Trying to aid son before execution

Steven Oken and his mother talk on the phone nearly every day, and she visits him every week.

But in 17 years of conversations about such varied topics as local sports teams and world events, there's a topic that Davida Oken says she hasn't ever broached: the crimes that put her son on death row.


"Why bring it up?" she asks. "I have never asked him for details, for an explanation. What good would it do?"

Steven Oken, the son of a pharmacist, was 25 years old and married in November 1987 when he raped and killed three women.


Now, his mother says, there's another subject that she avoids when talking to her son: his scheduled execution, which could take place as soon as today.

"It's hard to make conversation without him getting upset or me getting upset," Davida Oken says. "There will be plenty of time for me to be upset later. Right now I try to keep him laughing and smiling."

As the scheduled execution has neared, Davida Oken and her husband, David, have participated in several anti-death-penalty rallies. Attorneys for Steven Oken are working to delay his execution to allow a legal challenge to Maryland's lethal-injection process.

Michael Lawlor, one of Steven Oken's attorneys, said a petition seeking a stay of execution was filed with the Supreme Court last night. He said he thought the court would act quickly on the request.

"They're not going to let Mr. Oken get executed before they rule on what's before them," Lawlor said.

A hearing is also scheduled for this afternoon in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Steven Howard Oken was adopted at birth and raised in a stable, upper-middle-class family in Randallstown, his mother says. He has a younger brother and a sister, both of whom have successful careers. Davida Oken says the siblings remain in contact with their brother.

Oken's bar mitzvah was Jan. 25, 1975, at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, his mother says, and though the family was never strictly observant, the children spent High Holy Days at the synagogue, where their parents were members for 27 years before withdrawing their membership.


He played many sports and was on the lacrosse team at Randallstown High School, Davida Oken says. He studied health science for three years at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but he withdrew a few credits shy of a degree, she says.

Although Oken had a conventional childhood, Davida Oken says, he reacted badly when his parents told him at age 10 or 11 that he had been adopted.

At Oken's sentencing hearing in 1991, she testified that he "screamed in disbelief for two hours."

As he grew into a young man, Oken began working alongside his father at his business, Oken's Rexall Pharmacy, across from Johns Hopkins Hospital. He married a young woman named Phyllis Hirt, whom his mother says he had met through the pharmacy. (She divorced him after his arrest.)

Davida Oken says signs of trouble emerged in 1986, when her son started "running away from a lot of things. He used drugs -- cocaine, marijuana, prescription medications -- and abused alcohol."

She says she noticed a physical change in her son and that she and his father demanded that he seek help if he wanted to continue to work as a pharmacy technician.


Oken saw a psychiatrist off and on for about a year, she says. But in the fall of 1987, he began getting into trouble with the law, according to police and court records.

He was arrested Oct. 13 and charged with beating up a motel clerk in East Baltimore. A week later, Oken attacked a prostitute in a parking lot at the Inner Harbor after he refused to pay her in advance, police said after his arrest in the three women's murders.

The night of Nov. 1, 1987, Oken posed alternately as a stranded motorist and a doctor as he sought entrance to apartments in White Marsh, court testimony would show. His wife was in California on a business trip.

According to the testimony, he knocked on Dawn Marie Garvin's door. Her husband of four months had left that evening to return to his naval base in Virginia. She let him inside.

Oken raped Garvin and sexually assaulted her with a condiment bottle, and then he shot her twice in the head.

As Baltimore County police searched for Garvin's killer, Oken attended a Nov. 9 hearing in the motel clerk's assault. He received probation before judgment and was ordered to seek alcohol treatment. He was arrested Nov. 14 just south of White Marsh and charged with driving while intoxicated.


The next day, Patricia Hirt disappeared. Police found her nude body in a ditch along White Marsh Boulevard on Nov. 16. They searched Steven Oken's apartment and found evidence that he had sexually assaulted and killed Hirt, his wife's older sister. There they also found ballistic evidence linking him to Garvin's death.

That day, driving Hirt's white Ford Mustang, Oken made it to Kittery, Maine, where he sexually assaulted and fatally shot motel clerk Lori Ward. He checked into another motel, and that's where Maine police arrested him Nov. 17.

From the moment Oken was arrested, his parents have been unconditionally supportive, paying expensive legal and psychiatric bills and spending as much time with him as they can.

"He is my son," his father told The Evening Sun in 1989. "It's horrible. We close our eyes sometimes and hope it will all go away, but then you realize that it happened and is a fact and you have to deal with it."

Attempts to obtain an interview with Steven Oken were unsuccessful.

In a 2001 article in the Baltimore Jewish Times, he talked of his drug and alcohol abuse, personal problems and depression, and said, "I can't point to one thing that made this happen. ... I just didn't want to deal with everything."


"There are no excuses for what I've done," he told the Jewish Times. "And I can't begin to imagine the suffering, the cost of what I've done to these people. It's a terrible thing I did."

He has become more religious during his time behind bars, his mother says. He practices Orthodox Judaism, attaching tefillin, boxes containing biblical verse, to his body, she says.

Oken is 42 now. His 5-foot, 10-inch frame is heavier than it used to be, his mother says, and his hair is gray.

Because of prison rules, the Okens say, they have not been able to touch their son in more than a decade, ever since he was moved to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, better known as Supermax.

Still, Steven Oken is allowed to call his parents, sometimes more than once a day. In her 30- to 45-minute visits, Davida Oken says, the two talk about their family. They talk about auto racing, the Ravens and the Orioles. Davida Oken says she has seen her son every day since June 1, when he was moved to solitary confinement in preparation for his scheduled execution.

She says she is running out of ways to make small talk.


This article was updated by staff with information from the Associated Press.