Sep 09, 2021
27 mins read
Did you ever go to summer camp? I mean, like a Camp Crystal Lake type of summer camp. Cabins in the woods, a big pond or lake with lots of nature noises and barley legal teenagers entrusted with the health and safety of a few dozen kids, away from home, maybe for the first time in their young lives. Our story today is about a camp like this, but sadly this camp’s summer campers did not even make it through one night away from home. I’m John Dodson and today on The Secret Sits, we are going to talk about, The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders.
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Camp Scott opened in 1928 for girls from 10 to 18 years of age and it was located a few miles south of Locust Grove, Oklahoma.
In 1977 it was being run by the Magic Empire Girl Scout Council and had grown to include 10 campsites, a Great Hall, and a swimming pool. Situated within 410 acres on the left bank of Snake Creek, each campsite was placed near the main thoroughfare, known as ‘The Cookie Trail”. The sites were given Native American tribe names and consisted of canvas tents placed on wooden platforms, roughly set around a stone-encircled campfire, with enough room for four kids to share each tent. Now, if you look at pictures of this campsite, you may see some of these platforms with full cabins, but those are not what we are talking about here. The camper’s tents where literally wooden platform bases with a canvas tent built on top of it.
The girls would find themselves new friends within their tribe, safely overseen by counselors who would have their own tent. The layout of the camp meant that the tents were not evenly spaced, nor were the campsites placed equally along the Cookie Trail.
On June 12th 1977, around 140 girl scouts departed from the Magic Empire Council building in Tulsa, Oklahoma heading to Camp Scott. The girls would arrive at camp for a two-week period. The camp counselors would then stay on as a new set of girls would show up for the next two weeks.
Carla Wilhite, 18, Susan Ewing, 18, and Dee Elder, 20, were assigned as counselors to Kiowa camp and asked to look after 27 children.
As the girls arrived at the camp, they were allowed to select their own tent mates. The three youngest girls at camp were Lori Lee Farmer, 8, Michele Heather Guse, 9, and Doris “Denise” Milner, 10 and they all picked each other to be tent mates. There was supposed to be a fourth girl in their tent for the night, but for some reason this girl slept in a different tent on this first night, which most likely saved her young life.
Kiowa camp happened to be set furthest west and was more isolated away from the Trail than the others. This happened to be where the 3 youngest girls would be placed for this first rotation of campers.
Lori, Michele, and Denise were given tent 7. Within Kiowa camp, Tent 7 was slightly further apart from the other tents and the view from the counselor's tent was obscured by the shower block. Now, I do want to point out one discrepancy, if you are researching this case. Technically the camp only had 7 cabins, because the counselor’s tent is not counted in the numbered cabins, however; you may find a lot of articles saying that the girls were in cabin 7 or cabin 8. This is simply if people are counting the cabins in total, or if they are going off of the official cabin numbers. For the sake of clarity here, we will call this cabin 7, its official number at Camp Scott.
A thunderstorm hit the area that night, just after the girls had their dinner in the mess hall, so the girls spent time in their tents writing letters back home and chatting between themselves before they went to sleep.
I want to get into who these girls were just a bit here. So, Lori Lee Farmer is 8 years old and she is the youngest girl in the camp this week. She is from Tulsa OK and her father is a doctor. She was a very bright little girl who was said could recite the pledge of allegiance at just 16 months old. She had also skipped the second grade. Lori’s mother Sherry said that Lori wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to this girl scout camp or a different YMCA Camp. Lori just couldn’t decide, so she asked her mother to pick for her. Lori’s mother picked this camp and this camp session that her daughter would attend. A decision which I’m sure haunts her to this day.
Lori’s letter to her mother, written on this rainy night at camp said, Dear Mom and Dad and Misty and Joe and Chad and Kathy (which were her siblings), we are just getting ready to go to bed. It is 7:45. We are at the beginning of a storm and having a lot of fun. I’ve met two new friends, Michelle Guse and Denise Milner, I’m sharing a tent with them. It started raining on the way back from dinner. We are sleeping on cots; I couldn’t wait to write. We are all writing letters now because there isn’t anything else to do. With Love Lori.
