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Drowning of Recently Adopted Boy Raises Troubling Inquiry

Mystery: If Shawn Lowrance's death was accidental, why was he covered by $650,000 in life insurance?


SHELTON, Wash. — 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."

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