One name that did come up was that of Gene Leroy Hart. He was 34 at the time of the murders, had been at large since 1973 after escaping from the Mayes County Jail. Hart was raised about a mile from Camp Scott and was a Native American, more specifically Cherokee.
In 1966 he had abducted two pregnant women from outside a nightclub, then drove them to a forest on the outskirts of Locust Grove, Oklahoma and raped them. He was convicted of kidnapping and the rape of the two women as well as four counts of first-degree burglary.
The women were bound with duct tape and rope. And after he raped them, in what was an apparent attempt to murder them, he closed off their noses and mouths with duct tape and left them to suffocate in the woods. Fortunately, the women managed to untie themselves, escape, and report what had been done to them. The women described Hart as being “incoherent” during the rape, and that he made strange, growling noises. Perhaps similar to the strange noises heard on the night of the murder of the young girls in tent 7.
In 1973 Hart escaped by sawing through the bars to his cell window. I’ve seen it in movies, but it’s crazy to think that would work in real life. He was eventually recaptured. In addition to the rapes, Hart was known to have committed three burglaries and in each case the victims were asleep in their houses at the time. Sensing some similarities? Hart eventually admitted to both the rapes and burglaries, and was sentenced to a total of 305 years.
Since Hart had escaped Mayes Jail and evaded Sheriff Pete Weaver led many to believe there was a personal vendetta driving the manhunt. It was suspected that many members of the Cherokee community were helping Hart to evade capture. At the time of the manhunt, Angie Jake, editor of the Tulsa Indian News said, “Hart pulled the wool over their (meaning the police’s) eyes for so long and he frustrated them. So, when his name popped up, they blamed it on him.” Ross Swimmer, principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1977 said, “These people were acting emotionally, simply trying to help out a fellow Cherokee.”
More people began to believe that the Sheriff and others in law enforcement were out to get Hart, and that he was being framed. Rumors were going around that the OSBI were planting evidence to convict him. It was also leaked to the press that sperm was found in the semen evidence, but Hart was known to have had a vasectomy.
Not all Cherokee people felt the same. OSBI agents Larry Bowles and Harvey Pratt were both from the same tribe, and they received help from a respected medicine man named Crying Wolf. It was a challenging time for the people of Oklahoma.
Tracker dogs, nicknamed “The Wonder Dogs”, were brought in after the bodies were discovered in Camp Scott, but they found no scent trail. The forest was so dense in parts that it was not uncommon for some of the 600 searchers to become lost on occasion. Although the dogs could not find the murderer, police believed they had found the murder weapon on June 16. The information released to the public revealed it to be a crowbar and supposedly more fingerprints were found. 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. For the record, there was a constant battle between the Sheriff, the OSBI, and the District Attorney in the case, Sid Wise. The Sheriff was always publicly saying they had more evidence then what they actually did have. Whether that was prints, the supposed murder weapon, or on the suspect himself, Gene Hart. This push and pull between departments ultimately led to a media blackout of the case.
In the mountain overlooking Camp Scott, OSBI agent Arthur Linville found a cave with some unusual items: red underwear, a flashlight battery, duct tape, a picture of two women, which looked like a wedding photo, and a newspaper. Also found were a pair of glasses that belonged to a Camp Scott counselor. I know one of the big things I’ve heard about the evidence against Hart was that he needed glasses, but since he was on the run he obviously couldn’t just go get an eye exam. I believe one of the women he raped said that he tried on her glasses, so if it was him, maybe he took them because they were a prescription that helped him see better. There also was a piece of newspaper that had been torn out and matched some found inside the red flashlight at the crime scene. The newspaper had been used to wedge the batteries and restore a loose connection.
The picture from the cave was made public and a prison officer recognized the women in it from a part-time job as a wedding photographer. As part of a photography course in prison, Gene Leroy Hart had helped develop the photos. It was also convenient that the cave and Camp Scott were within walking distance of Hart’s mother’s home. Seems like the evidence might be building against Hart.
