The summer of my eighth birthday was overshadowed by a grisly crime made all the more harrowing because of its child victims. On a humid and rainy Sunday in June 1977, the idyllic memories of summer camp I had shared with my friends shattered into shards of horror when three Girl Scouts, two from Tulsa and one from Broken Arrow, were brutally murdered on their first night at sleep away camp.
Not only was I the same age as one of the victims, but like most of my friends, I was a Tulsa Girl Scout. My troop had just returned from a day camp near Tulsa, where we’d made seat cushions called sit-upons, sang songs about friendship to the fast drumbeat of cicadas and roasted marshmallows at a campfire, all in blissful ignorance.
Our parents kept most of the heinous details of the Camp Scott murders from us, but I overheard the news enough to know that one girl had been strangled and the other two hit on the head in a place called Locust Grove. Only as an adult still questioning how something so awful could have happened did I learn the more gruesome details about rape, blood, and bodies zipped in sleeping bags. True crime stories have since held a fascination for me, because I still try to reconcile how humans – who I believe are naturally good – can do such terrible things to one another. Like these murders.
Until that summer, I’d had no experience with death. Not even the childhood rite of passage of losing a pet. Yet here were these doomed girls who were my own age, staying at a camp like one I went to. I didn’t have to use any imagination to put myself in their places. This crime could have easily happened to any of my third or fourth grade classmates.
Eight-year-old Lori Farmer, 10-year-old Michelle Guse and nine-year-old Denise Milner had written letters home that night before going to sleep in the tent they shared at Camp Scott. Lori and Michelle had penned upbeat, excited notes about friends they had made, while Denise’s missive home reflected her deep homesickness. “Mom, I don’t want to stay at camp for two weeks,” she had written. “I want to come home…”
The next morning, a camp counselor out for a sunrise jog came upon two sleeping bags and the body of one of the girls under a tree. County sheriffs would later discover the other two girls’ bodies in the sleeping bags. Camp Scott closed down immediately, packing every camper on a bus for home. The campground never opened again.
This was before the Friday the 13th movies were in theatres. Before the fictional Camp Crystal Lake made gory, over-the-top murder mainstream. Our parents had surely heard of terrible crimes against children like the Chowchilla kidnappings or the Babysitter Killer the year before, but we kids had been living in a bubble. We had always walked to school alone or with other others our own age. We had ridden our bikes around the neighborhood for most of our summer days, hardly ever checking in at home except to ask for money to buy ice cream.
After those murders, all that freedom evaporated. My mother didn’t let me out of her sight that summer. Outdoor games of freeze tag and hide-and-seek turned into board game marathons around the kitchen table. No more casual popping in and out of friends’ houses and backyard pools. Now, every mother scheduled play dates instead. The search for the killer went on for 10 months at a total estimated cost of $2 million, with progress reported daily on television and in the newspaper. The Camp Scott murders and the maniac responsible for them never left anyone’s mind.
Nearly 40 years later, the enormity of the evil of those murders and those poor, doomed girls still has a nightmarish hold on those who lived through it, particularly as the crime lacks a clear resolution. Though most people who followed the case will remember Gene Leroy Hart as the main suspect, he was acquitted after trial due to a lack of conclusive evidence. He died of a heart attack in 1979 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester where he was serving time for unrelated charges. Though the autopsy had found he died of a heart attack, the sheriff had been quick to tell anyone who would listen that other inmates killed him out of a “code of honor.”
Today, a quick Internet search turns up stories about mysterious happenings at his grave in Mayes County and rumors that he had studied shapeshifting with a Cherokee medicine man and had the power to change his physical shape at will.
Understanding evil requires looking closely at the suspected perpetrator. So what do we know about Hart? Known to friends and family as Sonny, Hart was a Cherokee and a star high school football player raised by a single mother. He had married young and had a son, but his wife left him when he first got into trouble with the law in 1966. That year, he pled guilty to charges of kidnapping and raping two pregnant women in Tulsa. His family members and community supporters claimed that Hart had only confessed to the charges because he had thought he would have been given suspended sentence, since the two women were with him willingly and hid in his trunk from their husbands.
He served three years before being released on parole. Soon after he was caught burglarizing Tulsa apartments. He went back to jail and then escaped in 1973, supposedly living in the wooded Ozark hills around Camp Scott, close to where his mother lived.
Books such as “Tent Number Eight” by Gloyd McCoy and “Oklahoma’s Most Notorious Cases” by Kent Frates describe more fully the lack of evidence against Hart for the Camp Scott murders. But months of daily news attention created a lot of pressure on Mayes County Sheriff Pete Weaver, who quickly settled on Hart as suspect number one. Hart was eventually caught at a tarpaper shack owned by a Cherokee named Sam Pigeon deep in the Cookson Hills about 50 miles away from Camp Scott. He had been living there, in the bosom of his hometown friends who believed he was innocent, for eight months.
Though some would say that Hart was a convenient scapegoat for the Camp Scott murders, most of Oklahoma outside of the tight knit Locust Grove community breathed a collective sigh of relief at his arrest in April 1978.
His trial lasted a month, and the jury deliberated over two days. Juror Lela Ramsey spoke on the 25th anniversary of the murders about the experience for an OETA documentary. “We didn’t have any choice but to acquit him,” she said. “Things just didn’t add up.”
Even after his acquittal, the district attorney and Sheriff Weaver held resolute in their opinions that Hart was the Camp Scott killer. Demands to find the real killer from Hart’s supporters were largely ignored, in the same manner that folks would later scoff at football player O.J. Simpson’s claims he would find his ex-wife’s real killer. Hart’s death meant it was time to return to normal life. Even if now, Oklahomans were more likely to lock their doors at night and keep their children close.
Why? The elusive answer
The murders on that rainy June 1977 day hollowed out the hearts of Oklahomans and robbed them of the conviction that nothing like the Chowchilla kidnappings or the Oakland County child killings could happen in the heartland. For me, it led me through fear and sadness to question how and why such a crime could happen. The closest I have come to an answer is within this excerpt from “Tent Number Eight” that recaps a 1977 speech given by clinical psychologist Robert Phillips to the Associated Press Oklahoma news executives:
Whoever committed the murders, according to Dr. Phillips, did so because he hated happiness, innocence and decency. The best way to degrade those things was to violate the young girls.
“Something happened in this man’s life to make him feel inferior and built up a passionate hatred in him. He hates being alive, and in killing, he is taking revenge on a world he believes has mistreated him.”
Phillips said the murderer probably did not plan on killing all three girls. He got caught up in the savage emotion, and the beast in him emerged. Then the man, who had no order in his life, tried to put things back in order by cleaning up the blood and putting two of the girls in sleeping bags.
We just cannot know for sure what happened that night. A broken person, three vulnerable girls, a terrible instinct, followed by terrible acts, driven by a force of evil. That all of these things came together on one rainy June night is all we know. And that makes me continue to ask why.