It looked like an accident at first.
Ten-year-old Shawn Lowrance and his new dad had gone fishing on one of the last days of an Indian summer, almost exactly one year after John and Melanie Lowrance adopted the boy.
But something terrible happened on that October day: Shawn drowned in the Skokomish River. It appeared that he slipped, cracked his head on a rock and fell into the water. The autopsy report called it an accidental death.
And so it might have stayed. But six weeks later, an insurance investigator called the Mason County Sheriff's Department.
Did you know, the investigator asked, that the Lowrances had two life insurance policies on their new son, worth a total of $650,000?
The sheriff's department didn't know. As it turns out, there was a lot they didn't know about the Lowrances, and a lot they still don't know.
They reopened Shawn's case--this time as a homicide.
History of Financial Woes
The police learned the Lowrances have a 10-year history of financial distress, including two bankruptcies, a home foreclosure and hundreds of dollars in bad checks. They discovered the Lowrances dealt with their son's death in what they consider a strange way--removing all traces of Shawn from the house, quickly cremating his body and scattering the ashes in the river.
"It's purely circumstantial," said Inspector Mike Frank, the lead detective on the case. "But people go to prison on circumstantial evidence."
He said the publicity surrounding the case has brought in further information "that compels us to continue the investigation until we file charges. That is our goal at this point."
The Lowrances, who have retained separate attorneys, have not been arrested or charged. They may never be charged. Both decline to be interviewed. Melanie Lowrance, who has refused to talk with detectives, will not speak publicly until the investigation is completed, said her attorney, Jim Dixon.
John Lowrance's attorney, Charlie Williams, scoffs at the notion that the father killed his adopted son, and perhaps did it for an insurance payoff.
"He is innocent," Williams said.
Conflicting Versions of the Fateful Day
What happened that day on the Skokomish River? Investigator Frank says he has heard two stories--one from John Lowrance and one from Shawn's 10-year-old friend who accompanied them on the trip. The stories are "significantly different," Frank says, but he won't identify the friend or discuss his version.
The father's version, as told by Frank, is this:
On Oct. 9, 1999, John Lowrance took the boys to Brown Creek Campground, a peaceful spot in the foothills of the Olympic mountains.
Shawn stayed by the campground, and the father led the friend downriver about 100 yards --around a bend, where the boy couldn't see Shawn.
The father had brought only one fishing pole, Frank said. Lowrance told the friend to wait while he found him a stick to fish with.
Sometime later, the father returned and said Shawn was missing. Frank said the friend and Lowrance walked back to the campsite, where they found Shawn's body in icy water five or six feet deep.
The father told deputies he tried to save his son, but the current was too strong. So, Frank said, the father got a rope from his truck, tied one end around the friend's wrist and sent him into the water to retrieve Shawn's body.
Shawn was flown to Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma, but it was too late. He died that night, just three weeks before his 11th birthday.
Halloween came and went with none of the neighbors knowing the boy was dead.
The Lowrances had decorated their house and had gone trick-or-treating with their 12-year-old daughter and a boy about Shawn's age. At the time, neighbors assumed the boy was Shawn. Now nobody knows who he was.
Then, on Jan. 26, people living in the pleasant cul-de-sac in Lacey, a middle-class suburb of the state capital, Olympia, watched sheriff's deputies search the Lowrances' home. They were shocked to learn Shawn was dead.
"No one knew anything had happened," said Pat Cheshire, an elderly neighbor.
She remembers seeing Shawn playing by himself, riding his bike or pulling weeds from the cracks in the sidewalk. Sometimes when she was outside he would stand at the edge of her driveway alone, quietly looking at her.
During the search, deputies toted out a computer and black garbage bags, some of which they filled with adoption and financial records. Later they searched John Lowrance's pickup truck and took samples. In an affidavit, a detective said the samples appeared to be bloodstains.
That affidavit, requesting a warrant to search the Lowrances' truck, identified the couple as being under investigation for homicide.
As they investigated, the detectives followed the Lowrances' money.
"They were in dire financial straits," Frank said. "If they did kill this child, the motive is obviously money."
John Lowrance earns about $32,000 a year as a corrections officer at McNeil Island state prison in Puget Sound. His wife does housekeeping work. They paid more than $200 a month in premiums to Mutual of Omaha and to Farmers Insurance for life insurance on their biological daughter and Shawn. Each was insured for $500,000, with an extra $150,000 in accidental-death coverage on the boy.
Neither company has paid on Shawn's policy yet.
Life insurance worth $650,000 for a child is "very unusual," according to Jim Stevenson, spokesman for the state insurance commissioner's office. Sometimes parents buy insurance as an investment for children, but it rarely tops $50,000.