Two weeks after the murders a farmer reported that he had seen Gene Hart on a hillside. Upon further investigation of the hillside, Agent Harvey Pratt found this formation of four fires and cigarette butts. As a Cherokee himself, Pratt recognized the formation, the cedar wood used, and the fact the cigarettes’ filters were torn off, as an indication of a Native Indian smoke ritual. The butts tested positive for the same O-type blood as Hart. A boot print was also found that matched the size of the blood print in tent 7. But, Hart had size 11 feet.
Another cave was found approximately 1 mile from the camp, on the land of Jack Shroff. A prisoner told police about its existence, claiming he had met Hart there after the murders. This prisoner was 16 years old at the time and would later be convicted of killing his own three year old son. It does not appear that the OSBI believed him to be a suspect in the girl scout murders. A message was written on the cave wall. The unusual date format of year, then month, then day, is said to be used by both the military and the prison system. The message read, “The killer was here. Bye bye fools. 77–6–17”.
Due to the size of Camp Scott, it was hard for law enforcement to secure it while they searched for evidence. A security company was hired to guard the camp which had now been vacated of all staff. According to security guards, there was evidence that someone was still stalking the camp, leaving footprints in fresh sand and leaving doors open that had previously been shut. The guards also spoke of seeing silhouettes in the dense woodland on multiple occasions, and sometimes dogs were used to try and track whoever was out there. The guards began leaving threads tied between trees to see which paths the intruder was using, only to find them broken on further investigations. One day, security guards returned to the great hall, which they were using as an office, when they found a bag had been left by the door. Inside the bag, what did they find? Well, it was the pink socks and a pair of tennis shoes with the name, Denise Milner, written inside. Both the socks and shoes were wet.
After 10 months on the hunt, Agent Larry Bowles had been working with an informant in the Cherokee community and discovered that Hart was hiding out with a friend called Sam Pigeon, 50 miles east of Camp Scott. Pigeon was convinced of Hart’s innocence and had let him live in his three-roomed shack.
On April 6, 1978, OSBI officers surrounded the shack and arrested Hart. Bowles stated that, as he cuffed Hart, he asked: “You killed those little girls, didn’t you?”. Hart’s reply was, supposedly, “You’ll never pin it on me”.
In March of 1979, the trial of The People of Oklahoma vs. Gene Leroy Hart for the murder of the Lori Ann Farmer, Doris Denise Milner, and Michelle Heather Guse began. Special Prosecutor Buddy Fallis, Jr. was appointed to assist District Attorney Sid Wise, who was scrutinized because of his alleged intention to write a book about the case. Garvin Isaacs was hired to defend Hart. Not a single jury member was Native American. It was not a clear cut case for the prosecution at all. The case against Hart was flawed, beginning with the handling of the crime scene and the evidence gathered there. In the tent where the victims had slept, investigators found a palm print and a bloody shoe print. The palm print, as it turned out, belonged to an agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), and the shoeprint was too small to have been Hart’s. A fingerprint found on a red and white flashlight at the scene was not Hart’s. Seminal fluid obtained from the victims’ bodies presented a conundrum for the prosecution. Sperm was present, but Hart had undergone a vasectomy several years earlier and biologically should not have been able to have produced sperm. The prosecution argued that Hart’s vasectomy, performed by a 78-year-old doctor, had been only partially successful. Consulting physicians said such cases could result in non-productive, deformed sperm. Hart had type O blood and was a secretor. So, I hadn’t heard of secretor vs nonsecretor until this case and I was curious what it meant, so I looked up more information about it on the National Library of Medicine and this is what I found. “A significant proportion of individuals are secretors which means that the antigens which are present in their blood will also be found in other body fluids such as saliva. Two options prevail in the molecular basis of the secretor system. An individual can be a Secretor (Se) or a Non-secretor (se) which is completely independent of whether the individual is of blood type A, B, AB, or O, suggesting that someone can be an A secretor or an A non-secretor, a B secretor or a B non-secretor. In simple terms, a person is said to be a secretor if he or she secretes their blood type antigens into their body fluids like the saliva, the mucus, whereas on the other hand, a Non-secretor does not put or if so at all very little of their blood type antigens into these fluids.” The semen sample from the victims was from a non-white male, who was a secretor with blood type O and it contained deformed sperm. The number of people in the United States who meet all of that criteria represent .002 percent of the population. Forensic experts also testified that hair found on Denise Milner’s body was microscopically similar to Hart’s. This was before DNA could be determined. And, as the defense pointed out, “microscopically similar” did not mean identical. I’m kind of impressed that they were able to get that much from it though in the 70s.