Michele Heather Guse was from Broken Arrow and she was 9 years old. She was also quite intelligent. She loved to read and she was close to her older brother Mike who was 13. She was known as a shy girl, but she loved playing soccer and she loved participating in the girl scouts.
The letter Michele chose to write was to her Aunt Karen. And she wrote, Dear Aunt Karen, how are you? I’m fine, I’m writing from camp. We can’t go outside because it is storming. Me and my tentmates, are the last tent in our unit. My tentmates are Denise Milner and Lori Farmer. My room is in shades of purple, love Michele. Michele had attended Camp Scott the previous summer.
Denise Milner, was the oldest of the three girls at ten years old. She is also from Tulsa. Her mother, Betty has never visited Denise’s grave because she feels an overwhelming guilt over her daughter’s death. Denise was one of the kindest girls you would ever meet, according to her school teachers and principal. She had a five-year-old sister at this time, who she was upset to leave when she left for camp. She saved up to go to this camp by selling, of course, girl scout cookies. Her plan had been to attend the camp with some of her best friends, but at the last minute, her friends backed out of the trip.
Because of this last-minute change, Denise had reservations about going to the camp at all. Her mom, however; convinced her daughter to go on to camp and give it a try. She wanted her to try to become more independent. But her mother promised her, that if she was scared or didn’t like it, all she had to do was call her and they would come and pick her up.
Now, if you are not ready for this, get ready, because Denise’s letter is tough to read. She wrote, Dear Mom, I don’t like camp, it’s awful, the first day it rained. I have three new friends though named Glenda, Lori and Michele. Michele and Lori are my roommates. Mom, I don’t want to stay at camp for two weeks, I want to come home and see Casey and everybody. Your loving child, Denise Milner.
Now when the girls were loaded onto the buses to head off to camp, Denise had a little break down, this is to be expected for small kids setting off for camp, and possibly their first time away from home. But a counselor named Michelle Hoffman, approached Denise and her mother and she told her mother that she would take care of her and she even sat next to her on the bus for the entire ride to the camp.
But before the buses had left, Denise’s mom got onto the bus and said to Michelle Hoffman, please make sure that if Denise wants to call me that she can call me. To which Michelle agreed.
At some time before 10 pm on June 12, 1977, one of the counselors of the Comanche camp saw a light in the forest moving north towards Kiowa camp but she was not sure what it was. The Comanche camp was the next camp complex over from Kiowa.
At the Kiowa camp around 10 pm, Dee Elder made a tent check of Kiowa sub-camp and satisfied herself that everything was fine. During this time Dee Elder spoke to Denise Milner, who asked to call home, but Dee talked to the girl until she had calmed down and she had convinced her that everything was fine and that she could call her mother the next morning.
Lights out for the night came between 10 and 10:30pm.
Two hours later, around midnight, Carla Wilhite escorted some of the girls from the toilets to their tents.
The girls in tent 5 were warned by Carla to stop making noise at 1:30 am and at the same time, she heard a strange sound coming from the woods just behind the tents. It was described as a low, guttural sound, but she was not sure whether it was an animal or a human. When she pointed her flashlight in the direction of the noise, it stopped. She then returned to her tent to sleep. But she continued to hear the noise intermittently. She also reported seeing a dim light out in the woods.
Around 3 am, there are two reports of girls in other camps being awoken by noises. One report is of a single scream which may have happened earlier, around 1 am, and the other is of a girl crying out for her mother. Campers from some of the neighboring camps also reported seeing the dim light out in the woods.
Around the same time, someone was moving through Kiowa camp, reaching into tents and stealing items such as purses and several pairs of prescription glasses.
The last story from a surviving witness is from the girls in tent 6, who said that their tent flap was pulled back and a man shone a light into the tent. After a few seconds, the flap was replaced and he moved on toward tent 7.