Couple Had Unstable Background
This is not the first time an insurance company has investigated the Lowrances. In 1991, the couple claimed that baseball cards stolen from their house were worth thousands and asked Allstate Insurance Co. for $29,750.
Allstate's attorney said in court documents that John Lowrance had tried earlier to sell the cards for a total of $300. Lowrance said he had looked up the cards in a reference book--on the very day they were stolen--and discovered they were worth much more.
The case went to an arbitrator, Fred Butterworth, who wrote, "The policy language would permit the conclusion that [Lowrance] has entered into fraud or misrepresentation."
However, without any proof of the cards' value, Butterworth awarded the Lowrances $1,029.75 --the same amount Allstate had originally offered.
The Lowrances declared bankruptcy a few months after the alleged theft. Their debts were discharged in November 1991, but their problems persisted.
In July 1993, Melanie Lowrance called 911 and said her husband was attacking her. When officers arrived, they saw cuts on John Lowrance and arrested his wife for investigation of assault.
Charges were never filed because Lowrance later denied that his wife had attacked him, and added he was too drunk to remember what happened, according to a memo written by prosecutor Ken Nichols, who noted that Melanie Lowrance "may have a legitimate self-defense claim."
The Lowrances eventually reconciled, and for a while they seemed to regain their footing.
John Lowrance continued working at the prison. In 1994 his wife got a job as custodial supervisor at the state women's prison. They bought a new truck and moved into a brown ranch house in Lacey.
Former neighbor Lon Waltenberger especially remembers Melanie Lowrance:
"In the family, she seemed to be the manager." He said she complained about her prison job.
"She didn't like it at all," Waltenberger recalled. "She ran into problems with authority. It was her way or no way."
Melanie Lowrance quit and entered the housekeeping business.
In 1997 the Lowrances' finances crumbled again. They defaulted on their mortgage payments and had to give their home to the lender and move out. They sought Chapter 11 protection again that summer.
When they filed for bankruptcy, the Lowrances owed thousands to five different credit cards and had bounced checks everywhere from the pharmacy to Dairy Queen. They had $60 in cash and $35 in the bank.
Somewhere in the midst of this financial turmoil, the Lowrances decided they wanted another child. In 1997 they took in an 8-year-old girl, Christina, whom they intended to adopt, said Kathy Spears, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
"For whatever reason, that didn't work out," said Spears. She would not say why the Lowrances did not adopt Christina.
They didn't wait long to try again. On Dec. 5, 1997, their bankruptcy was discharged. The next month, Shawn came to live with the Lowrances. In October 1998 he officially became their son.
The Lowrances' financial history was no barrier to the adoption. The state checks potential parents' police records, tax returns and employment history, but doesn't delve into their finances. A broader check, Spears said, would require more time and money than her department has.
Shawn's biological father, John Mohler, died when Shawn was 4, and the state took him from his mother several years later. Spears won't say why Shawn entered foster care, but in February his mother, Charlotte Mohler, told the News Tribune of Tacoma that she was a recovering methamphetamine addict.
Attempts by the Associated Press to reach Mohler were unsuccessful. The landlord at her last known address in Aberdeen, 100 miles southwest of Seattle, said she had moved out of her ramshackle apartment one night a few months ago, leaving behind many of her belongings.
In 1998 Shawn moved into the Lowrances' house in Shelton, not far from Brown Creek Campground. Shawn seemed happy at Shelton Elementary, where Principal Harvey Hazen remembers the boy well.
"He was very intelligent, very creative," Hazen recalled. "He was real popular with the other kids."
Shawn seemed mature beyond his years--he'd smile at jokes that kids wouldn't usually get. Sometimes his sense of humor got him in trouble, but more often it charmed people.
"You see kids go through tough things, and some do make it," Hazen said. "I thought he was going to make it. . . . He was a pretty special kid."
Although Shawn's best subjects were math and science, he won a 1998 essay contest, Hazen said.
The topic: "What my home means to me."
Local attention to Shawn's case has faded recently, and three new killings have occupied Mason County detectives in the last month. But Frank said his department is still trying to build a case. It continues to interview the 10-year-old friend and carefully release bits of information to the media, hoping something will shake loose more facts.
Even if the parents are charged, the accusations would stretch the limits of credulity: If the father intended to kill Shawn, why bring along the other boy? Why do it in a public campground when there are acres of secluded wilderness nearby?
As Brown Creek Campground begins to fill with spring visitors, only a few hints of Shawn's death remain. Two tattered white strips of cloth are tied to a young shrub growing in the rocky bank. On them are written "Shawn L." and "In Loving Memory 10-9-99. Son - Brother."
The wreath for Shawn's memorial has toppled, its leaves scattered and curling brown in the sun. The fake yellow roses from the wreath have tumbled into the river. They sank to the bottom, resting in the same cold, clear water where Shawn's life ended and the mystery began.