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Witness Interview: Owen Norris, Oxtales Theatre benefactor
 

Thursday, February 7, 2002 - 5:30 p.m.

This witness, identified as the victim's acquaintance and benefactor by previous witnesses, was interviewed at the witness's residence, 118-A Courthouse Square. The interview was conducted by Det. Sam Murphy and Det. Ted Armstrong, and was recorded on a portable tape recorder with the witness's knowledge and consent.

TA = Detective T. Armstrong
SM = Detective S. Murphy
ON = Owen Norris

TA: Thank you for meeting with us, Mr. Norris.

ON: Of course, of course, I'm just devastated and if I can be of any help at all, well, here I am. Would you two like a drink? Bourbon?

TA: Uh, no thanks. Still on duty, you know.

ON: Well, I hope you don't mind if I...?

TA: It's not standard protocol, but go ahead. For the record, please state your name and address.

ON: Owen Norris, 118-A, Courthouse Square, .

SM: Thank you, Mr. Norris. Could you start out by telling us how you and Ms. Stover met?

ON: Certainly. As you no doubt know, I head up an arts organization for my father's company. Through that work I became acquainted with Oxtales and started funding their work. This was in 1994 or so. Around the same time I heard about Andrea, who was already causing quite a stir – I like that in an artist. When she graduated, Oxtales was in need of a director and I secured the position for her. And the rest, as they say, is history.

SM: Uh, could you go into that history a little deeper? In terms of how you and Andrea worked together.

ON: Well, that's simple – I paid the bills and she did the work. I wouldn't say we worked together so much as I supported her work.

SM: When you say "pay the bills," what are you talking about? How much of Oxtales' work did you pay for?

ON: I would say that between the foundation and my own personal contributions, about 90 percent of the costs were underwritten. I would have to look at the paperwork for exact figures, I'm afraid – can I email that to you later? Or fax. I prefer fax, myself – all this damn technology makes my head swim. It's such a nuisance.

TA: That's all right. But if you could tell us a little more about how that worked – for instance, did you pay for individual plays, as costs came up? Or was it more annual grants?

ON: Oh, a little of both, of course. The foundation gave an annual grant, just once a year, plus they applied once or twice for project-specific grants. But then I would fill in whatever else needed to be covered. Usually they would draw up a cost estimate for each project and figure out where the money was coming from – if there was a gap, and if I was interested, I'd write a check.

SM: What kinds of costs were covered?

ON: Well, as I'm sure you know, none of them are paid much. So it's mostly production costs – lights, sound, rental of performance space when they were going that route, and what have you.

SM: The foundation has been funding them pretty much every year?

ON: Again, I'd have to look at the books to be sure, but I'm almost certain they've gotten an annual grant every year since 1995 or so.

SM: And in terms of your personal donations – have you funded everything they've done?

ON: Not every single thing. Usually I'd pick up the slack when they couldn't get any other kind of funding – usually because they were trying something a little edgy. Which is what I love, so it worked out perfectly. Oh, and then sometimes they'd come calling and I just wouldn't have anything to offer from my personal stash. I don't live by "a penny saved is a penny earned." I'm more a carpe diem kind of guy. So sometimes, after traveling or what have you, I couldn't give them what they needed. But by and large, I did contribute quite a bit. I'd say I was more inclined to donate than not.

TA: Mr. Norris, there are so many groups out there. Why did you donate so heavily to Oxtales?

ON: To my mind, they're the only ones really covering interesting territory. At least in this state. Maybe in New Orleans or Miami you'd find something more provocative, but nowhere else in the South. And Detectives, let me tell you, there's no point in dabbling around in safe territory. If you're going to do something, you might as well get people talking.

TA: So I take it that you helped pay for "Snopes"?

ON: Yes, of course. That was groundbreaking work. I loved it. It was truly outstanding.

TA: Groundbreaking is one way of putting it. What did you think of the fallout?

ON: I'm sure I don't have to tell you. My testimony and the full-page ads I took out in the Eagle at the time should make it clear.

TA: Please, refresh our memories.

ON: In short, it was a travesty. Detectives, I've traveled a bit, and seen quite a lot, and what Andrea was doing was relatively tame by comparison. In New York or London no one would blink an eye at what she was trying to express. The whole commotion was an example of just how much of a backwater this state is, just how enslaved by the Christian right. The idea that a play can harm someone is utter hogwash in my opinion. Those zealots at COP had no right to censor the group, at least so I thought. I was under the impression that this country is governed by laws that protect free speech, but I was sorely mistaken. Do you know what this fellow Ashcroft is up to these days? Outrageous!

