Trying to aid son before execution

Oken's parents attend rallies, speak to him daily as sentence draws near

June 14, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Steven Oken and his mother talk on the phone nearly every day, and she visits him every week.

But in 17 years of conversations about such varied topics as local sports teams and world events, there's a topic that Davida Oken says she hasn't ever broached: the crimes that put her son on death row.

"Why bring it up?" she asks. "I have never asked him for details, for an explanation. What good would it do?"

Steven Oken, the son of a pharmacist, was 25 years old and married in November 1987 when he raped and killed three women.

Now, his mother says, there's another subject that she avoids when talking to her son: his scheduled execution, which could take place as soon as today.

"It's hard to make conversation without him getting upset or me getting upset," Davida Oken says. "There will be plenty of time for me to be upset later. Right now I try to keep him laughing and smiling."

As the scheduled execution has neared, Davida Oken and her husband, David, have participated in several anti-death-penalty rallies. Attorneys for Steven Oken are working to delay his execution to allow a legal challenge to Maryland's lethal-injection process.

Michael Lawlor, one of Steven Oken's attorneys, said a petition seeking a stay of execution was filed with the Supreme Court last night. He said he thought the court would act quickly on the request.

"They're not going to let Mr. Oken get executed before they rule on what's before them," Lawlor said.

A hearing is also scheduled for this afternoon in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Steven Howard Oken was adopted at birth and raised in a stable, upper-middle-class family in Randallstown, his mother says. He has a younger brother and a sister, both of whom have successful careers. Davida Oken says the siblings remain in contact with their brother.

Oken's bar mitzvah was Jan. 25, 1975, at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, his mother says, and though the family was never strictly observant, the children spent High Holy Days at the synagogue, where their parents were members for 27 years before withdrawing their membership.

He played many sports and was on the lacrosse team at Randallstown High School, Davida Oken says. He studied health science for three years at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but he withdrew a few credits shy of a degree, she says.

Although Oken had a conventional childhood, Davida Oken says, he reacted badly when his parents told him at age 10 or 11 that he had been adopted.

At Oken's sentencing hearing in 1991, she testified that he "screamed in disbelief for two hours."

As he grew into a young man, Oken began working alongside his father at his business, Oken's Rexall Pharmacy, across from Johns Hopkins Hospital. He married a young woman named Phyllis Hirt, whom his mother says he had met through the pharmacy. (She divorced him after his arrest.)

Davida Oken says signs of trouble emerged in 1986, when her son started "running away from a lot of things. He used drugs -- cocaine, marijuana, prescription medications -- and abused alcohol."

She says she noticed a physical change in her son and that she and his father demanded that he seek help if he wanted to continue to work as a pharmacy technician.

Oken saw a psychiatrist off and on for about a year, she says. But in the fall of 1987, he began getting into trouble with the law, according to police and court records.

He was arrested Oct. 13 and charged with beating up a motel clerk in East Baltimore. A week later, Oken attacked a prostitute in a parking lot at the Inner Harbor after he refused to pay her in advance, police said after his arrest in the three women's murders.

The night of Nov. 1, 1987, Oken posed alternately as a stranded motorist and a doctor as he sought entrance to apartments in White Marsh, court testimony would show. His wife was in California on a business trip.

According to the testimony, he knocked on Dawn Marie Garvin's door. Her husband of four months had left that evening to return to his naval base in Virginia. She let him inside.

Oken raped Garvin and sexually assaulted her with a condiment bottle, and then he shot her twice in the head.

As Baltimore County police searched for Garvin's killer, Oken attended a Nov. 9 hearing in the motel clerk's assault. He received probation before judgment and was ordered to seek alcohol treatment. He was arrested Nov. 14 just south of White Marsh and charged with driving while intoxicated.

The next day, Patricia Hirt disappeared. Police found her nude body in a ditch along White Marsh Boulevard on Nov. 16. They searched Steven Oken's apartment and found evidence that he had sexually assaulted and killed Hirt, his wife's older sister. There they also found ballistic evidence linking him to Garvin's death.

That day, driving Hirt's white Ford Mustang, Oken made it to Kittery, Maine, where he sexually assaulted and fatally shot motel clerk Lori Ward. He checked into another motel, and that's where Maine police arrested him Nov. 17.

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