Girl Scout murders in Oklahoma remain unsolved 40 years after tragedy
PRYOR — Forty years after the sadistic murders of three young Girl Scouts at an Oklahoma summer camp, law officers are raising funds to find the answers that have remained elusive.
Mayes County Sheriff Mike Reed was 8 years old at the time of the slayings at Camp Scott, near the small community of Locust Grove. He grew up just a few miles away from the crime scene.
The murders of Lori Lee Farmer, 8, and Doris Denise Milner, 10, both of Tulsa, and Michele Guse, 9, of Broken Arrow, are currently the only unsolved homicide cases in Reed's jurisdiction.
"It's personal to me — it affected how we played outside that summer," Reed said. "I was about the same age as the girls that were killed."
After funding from a federal grant for DNA testing ran out, Reed and one of his officers worked to raise about $30,000 from private donations.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which was called in to assist with the initial investigation four decades ago, recently submitted physical evidence from the Girl Scout murders for new DNA testing with the help of funds raised by the Mayes County sheriff's office.
OSBI Director Stan Florence said several previous rounds of DNA testing have been inconclusive, but there's always hope.
"Quite honestly, the samples have been around for 40 years," Florence said. "They have deteriorated to a point that makes testing difficult."
Screams in the night
On June 12, 1977, nearly 140 Girl Scouts arrived at Camp Scott, a sprawling, heavily wooded property southeast of Locust Grove in northeast Oklahoma. The Magic Empire Council of Girl Scouts had owned the camp since 1928; a week of beloved traditions awaited the children.
No one could have anticipated the horror that instead would befall three young campers.
The first night of Girl Scout camp also would be the last night alive for Lori, Doris and Michele.
A landowner would later tell an Oklahoman reporter he heard "quite a bit" of vehicular traffic on a remote road near the camp between 2:30 and 3 a.m.
A killer cut his way into the girls' tent, where Lori and Michele were bludgeoned and raped. Doris was bound and gagged, taken outside, raped and strangled. The two other girls were dragged out and left beside her in their sleeping bags.
A camp counselor found the children dead at 6 a.m. June 13.
There were "a couple of reports" that other children heard screams, The Oklahoman reported on June 14, 1977.
Camp Scott closed the day after the slayings and never opened again.
"One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all," wrote Misti Farmer, Lori's little sister, in a 1979 school assignment two years after her sister's death. "Except for my family."
Manhunt and mystery
Sitting inside a nondescript Oklahoma City office recently, attorney Garvin Isaacs opened a black three-ring binder full of notes about the events that followed the discovery of the Girl Scouts.
Isaacs defended Gene Leroy Hart, the only person ever arrested and tried in connection with the deaths.
The children had been found piled up, Isaacs said. Atop the bodies sat a large, red flashlight. On that flashlight, he said, is a fingerprint that has never been identified. It wasn't Hart's. In the platform tent where the murdered girls had slept, a footprint in the blood would measure a 9.5 shoe size. Hart wore an 11.5, Isaacs said.
"You can't change your fingerprint," Isaacs said. "You can't shrink your feet."
Lawmen arrived, including Mayes County Sheriff Pete Weaver, and his first deputy.
According to Isaacs, Weaver lit a cigarette and pointed out that a known Mayes County fugitive's mother lived a half mile north.
"Gene Leroy Hart did this," Isaacs claimed the sheriff said and witnesses would later testify.
"That's what started the whole thing," Isaacs said.
For Weaver, it was personal.
The sheriff had been humiliated that Hart, at the time 34 and a fugitive, had twice escaped from the Mayes County jail. The convicted rapist was being held on stolen property charges. He'd been at large for four years.
That vendetta fueled a flawed investigation, according to Isaacs.
Headlines from the era detail how shock, sadness and fear spread throughout Oklahoma and the country as law enforcement set out to catch a maniac killer.
“It's such a nice camp, out in the woods, and now ... this ..." a local woman told an Oklahoman reporter at the time.
Ten days after the counselor found the children dead at the camp, law enforcement had gathered enough evidence to name and charge Hart, who remained at large.
He faced three counts of first-degree murder.
But where was he?
According to Isaacs, Hart had been with his uncle the night the girls died.
When the pair discovered he was being sought in the murders, the uncle took Hart, a Cherokee, to tribal medicine men who would hide him, actions that touched off a national manhunt.
"These people were acting emotionally, simply trying to help out a fellow Cherokee," said Ross Swimmer, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1975 to 1985.
OSBI agents apprehended Hart in a remote, two-room, green, wood-frame house on April 6, 1978, 50 miles from the camp nearly 10 months after the manhunt began, according to The Oklahoman.
