Abandoned buildings hold many stories, memories locked in their crumbling and rotting facades. In rural Oklahoma, a once joyous summer camp is slowly being reclaimed by nature, left only to the advancing mold and the ghosts of so many moments of fun. While those moments likely still exist in the back of many former residents’ minds, they are surely eclipsed by the horror of what transpired one rainy morning in 1977. By dawn, three schoolgirls were brutally raped and murdered, and the culprit would never officially be caught following an investigation where allegations of racism and corruption would run wild.
June 12, 1977, was a rainy night at Camp Scott in rural Oklahoma. The camp was historic, founded 49 years before as one of the centerpieces of the Magic Empire Girl Scout Council out of Tulsa. The 410-acre compound sat between Snake Creek and Spring Creek just off Highway 82. It was the first day of camping, and a summer thunderstorm was thrashing the tents of a group of girl scouts from the Broken Arrow section of Tulsa. In Tent 8, the furthest away from the camp counselor, three young girls huddled together for comfort, writing letters in the dark. They were Lori Lee Farmer, 8, Michelle Heather Guse, 9, and Doris Denise Milner, 10.
Lori was the youngest Girl Scout at the entire camp and was happy to meet new friends. One of five children, she was the daughter of Dr. Charles “Bo” Farmer and his wife Sheri; she couldn’t decide between attending the Girl Scout Camp or one sponsored by the YMCA. Sheri had decided for her daughter, and it was a decision she later would say she regretted “for the rest of [her] life.”
“Dear Mom and Dad and Misti and Jo and Chad and Kathy. We’re just getting ready to go to bed. It’s 7:45. We’re at the beginning of a storm and having a lot of fun. I’ve met two new friends, Michele Guse and Denise Milner. I’m sharing a tent with them. It’s started raining on the way back from dinner. We’re sleeping on cots. I couldn’t wait to write. We’re all riding letters now ’cause there’s hardly anything else to do. With love, Lori” — Final letter from Lori Farmer
Meanwhile, Michele had already attended the camp the previous year and was also excited to be returning. Described as athletic and active, she was enthralled by outdoor pursuits. It seems likely the other girls will have looked to her brief experience, particularly Denise Milner, who was overtly anxious over the trip. Denise’s mother, Bettye, said she was “worried” about attending and had almost decided she didn’t want to go when she convinced her otherwise. The young girl was a ‘straight A’ student and had sold enough Girl Scout cookies to attend.
After writing their letters, the three girls went to sleep as the rain continued to lash down. Partially obscured by the camp showers, nobody would see the horror to come.
Around 6am, camp counselor Carla Wilhite would discover the bound body of one of the girls wrapped in a sleeping bag on a trail some 150 yards from their tent. The other two bodies were found quickly afterward, one in the open and another also in a sleeping bag. All three young girls had been raped and bludgeoned before being strangled.
Camp Scott would immediately become a major crime scene and was evacuated four hours later. They came under immediate criticism, ensuring that they called their insurance company and an attorney before informing the parents that their children had been killed. Meanwhile, the police were quickly at work and ascertained that the killings took place between 2am and 4am, all three children being held and killed in their own tent.
The tent flooring was covered in blood, and it appeared that the killer or killers had made an attempt to cover-up the crime, trying to wipe the pools up with towels and a mattress. A footprint was found outside the tent from a tennis shoe; a different print was found inside. Other significant evidence found at the scene included fingerprints on the bodies, cord, duct tape, and a red flashlight that had been left on top of one of the corpses. There was what seemed to be a bloody fingerprint on the lens. A witness stated that he had heard “quite a bit” of traffic near the camp around the believed time of the killings, and it seemed that it would only be a matter of time before arrests were made.
Questions asked of camp staff revealed that the slaughter may not have been a spur of the moment opportunism, with some evidence that the camp had been watched for a while. Just two months prior, a camp counselor discovered that her belongings had been ransacked and a box of donuts emptied, the contents presumably eaten. Inside the box, a note had been left that stated, “We are on a mission to kill three girls in tent one.” The camp director treated the message as a joke. Other staff would report hearing noises around Camp Scott, with dogs often being on alert.
