Rowan (Michigan Department of Corrections)
Gladwin— The death of an amateur cage fighter shocked northern Michigan last year.
Benefits were held. Fights were dedicated to him. A makeshift memorial was held at his home.
Alas, Charlie Rowan wasn’t dead at all.
It was a ruse to elude a drug dealer threatening to kill him over a debt.
Six weeks after his “death,” family and friends were shocked anew — by his resurrection. They learned he had just been arrested for assaulting and robbing a Gladwin gun store owner.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been involved with,” said John Yeubanks, a Gaylord fight promoter who held one of the benefits.
Rowan, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced in November to 17½ to 40 years in prison, regrets the robbery and faking his demise.
He said last week in a prison interview he was surprised by how hard people had taken his death. Among the things that touched him were the kind words spoken at his memorial, which he could hear because he was hiding upstairs.
In a twisted version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” he never realized what he meant to people until he saw the impact of his purported death.
“It was just weird. People cared for and loved me,” he said at the St. Louis Correctional Facility in central Michigan.
Rowan, 26, who, court records show, has been in and out of jail, said he had never felt that highly of himself.
The hoax began in January 2013 when Rowan was attacked near his Gladwin home by two men with knives who cut his head and ribs.
He said they worked for a Saginaw drug dealer who had given him $60,000 of cocaine to sell. A friend was supposed to help sell the drugs but used them instead, Rowan said.
Rowan and his girlfriend, Rosa Martinez, 31, hatched a scheme to escape the debt.
He recalled a TV documentary series called “I (Almost) Got Away With It.” One show focused on a man who staged his death so he could begin a new life.
“I should have taken notes,” said Rowan, referring to the “almost” in the title.
One week after the attack, he was scheduled to fight at a Traverse City nightclub.
A distraught-sounding Martinez, barely able to speak, called Rowan’s fight manager to say Rowan was on his way to the bout when he got into a bad wreck on a snowy highway in Saginaw.
Two days later she called to say he was dead.
Fight promoters held a series of benefit bouts to raise money for Martinez and her two children.
In Traverse City, a Fight for Charlie raised $1,350 and several hundred more from crowd donations.
In Midland, Martinez was handed money as she left the ring after speaking to the crowd, said promoters. A ring girl wrote her a check on the spot.
“He tricked the (blank) out of us,” said Joe Shaw, a Flint fight promoter who donated $50 at the Midland event. “When has that ever happened, someone faking their death, except on a TV crime story?”
Listening to others' grief
During the memorial at the home shared by Rowan and Martinez, his girlfriend paced back and forth, at one point laying her head on the lap of Rowan’s mother, Lynn Gardner.
Martinez left the living room to retrieve a sealed bag containing what she claimed was Rowan’s clothing from the car wreck, said people who were there. It included a rumpled white cap with blood stains.
Rowan said later the stains were from the knife attack.
Martinez brushed aside questions about funeral arrangements, saying she wasn’t ready to deal with it, said Scott DiPonio, Rowan’s fight manager.
“I never questioned any of it,” DiPonio said. “Who would question it? What right do you have?”
It’s a small house so Rowan, hiding in a bedroom upstairs, could clearly hear the reminiscing and heavy sobbing.
Sitting on a bed as he stared out the window, he nearly walked down the stairs.
“I wish the world would have collapsed on me that day,” he said.
Rowan’s six weeks as a dead person drove him stir crazy, he said.
During the day, he stayed in his home, watching TV, working out in the basement, playing video games with Martinez’s children.
But he and Martinez began getting on each other’s nerves, he said
Bursting to get out of the house, he roamed Gladwin in the middle of the night, dodging cops, or made nocturnal visits to friends at the Chippewa reservation near Mount Pleasant.
He and Martinez wanted to leave Gladwin, and start life anew somewhere else, maybe New Mexico, but didn’t have any money.