Carla Wilhite’s alarm went off at 6 am so that she could shower before her girls woke up. She headed east towards Quapaw camp and the Staff House. As she did so, she spotted something at the fork of the trail. Initially thinking someone had dropped some of their gear, she walked over to investigate. As she approached the bundles, she could tell that what she was seeing was sleeping bags and then she suddenly could see the body of a girl lying next to them, face up and naked from the waist down. It was the body of 10-year-old Denise Milner.
Her hands were bound behind her back with tape and cord. She had been strangled, also with cord, which was still around the young child’s neck. She had also suffered bludgeoning around her face and head.
After realizing she had discovered a body, Carla immediately woke Dee and Susan to help her with a check on the other children. Dee starts by checking tent 7 where she quickly discovered that all three children were missing.
Carla headed for the nurse’s station and as the nurse drives up to Kiowa camp, Carla heads to the Director’s house to inform camp director Barbara Day and her husband Richard of what they had found.
Upon arriving at the body, the nurse checked for any signs of life but it was clear that Denise Milner, was dead. Richard Day, Barbara’s husband, arrived on the scene and he attempted to move one of the other sleeping bags and he discovered the bodies of the two other girls were in the sleeping bags. Later these would be confirmed as being Lori Farmer and Michele Guse. He also places another sleeping bag over the naked lower half of Denise. Richard said he was just trying to preserve her dignity.
Barbara Day calls Highway Patrol officer Harold Berry. They discover that both of the other girls, Lori and Michele had also been killed by blunt force trauma to the backs of their heads.
By 8 am on 13th June, Sherriff Glen ‘Pete’ Weaver knew he would need the assistance of a larger force and requested help from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
Earlier in April 1977, during an on-site training session, a camp counselor discovered that her belongings had been ransacked and her doughnuts had been stolen. Inside the empty doughnut box was a disturbing hand-written note, stating in capital letters, "We are on a mission to kill three girls in tent one." The director of that camp session treated the note as a prank, and it was discarded.
Highway Patrol Officer Harold Berry was the first law enforcement officer at the scene and found one set of boot prints leading from Kiowa camp to the spot where the body was discovered. The general scene was not secured until much later.
It appeared that the killer had approached from the rear of Tent 7 and unhooked the back flaps to gain entry. Investigators believed that Lori and Michele were both bludgeoned to death inside the tent, judging by blood spatter on the canvas walls and wooden floor. They were also both sexually assaulted, police believe, however; Lori’s test where inconclusive, so there is a chance that she was killed first and not sexually assaulted. The killer tried to clean up the blood using bedsheets, but one single boot print was left behind, a size 9.5. No fingerprints were found inside the tent.
Denise Milner had been taken out of the cabin alive; she had been bound and her mouth stuffed with a pre-made gag before being walked over to the area where the bodies were eventually found. She was sexually assaulted, bludgeoned, and strangled to death. And just so you are clear, and in case you have not already looked up a map of this camp site, Denise had to have been walked right past the counselor’s tent based on where the bodies were found.
The attacks had definitely been planned in advance. The gag on Denise was pre-sewn and the killer had also brought along nylon rope and duct tape for binding the victims. Semen was found on each body, and a red flashlight was found next to them. A hair caught in the duct tape that did not belong to any of the girls was also located.
The autopsy found that the weapons used were held in both the left and right hands. It was also evident that more than one weapon was used in the bludgeoning, and two different knots had been used in tying the girls. Were these signs of a second killer? The weapons themselves were never found.
The rope and tape had recently been stolen from a farm a mile from Camp Scott. The farmer, Jack Shroff, had an alibi and also passed a voluntary lie detector test.
A fingerprint was found on the lens of the flashlight near the tent, but it was never identified. And also, just quickly about this flashlight, this was one of those old school 6-volt flashlights that held the one huge battery. The police also discovered that there was a pin hole cut into the lens of the flashlight, the purpose of this hole would be to make the flashlight much dimmer, maybe like the dim light that was seen in the woods behind the tents. They also discovered that there was a wad of newspaper in the flashlight to make sure that the battery did not jiggle around and make noise.
