Was one of the state's worst killing sprees even worse than thought?
The official story, told for decades, is that escaped Oklahoma inmates Claude Eugene Dennis and Michael Charles Lancaster put eight people — including three state troopers — in their graves before being gunned down in a shootout that ended one of the state's most notorious crime sprees.
But was there a ninth victim never traced to the pair?
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. Ronnie Hampton, who has studied the case, thinks so.
The April 23, 1978, escape of the two men from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester launched a 34-day, 1,000-mile rampage that captured headlines, terrified residents across four states and ended in a bloody shootout in Caddo, Oklahoma.
The pair escaped by tunneling under a prison wall. Lancaster, 25, was serving 25 years for armed robbery. Dennis, 35, was serving a 50-year sentence for killing three people. Once out, they ran to the nearby house of a prison guard who was at work, but whose wife and young daughter were home. The two men broke in, but harmed no one. They took food, guns, ammunition and the family's yellow Datsun.
For the next two weeks there was no sign of the men. Reported sightings proved false. No Datsun. No fugitives.
"Before they started leaving a trail of bodies, we've got 17 days that there's no accounting for these guys," Hampton said.
It would be more than a month after the final shootout before law enforcement would have a clearer picture of how the escapees spent those "missing" days, including a string of burglaries near where Dennis had lived along the Texas border. Authorities had first attributed the thefts of pillowcases, lunch meat, bread, firearms and ammunition to juveniles.
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The identity of the first burglary victim in Silo, Oklahoma, also offered a clue that apparently went undetected or wasn't considered important by investigators at the time, Hampton said.
"The very first house broken into, where a sawed-off shotgun was stolen, was his (Dennis') brother-in-law's house," Hampton said.
The killing begins
Eventually, the fugitives headed south of the Red River and bodies began turning up. One by one, authorities discovered the crime scenes.
On May 2, they found Mithal Mathew, 31, a Garland, Texas, gas station attendant, robbed of $100 and shot to death.
On May 5, James Dowdy, 57, a former railroad worker from Hemphill, Texas, a small southeast city near the Louisiana state line, went missing. His body was found weeks later in a garbage dump, dead from a gunshot to the head.
On the night of May 10, sheriff's deputies dropping by Rogers Superette in Denison, Texas, found the bait-shop owner, Bobby Spencer, dead. His wife was nowhere to be found. The escapees, driving Dowdy's stolen pickup, had robbed the store then taken Spencer to a back room and shot him in the back of the head with a sawed-off shotgun.
They then stole Spencer's truck, kidnapped his wife and took her by raft to a campsite along the Red River where they chained her to a tree and raped her. She escaped as they slept, running through the woods toward the sound of highway traffic and flagging down a truck driver.
The Oklahoma and Texas highway patrols both ringed the area with roadblocks. The escapees, meanwhile, kidnapped a young Denison boy and briefly held him hostage before letting him go unharmed. Waiting out the roadblocks, the two fugitives headed back to Oklahoma, for Mill Creek in Hughes County, where on May 12 they tried to break into a woman's house. Another manhunt and more roadblocks followed.
That same day, authorities found a vehicle stolen from Denison behind a barn in Roff, in Pontotoc County, where another pickup had been stolen. The escapees, now being identified in newspaper accounts as "thrill killers" were headed toward Mississippi and Alabama.
On May 16, the body of David Bobo, 26, a minister who'd left his Dallas-area home more than two weeks before on a fishing trip, was found in a heavily wooded area in eastern Collin County, Texas. His wallet, shoes, pants and car were missing, according to a report at the time in the Paris (Texas) News.
Headed east, the two escapees shot and wounded a Butler, Alabama, police officer and fired at and disabled an Alabama state trooper's vehicle, kicking off a two-state manhunt in Mississippi and Alabama.
On May 23, authorities found the body of Stacie Beavers, 68, in her Cuba, Alabama, home, beaten and her throat slashed. The retired schoolteacher apparently was killed as she returned from a church social, according to press accounts at the time.
"Miss Beavers' death terrified residents along the Alabama-Mississippi border. Fearful of more killings, many kept pistols and shotguns loaded while others "moved in with relatives," the Paris News reported.
