On June 13, 1977 girl scouts Michelle Guse, Lori Lee Farmer and Denise Milner were brutally raped and murdered at Camp Scott in Locust Grove, Oklahoma. This unsolved case has become one of Oklahoma’s most infamous murder mysteries.
(originally published in AY Magazine in May 2008)
Though it didn’t begin officially for another 10 days, the summer of 1977 was shaping up to be another hot one for Oklahoma. Sunday, June 12 offered hope for relief, as storm clouds appeared on the horizon. The prospect of rain certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of a group of Girl Scouts gathered outside their troop headquarters in Tulsa. Members of the Magic Empire Council were preparing to leave for summer camp, a trip that many had been planning for several months. Doris Denise Milner,10, had worked hard to sell enough cookies to attend camp for the first time. Her playmates had decided not to go that year, so she was a little anxious, but still excited about making new friends.
After last minute goodbyes to family members, the 140 scouts stepped aboard buses that smelled of oil and leather. Lurching and rattling, the caravan moved out and headed for the small farming community of Locust Grove, about 50 miles away in northeastern Oklahoma, where the Girl Scout Council owned a 410-acre tract of land known as Camp Scott. Since 1928, Camp Scott had provided adventures for young girls in a variety of recreational and educational activities; hiking, swimming, arts and crafts, cookouts and sing-alongs. A lot of memories can be made in two weeks.
On the outskirts of Locust Grove, the buses turned south at the intersection of OK Hwy 33 and OK Hwy 82. A green sign directed the drivers down a narrow road called Cookie Trail and onto the Girl Scout property. The camp was divided into units that were named for American Indian tribes: Osage, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Comanche, Cherokee, Quapaw, Arapahoe, and the most remote, the Kiowa Unit. Twenty-seven girls were assigned to Kiowa, which was at the western end of the campgrounds, and the last tent in the unit was Number 8, a twelve-by-fourteen foot canvas tent that sat on a wooden platform 100 yards away from the nearest counselor’s tent and 75 feet away from the closest neighboring tent. Denise Milner was assigned to Tent 8, along with 9-year-old Michelle Guse and Lori Lee Farmer, who would celebrate her ninth birthday later in the week. A fourth girl was to join them the next day.
A thunderstorm hit around 6 p.m., as the scouts were eating in the mess hall. After supper, they waited for the rain to slacken, but it continued as the long day drew to a close, so everyone retired to their respective quarters. Denise, Lori, and Michelle unpacked their belongings in Tent 8 and prepared for bed, as they got to know each other better.
Denise said she enjoyed watching television and playing with her 5-year-old sister, Kathleen. Lori was big sister to four siblings. Michelle was from Broken Bow, but she quickly became friends with Denise and Lori who were both from Tulsa.
Lori unpacked a couple of decks of cards and sometime before lights out, she wrote a letter to her family. “I’ve met two new friends,” she wrote. “I’m sharing a tent with them. We’re sleeping on cots. I couldn’t wait to write. Love, Lori.”
The letter was Lori’s last communication with the world. Within hours, she was dead, as were Denise and Michelle, all victims in one of Oklahoma’s most infamous murder mysteries. A nightmare without end for three families, the case remains open and has had more twists and turns than a game of Labyrinth. It is still one of the most hotly debated topics in the history of Oklahoma jurisprudence.
About 1:30 a.m., June 13, Carla Sue Wilhite, a camp counselor, took a flashlight and went to investigate suspicious, intermittent moaning sounds that seemed to be coming from somewhere near the intersection of a camp trail and a dirt road that led to the parking area. It was approximately 150 yards from Tent 8. When Wilhite could not find the source of the noise, she decided it was just an animal in the dense woods nearby and nothing to arouse concern, so she returned to her tent and went to sleep.
At 2 a.m., one of the Girl Scouts in Tent 7 saw someone pull the tent flap back and shine a light inside. She couldn’t discern the features of the person; she just saw the silhouette of a large individual. The flap closed again, and the unidentified person went away.
At 3 a.m., a girl in the Cherokee Unit heard a scream coming from the direction of the Kiowa group. A girl in the Quapaw Unit also heard someone cry out, “Mama! Mama!” and thought she recognized the voice as that of Lori Farmer, with whom she had attended camp once before. She knew that Lori sometimes had nightmares, so she dismissed any cause for alarm and went back to sleep.
