Man accused of killing son in Ballpark murder-suicide had struggled for years with mental health, family says

A neighbor said he previously called police about Sam Owen in October after he seemed to be experiencing a mental health crisis.

For the past two years, Sam Owen’s family was in constant contact with him, sometimes talking several times a day, urging their son and brother to seek help for his struggle with mental health.

The 34-year-old told his father last Friday that he had contacted the mental health assistance program through Salt Lake City government — where he worked — to set up treatment, his father Dave Owen told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“That’s a positive,” his father recalled thinking. “You’re taking one of the steps I’ve been asking you to take. That’s good.”

But the following evening, Dave Owen saw a concerning message his son had emailed him a few hours earlier that sent him into a panic. He frantically called Sam’s sister, mother and police, driving through red lights on the way to Sam’s Ballpark home.

There, he found Sam and Sam’s 6-year-old son Adlai dead. Police, who were called to the house around 10:30 p.m. that night, suspect Sam fatally shot the boy before killing himself.

“I know that Sam was really struggling in recent months, and I know my parents were really trying to help him,” Michael Owen, Sam’s brother, said in an interview. “It was just a staggering and incomprehensible shock that he did what he did. … It’s literally impossible to conceive that Sam would ever, under any circumstances, hurt Adlai. It’s just the farthest thing from how he was as a father.”

On Wednesday evening, Adlai Owen’s classmates, teachers and other mourners gathered at Laird Park, a few blocks from the school where Adlai attended first grade, remembering him as a kind and inquisitive child. The group lit candles and wrote notes about their friend.

“You will always be in all our hearts — your beautiful blue eyes, your obsession with asking questions, your love for adventure,” said Annie Cowley, a secretary at Adlai’s elementary school and a family friend. “You touched every single person here in one way or another, and we are gathered here today to tell you how much we love you and how badly we already miss you.”

Sam Owen did not have a criminal record, state court records indicate, although a neighbor told The Tribune that he had called police last fall after he said Sam Owen threatened him. But officers never showed up, the neighbor, Alex Burlison, said.

Police did call Burlison back later, he said, advising that they spoke with Owen and handled the situation. The caller also alluded to other incidents police had previously responded to at Owen’s house.

“I obviously don’t know the ins and outs, and the processes and the legality around what happened,” Burlison said, “but it definitely feels like this could have been prevented.”

Boy killed was a ‘star’ child

(Owen family) Sam Owen, seen here with his son Adlai, had struggled with mental health issues for several years, according to his family. On May 18, police say Sam shot and killed Adlai before killing himself.

While Owen’s ex-wife had been given custody of Adlai after the couple’s 2019 divorce, court records show, Owen had regained full custody sometime after.

Court records show that Owens had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in April, to try to get out from under a reported $546,800 in debt. Dave Owen said that was one of the consequences of his son’s compulsive behavior and part of his mental health struggles.

As a youngster, Michael Owen said his brother had a vivid imagination and a “really happy and expansive childhood,” but began using marijuana and hallucinogens as a teenager, eventually entering into drug treatment after high school.

“He was so incredibly high functioning, extremely intelligent ... and he was also definitely neurodivergent in some way,” Michael Owen said. “... It was just very hard for him to confront the world socially.”

He met Adlai’s mother “in 2016 or 2017,” Michael Owen said, and they told the family they were expecting a child not long after. Michael worried it would be a burden on the new parents, but when Adlai was born, he was “charismatic from the time he was weeks old. He had this magnetic appeal about him.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Annie Cowley, a secretary at Adlai Owen's elementary school and an Owen family friend, speaks during a candlelight memorial at Laird Park on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, to honor the 6-year-old boy. Police say Adlai’s father, Sam Owen, fatally shot Adlai before killing himself in an apparent murder-suicide on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

“He became this star,” Michael Owen said. “He was just so beloved in the family, and he started going to school and was making all these friends and had the same kind of incredible charisma in that environment as he did elsewhere.”

Since 2017, Sam had worked for Salt Lake City government, first as a paid intern, then in constituent services and eventually as a policy analyst for the City Council.

