Sometime during the night of June 12-13, 1977, an unknown assailant(s) attacked three beloved young Girl Scouts on an outing at that organization’s Camp Scott, two miles south of Locust Grove and about fifty miles east of Tulsa. The unspeakable treatment of eight-year-old Lori Farmer, nine-year-old Michelle Guse, and 10-year-old Denise Milner was a tragedy like few in Oklahoma history. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies hurtled into action.
Suspicion and circumstantial evidence quickly centered on previously-convicted rapist and escaped convict Gene Leroy Hart. The Cherokee full-blood, a Locust Grove high school football standout in the early 1960s, had confessed in 1966 to kidnapping and raping two pregnant Tulsa women. He served a curiously light sentence of only 28 months for those crimes.
Caught burglarizing a residence in 1969, less than three months after his release on parole, he was convicted for a total of four burglaries. This triggered a contrasting sentencing extreme—more than 300 years in the maximum security Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Another curious decision transferred this hardened criminal from the state’s most secure prison to the Mayes County jail in Pryor, 25 miles northwest of Camp Scott, population 7,000. He twice escaped, most recently four years before. At the time of the murders, he remained on the loose at the time of what history remembers as the Girl Scout Murders.
Emotions spiraled. Added to the unprecedented, stupefied horror not only of anyone remotely connected to the victimized families and scouting, but virtually the entire state, was a seething anger and fear roiling up among many Natives in the old Cherokee country where Camp Scott lay. As Vol. 1 of this work, and various chapters in this volume, revealed, whites and Indians shared a history that had often been dark.
American pioneers shared bloody history with the Cherokees dating to the early 1700s. The defeated tribe became a staunch U.S. ally, but the later Indian removal, Trail of Tears, War Between the States, Reconstruction, allotment, and grafting had all tortured the checkered relations.
Now, many Cherokees, particularly full bloods who generally had not assimilated into the larger American society as happily, fully, or successfully as their mixed blood kin, suspected roughhewn Mayes County “cowboy” Sheriff Pete Weaver of leading an ego and race-motivated vigilante effort against an innocent Gene Hart. The latter had, after all, escaped from Weaver’s jail, and not once, but twice. Weaver knew he was the butt of many jokes related to that. Many Cherokees, in fact, dubious of “white man’s justice” for a renegade Indian, believed Hart had been railroaded on his original rape conviction—despite the fact that he confessed to it all.
If it seems like America’s ancient toxic brew of race had infected the mix, it had. Yet Assistant Cherokee County District Attorney Nathan Young III, himself a Native, downplayed that factor. Citing the large percentage of the Cookson Hills population with either Cherokee blood or relatives, he cited the urban vs. rural, or locals vs. outsiders, as the prevalent division. . “There is, in our area, a great deal of Native American involvement in law enforcement,” Young said. “We have lots and lots of Indian highway patrolmen, OSBI agents, deputy sheriffs, a lot of attitude that if he was guilty, he should be brought to trial, brought to justice.”
Hiding the Hometown Hero
Whatever its ingredients, the potion grew bitterer still as days, weeks, then months of non-stop investigation passed, with no sign of Hart. This, despite the largest manhunt in Oklahoma history and one of the largest in U.S. history, and no other credible suspects. As the general state population grew frustrated, even furious, Hart supporters—some of whom had already committed crimes by helping him hide from the law since his second jail break—secretly, and not-so-secretly, cheered their “home-town boy who has been out there without bothering anybody since he broke out of jail about three years ago and has been allowed free run of the town and the area without bothering anybody until all the mess came up,” in the words of two Locust Grove Natives.
“I have never been lied to so much in my life,” groused one lawman. “Just absolutely no cooperation from the people we interviewed. If people around here think Hart is so innocent and are trying to protect him, why don’t they get him to turn himself in and show he’s not guilty….We need to talk to him.”
“For those do-gooders who want to make a Sunday school teacher out of Mr. Hart,” Cherokee County District Attorney Sid Wise thundered, “let them ask the victims of the rapes he pleaded guilty to in 1966 when he forced two pregnant women into the trunk of a car and violated them. That man stood before God and his judge and said, ‘I am guilty because I did commit those acts.’”