The bad weather moved out overnight, and Monday dawned bright and clear. It was the kind of morning when nostrils flare, and every breath taken is a deep, fulfilling sigh. The woods were fragrant and fresh. The earth smelled clean. It was going to be a beautiful day.
At 6 a.m., Wilhite woke and went to take a shower. As she approached the area where the strange sounds had been heard during the night, Wilhite saw three sleeping bags lying beneath a tree: one yellow plaid, one green and the third had a floral design. On closer inspection, Wilhite was horrified to see, partially covered by the yellow plaid bag, the lifeless body of Denise Milner. The little girl was nude from the waist down, and her hands were duct-taped behind her back. Stuffed inside the other two bags were the bodies of Michelle Guse and Lori Farmer. Autopsies would later show that Michelle and Lori had been beaten to death and Denise, though her face was battered, had actually died from strangulation. All three girls had been sexually assaulted.
Camp counselors responded quickly, but nothing in the Girl Scout manual ever prepared them for anything like this. They accounted for all the other girls attending camp and herded them into the mess hall for breakfast. Trying to shield them from certain trauma, the counselors improvised a scene of normalcy. Within minutes, the first law officers arrived on the scene, cordoned off the murder site, and kept the news media at bay, while evidence was collected. It wasn’t long, though, before word got out about the tragic event. Reverberations radiated outward, and by nightfall, the entire nation’s attention was riveted on the tiny town of Locust Grove, Oklahoma.
(originally published in AY Magazine in June 2008)
In June 1977, the entire nation was shocked by the murders of three young Girl Scouts on their first night of summer camp near the northeastern Oklahoma town of Locust Grove.
The victims were 10-year-old Doris Denise Milner, 9-year-old Michelle Guse, and 8-year-old Lori Lee Farmer. They were found 150 yards from their tent, which was at the remote west end of Camp Scott. Investigators, who were assigned the task of solving the crime, and reporters, who covered it, referred to the killer as an animal. The savagery of the attack was evident in the wounds of the victims. Guse and Farmer died from blunt force head trauma, and Milner was strangled after suffering a massive blow to the head. Two of the girls had been raped, and one sodomized. Catching the killer became top priority with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI).
Clues found near the bodies included a large roll of black duct tape and a red-and-white, 9-volt flashlight. The lens of the flashlight was covered with a piece of green plastic from a garbage bag. Masking tape was used to attach the plastic to the flashlight. A piece of newspaper had been wedged inside the flashlight’s battery compartment. The paper was identified as being from the April 17 edition of Tulsa World. Investigators also discovered the assailant had burglarized some tents the night of the murders and taken, among other items, a pair of sunglasses belonging to camp counselor Susan Emery.
Authorities checked with mental hospitals and prisons in the state for a list of outpatients and parolees with histories of sex offenses. OSBI Agent Arthur “Aupy” Linville was curious about a convicted rapist and fugitive whose mother lived less than a half mile from Camp Scott. His name was Gene Leroy “Sonny” Hart.
Hart was a Cherokee Indian born Nov. 27, 1943 in Claremore, Oklahoma. He was raised by his mother and barely knew his father. He was a C-average student in school, but excelled in sports and could have gone to college on a football scholarship. He chose, instead, to marry, and soon afterwards, he and his wife became parents. Up until then, it seems Hart was happy and affectionate, but something changed; and he became bitter and depressed.
In 1966, Hart confessed to kidnapping, raping and sodomizing two pregnant women in Tulsa. He was sentenced to three 10-year prison terms, but because the sentences ran concurrently, he was paroled after only 28 months. In 1970, Hart was convicted of a series of home burglaries and sentenced to a maximum of 305 years in the state penitentiary at McAlester. In April 1973, he was transferred from McAlester to the Mayes County Jail in Pryor, Oklahoma, so he could appear for post-conviction relief in his 1966 crime. He escaped from the jail, but was captured a month later. In September 1973, he escaped again and was still at large when the Girl Scout murders occurred four years later.
Three days after the murders, two squirrel hunters found a flour sack in front of a cave three miles southwest of Camp Scott. Thinking someone might be hiding in the cave, the hunters contacted the Highway Patrol. Inside the cave, investigators found photographs of two women, a roll of masking tape with a piece of plastic garbage bag stuck to it, two pieces of newspaper, and one pair of broken sunglasses in a beige vinyl case. The newspaper was the April 17 edition of Tulsa World, and Susan Emery identified the sunglasses as hers. Investigators traced the photographs to Louis Lindsey, who had worked at the prison when Hart was incarcerated there. Lindsey moonlighted as a photographer and developed his pictures in the prison’s darkroom. Hart had processed the film. Dick Wilkerson, OSBI agent, theorized that Hart kept the photos because one of the women pictured reminded him of his wife. The connection was made. The cave was linked to the crime scene, and Hart was linked to the cave.