“He was brilliant. Probably one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. And also very unassuming and very self-deprecating,” Cindy Gust-Jenson, the City Council’s executive director, said in an interview.

Sometimes, Adlai would come to the office or sit on his dad’s lap during budget meetings, she said.

“They were just lovely together. I think Sam has been in a depression, and we have talked about it with Sam and tried to be supportive and helpful, but what I realize is no one can know someone else’s despair,” Gust-Jenson said. “I know Sam would never be malicious to that little boy, and he would never do anything but try to protect him. So I regret that we couldn’t have known the level of help he needed to get through this.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a statement that she was “heartbroken by this unfathomable tragedy.”

‘Who Sam really was’

(Owen family) Sam Owen, seen here with his son Adlai. On Saturday, police say Sam shot and killed Adlai before killing himself.

Over the past year, Michael Owen said, his brother struggled with the pressures of parenting, finances “and this kind of long-simmering difficulty with kind of a matrix of mental health issues and neurodivergence, and I know my parents have been very, very aggressive trying to help him with that.”

The day Burlison called police, he had initially gone outside to walk his dog. He had heard screaming before heading outside, and when he saw Sam Owen sitting in front of Owen’s house, Burlison asked if he’d heard anything.

He said that Owen responded angrily, making threats, and appeared to be experiencing a mental health crisis.

Prior to that day, Burlison said he’d only spoken with Owen briefly at their climbing gym. Despite not knowing him well, he felt the encounter outside their homes was “very out of character.” When Burlison later finished his walk without issue, though, he said he decided, “Maybe it was just a weird misunderstanding.” And then Burlison left his house to get groceries.

Upon returning, he again saw Owen outside, this time with his son. Burlison said Owen began yelling threats — including that he’d “slit” Burlison’s throat. Unsure of what to do, and fearing for both Owen and his child’s safety, he called police.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People write loving notes during a memorial to honor 6-year-old Adlai Owen at Laird Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Police say Adlai’s father, Sam Owen, fatally shot Adlai before killing himself in an apparent murder-suicide on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

The Salt Lake City Police Department confirmed it received Burlison’s call on Oct. 16, 2023, adding that Sam Owen also called the police that day about Burlison to report that his neighbor was “in a gang and he felt unsafe.”

The department said officers handled the call over the phone, adding that police “may choose to start, and conduct, certain investigations by phone on lower priority calls for service that are not in-progress, such as civil disputes or threats.”

“If an officer determines it’s necessary to respond in-person for whatever reason, they will,” the department said.

Police did not say whether or not they’d received other calls about Sam Owen. The Tribune has a pending records request for any previous police calls for service to Owen’s home.

Burlison said he didn’t talk to Owen again until about two weeks ago, when Owen came by to apologize. The next he heard about his neighbor was when family and police arrived and Owen and Adlai were found dead.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rebecca Bean Owen and Dave Owen, parents of Sam Owen, mourn with others at a candlelight vigil at Laird Park to honor 6-year-old Adlai Owen on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Police say Sam Owen fatally shot Adlai before killing himself in an apparent murder-suicide on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

Owen’s family is still not sure where he got a gun. To Dave Owen’s knowledge, his son didn’t own one.

“We had discussed it before. … I wouldn’t have let him stay in that house with a gun,” the father said.

Dave Owen said the family had hoped to deal with their grief privately, but after the Salt Lake City police put out a news release, they felt like they needed to share their story.

“We wanted people to know who Sam really was — all of it. We wanted people to understand how baffling and complex these things can be,” the father said.

“We want others who may be struggling with a son, or daughter, or spouse with severe mental infirmities to know they are not alone,” he continued. “And for others around them to know that sometimes, all you can do is not enough. We are happy to talk about it on the chance that it maybe helps even one person someday.”

Editor’s note • If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for 24-hour support.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Schoolmates, family and friends gather for a candlelight memorial at Laird Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, to honor Adlai Owen. Police say Adlai’s father, Sam Owen, fatally shot Adlai before killing himself in an apparent murder-suicide on Saturday, May 18, 2024.