The fugitives stole Beavers' yellow station wagon, eluded another manhunt and headed back toward Oklahoma and their final encounter.
On May 24, after spotting the stolen vehicle near Lake Texoma, troopers from across Oklahoma flooded into the area. Roadblocks again went up, saturation patrols deployed, and the FBI sent a tactical team and helicopter to assist in the manhunt.
On the afternoon of May 25, the highway patrol sent Lt. Hoyt Hughes and Lt. Pat Grimes, both from internal affairs, along with troopers Houston Frank "Pappy" Summers and Billy G. Young to southern Oklahoma.
The next morning, on what would become known in the highway patrol as "Black Friday," the two escapees went to the home of a farmer they knew north of Caddo, tied him up and stole his blue pickup. Russell Washington had let Dennis hunt on his land in the past, so his life was spared. As the pair drove away Washington called police.
Troopers Young and Summers, on patrol in the area, spotted the pickup on Highway 48 and pursued it north to near Kenefic, where the pickup pulled over and the inmates opened fire, killing both officers.
The two fugitives took the troopers' weapons and drove the pickup toward Caddo, where Dennis had lived and his wife still did. A highway patrol airplane spotted the car's dust trail on a gravel road and followed it into town.
Near the corner of S McPherson Avenue and Court Street, the killers turned into a driveway, jumped from the car and hid in nearby bushes. Almost immediately, two troopers, Hughes and Grimes, pulled up nearby in an unmarked car. The escapees opened fire killing Grimes. Wounded, Hughes emptied his pistol then emptied a semi-automatic rifle he'd retrieved from his dead partner's lap, killing Lancaster.
Dennis, hoping to finish off Hughes, stepped out from behind cover, not seeing patrol Lt. Mike Williams driving down the street. Williams tried to run Dennis down but missed. He stopped his car and fired a dozen or more rounds, killing Dennis.
"In a matter of about three minutes, you've got five people dead and one injured, when you count the bad guys," Hampton said.
The 34-day manhunt that had spanned six states had reached its bloody conclusion.
The ninth victim?
That Sunday, The troopers laid in repose at the Capitol and were eulogized. That same day, Dennis was buried in Bristow.
Grimes, 36, is buried in Sand Springs; Summers, 62, in Durant; and Young, 50, in Woodward.
Nobody claimed Lancaster's remains. He is buried in the Department of Corrections cemetery in McAlester.
After recovering, Hughes continued to investigate the case and eventually helped convict a prison guard for aiding in the escape, Hampton said. He retired from the patrol in 2002, and died in 2011 at age 79. He is buried in McAlester.
During his research on the case, Hampton combed through an evidence box filled with reports, newspaper clippings and other materials, finding many teaching moments from the patrol's bloodiest day. And an unanswered question.
What became of the Datsun, the first vehicle the fugitives stole?
Turns out, the car was found behind a barn in Gerty about a month after the manhunt ended.
"How'd they get from Gerty to someplace else if they don't have a car there?" Hampton wondered.
Studying newspaper clippings, Hampton found that a Gerty man had gone missing the same day as the escape. Neither he nor his vehicle have ever been found.
Kenneth Sumner, 49, was reported missing by his wife in Oklahoma City after he failed to return from a trip to a Gerty ranch where the couple kept horses and cattle. The yellow Datsun was found near the ranch.
In June 1978, the Hughes County sheriff told the Durant Daily Democrat that a woman reported seeing Dennis and Lancaster in the area of the ranch on the day of their escape. Sheriff Orville Rose said he suspected Sumner fell victim to them, but it was never proven.
Hampton said he spoke to local law enforcement, who had suspected at the time the disappearance was a result of a neighborly dispute over a fence.
In 2007, Sumner was declared legally dead in Hughes County District Court.
Hampton said the patrol is attempting to track down Sumner's relatives who filed the paperwork seeking to have him declared legally dead. They hope to get a DNA swab to compare against bones found around Lake Texoma. Weeks after the escapees' deaths, someone discovered discarded prison clothes in one of their abandoned campsites along the banks of the lake.
"I have to wonder: Is this man from Gerty and his vehicle in Lake Texoma?" Hampton said.