Two crucial pieces of evidence in the trial included a souvenir, corncob pipe and a small, blue mirror found among items in a shack owned by Sam Pigeon. Karen Mitchell, a counselor-in-training at Camp Scott, identified the pipe and mirror as hers, saying they had disappeared around the time of the murders. The problem was that investigators had seized the pipe and mirror only after they decided to conduct a second inspection of the shack. Sam Pigeon said he had never seen the pipe or mirror. This caused Hart’s supporters and his lawyer to suspect the evidence had been planted by OSBI agents. Isaacs also called into question the integrity of Mayes County Sheriff Pete Weaver. One of the sheriff’s former jailers, Allen Little, said he had seen some of Hart’s possessions in Weaver’s desk. These are the same items that later turned up in a cave thought to have been used by Hart as a secondary hide-out after the murders.
The prosecution concluded their case after six days of testimony. Now it was the defense’s turn. Besides attacking the state’s inconclusive forensic evidence and the sloppiness of the investigating officers, Isaacs also presented an alternate suspect, Bill Stevens, who, like Hart, was a convicted rapist. A woman named Joyce Ellen Payne and her common-law husband, Duane Peters, knew Stevens and said he borrowed a red and white flashlight from them a few days before the murders and at a later time showed up with what looked like blood on his boots. Peters told investigators that Stevens had admitted the murders to him in October of 1977 while the two were drunk. Peters alleged 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 the weekend they did. Supposedly Stevens placed the camp under surveillance, utilizing tactics that he had learned while serving in the Vietnam War, 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 hair, blood, and semen samples had been taken from both men and ruled them out as suspects in the case.
The defense rested without Hart taking the stand. The jury began their deliberations,and deliberated into the night without a verdict. The next morning, they came to an agreement on the verdict in the case: not guilty. The defense team, along with Hart were ecstatic. The families and the prosecution were baffled and saddened by the news. Jury members remarked on why they found Hart “Not Guilty”. This included “reasonable doubt,” “evidence wasn’t there,” and “the investigation was a screwed-up mess.” As much as I do feel like there was a lot of evidence against him, the defense really did do a good job in that they definitely brought up a lot of reasonable doubt and I feel like ultimately with the information that was presented, I can’t really be mad at the jury. I’m surprised they tried all three of the murders together rather than separating them so that they could have a backup plan if they didn’t succeed in a guilty verdict. I guess maybe they really thought they had a slam dunk and didn’t see it going any other way than the way they wanted.
After the trial, Hart returned to prison to finish serving his sentence for burglary. Within the year, he was dead. Officially, the cause of death was a massive heart attack. Unofficially, it was speculated that Hart was poisoned by other inmates. According to Dick Wilkerson, former OSBI Investigator, “A large amount of cyanide was confiscated from prisoners at McAlester State Prison the day before Hart died.” So, I guess, come to your own conclusions there. Either way, Hart was dead, as were the 3 young victims in this case. And, no other suspects were on the horizon for investigators.
