With Help from the U.S. Government, a Desperate Virginia Couple Fight to Free Their Son from a Spanish Jail

updated 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Raquel Owen, 47, sits at her dining room table in suburban Annandale, Va., and once more her eyes find the letter her son, Conan, wrote to his grandmother a year ago. It came from Modelo Prison in Barcelona, Spain. "Dear Granny," Conan wrote. "I hope you and Mother are not worrying too much about me. I can and will put up with this as long as I must. It will all work out soon." Raquel hands the letter to a visitor, and her husband, Ernest, 56, begins to talk about the last time they saw their son. "We talked through the bars," he says. "I was able to put my hands through and...pat him." And at this recollection, Raquel Owen breaks down in sobs.

Conan Owen, 23, is in a Spanish jail for drug trafficking. He has been there one year and he faces five years more. Americans who know him are convinced he is innocent, and a number of them, as well as high officials of the U.S. government, have worked to free him. There is overwhelming evidence that he was framed. Yet to the Spanish authorities, all this evidence indicates guilt, on the dubious grounds that no one could be that innocent—while the interest of notables is seen as proof that Conan must have been involved in something fishy. "A friend of Conan's in Spain put it best," says his father. "He said, 'Conan's parents have left no stone unturned to help him. And every stone they turn over, the Spaniards pick up and throw back at them.' "

Raquel, an employee of the World Bank, and Ernest, an insurance claims adjuster, have turned an impressive number of stones. They have gone to Spain three times. They have enlisted the help of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese, who says, "We continue to believe in Mr. Owen's innocence and hope that ultimately he will be exonerated." In one of the affidavits on Conan's behalf, Robert Gilka, his professor at Syracuse University, wrote, "He's intelligent, motivated, efficient, talented and trustworthy. Naive, perhaps. But a drug smuggler, never." Yet every effort has backfired.

In retrospect, it was precisely Conan's diligence that landed him in trouble. A photojournalism major at Syracuse, he signed up for ROTC, and after graduation, to fulfill his military obligation, he applied for Army Intelligence, where he felt his photo skills could be put to good use. While he was waiting for his security clearance last spring, he accepted a travel brochure photo assignment to Chile and Spain for $1,000 plus expenses. "It was a chance to see the world and get paid for it," says Ernest. And it seemed entirely legitimate. The offer came from one George Barahona, who headed a local youth soccer league. Casually, Barahona also asked Conan to carry a suitcase of brochures on the trip.

Barahona met Conan in Santiago, Chile, but when the time came to move on to Barcelona, he said he would join the photographer there. When Conan landed in Barcelona, police found two kilos of cocaine in a hidden compartment in the suitcase.

Conan was denied bail, says Arturo Perez, the Spanish Embassy spokesman in Washington, because, "If foreigners are granted bail, they flee." Since then, the louder the cries from the U.S. for his freedom, the more the Spanish have dug in their heels. Conan volunteered to take a lie detector test, which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency administered and whose verdict was: "No deception." Then Barahona confessed, claiming sole responsibility. In a plea bargain with the U.S. government to avoid extradition and possible trial in Spain, he admitted giving the keys to Conan's Santiago hotel room to a co-conspirator who then "substituted an identical suitcase [for] the one he was using." Thus, Barahona continued, Conan carried the suitcase "without knowing he was bringing cocaine into the country." Finally, Conan's parents brought his case to the attention of Meese, who on a trip to Spain personally delivered this confession to the authorities.

The reactions have been Kafkaesque. How could a 23-year-old have such powerful friends, demanded Spanish journalists; one paper said Conan must be an agent caught in an Iranscam operation gone wrong. The lie detector results were declared inadmissable on procedural grounds. In sentencing Conan three weeks ago, the three-judge panel asked how, if Conan was so smart, he could fail to notice the extra weight he was carrying—although two kilos would add only a little more than four pounds to a suitcase already heavy with brochures.

"Conan was in shock at first after the sentence," reports his young Spanish attorney, Ana Campa. "But he has extraordinary willpower, and he is maintaining his hope." Ernest and Raquel have filed an appeal, but with a backlog in Spanish courts, the case may not come up for four years. The Owens adamantly refuse to request a pardon. "That would be admitting guilt," says Ernest. "We don't want that and neither does Conan." Their son is keeping a journal: the day an inmate tied a sheet into a noose and hung himself; the day the warden put fresh fruit on the menu. And he keeps writing letters. One ended, "Seeing everyone again and being home for good will be the happiest day of my life."

Until that day, the Owens have only one bleak consolation: They are sure they did everything possible. Ernest was recently asked whether a better attorney might have made a difference. He replied, "I don't think God Almighty could have gotten Conan off."

—By Jack Friedman, with Susan Schindehette in Annandale and Cristina King in Barcelona

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