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From: News and Views | Crime File |
Monday, November 30, 1998

Unsolved Mystery

By JOSEPH McNAMARA

erry Tennant awoke in her tent. Although deep in sleep, she thought she had heard a scream. The 12-year-old awakened a friend, a pal girl scout on the first night of their planned two-week camping adventure. Both listened intently. They heard nothing like a scream. Both went back to sleep.

Elsewhere in the camp of 120 girls, another scout thought she heard screams. It had been a night of great excitement, as the girls chatted and giggled away the evening in the warm embrace of canvas. This scout now listened with hushed breath, but heard nothing. She also went back to sleep. It was 3 a.m. June 13, 1977.

But screams there might well have been, for at 6 a.m. a counselor going to wash found that three young girls had been torn from their tent and slain.

Michele Guse, 9, and Lori Lee Farmer, 8, had been beaten to death. Doris Milner, 10, had been beaten and strangled. All three had been raped. Two bodies lay in zipped sleeping bags. The third was on the open ground.

Fear raced through Camp Scott, about a mile outside sleepy Locust Grove in the northeast corner of Oklahoma. Mayes County Sheriff Glen Weaver was among the first of many investigators to reach the scene. He decided that the slayer had picked that particular tent because it was 50 feet from the others and near thick brush, which would have given the killer cover.

Also — and probers wondered if the killer might have known it — the fatal tent was among very few that did not have an adult counselor sleeping in it.

With the murder of the three girls, all from the Tulsa area 30 miles west, investigators descended on Locust Grove, a town of 1,019 people.

"I just don't think we have that many nuts in the area," the sheriff said. "It makes me pretty mad."

Hot on a Trail

Two days later, two tracking dogs were brought in from Pennsylvania to find the killer's path. Within a week, one died of heat prostration and the other was hit by a car. Others were brought in and led searchers to a small cave a mile from the murder scene.

Empty food cans indicated someone had lived there, if briefly. Also found: two tattered photographs of three women. The pictures, when spread across area newspapers, brought results in a day. The women were guests at the 1969 wedding of a prison worker's daughter.

Among those attending that wedding was a prison trusty named Gene Leroy Hart, who worked as a darkroom assistant at the prison.

"He's got to be our man," Weaver said.

At the time of the wedding Hart, 33, a Cherokee Indian, was serving a 10-year sentence for kidnapping two young women in Tulsa in 1966 and raping one of them.

He was paroled later in 1969 but was arrested within months on four counts of burglary. Convicted of the robberies, Hart was given 305 years — the second-largest term ever meted out in Tulsa. In 1973, during a transfer, Hart broke out of Weaver's jail in Pryor, Okla., and was still loose at the time of the three slayings.

Weaver figured Hart dropped in on his mom, Ella Mae Buckskin, for food. She lived a mile from Camp Scott. But mostly, the lawman believed, the fugitive lived in the woods, as any authentic Cherokee could.

Also eager to nail Hart was Sidney Wise, district attorney of Mayes County. Three counts of murder were lodged against Hart, with an implicit death penalty.

Within days of the triple slaying, authorities announced they had found the weapon that had bludgeoned two of the victims. Also, they said, a bloody tennis-shoe print had been found on the tent floor. And a single, perfect fingerprint was on one of the bodies.

On July 30, 1977, tracking dogs stumbled on another small cave within a mile of the murder scene. On a wall of the cave, in black ink, was a taunting message: "The killer was here. Bye bye, fools. 6-17-77."

But there developed in town considerable support for Hart. He had been a high school football hero and was related to quite a few in Locust Valley. In fact, many began to wonder if Hart's biggest crime was being born Cherokee.

"I don't think anyone is afraid of Gene Hart," said Granvil Bates. "They're just afraid that the killer is loose around here."

The thought that woods-wise Gene Hart would sally into the underbrush with a multiplicity of copperheads and rattlers wearing just tennis shoes brought laughter and giggles from many. Noting that investigators had labeled Hart an "anti-social loner," supporters pointed out that prison officials had called him "outgoing and pro-social."

A Suspect's Capture

When a farmer reported seeing a man answering Hart's description hiding in a cave, a posse of 400 rushed into the woods, but found no one.

It was not until April 6, 1978, some 10 months after the murders, that Hart was run to ground. He was found living in a cabin in Cherokee County, in the foothills of the Ozarks.

As trial for Hart neared, however, the state's case seemed far from airtight. Despite early reports that the murder weapon had been found, authorities now said they did not have one. The "perfect" fingerprint "found on the body" turned out to be a cop's print, inadvertently put on a photographic plate.

Hart protested his innocence and even insisted that he take the stand to prove it. His counsel argued this would open him up to prosecution questions about his criminal background.

Hart went on trial in March 1979 in Pryor, Okla. The evidence against him was purely circumstantial and, according to the defense, some of it questionable. Defense lawyer Garvin Isaacs stunned the courtroom by introducing testimony trying to link the three slayings to a convict then in a Kansas prison for rape.

A waitress in Choteau, Okla., 12 miles from Camp Scott, testified that this man visited her cafe the day of the slayings. Another woman testified that a flashlight found near one slain girl was a light she had given this man.

The state countered that hairs found in the death tent and on tape binding Doris Milner did not match samples from the convict. On the other hand, witnesses testified the hairs "could have been" Hart's.

The structure patterns of sperm taken from this con were not similar to the sperm from inside the bodies, the state said. On the other hand, a witness testified, "it would not be unreasonable" to infer that the sperm in the victims had come from Hart. There were no DNA tests at that time.

On March 30, 1979, the jury found Hart innocent of the sex slayings of the three scouts. Hart covered his eyes and sobbed. He was transferred to McAlester state prison to continue serving his long previous sentence.

'A Sham'?

Rejecting many requests for press interviews, Hart did write one reporter for The Tulsa Tribune on that June 2:

"The record has been set right when jurors voted 'not guilty,' and my family and supporters knew the entire process was a sham from the start."

On the evening of June 4, 1979, Hart went through a rigorous routine of exercise, jogging and lifting weights in the prison — and then died. Dr. A.J. Chapman, Oklahoma chief medical examiner, said Hart's death was caused by acute coronary disease.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation said recently that the case of the three girl scout murders is still open but is inactive.




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