SM: So I assume you supported Ms. Stover in her refusal to plea bargain?

ON: Absolutely. I supported her one hundred percent and when she had doubts, I tried to shore up her courage. If you look back at the history of the arts, Detectives, you'll see that this type of repression is sadly common. Look at Sade, locked away in Charenton asylum. Or Ulysses – did you know James Joyce's greatest work, the greatest work of the 20th century, was banned in this country? Or the blacklisting of the 1950s. Look at how Luther's creation, a new faith, was treated by the pontiffs in Rome.

SM: You view religion as artistic expression?

ON: Well, yes, it's a beautiful fable. Catholicism, Protestantism, all the sects based around this primal myth that has parallels to all the other religions of the world. The creation myth and what have you. It's a wonderful story that has been used by various factions throughout time to repress and prosecute individuals and groups who posed a threat to the status quo. Today is no exception.

TA: Let's stay on track here. Going back to Ms. Stover's prosecution, I understand you paid her $10,000 fine. Was that a loan?

ON: I told her, "When you're on Broadway you can pay me back." I suppose it was a loan, but we both understood it didn't have a deadline for repayment. No interest!

SM: Were you prosecuted for your involvement with "Snopes"?

ON: Certainly not. I wrote the checks, there was nothing more they could prove in terms of my involvement.

TA: And what was your involvement exactly? Did you oversee rehearsals, auditions or the like? How much control did that money buy?

ON: Well, Detectives, I resent the implication of that. As a patron, my support wasn't based on this or that line in a play, or whether the lighting was thus and so, or whether this or that person was cast. No. I was supporting their creativity and trusted them to carry out their vision.

SM: But you did attend rehearsals?

ON: From time to time, yes, I do drop in – but mostly to see Andrea and catch up. I would never dream of making suggestions about what I see. It's up to them to figure it out. I'm a businessman, or so I'm told – not an artist. I am the ultimate aficionado, I have no artistic talent and I know it, but I can appreciate it when I see it. And Andrea had it.

SM: Going back to "Snopes," how well did you know the minors involved?

ON: Not at all.

SM: You never met them?

ON: Oh, I suppose on opening night, backstage, I might have said hello. But I wouldn't know them from Adam. Actually, there's one fellow who I've seen since then, he's been in a production I believe, but don't ask me to tell you his name, I wouldn't know it.

TA: So let's go back to your relationship with Ms. Stover. You paid the bills, as you put it, and sometimes stopped by rehearsals. What else was involved in your working relationship?

ON: Nothing related specifically to the projects she was working on. As I hope I've made clear, I don't like to meddle, or as they call it these days, micromanage. She and I did spend quite a while talking about art in the abstract sense, about ideas. I would send her news clippings of interest to inspire her, or a play I dug up in a used bookstore, or what have you. In a way, I suppose I was her link to the outside world.

SM: So you saw each other outside the theatre?

ON: Of course. We had dinner together on occasion, she came to New Orleans a couple of times to see plays I thought would be interesting and would stay with me. We went to parties here and there. I suppose you could say we were friends, if you need to categorize it.

SM: Were you romantically involved?

ON: No. No, no – I'm a perennial bachelor, I'm afraid.

SM: But you saw each other how often, would you say?

ON: Oh, I don't know. Saw each other – such a crude term. I suppose we spoke or did something outside talking about specific theatre projects, I don't know, maybe once or twice a month at most. I'm afraid, Detectives, you're way off with this line of questioning.

TA: Well, just bear with us. I don't mean to put too fine a point on it, but I've seen the letters you wrote while Ms. Stover was incarcerated, and a few of them are pretty hot to handle. You can't tell me there wasn't some sort of connection.

ON: You lack imagination, sir. Just because I sent her some erotica doesn't mean I wanted to enact it with her. I was simply trying to relieve her misery and had some fun writing those little notes. I forgot about it as soon as it was mailed. Your thought process is so conventional!

TA: Nonetheless. Did you share erotica, as you put it, in other ways? Watch pornography together?

ON: No. We certainly talked about erotic themes in art. Andrea was working with sexual material and so it always came up, as it were. I would tell her about interesting things I've seen. For example, last time I was in New York I saw "The Vagina Monologues" and we talked about that. Or I would recommend movies or exhibitions – send clippings, as I said. I sent her a first edition copy of Delta of Venus once. Anais Nin – maybe you've heard of her? I recommend you check it out of the library, if it hasn't been banned and burned. It would do you good.

