airlines flight attendant and union representative who died after falling from an upper floor of a four-story parking garage in Reston on July 11.

Police are still officially calling 44-year-old Terri Lynn Owen's death "suspicious," and Capt. Michael Vencak, captain of the Fairfax County Police Reston Substation, is awaiting the final report from investigators on the case. Vencak, however, suggested that a number of clues from the scene pointed to suicide, he said, adding that the investigation is ongoing.

"Terri was not suicidal," said Mari McColl, a friend and fellow flight attendant said. "She was a special woman. She was extremely bright, intelligent and above-all hard working. I can't say enough about her. What happened to her is just shocking to me. Terri is the last person I would suspect to hear in a story like this. I am just devastated and very sad. Her life was cut way too short."

McColl, who recently retired from a "major U.S. airline" first met Owen, a fellow native of South Carolina, 18 years ago when Owen was flying for Eastern Airlines. Though she described Owen as very "cautious" and "private," McColl, of Herndon, said that the two fellow fliers became close friends about 12 years ago when they worked closely together on union issues affecting some 2,000 local flight attendants. Owen was a two-term president of the local Dulles chapter of the American Flight Attendants union (AFA), AFL-CIO. Owen helped guide the chapter through the events of Sept. 11, 2001, McColl said. "She was phenomenal during that difficult time," McColl said. "She worked around the clock and was a great leader and she took good care of her fellow flight attendants.

"When I think of Terry, I think of her dedication during and after Sept. 11," McColl said. "For our industry that was a kick in the gut and it continues to affect us everyday."

Tammie Andersen said Owen's dedication to her fellow flight attendants was legendary and it was never more evident than in the aftermath of 9/11. "She was at the airport the entire week. She slept in the office," said Andersen, a flight attendant for a major carrier. "She did not go home because she wanted to be there for all of the returning crews."

SHORTLY AFTER 9/11, however, Owen lost her re-election bid for a third term as president. McColl said Owen did not think it would be in "good taste" to campaign so soon after the events of Sept. 11. "That didn't have any effect on the outcome," McColl said. "People just wanted new blood, that's all."

When you are a president of a union, McColl said, invariably there will be people who have different opinions about things. "It's politics," she said, "but its penny-ante kind of stuff. We are not talking Teamsters here.

"Terri was a very serious minded person. She called a spade a spade. She did not waste your time or hers."

McColl said Owen was "very disappointed" at the time, but said that the loss turned out to be "one of the best things that could have happened to Terri."

After her defeat, Owen went to work as staff negotiator for the AFA's international headquarters in Washington, D.C., McColl said. Representing more than 50,000 members, the AFA is the largest flight attendant's union in the world.

Frequent workout partners, Owen and McColl exercised together just two weeks before Owen's death. "We had a long talk that day about where her life was going," McColl said. "Terri was very happy."

In the last three years, Owen completed a master's degree in industrial relations, her friend said. "She liked where she was in life and she loved being [at the AFA]. She was looking forward to continuing with her life of public service."

Andersen had known Owen for more than 17 years. "Terri's death is a loss to all flight attendants and especially the AFA," she said. "The AFA was her life. She was happy and she was our voice."

Andersen agreed with McColl that Owen was a "very, very private person," which she said reflected her "traditional Southern family values." Despite her preference for privacy, Owen had no problem advocating the issues that mattered to all flight attendants, Andersen said.

"Terri was a very tough and skilled negotiator," Andersen, who is currently on sabbatical from a major carrier said. "I would not want to be in the same room with her if I wasn't on her side. She was also very respected on the Hill, as well."

VENCAK CONFIRMED earlier police reports that there were no signs of a struggle at the scene. "There are no defensive injuries on her," the captain said. "The only injuries to her are consistent with the fall. There are no scratch marks on her that give any indication that she was in some kind of struggle. There were no other internal or external injuries at the time that would indicate someone was fighting with her."

Last week, the Fairfax County coroner confirmed that Owen died from injuries sustained in the fall and the autopsy report confirmed that Owen was alive when she fell from the garage, but it could not determine whether or not Owen was conscious when she fell, police said.

"If it were accidental or someone threw her off, you would figure that someone would hear her screaming. There was nothing," he said.

While no one has come forward to police saying they saw Owen fall, Vencak confirmed that there were witnesses at the garage who found Owen's body immediately after the incident.

"If they heard the landing, you would think they would hear screaming," Vencak said. "If somebody was fighting or if you are sitting on a ledge or you are pushed off a ledge, you would yell and the sound echoes in those garages."

"It's a cement wall, about 4-and-a-half feet high, on the fourth floor. She could have been sitting on it. Why? I don't know."

Her friends and co-workers can't believe Owen would take her own life. Mary Schrecker is a recently retired flight attendant who knew Owen through work. "Terri had such a sweet heart and was such a hard worker," Schrecker said. "She just wasn't the type of woman who would take her own life."

"I hope who ever did this to her is caught," Schrecker said.

Andersen agreed. "Terri would never ever have jumped," she said. "I hope the police will continue their investigation."

All of the witnesses on the main level of the Monroe Street-Herndon garage said they heard "a thud" around 3:30 on the afternoon of July 11. One male witness on the other end of the garage reportedly ran over to see what the sound was, Vencak said. "So he heard the noise from a distance away, so you would think that they would also hear a scream," he said. "That could be an indication that it was suicide. Did she have problems? I don't know yet."

Owen's friends and family members are also waiting for the final word, McColl said. "I am very hopeful that there will be resolution because a lot of people need answers and closure."

The Owen family in Florence, S.C., declined to comment on Terri Owen's death other than to say: "She was a precious daughter and we will miss her terribly," said Eileen Owen, Terri's mother and director of the Senior Adult Ministry at a local Baptist church.

Owen is survived by her mother, her father Ted, her brother Dick, her sister Jan, two nieces Sydney and Eliza and one nephew Grant.