When the camp administration contacted the parents to pick up their children, they were told that there had been an accident at the camp and a couple of children had died. And this included the parents of the 3 slain girls, for all their parents knew, they had died in a random camping accident, until the parents arrived at the camp.
The OSBI quickly eliminated all obvious males as suspects including Richard Day, Jack Shroff and camp ranger Ben Woodward.
Gene Leroy Hart, who 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, Cherokee.
In 1966 he abducted two pregnant women from outside a nightclub, drove to a forest on the outskirts of Locust Grove, and raped them. He had been convicted of the 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. After the rapes, in an apparent attempt to murder them, he closed off their noses and mouths with duct tape and left them to die in the woods. Fortunately, the women managed to untie themselves and find help. They described Hart as being ‘incoherent’ during the rape – and that he made strange, growling noises. A possible link 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.
He was eventually recaptured and he was known to have committed three burglaries in total, and in each case the victims were asleep in their houses at the time.
Hart eventually admitted to both the rapes and burglaries, and was sentenced to a total of 305 years as he had tried to evade the first trial, attempted to kill his rape victims, and committed further crimes while on parole.
But the fact that Hart had escaped Mayes Jail and evaded Sherriff Glen ‘Pete’ Weaver led many to believe there was a personal vendetta driving the manhunt.
It was suspected that many in 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 (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." And let me just say this really quick. I use to work at a theatre on the Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina and I made a lot of friends who were Cherokee and they are an amazing people, they are bold, they are loving and they can be the most loyal friends you may ever make. So the talk of other Cherokee helping Hart out does not surprise me at all, especially because they thought he was being framed.
Fears grew that Hart was being framed as rumors began 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 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 certainly a challenging time for relations between the different peoples of Oklahoma.
Tracker dogs were brought in after the bodes where 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 themselves.
In the mountain overlooking Camp Scott, OSBI agent Arthur Linville found a cave with some unusual items. Including red underwear, a picture of two women (which looked like a wedding photo), and a newspaper were found along with a pair of glasses that belonged to a Camp Scott counselor. Remember the person who had been stealing from the camp had taken several pairs of prescription glasses. A further link to the camp was made when it was discovered that part of the newspaper had been torn out and matched some found inside the red flashlight at the crime scene.
The picture from the cave was made public and a prison officer recognized the women it in 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 also emerged that the cave, and Camp Scott, were within walking distance of Hart’s mother’s home.
Two weeks after the murders a farmer reported that he had seen Gene Hart on a hillside. On further investigation, Agent Harvey Pratt found a 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 American 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 Gene Leroy Hart had size 11 feet.
Then another cave was found around 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 pursued this informant as a suspect in the girl scout murders.
A message was written on the cave wall. The unusual date format is said to be used by both the military and the prison system. With the year appearing before the month and day.
Due to the size of Camp Scott, it was hard for law enforcement to secure it while they searched for evidence. In the weeks after the murders, a security company was employed to guard the camp which had now been emptied of all staff. According to these security guards, there was evidence that someone was still stalking the camp, leaving footprints in fresh sand and leaving doors opened that had previously been shut.
They also spoke of seeing silhouettes in the dense woods on multiple occasions, and sometimes dogs were used to try and track whoever was out there. One time, a dog returned to the tracker and had seemed to have been struck. The guards began leaving threads tied between trees to see which paths the intruder was using and they would find them broken on further investigations.
One day, the security guards returned to the great hall, which they used as an office, when they found a bag had been left by the door. This bag contained pink socks and a pair of tennis shoes with the name, Denise Milner, written inside. Both the socks and shoes were wet.
Tom Kennedy (deputy director of the OSBI at the time) said that two pairs of shoes were already in evidence lockers. He believed those found by the security guards were to be viewed as a separate piece of evidence, but nothing came of this lead.
After 10 months on the man-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 for the previous 8 months.