TA: All right, Mr. Norris. Let's get back on track here. You sent Ms. Stover letters in jail – did you ever visit her?

ON: No.

SM: Why not?

ON: I wouldn't want to put her through that. The humiliation of being seen like that.

SM: But wouldn't it have cheered her up?

ON: No more than those letters you're so suspicious about. We had a civilized relationship, Detective, and jail is no place for such a thing. If we couldn't relax and talk at our leisure over a bottle of pinot, we wouldn't have enjoyed it. In fact we would have suffered and lost something and been disappointed with each other. It has to do with context. It would have been out of context and therefore wrong and upsetting, and she hardly needed to be upset any more than she already was.

SM: What about when she got out of prison – how soon did you see her?

ON: We had dinner her third night home. We ate at my place, and no she did not stay over and we did not have sex.

SM: And what happened with the theatre group at that point? You felt pretty strongly about Ms. Stover becoming director again.

ON: Absolutely.

TA: You say you don't like to meddle. Yet you all but ordered Mr. King to step aside.

ON: There's a difference between meddling – insisting on this or that scene or this or that piece of stagework – and insisting on maintaining an overall artistic vision. I supported Andrea's vision of the group over Dale's – that was no secret and I told him in no uncertain terms that he would have to stand down, I funded his work while she was gone but that didn't mean I wanted the situation to be permanent. And he understood.

SM: How did that go over?

ON: Well, I don't really know. As I said, I'm not involved in the day-to-day vicissitudes. But as far as I could tell, everyone was glad to have Andrea back. Dale is perfectly well-liked by them, don't get me wrong. I don't think, for them, it's a matter of preferring one over the other. They were simply glad to have their cohort back.

SM: Even Mr. King?

ON: Certainly. He may have disagreed with Andrea, but he respected her skills as a director.

SM: How about the rest of the group? How was Ms. Stover getting along with them?

ON: Fine, as far as I could tell. There's one fellow, Frank, she was hooking up with before going to jail, and she mentioned they weren't sure what would happen with their relationship now.

SM: When did Ms. Stover talk with you about Mr. Tuttle?

ON: Oh, she mentioned it once when we talked on the phone, it might have been New Year's day, we chatted for a while when I called to say happy 2002.

SM: Did she mention any specifics?

ON: No, nothing more than that. I love to gossip, but Andrea didn't and frankly I didn't want to know about her love life. Our relationship had its basis in professional dealings, I hope you're picking that up, so there were certainly things that were off-limits between us.

TA: But not sexual letters.

ON: How tedious of you. Look, Detective, there's a difference between sending someone a little mischief to cheer them up, and knowing the soap opera of how many dates they've been on with Tom, Dick and Harry, whether they prefer Harry to Tom or what have you.

SM: Did you know anything more about her love life?

ON: No.

SM: All right. Did she ever speak with you about other subjects – her probation requirement, for instance?

ON: No.

SM: What about the publicity she was getting from COP? Did you talk about that?

ON: Oh, we bantered about it off-hand. We have a running joke that we're going to seek political asylum from this country some day and that was part of it, but otherwise no.

SM: Going back to the troupe, what about the playwright? Ethan Lewiston? How did he get along with Ms. Stover?

ON: Ah yes, Mr. Lewiston. He had quite a ride with "Black Boy in the Closet" or what have you. I suppose he's hoping for another success and a ticket out of here. Or he would if he knows what's good for him.

SM: And what about the other actors? Henry Jackson and Sheila Love?

ON: They're both terrific, aren't they? Look, again, as far as I know there were no problems. They were well under way with the new play and it was going to be a smash.

SM: What's going to happen with the new play now? Will you still pay the bills?

ON: Of course.

TA: How do you feel about Mr. King being director?

ON: He's certainly very well-qualified. Don't get me wrong, he's not a moron; his work just doesn't interest me as much as Andrea's. Will the foundation still fund them? Of course. Will I still write checks when they're in a pinch? Sure, if I can. Will I be as excited about what they're doing? Maybe not. Maybe I'll find some other group that interests me, but I'm not going to let anything die here.

TA: How does everyone else feel about Mr. King being in charge again?

ON: I wouldn't know, I haven't exactly interviewed them all – although I'm sure you have. But I'm sure they're fine with it.

SM: Is the play in rehearsals now? Have they started again?

