Cheryl Owsley Jackson grew up in a small Indiana town where race played a major role in her family's life. So it's not surprising now that she wonders whether it has been a factor in the investigation of her brother's death.
Her story is about a sister's determination to arrive at the truth and a chance meeting with a former Chicago police detective who has been trying to help her get there.
When Jackson and her brother, Cary "Dodie" Owsley, were growing up in Columbus, Ind., in the 1960s, their mother, who is white, was a single parent rearing biracial children. Their father was black.
"My mother suffered a lot of abuse there," said Jackson, 51, a journalist who now lives in Chicago and teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
"My mother said shortly after I was born she was working on her cosmetology license and people started to complain that they didn't want her touching their hair."
Jackson said her mother also talked about the time when the gas line under their house was tampered with, and utility workers said if someone had turned on the heat or the stove, the house might have blown up. Jackson and her brother learned to stick together and depend on one another.
"My brother was the only other biracial person I knew, and we had to fight the name-calling from both sides — black kids and white kids — and defend ourselves," Jackson said.
In 1966, the family moved to Indianapolis. When they returned to Columbus seven years later, not much had changed, she said.
"I was a good student and an athlete, and I was more accepted," Jackson said. "My brother dated (white women) and wound up dealing with prejudice in a way that I didn't have to."
Jackson left Columbus and went to college. After graduation, she returned to her hometown and wrote a column on diversity for more than a decade for the local newspaper and conducted diversity training seminars around town. She was later hired as a reporter for an Indianapolis television station.
"I was insulated from racism because people knew who I was," she said.
But Owsley remained in Columbus, she said. He became a truck driver and three years ago married a white woman with two adult sons. According to statements given to police, Owsley had a tense relationship with at least one of the sons.
On the afternoon of April 7, Jackson was on a blind date with a former Chicago police detective when she received terrible news: Her brother Cary, 49, had died from a gunshot wound in the chest.
That afternoon, she drove from Chicago to Columbus to find out what happened.
According to police reports, Owsley's wife had called police and reported that he had shot himself in their home. When deputies arrived, Owsley's body was in an overturned chair. A handgun lay on the floor next to the chair.
The Bartholomew County coroner ruled Owsley's death a suicide and said he "had a history of depression."
But Jackson struggled with the ruling.
"I didn't believe Cary killed himself," Jackson said.
Relatives of people who commit suicide often have trouble believing it, but in this case troubling details about the police investigation heightened Jackson's doubts.
She began discussing the case with the ex-cop who had been with her when she heard the news. The former officer thought the crime scene had been compromised and the investigation botched. (He declined to be identified because he didn't want any negative effect on his current business.)