Two of the families, the Farmer’s & the Milner’s, sued the Magic Empire Council and its insurer for $5 million, alleging negligence. The civil trial included discussion of the threatening note and the fact that tent #7 was 86 yards from the counselors’ tent. In 1985, by a 9–3 vote, jurors decided in favor of the Magic Empire Council. This just blows my mind, honestly. I can definitely see why the suit happened, but I also have to be a little bit of a devil’s advocate here because I understand why they weren’t found at fault. Having gone to my fair share of camps, all kinds of pranks happen and putting a note in a donut box sounds like something that could be assumed to be a prank. Now, were we pranking camp leaders about killing campers? Of course not, but I can see why they would want to believe that’s what it was and why they would dismiss it.
DNA testing conducted in 1989 showed three of the five probes matched Hart’s DNA. Statistically, DNA from 1 in 7,700 Native Americans would obtain these results. In 2008, authorities conducted new DNA testing on stains found on a pillowcase, the results of which were inconclusive because the samples were “too deteriorated to obtain a DNA profile”. For these tests, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation officials tried to use a semen-stained pillowcase that had been retrieved from the crime scene. The semen was suspected to have been Hart’s. FBI tests on samples from the same pillowcase in 1989 were inconclusive. OSBI spokesman Chuck Jeffries said the recent efforts to extract DNA from the pillowcase were not successful. The samples tested were insufficient and too deteriorated. “There is no DNA to test. The lab tried to obtain but could not come up with anything to test,” said Jeffries. The tests were conducted by Joann Kihega, head of the OSBI’s criminal DNA lab. The analysis began on Dec. 18, 2001, in the Oklahoma City OSBI office. “She tried twice to get the genetic markers to make the call,” Jeffries said. Both tests were unsuccessful. “I don’t think this has anything to do to eliminate him,” Jeffries said. “She just couldn’t get anything out of the samples that she had.”
Investigators were able to retrieve what OSBI spokeswoman Kym Koch described as a “partial DNA profile from a female”. “But we do not know which female,” said Koch. The information was partial and not sufficient for comparison to the girls, “No results. We got nothing,” said Koch.
To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the Girl Scout murders. Ted Limke, OSBI Inspector, once said there was no need to keep the case open because the jury had “turned loose the man who committed the murders.” In 2007, the Oklahoma State Crime Lab ran DNA tests on evidence from the case, but the results were inconclusive. The case was cold, but not frozen. All hope was not lost…
I mentioned earlier in the story the current Sheriff of Mayes County is Mike Reed. Well, he was born & raised in Mayes County, a local boy. Sheriff Reed was 8 when the murders took place. His entire life he lived approx 6 miles from the camp. And still to this day, drives by it almost every day. He started in law enforcement in 1989, and has never experienced anything this brutal on small children ever in his lifetime. He said when it comes to crimes, especially murder, against children, “…it’s a whole different ballgame”. Mike Reed took office as Sheriff of Mayes County, Oklahoma in 2013. Not long after that, he had the families of the 3 murdered girls in his office, crying and looking for answers. He said, having 2 young children the same ages as their daughters were at the time of their deaths, he couldn’t fathom going through what they all were. And he vowed to do whatever he could to find them the answers they needed to find some semblance of closure. But this was decades later, so it would not be an easy task. One thing he had, that decades earlier they didn’t, was the more advanced DNA technology needed for DNA comparison. But what he did not have was money to be able to have the tests done. But that didn’t stop him. He was able to raise the money, $30,000 to be exact, to get the additional testing done.
In an update reported in May 2022, the latest DNA testing in the case, although officially inconclusive, strongly suggested Hart’s involvement in the murders, while eliminating several other potential suspects. Mayes County Sheriff Mike Reed said, “Unless something new comes up, something brought to light we are not aware of, I am convinced where I’m sitting of Hart’s guilt and involvement in this case.” Reed said the results of the DNA tests have been known since 2019, part of an effort to raise private funds from Mayes County residents to have evidence reexamined. He didn’t go public with them, however, until asked to do so by the victims’ families as part of an ABC News documentary series about the case, expected to premiere around the 45th anniversary of the crimes. Reed said the latest DNA testing resulted in several partial profiles of the killer. No full DNA profile was ever developed in the case, so officially the testing results were considered “inconclusive.” But these partial profiles could be used to eliminate suspects and authorities originally questioned, which includes over 130 potential suspects in the case, and many others that were questioned over the years where DNA had been collected. Sheriff Reed said at this point, with the exception of Hart, “there’s no suspect attached to this case that has not been excluded in one way or another, whether it’s DNA, whether it’s alibi, whether it’s polygraph test, whatever.” This latest testing could not eliminate Hart, whose DNA matched the partial profiles. Unfortunately, the latest DNA tests most likely are the last that will be done in the case, as testable evidence has been all but exhausted.