After bringing in tracking dogs, police believed they had found the murder weapon on June 16, publicly revealing it to have been a crowbar and saying that more fingerprints were found. While no suspects had been officially identified, the press were already speculating that an escaped convict by the name of Gene Leroy Hart may have been involved.
However, the case was already beginning to break down, with internal tensions being very public. DA Sid Wise openly began to “correct the record” on Sherriff Glen Weaver’s statements, denying the murder weapon was found and stating that there were no suspects; Weaver claimed there was one. Just a day after the denial, Wise would say it was, in truth, several suspects, a statement backed by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI). The murder weapon would eventually be said to have been an ax taken from the camp. Meanwhile, with the dogs’ help, police located a cave around two miles away that appeared to have been lived in. Inside the cave were eyeglasses stolen from Camp Scott, duct tape, a flashlight battery, and two photographs featuring three women that investigators linked to Hart. The cave was just 100 feet from a cellar and foundation that had been Gene Hart’s childhood home. Writing on the wall of another nearby cave read, “The killer was here. Bye bye fools. 77–6–17”
Coming under increasing public criticism and scrutiny, a media blackout would be imposed on investigators. This general feeling soon began to boil into a tinderbox of racial tension as Gary Leroy Hart was allegedly spotted in the camp’s vicinity. A Cherokee, Hart had been convicted of kidnapping and raping two pregnant women and had been on the run since 1973 after escaping Mayes County Jail, gossip locally being that he was being sheltered. These tensions threatened to boil over on June 24, when 200 lawmen and 400 volunteers surrounded a four-mile area around Camp Scott, many civilians being armed and drunk. The tensions rose yet further when members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) also descended on the area to monitor the activities of what they called a “posse.” A former Mayes County jailer would later testify that he had been told Hart was not to be captured alive. Thankfully the event passed without incident, and on June 29, the FBI sent 40 agents to assist the investigation. Ben Hayatt of the AIM would later accuse Sheriff Weaver of stirring up the tensions, saying that he had “[created] a mob situation” and there was “a feeling that is being built up against our people in this case.”
Jeff Laird, the director of the OSBI, would call a press conference on July 6, stating that previous evidence believed to have been fingerprints had not been what the Bureau thought they were. Yet, significant evidence pointed to Hart’s guilt. After local sheriffs also publicly stated the suspect was guilty, questions began to be raised over the possibility of an unfair trial should Hart actually be caught. Such was the concern that by August, Oklahoma governor David Boren released a statement saying that he would use the powers of his office to “assure his security and a fair trial if he will give himself up.” However, Hart didn’t surrender and would remain on the run for almost another year, with the cost of the manhunt exceeding $1,250,000 in today’s currency. However, the search would end on April 6, 1978, when a team of agents from the OSBI stormed a house in Cherokee County near Bunch owned by Sam Pigeon, taking the suspect into custody and transporting him immediately to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Pigeon was charged with harboring a fugitive.
Gene Leroy Hart’s trial commenced on March 19, 1979, and would last until May 30. The proceedings were one of the most significant and most sensational trials in Oklahoma history, with opinions divided along racial lines. Support for Hart was strong with the local Cherokee, and sizable donations were accepted from the community, fundraisers being organized to assist in his defense. A defense HQ was set up at “Hart Hotel” just a half block from the courthouse, and in one controversial case, 35 fourth grade children undertook a vote in class on Hart’s guilt, finding him innocent by 32 votes to three.
The prosecution highlighted a mirror and corncob pipe found in Sam Pigeon’s house as items taken from Camp Scott, and that hair found attached to the duct tape was found to have the same general characteristics as Hart. They noted that eyeglasses and a glasses case were in the hideout cave found by the tracking dogs. In 1966, Hart abducted two pregnant women in Tulsa, taking them to the woods and violently raping and sodomizing both. Both had worn glasses, and he would try them on during a car ride before the assaults. Hart had admitted the offenses, and most believed that he had intended to kill both victims. When he was arrested, Hart was wearing women’s glasses.