Yet, Wise soon stepped down upon revelation he planned to parley the entire affair into a book. This bolstered Hart defenders’ beliefs that he was being railroaded. His mother, Ella Mae Buckskin, meanwhile—who lived one mil from Camp Scott—accused FBI agents of harassing her. The American Indian Movement—now floundering, searching for a cause celebre, and increasingly-radical—issued stern, even incendiary, warnings to Oklahoma lawmen.
Indeed, there was no “smoking gun” against Hart. Primitive scientific evidence in a pre-DNA era suggested the murderer(s) as being of his race and blood type, but nothing more specific than that. Stronger arguments against him were the extreme proximity—within one mile in some cases—of Hart’s boyhood home, his mother’s current home, and other Hart haunts to the remote, heavily forested Camp Scott. Also suspicious was the discovery of physical evidence in caves among those areas, some of which resembled some at the murder site, others that had possible earlier connections to Hart.
In addition, one of the murdered children was tied in a singularly identical fashion as one of Hart’s earlier rape victims. Increasing talk in various quarters, including amongst investigating lawmen, contemplated Hart’s poor eyesight, his preoccupation with trying on eyeglasses belonging to his previous rape victims, and the presence of women’s eyeglasses in one of the caves, along with the scattering of similar pairs of them around the murder site after their removal from their owners’ tents.
Also, Camp Scott counselor Carla Wilhite recalled strange, animal-like sounds coming from the general direction of the murdered girls’ tent the night of the crimes. Her description closely matched one of Hart’s 1966 rape victims’ earlier description of his sounds while attacking her. And, a fellow convict testified that he had hidden in the afore-mentioned caves with Hart. Yet, controversy boiled even here, as Hart’s supporters, and eventually his legal defense team, denounced the cave findings as “planted evidence” by lawmen.
On top of all this, Camp Scott lay amidst the Cookson Hills, a dense, tick, chigger, and snake-ridden forest dark in appearance and history alike. Outlaws and criminals from Belle Starr to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 5) to the Neo-Nazis of Elohim City have crafted a heritage of blood and sorrow woven amidst that of the area’s many Bible-believing Christians and humble Cherokee patriots. So, too, did Gene Leroy Hart hail from these environs, and, with the Girl Scout Murders, one of the darkest stains on Oklahoma.
The complexity of the events was only made more complex by the historical moment in which it transpired. Identity politics of the 1970s intersected with fears that the world was going mad; increased violent crimes against children and women collided with the burgeoning women’s movement; small town safety and the comfort of trusting neighbors dissolved with the presence of a killer on the loose, with dozens of law enforcement agents and scores of reporters.
Cheyenne On the Trail
As 1977 became 1978 no lawman had seen hide nor hair of Hart. Then OSBI chief inspector Ted Limke sicced its Supervisor of Special Projects Director Harvey Pratt and his team on the trail. El Reno native Pratt, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam War combat veteran, was a decorated OSBI investigator who for years worked some of the agency’s most dangerous undercover assignments. He headed its special investigations team.
He was also a Cheyenne Indian. Prior to setting out after Hart, Pratt, a Christian believer, visited his tribal medicine man, who gave him “medicines” for protection, wisdom, and success. He also gave him “tracking medicine.” “‘When you get close to whoever you’re chasing, you put this down and he’ll never lose you, he’ll always be there, you’ll catch him,’” he told Pratt.
Pratt and one-quarter Cherokee OSBI agent Larry Bowles began to make headway in the search by talking privately with Cherokees in the area. Pratt employed his singular acumen to uncover numerous clues pointing to an Indian perpetrator. Bowles shrewdly developed a crucial informant. This person revealed that Cherokee medicine man William Smith had told him two old men were sheltering Hart. They were doing so not around Mayes County or even Locust Grove, where hundreds of lawmen and volunteers had spent so much time searching, however, but deep in the Cooksons, near Tahlequah.