The documentary mentioned previously is entitled, “Keeper of the Ashes: The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders”. And it was released on May 24th of this year on Hulu. At the end of each Girl Scout Camp, one girl scout would become the keeper of the ashes from the last bonfire. That is where the title is derived from. The documentary is a four part series that retells the murders of Lori Farmer, Denise Milner, and Michelle Guse at Camp Scott. Actress Kristen Chenoweth, who I remember from Glee, though she has been in other things, narrates her own personal connection to the camp. She shares how she was supposed to be going to the same girl scout camp in June of 1977, but only didn’t because she got sick, and her mother wouldn’t let her go. The story is retold by some of the same people that were there that morning the bodies of the 3 girls were found. This includes Kiowa counselors, reporters, the original photographer in case police brought in, along with law enforcement officials. I have watched all 4 parts in researching the story, and I have to say, the stories told by the family members pull on your heart strings, and are just so emotional to listen to, but what is clear is that they loved their daughters, and the death of their daughters changed their life forever. It is also clear that all those that were involved, especially camp counselor Carla Wilhite, were permanently changed by that hot, stormy weekend in June of 1977. And, the one thing that is commonly described by each of them is that they can still remember the sights, sounds, smells, and surrealism they felt almost 45 years after the murders as if it were yesterday.
Accessed June, 2022. The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders https://truecrimeandchill.com/season-2/the-oklahoma-girl-scout-murders/
Accessed June, 2022. The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders Unsolved http://www.girlscoutmurders.com/index.html
Accessed June, 2022. New York Times June 17, 1977 http://www.girlscoutmurders.com/images/funerals_for_girls_1.jpg
Accessed June, 2022. Remembering Michele http://www.girlscoutmurders.com/images/G_michelle_1.jpg
Accessed June, 2022. Remembering Lori http://www.girlscoutmurders.com/images/G_article8.jpg
Accessed June, 2022. Remembering Denise http://www.girlscoutmurders.com/images/G_article22.jpg
Accessed June, 2022. Leroy Hart Trial to Begin Monday http://www.girlscoutmurders.com/images/trial_to_begin_1.jpg
Accessed June, 2022. Unsolved Mysteries: Horror at Camp Scott: The Girl Scout Murders https://medium.com/the-mystery-box/horror-at-camp-scott-the-girl-scout-murders-78195eb3eb49
Accessed June, 2022. Dark Ideas https://darkideas.net/true-crime-articles/wrongful-conviction/the-oklahoma-girl-scout-murders/
Accessed June, 2022. Saturday Oklahoman and Times http://girlscoutmurders.com/images/WISE_GRIMSLEY_secret_book_deal_1_file.jpg
Accessed June, 2022. Murder Mystery: The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders https://www.aymag.com/murder-mystery-the-oklahoma-girl-scout-murders/
Accessed June, 2022. AbandonedOK Camp Scott https://abandonedok.com/camp-scott/
Accessed June, 2022. Girl Scout Murders: DNA Closes The Case 45 Years Later https://www.news9.com/story/6279dba06e504b0726fcb888/girl-scout-murders:-dna-closes-the-case-45-years-later-
Accessed June, 2022. Keeper of the Ashes: The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders https://www.hulu.com/series/keeper-of-the-ashes-the-oklahoma-girl-scout-murders-ef3c55e1-0799-4432-a0fd-868d29566a7e