Meanwhile, Hart’s defense indirectly accused Sheriff Weaver of planting evidence and offered an alternative suspect, that being William Stevens, a convicted rapist. Giving witness testimony, a waitress named Mrs. Dean Boyd positively identified Stevens as a man she had seen in her cafe on the morning of the killings. Located 15 miles away from Camp Scott, Boyd stated that Stevens ate at the cafe between 5am and 6am and was nervous. An 11-year-old scout from the camp testified that she had seen Stevens at Camp Scott in the days before the murders. Other witnesses at the trial stated that the red flashlight found at the scene was one that they had loaned to Stevens and his friend Duane Peters just a few weeks before the murders. They added that the new suspect had come to their home after the killings with scratches on his arms and neck. There was even blood on his boots.
Peters would tell investigators that Stevens had admitted the atrocity to him in October of 1977 while the two were drunk. Peters would allege that his friend had been working on an oil rig near Camp Scott and, having been raised in the area, knew that the Girl Scouts would be coming when they did. He placed the camp under surveillance, utilizing tactics that he had learned during service in Vietnam, and deliberately selected the most isolated tent for his attack. Covering the lens of the flashlight they had borrowed with duct tape, a small incision was made so as not to alert anyone else in the camp before entering and committing the crime. Stevens denied working on an oil rig, stated he didn’t know the area, and even rejected borrowing the flashlight. State investigators noted that blood and semen samples had been taken from both men and ruled them out as suspects in the case.
The trial’s closing was ill-tempered, with shouting seen inside the court chamber and scuffles outside before the jury of six men and six women took just five minutes to find Gene Leroy Hart innocent of all charges. Sherriff Weaver stated that he was “shocked and disgusted” by the ruling, deciding that the case would not be reopened, and told the press that “we had the man we were after.” The OSBI was in agreement, also stating that they had captured the right man. Following the verdict, Hart was placed in protective custody before being transferred to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary to continue his 308-year sentence for the 1966 rapes. He died on a heart attack on June 4, 1979, just two months after the conclusion of the Girl Scout murders trial.
Meanwhile, the Farmers and Milners sued the Magic Empire Girl Scout Council over the deaths but lost the case in 1985. Sheri Farmer would become an outspoken advocate for the victims of crime, forming the Oklahoma chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. In 1989, DNA testing on samples from the crime scene would show that three of the five probes matched Hart’s DNA, with 1 in 7,700 Native Americans having the same result.
Over the years, the OSBI and sheriff’s office would continue to officially state that Hart had been the right man; yet many locally believed that either Hart was indeed entirely innocent of the charges laid before him or at least an accomplice had walked free. As far back as the original 1977 investigation, investigators had theorized that at least one other suspect was involved in the killings, with Sid Wise stating at the time that charges against Hart “should not be construed as eliminating other persons as suspects in the case.”
In 1996, hundreds of locals signed a petition for a grand jury investigation into the crime to finally uncover the truth of what happened at Camp Scott nearly twenty years prior. The jury was never called, yet the petition offered several more alternative suspects beyond Hart and Stevens, naming Sonny James and Frank Justice.
Frank Justice was an alcoholic and had been arrested dozens of times over crimes linked to his drinking. He was a friend of Gene Hart and bragged about seeing the writing on Hart’s cave wall before the hideout was found by police. He was evasive about his whereabouts at the time of the killings when questioned by the OSBI in 1990. Sonny James was just 16 years old in 1977 and was Justice’s nephew. He likewise had a petty criminal history, being charged with various drug and alcohol violations before the murders. He would go on to be found not guilty of attempted murder and eventually kill a man named Freddie Rodgers, a man who had allegedly cheated him out of money.
William Stevens committed suicide at Kansas States Penitentiary in 1984 while serving time for kidnapping, rape, and robbery.
Whether Gene Hart was guilty and whether an accomplice walked free is still a matter of great contention in Oklahoma. There is little doubt that Hart was not the saint nor innocent party that many suggested he was, being guilty of two brutal rapes and with significant evidence against him for the Girl Scout murders. While his defenders contend that evidence was planted and Sheriff Weaver’s conduct can be rightly questioned at several points during the investigation, there is no evidence that there was any organized conspiracy against Hart. Equally, however, the evidence against William Stevens cannot be ignored either, despite samples seemingly ruling him out. With both men dead, it seems unlikely that what truly happened that dark morning at Camp Scott will ever be known, their deaths being little comfort to three families whose pain would only endure.
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