Pratt and Bowles scoured the countryside without success. Then the informant alerted them that one of Hart’s supposed hosts had died. The other, though, a man named Pigeon, was related to Smith’s wife, Eva Pigeon Smith. The lawmen made a beeline to Smith’s home and found her, but she was uncooperative. With Hart still in the wind and fresh out of leads, Pratt and Bowles drew their line in the sand. Bowles told Smith they knew she was helping hide Hart and that if she did not cooperate, she would be indicted immediately by a federal grand jury.
He added that the three murdered girls’ enraged fathers had been hounding the lawmen for the name of the informant they knew the agents had. If Eva didn’t cooperate, “I can tell you that before sundown they are gonna have your names and addresses.” Then, “good cop” Pratt closed the deal:
“I told her that if (Hart) didn’t do this, you need to let us take him into custody, because someone else is probably gonna kill him. We’ll take him into custody and we won’t hurt him. He’ll be safe with us. Then she said, ‘Well, I can take you to where Sam (Pigeon) lives.’ So she took me up there and showed me where it was.”
Pratt returned to his base and called in his team, the OSBI supervisor of the case, and a couple other trusted guys. He “told them what we had.” A renowned forensics artist, he then “drew a map of where to go and the house, I drew everything up.” Soon, they moved out in three vans and headed for Pigeon’s spartan, tar paper cabin. They parked to the front, rear, and side, and moved in. Hart was there alone, saw the agents out in front and raced for the back door. Seeing Pratt and others, he ran back in and was captured without a fight.
Wilkerson noticed with a chill that Hart wore a large pair of women’s sunglasses similar to pilfered pairs from Camp Scott attendees that were spilled open near the murdered girls’ tent.
Pratt memorably recalled:
“I used that tracking medicine on Hart. When I got close, When we took him into custody, they…handcuffed him and laid him on the ground in the yard there. Next thing I did, I got behind him, and I tapped him on his leg and I counted coup on him. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m taking my medicine back.’”
So energized had Pratt been, that only hours later, did he realize he had run through a bunch of briars, and had scores of briars and thorns pricking him through his jeans.
“We took him to Tahlequah, then returned him to McAlester that same night. I wrote on the van in which we were transporting him: ‘We got Hart!’”
Crowd Supports Suspect
If the victims’ families assumed they would find a supportive court room atmosphere, they were surprised and disappointed. “We were the enemy,” George Ann Guse, victim Michelle Guse’s mother, said. “When we walked into the courtroom, we seemed to be the guilty party. Everyone was rallying around their hero. It was a shock.” The overflow crowd spilled out into and around the courthouse building, as well as a Pryor City Hall auditorium for closed circuit television viewing of the proceedings. And it was a home field crowd for Hart.
Lead prosecutor and Tulsa District Attorney Buddy Fallis later recalled walking “the gauntlet” of Hart supporters lining the sidewalk each day he entered the courthouse. They made clear they “were very upset with law enforcement, with the prosecution, the family...It was a big crowd...it was not a very comfortable feeling.”
Throughout the trial, Hart supporters periodically let out muffled laughter, hand-clapping, and cheers in support of fiery young lead defense attorney Garvin Isaacs. Isaacs brilliantly—and pugnaciously—exploited the smallest seams and cracks in the prosecution’s case, particularly its lack of a definitive “smoking gun” incriminating Hart. Judge William Whistler twice cited Isaacs for contempt.
Isaacs and Fallis continually argued, often loudly and contemptuously of one another. Isaacs unleashed an unprecedented volley of outbursts during Fallis’s closing arguments, including shouting “Liar, liar.” “In my eighteen years of prosecution I have never seen such demeanor of lawyers, defense lawyers and their cheering section,” Fallis said.
Hundreds of Hart supporters participated in chicken dinners, hog fries, t-shirt sales, and gospel singalongs to raise money for his defense. Donations poured in from Natives and others coast to coast, including a large one from the Cherokee Nation. The Farmer, Guse, and Milner parents, after traversing the same “gauntlet” as Fallis, saw donation jars for Hart’s defense in Pryor restaurants and bumper stickers on cars that read “Free Hart” and “Welcome to the Hart of Gene Country.”