When word got out that Hart was being charged in the Girl Scout killings, his friends and relatives, believing him to be innocent, closed ranks around him. He had 250 relatives living within a half-mile-square area, and they were more than willing to help him. Hart could also live off the land, for he was an experienced woodsman. The rugged hills of northeastern Oklahoma offered bountiful fish and game and plenty of places for a man to hide.
Throughout the summer of 1977, OSBI agents used tracking dogs and aerial heat-seeking equipment to hunt for Hart. They battled heat, humidity, chiggers and ticks, but it was as if they were chasing a ghost.
One of the agents, Harvey Pratt, was a Cheyenne-Arapaho and was a firm believer in American Indian mysticism. When Dick Wilkerson and his brother, Mike Wilkerson (also an OSBI agent), wrote a book about the Girl Scout murders, they quoted Pratt as saying, “The Indians in this part of Oklahoma believe that medicine men have medicine so strong that they can change themselves into birds or animals or give someone else this power.” Such individuals are called shape shifters or skin walkers. Pratt, and others of like mind, thought Hart had strong medicine working for him. It was said that a medicine man had put a curse on the OSBI’s tracking dogs shortly before one dog died of heat prostration, and another was struck and killed by a car. As the months went by, former high school football star Gene Hart became a living legend.
By late September 1977, reward money gathered from various sources had grown to more than $20,000, and that was enough for one informant to offer police help in finding Hart. The informant told authorities that Hart’s brother-in-law was plotting to drive Hart to the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina; so the OSBI put a tracking device on the brother-in-law’s car. The agents’ plan was thwarted when a Hart supporter, who worked at police headquarters, snitched and told Hart’s family about the bug.
During the winter, investigators spent long nights in the woods in sub-zero weather, as they continued surveillance on places they thought Hart might be hiding. Finally, they got a break. Their informant learned Hart was staying with an old man in a tar-paper shack in the Cookson Hills between Tahlequah and Sallisaw. On April 6, 1978, OSBI agents closed in and took Hart by surprise, without a single shot being fired. It was almost anti-climactic, but the agents were elated and could not contain their excitement. They whooped and hollered with joy. Some were on the verge of tears. The manhunt had lasted 10 months, had consumed more than 10,000 man hours, and cost the taxpayers $2 million. Hart had hidden for five years in an area of about 25 square miles. The question now became: could the prosecution prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Gene Leroy Hart was guilty of the slaughter of the innocents?
Or was the killer still out there?
(originally published in AY Magazine in July 2008)
In 1977, three Girl Scouts were murdered on their first night at summer camp near Locust Grove, Oklahoma.
The girls, 10-year-old Doris Denise Milner, 9-year-old Michelle Guse, and 8-year-old Lori Lee Farmer, shared a tent at the remote west end of Camp Scott. Gene Leroy Hart, a Cherokee Indian from the area, was charged with the crime. Hart had a previous conviction for rape and was serving a lengthy sentence for burglary when he escaped in 1973. He was still a fugitive at the time of the murders. He remained at large until his arrest in April 1978. Despite his criminal record, Hart’s friends and relatives could not believe their former high school football star was capable of brutalizing and killing the little girls. His supporters thought he was being made a scapegoat by the white establishment, and they sponsored benefits to raise money for his defense. Their vehicles sported bumper stickers that read, “The Hart of Gene Country.” The American Indian Movement (AIM) sent representatives to Pryor, Okla., to monitor the situation. Even before the trial started, a media feeding frenzy prompted the prosecution to seek a change of venue, but the request was denied; the trial got underway in March 1979.
Special Prosecutor Buddy Fallis, Jr. was appointed to assist District Attorney Sid Wise, who had fallen under close scrutiny because of his alleged intention to write a book about the case. Garvin Isaacs was hired to defend Hart. Not a single jury member, impaneled to decide Hart’s fate, was Native American.