On April 6, 1978, 8 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, apparently, “You’ll never pin it on me.” When Hart was arrested, he was wearing a pair of women’s eye glasses. Again, with the glasses.
On the initial search of Pigeon’s shack, they found nothing of significance, however; when they came back and searched it again a few days later, they find two items of interest, a toy corn cob pipe and a small mirror. These two items had supposedly been reported as stolen from one of the counselors at the camp, and they had been stolen the night of the murders. These items conveniently tied Hart to the camp grounds.
Hart was tried in March of 1979 and he was represented by Larry Oliver from Tulsa, Oklahoma. His supporters defended him so aggressively that the victims’ families needed police escorts in the courthouse to keep them from harm. The District Attorney, Sid Wise was also caught making deals to sell the story rights, before the trial had even begun, so he was recused from the case.
The Cherokee Nation donated $12,000 to Hart’s legal funds, and they did not do this as an attempt to defend Hart, they just felt that even if he was guilty, he deserved to have a fair trial and with a court appointed attorney, that was not going to happen.
The defense team carefully dismantled the prosecution’s case:
· Remember the corn cob pipe and the mirror that were recovered on the secondary search of the shack? Well, it turns out that the counselor who owned these items testified that they were in a trunk that she had brought with her to camp. And that this trunk was taken into evidence by the police and when the trunk was returned to her, those items were suddenly gone…. interesting.
· The bloody footprint in the tent was too small to be Hart’s.
The fingerprint on the flashlight was not a match
The semen swabs taken from the girls were not conclusive. They were proven to be from a non-white male, so possibly a Cherokee and the blood type was O. But the fact that sperm was found caused reasonable doubt as well, because Hart had, had a vasectomy. The prosecution had Hart tested and they proved that his vasectomy did not fully take and he could produce sperm, but once again the defense rebuffed this with the fact that because of the botched vasectomy, Hart’s sperm were majorly disformed.
It was claimed the hair was Hart’s, but this could not be proved.
They claimed evidence was being planted to frame Hart, partly motivated by racial bias.
After hearing the evidence, the jury took only 6 hours to deliberate. They found Hart not guilty of the murders. Although the local sheriff pronounced himself "one thousand percent" certain that Hart was guilty. The jury acquitted him, clearly believing he had been framed for the murders because of his Cherokee roots.
As a convicted rapist and jail escapee, he still had 305 years of his 308-year sentence left to serve in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
On June 4, 1979, Hart collapsed and died of a heart attack, after about an hour of lifting weights and jogging in the prison exercise yard.
Two of the families later 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 Magic Empire.
After all of this, OSBI continued to test the evidence from this case as technology improved. 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 proved inconclusive because the samples were "too deteriorated to obtain a DNA profile".
For the tests, 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, inspector of the OSBI's Northeast Regional Office.
The polymerase chain reaction/short tandem repeat test that was used represents state-of-the-art forensics technology and has a good track record with old, deteriorated evidence.
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.
S.M. "Buddy" Fallis Jr., the former Tulsa County district attorney who prosecuted the case, was not discouraged, "It would be nice if they could have gone and had a full result in order to resolve any doubt that some people might have had, but it certainly doesn't change my belief as to Hart's guilt, and it does not support any belief that he was not the person," Fallis said.
Michelle Guse’s father, Richard, helped the legislature pass the Oklahoma Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights. This Bill help victim’s families obtain rights that were not afforded to the families during this case. Victim’s families can now be kept informed about the procedures of their cases; they now have to be placed in waiting rooms where they will not be encountered by the suspect nor their family, and many other changes. These may seem like small things, but when a family is going through, possibly the worst time in their lives, these little things matter.
This case remains unsolved to this day, even if some are convinced, they know who did it. But, then again, that is the thing about the public and secrets. We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the Secret Sits in the middle and knows. I’m John Dodson and this has been The Secret Sits. Audio Engineering by Gabriel Dodson. Original Artwork provided by Tony Ley.