Memorable Verdict Scene
In the end, the 12-person jury, none of whom were Indian or Locust Grove natives like Hart, found him not guilty of all charges. Though they had deliberated for several hours, then overnight, one juror anonymously admitted the group had unanimously agreed on Hart’s innocence after five minutes of deliberation. Juror Lela Ramsey revealed interesting insights into the jury’s thinking:
“There wasn't a one of us that believed that evidence wasn't planted. We all thought that it was planted...I'm not saying he's not guilty, but I am saying that...(it) was not one person done it by themselves. We all twelve agreed on that, that there was enough evidence to show that it'd been more than one person.”
Crucially, the jurors were not allowed to consider any of Hart’s previous crime convictions, including for rape, in their decision on the Girl Scout Murders.
“We always said if we'd had it in Tulsa, we'd have gotten a conviction,” recalled prosecutor and future Tulsa District Judge Ron Shaffer. In Mayes County, “I think they had their mind made up before they ever got to the trial.”
Hart supporters erupted in applause, many of them rushing outside, cheering and hollering. They “just shouted like they were at a ballgame and their team had won,” Bettye Milner, victim Doris Milner’s mother, mournfully remembered. “I think that hit me harder than the verdict itself.” “We were in worse shape (emotionally) then, than we were that first day,” Shari Farmer, victim Lori Farmer’s mom, said.
Isaacs pounded his fist on his table in triumph. He planned to launch appeals for all of Hart’s previous crimes. The victims’ families quietly left, weeping. The prosecutors and investigators sat stunned. Limke declared there were no plans to re-open the case. “Why should we? We had the right man.” Indeed, no one else would ever be accused of the murders of Lori Farmer, Michelle Guse, and Doris Milner.
One month later, Hart, a strapping, athletic man of 35 years, dropped dead of a heart attack while working out in his McAlester prison yard.
Gene Leroy Hart’s family, legal team, and other supporters believed the system worked and that the jury’s quick and unanimous decision validated their belief in Hart’s innocence. Many remained angry that he had been charged in the first place. His funeral was the largest ever in Mayes County. The procession stretched for three-and-a-half miles.
The victims’ families were left to grieve, recover, and ultimately help other victims and their families through their leadership in various victims’ rights organizations.
“For me, it was a lot of guilt for letting Lori go to camp, which I still bear that guilt every day,” Shari Farmer said. “Living with depression. Living with anxiety. And living with panic attacks. Some days I’d just get up and think if I could just get from now to noon. Okay, if I can get from noon to supper.”
Future Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation deputy director Dick Wilkerson and his brother Michael Wilkerson, who both played key roles for the OSBI in the Hart investigation, produced a compelling book and film documentary, both entitled Someone Cry for the Children, that chronicled the Girl Scout Murders. These noted that a 1990s FBI laboratory analysis of bodily fluids taken from Gene Hart and those found in the victims built on earlier findings indicating a Native as the perpetrator of the Girl Scout Murders. The FBI study eliminated 99.88% of Indians as suspects. Hart was in the microscopic pool not eliminated.
Broken-hearted at the verdict, Dick Wilkerson scoffed at the notion of “planted evidence” or other theories suggesting that lawmen tried to frame Hart. “Think what would've been necessary,” he told the Tulsa World. “OHP, OSBI, Mayes County sheriff, Mayes County DA, FBI. All would've had to have gotten together. You couldn't get all those people to agree it's daylight outside.”
He added, regarding Hart’s supporters: “People could not believe that somebody who they thought they knew could do something like this.” He said that “created a general atmosphere,” which wound up impacting the jury. Later, as a longtime state senator, he championed legislation that financed a DNA database and upgraded Oklahoma’s forensic testing prowess.
Like others of the victims’ parents, Bettye Milner’s growth in her Christian faith proved the greatest key to living a meaningful life after the tragedy at Camp Scott. Guilt had racked her that she had urged her daughter Doris to attend and remain at the camp, even though she wanted to stay home. When she learned that Hart had stunningly dropped dead mere weeks after his courtroom acquittal, “I felt like justice was served,” she said. “That had been my prayer—(that) what man couldn't do, God would.”
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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