ON: I haven't the slightest idea. I'm sure Dale could tell you. I haven't heard from them about needing flyers done or costs covered, so I'm guessing they're not ready for prime time yet, but aside from that I couldn't say.

TA: All right. Let's talk about the last time you saw Ms. Stover. When was that?

ON: At rehearsal Sunday night.

SM: You came to rehearsal?

ON: Yes, as I'm sure you've been told, I stopped by in the evening and stayed until it was over.

SM: Where were you before you arrived there?

ON: In Cleveland visiting the family patriarch. Sunday lunch with Daddy. Very cozy.

SM: How late were you there?

ON: Until five.

SM: And you came directly to rehearsal?

ON: I drove to Oxford, yes. I stopped at the store to get groceries, I hadn't been here in a while so I knew the fridge would be a disaster. I went to my place to put them away, read the mail and so forth, then went out to Taylor.

SM: What time did you arrive?

ON: I was there by 9 or so, I imagine.

SM: And what was going on?

ON: It seemed like they'd been working on a scene for a while and were winding down for the evening. Everyone was a little worn out, from what I could gather. Perhaps they were working through some little issue or disagreement. Such matters don't interest me, I only want to see the synthesis of all their hard work and arguments – the finished product. I was sitting at the back of the room and planning my calendar on the Palm Pilot. It's been breaking down all the time, it won't synch worth a damn, so I was fiddling with it and watching at the same time.

SM: What time did rehearsal end?

ON: Oh, around 9:30. Everyone was ready to quit, I think.

SM: Did you all leave together?

ON: No. Frank, Dale and the girl, Sheila – they went for a drink. Ethan took off immediately, before they left, I don't know where. Henry and I chatted for a few minutes – Andrea was on the phone – and then he left too, didn't mention where he was going. And then Andrea and I spoke briefly in the parking lot. I wanted her to come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, so we were talking about that. We had plans to see each other later in the week, so we didn't stay long.

TA: Did she say where she was going?

ON: No, she said she had to run to meet someone, but didn't elaborate.

TA: She left alone then?

ON: Yes.

TA: And what about you? Did you go home?

ON: More or less. I stopped by Taylor Catfish and had one drink, but then I went home.

SM: Did you see anyone in particular at the bar or talk with anyone?

ON: I know the bartender, of course, at least he would recognize my face. I spoke with a college boy, someone named Barkley – odd name, that's why I remember it – anyway, we were sitting next to each other at the bar and had a brief chat. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then he met someone and they went to sit at a table.

SM: What time did you leave?

ON: Oh, I don't know. Maybe 10:30, a quarter 'til 11?

SM: And then you went straight home?

ON: Yes. Detectives, I certainly hope you don't think I'm a suspect!

TA: We just need to place everyone's whereabouts. Did you see anyone else on your way home or at the apartment?

ON: No.

SM: What did you do when you got back?

ON: I went online and did a few things – business and pleasure.

SM: Did you send email?

ON: I did send a couple of messages, yes. But really, why do you think I would possibly want to kill Andrea? I'm her number one fan!

TA: All right. We've got just a few more questions, Mr. Norris, and then we'll be done. How did you hear about Ms. Stover's death?

ON: Justin called me – a friend of mine who works at Square Books. He saw all the commotion and went over to see what was going on, heard it was Andrea Stover and called me right away.

SM: Where were you at the time?

ON: In this office, preparing for a teleconference at 10:30. It was awful, just dreadful.

SM: Do you know why Ms. Stover might have been at Oxford Centre?

ON: No.

SM: She never mentioned it to you?

ON: No.

SM: Was she afraid of heights?

ON: Not that I know of. It's not like we attempted to scale Everest together, Detective. And I'm afraid I need to ask when we might conclude this conversation – I have an engagement for this evening and I need to groom myself appropriately.

TA: Just one more question. Did Ms. Stover ever express any concerns to you that she thought her personal safety might be in jeopardy, either from someone she knew or from someone in the community?

ON: No. She was completely fearless, or if she was afraid she never showed it. She never said a word to me about COP or anyone else.

SM: Do you have any theories at all about who might have murdered her?

ON: Of course I'm apt to suspect those demons at COP, Claire Windham and her minions. But in theory they are pro-life, so in theory they wouldn't kill anyone. Otherwise, I have no idea.

TA: All right. Thank you for your time. If you think of anything else, anything at all, please give us a call.

ON: I will. And now, Detectives, let me fetch your coats.

End interview 6:28 p.m.

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