The Girl Scout murders: Oklahoma's greatest unsolved crime
The thick canopy outside the town of Locust Grove is lush and beautiful. It’s the very picture of why we call it “Green Country.”
There’s an old gravel road outside of town. A driver could easily miss it if they don’t know the place. Once you make the turn, within a mile or so there it is -- the gates of what used to be Camp Scott.
In June of 1977, it was the summer camp for scores of Oklahoma Girl Scouts. It was the place where parents brought their daughters for their first big sleep-away adventure.
Now, it’s a place of painful memories.
“When you’re living through it, it’s real, and you can’t escape it,” said Betty Milner.
Today, the pictures of the smiling girl next to Milner are starting to show their age. The 40-year-old paper would crumble if she grabbed it too tightly. The images of a child in bows and pigtails have become her life raft and proof that her daughter, Denise, existed.
“I had to see tangible evidence that she did exist, because I think I couldn’t have had that child and something that horrible happened, you know?” said Milner.
No one could have predicted the horrors that took place at Camp Scott. Even when the brutal murders dominated the nightly news on Channel 8, it still seemed unreal, even for the parents whose children were untouched.
“None of them would speak to us on camera, some did express their fears of ever allowing their children out from under their jurisdiction again,” said a Channel 8 reporter on the day the murders took place.
Denise Milner was one of the three little girls who would never make the trip home.
“She was in a hurry to do everything. She loved people, she was really outgoing, she wanted to be a part of everything,” said Betty.
In 1977, that included going to Camp Scott for a two-week stay. Denise sold cookies to raise money to get to camp. The idea of the trip was exciting, until it came time to leave.
“When she said she didn’t want to go, I told her that just get someone to call us and we will come and get you and you don’t have to stay. But I said I think you should go ahead and try,” said Milner.
Betty said for 40 years those words have replayed in her head a million times along with the unspeakable details of what happened to her daughter.
During the early morning hours of June 13, 1977, Denise and two other girls, Lori Farmer and Michelle Gouse, were brutally assaulted and murdered. The murders sparked a massive manhunt. For nearly a year, there was nothing, then finally police said they had their man. The suspect's name was Gene Leroy Hart.
“Hart first became known as a football star at Locust Grove High School. After getting out of high school, he later went to jail, charged with rape,” said a Channel 8 reporter back in the '70s.
Hart was a familiar character to police. At the time of his arrest, he’d been on the run after escaping prison in 1973. After about 10 months of searching, police found Hart hiding in a cabin in Cherokee County.
“Shackled, Gene Leroy Hart was escorted to the state prison in McAlester by a contingent of law officers,” reported Channel 8.
As the case reached the courtroom, Hart was an easy villain given his criminal history. Others called him a convenient patsy for police under pressure to solve the case.
At one point, Hart sat down with reporters for 30 minutes. Questions weren’t allowed about the case and at one time only one reporter was allowed to ask anything. However, near the end of the interview, Hart opened it up to other reporters.
During the talk, Hart talked about his daily rituals, his Cherokee roots and his belief that he was framed because he was Native American.
“I represent the fears and doubts about any system that has the means and power to overwhelm each of us,” said Hart.
To many, Hart was the obvious killer. However, the case wasn’t so clear cut during the trial. The jury returned with a stunning verdict -- not guilty.
Jim Cavalier said he might have been on that jury. Instead, he had a front row seat to the tragedy. He lived right behind Camp Scott and still does to this day.
“It turned your life upside down, because there’s no peace, no quiet. The quiet and everything leaves and it’s total anxiety from that point on,” said Cavalier.
Nancy Flemings has memories too.
“I believe she could have done lots of things, because she was just a really neat person,” said Flemings.
Flemings' friend Denise asked her to come along to Camp Scott in 1977. She would have been there, probably in the same tent as Denise, if she hadn’t made the critical error of sassing her father.
“You know, I do remember her funeral. I remember going to her funeral, because that was the first one I’d ever been to,” said Flemings.
“During the funeral, I looked directly in Nancy’s eyes and she was sitting there crying,” said Betty Milner.
Hart was never tried again for the crimes. He died in prison a few months after being found innocent of the Girl Scout murders. He was serving time on unrelated charges.
Was he the killer? Milner says only God knows for sure.
“I do believe in God,” said Milner. “Justice would be served regardless and that the crime was too powerful for man to serve justice.”
Next to her photos of Denise, there’s an even greater treasure, a letter from her daughter. It’s the last one she will ever get.
In a 10-year-old’s cursive, Denise wrote to her mother about the first night of camp. She mentioned her roommates, the storm that had rolled in and that she wanted to come home.
“I’m not sure I understand what people mean by closure,” said Milner. “To me, what I think about is she’s still dead and the things that happened to her happened to her, no matter what the law decides”
No true healing, but time has mended pieces of Milner’s heart, though it’s still broken. Just another casualty of the ugly crimes that happened beneath the beautiful canopy that still holds secrets.