The case against Hart was flawed, beginning with the handling of the crime scene and the evidence gathered there. In the tent where the victims had slept, investigators found a palm print and a bloody shoeprint. The palm print, as it turned out, belonged to an agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), and the shoeprint was too small to have been Hart’s. A fingerprint found on a red and white flashlight at the scene was not Hart’s. Seminal fluid obtained from the victims’ bodies presented a conundrum for the prosecution. Sperm was present, but Hart had undergone a vasectomy several years earlier and, theoretically, could not have produced sperm. The prosecution argued that Hart’s vasectomy, performed by a 78-year-old doctor, had been only partially successful. Consulting physicians said such cases could result in non-productive, deformed sperm. Hart had type O blood and was a secretor. The semen sample from the victims was from a non-white male, who was a secretor with blood type O and it contained deformed sperm. The number of people in the United States who meet all of that criteria represent .002 percent of the population. Forensic experts also testified that hair found on Denise Milner’s body was microscopically similar to Hart’s. This was all in the pre-DNA era, however, and as the defense pointed out, “microscopically similar” meant just that … similar, but not identical.
Two crucial pieces of evidence were a souvenir corncob pipe and a small, blue mirror found among items in a shack owned by an old man named Sam Pigeon. Hart had lived there with Pigeon after the murders. Karen Mitchell, a counselor-in-training at Camp Scott, identified the pipe and mirror as hers, saying they had disappeared around the time of the slayings. The problem was that investigators had seized the pipe and mirror only after they decided to conduct a second inspection of the shack. Sam Pigeon said he had never seen the pipe or mirror. This caused Hart’s supporters and his lawyer, to suspect the evidence had been planted by OSBI agents, desperate to close the case. Isaacs also called into question the integrity of Pete Weaver, Mayes County Sheriff. One of the sheriff’s former jailers, Allen Little, said he had seen some of Hart’s possessions in Weaver’s desk — items that later turned up in a cave thought to have been used by Hart as another hide-out after the murders.
The prosecution concluded their case after six days of testimony. The defense then went on the offense. Besides attacking the state’s inconclusive forensic evidence and the veracity of the investigating officers, Isaacs also presented an alternate suspect, Bill Stevens, who, like Hart, was a convicted rapist. A woman named Joyce Ellen Payne and her common-law husband, Duane Peters, knew Stevens and said he borrowed a red and white flashlight from them a few days before the murders and afterward showed up with what looked like blood on his boots. He told them he had experienced car trouble in Locust Grove. Stevens denied it all, saying he hadn’t even been in the area, and yet Kimberly Lewis, a young scout, testified that she had seen a man who looked like Stevens at the camp. In rebuttal, the prosecution said hair and semen samples from Stevens excluded him as a suspect.
Other unknown suspects were possibilities, as well. Camp Scott officials had seen strange men around the camp the day before the murder, and speculation rose about the likelihood of more than one assailant, since there were multiple victims. Camp employees had also found a threatening note. The note, which was attached to a hanging stick figure, said that some little girls would be murdered. The camp director dismissed the incident as a prank and did not implement any security measures.
The defense rested without Hart taking the stand. The jury began their deliberations, but retired for the night without a verdict. The next morning, though, they were ready with their decision. Not guilty. Emotions ran high; relief and rejoicing from the defendant’s camp, disappointment and disbelief from the prosecution’s. Jury remarks included, “a reasonable doubt,” “evidence wasn’t there,” and “the investigation was a screwed-up mess.” Twenty years later, two of the murder victims’ mothers would see similarities between Hart’s trial and that of O.J. Simpson.
“You would be absolutely shocked at how many similarities there were in those two cases,” Mrs. Farmer said. “… the [alleged] planting of evidence, the ‘race card’ … all of that was played.”
Mrs. Milner said watching the Simpson trial “was like it was happening to us all over again.”
Simpson’s attorney, the late Johnnie Cochran, was talking about a bloody glove when he said, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Garvin Isaacs was talking about a bloody shoeprint when he said, “You can’t shrink your foot.”
After the trial, Hart returned to prison to finish serving his sentence for burglary. Within the year, he was dead. Officially, the cause of death was a massive heart attack. Unofficial conjecture was that Hart was poisoned by other inmates. According to Dick Wilkerson, former OSBI Investigator, “A large amount of cyanide was confiscated from prisoners at McAlester State Prison the day before Hart died.”
Gene Leroy Hart was 34 years old.
No one else was ever charged with the Girl Scout murders. Ted Limke, OSBI Inspector, once said there was no need to keep the case open because the jury had “turned loose the man who committed the murders.”
In 2007, the Oklahoma State Crime Lab ran DNA tests on evidence from the case, but the results were inconclusive.