They were the same rugged Cookson Hills that had for years cloaked gangster Pretty Boy Floyd from lawmen during the Depression era.
Hart's uncle, his only alibi, died while Hart was hiding, Isaacs said.
Law enforcement officers were convinced that months of investigation and a massive manhunt had produced their man.
Now, they only had to prove it.
Opening statements in Pryor commenced on March 19, 1979, bringing hope for justice to the families of the slain children.
Evidence against Hart, according to prosecutors, included personal photographs found at a cave three miles from the death scene, indicating Hart had been in the area; a flashlight like one he had been seen with earlier; and sperm and hair samples.
The defense countered that the photos had been planted by the grudge-bearing sheriff and the sperm and hair samples were inconclusive.
After nine days of voluminous testimony it took a jury only five hours to acquit Hart, according to an Oklahoman article.
One juror anonymously told a reporter, "the panel had its mind made up five minutes after beginning deliberations."
Accounts at the time noted hysterical exhilaration from Hart supporters and bitter disappointment from his dumbstruck pursuers, investigators and prosecutors.
The victims' parents leaned into each other and sobbed. One parent had planned to type a statement in the district attorney's office but was too shaken to do so and left without talking to reporters.
Exonerated, but prison-bound, Hart, once a local football hero, faced a life ahead in prison as a convicted burglar and rapist of two pregnant women.
Back at the Mayes County Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Weaver maintained that a guilty man walked free.
"I do not intend to reopen any investigation. We had the man we were after," Weaver told The Oklahoman in a March 31, 1979, article.
Asked at the time if OSBI would reopen the case, OSBI inspector Ted Lemke echoed the sheriff's sentiment.
"Why should we? We had the right man," he told The Oklahoman.
An editorial published in the Pryor Jeffersonian newspaper days after the trial's conclusion noted that each day since the girls had been found, "a new chapter is added with plots and subplots as complicated as the Watergate conspiracy."
The case "became quickly entangled with allegations of racism and scapegoatism, and was tainted by ambition and greed. Political plans blossomed and died while visions of Pulitzer Prizes vanished in the 22 months since June 13."
The twists continued after the trial.
Hart died of a heart attack on June 4, 1979, while jogging inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Unsolved case, unanswered questions
OSBI Director Florence said subsequent rounds of DNA testing have never been able to rule Hart out as a suspect.
"It's a safe assumption to say that other names have come up over the years, but to categorize them as suspects would be too much to say," he said.
Even after 40 years, members of the public still contact OSBI with tips from time to time, he said.
The case remains open and undergoes a periodic review, new information is followed up, but it's more of a passive effort these days, Florence said.
He still hopes that someone who knows what happened that night in the woods will come forward.
"This could be the point — 40 years later — that whatever fears they had, enough time has passed they could be forthcoming with information that would be helpful to us."
Reed said he wasn't in a position to say whether he believes Hart was the killer.
"I'm trying to be 100 percent objective — hopefully the new testing will bring more stuff to light."
Sheryl Stokes, now a family advocacy specialist with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, keeps memories of victim Lori Farmer, her childhood friend, close to her heart.
Stokes grew up in Tulsa, one street over from Lori, and never forgot the early loss of her friend.
"I saw the devastation it caused the families and the community," Stokes said. "Back then there was nobody to help us through that. We just had to figure it out on our own."
The unsolved murder of her friend led Stokes to her current work. With her help, the center began assisting with the Girl Scout murder investigation a few years ago.
Sheri Farmer of Tulsa, mother of Lori Farmer, remembers her oldest daughter as a bright child who loved books and skipped second grade.
"We remember Lori every day," she said. "She fills our lives. I would have not missed being Lori's mother for anything in the world."
A family friend painted a mural of Lori in an upstairs bedroom of their home. The mural shows Lori, with long blonde hair in a sundress sitting on a stone bench in a garden. Lori is reading a book and smiling in the painting.
Farmer has never stopped hoping for justice. The victims' families met for a memorial service on Tuesday.
"I think the case can be solved today without DNA. I think someone out there knows what happened and can solve the case," she said. "I'm hopeful, I'm always hopeful."
The Mayes County Sheriff's Office is still accepting donations that will fund DNA testing in the case.
Checks can be made out to the Mayes County Sheriff's Office Cold Case Files and sent to: 1 Court Place, Suite 150, Pryor, OK 74361.
Juliana Keeping is on the enterprise reporting team for The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com. Keeping joined the staff of The Oklahoman in 2012. Prior to that time, she worked in the Chicago media at the SouthtownStar, winning a Peter Lisagor Award... Read more ›
Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›