Skepticism builds about death
As weeks passed with no funeral or obituary, people began to wonder whether Rowan was really dead. They questioned the fight promoters who held benefits.
Rowan’s stepfather checked with police and hospitals but couldn’t find anyone to confirm the death, said Rowan’s mother.
“If I stop and think about it, I guess I knew for a while (he was still alive),” Gardner said last week.
The Saginaw drug dealer also was skeptical, visiting Rowan’s home in March. Finding Rowan very much alive, the dealer threatened to make his death real.
Rowan devised a new plan: He and Martinez would rob a gun shop and give the weapons to the dealer to settle his debt.
On March 18, Martinez entered Guns N Stuff, in a pole barn next to the owner’s home in a rural neighborhood.
While Martinez spoke with owner Dick Robinette, Rowan waited outside, listening to their conversation through an iPhone in her pocket, police said.
Rowan then burst into the shop. Wearing a red bandana and black Batman mask, which belonged to Martinez’ son, he struck Robinette in the head with a hammer for breaking open the gun case, knocking him off his stool.
Rowan scooped up eight handguns and stuffed them into a red and black gym bag before fleeing through the woods, the Gladwin County Sheriff’s Office said.
Martinez, who was kicked by Rowan to make it look like she also was a victim, stayed behind and called 911.
Mike Bowman, who had driven Rowan to and from the robbery, told investigators that night Rowan may have been involved and Martinez was an accomplice.
The sheriff’s office called the Saginaw County Medical Examiner’s Office to see if it had a death certificate for Charles Howard Rowan. Told it did not, investigators released Rowan’s mug shot to the media, saying he was a person of interest in the robbery.
The sheriff’s office received a stream of phone calls saying their suspect was dead. Among the callers was John Yeubanks, a fight promoter who held the Midland benefit for Rowan.
He was watching television with his wife when Rowan’s face flashed across the screen, saying he was involved with the robbery.
“You got it wrong,” he told police. “He just passed away. I just did a benefit for him.”
The police assured Yeubanks Rowan was very much alive.
While Yeubanks and others had mourned the dead Charlie Rowan, they felt differently about the suddenly alive one. He said Rowan was lucky the police found him before fighters did.
“I’m a fight promoter so I’m used to people trying to` cheat me,” he said. “But they got me hook, line and sinker.”
Relief turns to suspicion
When Rowan’s mother learned about the robbery, her first reaction was relief: At least her son wasn’t involved, she said.
Hours after the crime, however, she received a phone call from Rowan.
After six weeks of making believe he was dead, he had one question for his mom: Could she give him a ride?
Asked where he had been, he said out of state. Asked whether he was part of the robbery, he said he couldn’t talk about it.
But Gardner felt like she already knew the answer. After driving Rowan to his girlfriend’s home, she went to the police the next day.
“He’s a manipulative con man, even before this,” she said. “If he told you it was light out, you would have to go look to see if he was lying.”
Rowan and Martinez were arrested at a friend’s apartment in Unionville two days after the robbery. Bowman was arrested shortly after going to police.
All three pleaded guilty or no contest to armed robbery. Martinez was sentenced in November to 70 months to 30 years in prison.
Bowman, 22, who has a criminal record and tattoo on the back of his right forearm that says “missunderstood,” was sentenced in January to 15 to 30 years.
As for the gun shop owner, Dick Robinette, 75, said he continues to have trouble reading and talking. During conversations he struggles to find the right words to express himself.
No longer able to work, he closed the gun shop, selling off the inventory.
“It’s been a struggle,” he said. “I’m just gonna keep working at it until I can get as much as we can.”
The fight promoters who had held benefits for Rowan turned around and held one for Robinette, raising $10,000 for his medical bills.
Robinette and his wife have exchanged letters with Rowan, sending him a Bible in prison.
Rowan, who has spent most of his life nursing grudges against assorted people, can’t believe the couple forgave him.
“I think about it every day,” he said about the robbery. “If I could do everything over again, I would. I wish I had died.”