Into the Unknown: The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders
5.24.22 - There is an important update to this case. I have rewritten the original post to reflect this new evidence and news, so read on!
Camping is one of the great pleasures of life for those of us who enjoy being outdoors. Fresh air, a cool breeze, sleeping under the stars while you listen to the chirping of crickets, are all things that make us feel at one with nature. Camping is also a rite of passage for many children involved with conservation groups and youth organizations. The Girl Scouts of the United States of America commonly plans overnight outings to campsites. A small group of these girls even got the chance to camp out on the White House lawn, an event hosted by then-First Lady Michelle Obama.
What was supposed to be just another of these commonplace events became a scene of unimaginable horror for a group of girls at Camp Scott in Oklahoma on the early morning of June 13, 1977. Though camp counselors slept just a few feet away, no one realized anything was wrong until it was far too late and three girls lost their lives.
Some of the content in this post may disturb or upset sensitive readers. Because this post involves child victims, the information here may be particularly upsetting. I do not post graphic pictures, but websites found by following links in this post may. Reader discretion is advised.
THE HISTORY: As I mentioned above, local chapters of the Girl Scouts often take their troupes on overnight camping trips or extended sleepovers. These trips foster independence, responsibility, friendship and sisterhood, and a love of nature in the girls. Counselors and other adult supervisors are there to keep the girls safe while they're away, and in most cases, nothing bad happens. This trip was supposed to be like every other at Camp Scott, a 410-acre campground in Oklahoma near the town of Locust Grove. This campground was founded in the 1920s, and had been used by the Magic Empire Girl Scout Council for 49 years. Around 150 girls at a time were bused to the campground several times a year for these two-week long trips into the woods, and there was no reason to fear.
THE VICTIMS: Doris 'Denise' Milner, 10, Lori Lee Farmer, 8, and Michele Guse (pronounced goo-SAY), 9, shared tent number 8 in the Kiowa area of the campground.
Denise, the only Black girl on this trip, was upset when she left her mother Bettye behind to get on the bus on June 12th and had to be comforted by aide and previous camper herself, Michelle Hoffman, who was 15 in 1977. In a letter written to her mother from camp on that day, Denise said she didn't want to stay the full planned two weeks.
Lori was a bright girl, the protective oldest of five, who had skipped the second grade, and wrote to her family about the rain in her letter home. In her last school photo, she had long blonde pigtails and a soft smile with bright blue eyes.
Michele's family has kept a relatively low profile since the murders, and there is not much information about her available online. In photos, though, she is a brown-haired girl with big blue eyes, wearing glasses with a charming gap-tooth smile.
THE INVESTIGATION: The afternoon of June 12th, the girls' first day in camp, a thunderstorm roared through the site. Tent 8 was the furthest tent from the counselor's tent in the Kiowa area, and was partially hidden by the showers. The tent site was a favorite of Hoffman, who at one point had written her name on the tent canvas. By 1977, though, that canvas was long gone.
The girls were giddy and excited for their first night at camp, and as children are wont to do, were a bit noisy as they tried to settle in for the night. Denise, Michele, and Lori were already bonding, though they'd never met before that day, and other girls were playing with their flashlights in the deep dark of the woods. One of the young campers wrote that she couldn't tell if her own eyes were open or closed, the darkness was so complete. Eventually, flashlights clicked off and campers fell asleep.
Some newspapers reported that other campers heard screams and moans in the night, and one girl claimed someone opened the flap to their tent and shone a flashlight in. Strange noises persisted through the night, but every time a counselor would investigate, the sounds would stop. Around 3 a.m., one of the campers heard who she thought was Lori Farmer moaning, "Momma, momma." This more than anything else haunts me. As a mother, knowing that a child was calling for their mother when they were in the greatest danger of their life breaks my heart.
Around 6 a.m. on the 13th, then-18-year-old counselor Carla Wilhite found the body of Denise in her sleeping bag, then the other two girls who had been in tent 8*.
*NOTE: Counselors called the victims' tent number 7 and so do some other written accounts, but police called it number 8 because they counted the counselor's tent among the rest. I'm going for simplicity here, so I'll stick with 8.
Counselors scrambled to gather up all the other girls into the Great Hall, away from the scene of the murders. The remaining campers were told there was a problem with the camp's water and herded onto buses to go back home. None of them knew anything else was terribly wrong until after they were reunited with their families, who by then had been informed of the murders.
THE INVESTIGATION: Police arrived on-scene early that morning, evacuating the rest of the campers and beginning their investigation. All three girls were raped and bludgeoned, and Denise was strangled to death. Hairs and bodily fluids were found on all three bodies. Someone had cut their way into the tent from the outside, then attacked the girls. The murders were brutal, and there was blood on the girls' cots and all over the wooden floor of the tent.
Lori and Michele were each struck on the head and most likely died in the tent, while Denise was moved to where all three bodies were eventually found. The murderer then raped and killer her there. There was a long time between the first two murders and Denise's death. Elements of the scene suggest the killer may have targeted Denise, as she was the only one who was undressed and taken from the initial scene to be sexually abused before her death, and her cause of death was different and far more personal than the other two. Her killer used a rope that was placed around her neck and twisted over and over until it was tight.
After the girls were dead, the assailant carried their bodies out of the tent in their sleeping bags and left them on the trail to the showers. A flashlight was dropped or left on top of the bodies. A smudged fingerprint that has never been identified was on the flashlight. Footprints in the campsite from a size 9.5 men's shoe were found by investigators, and they have never been linked to a suspect, either.
During their investigation, police discovered that less than two months before the murders, Michelle Hoffman entered her tent to find it had been ransacked and her doughnuts stolen. In the empty doughnut box, someone had left a note written on several leaves of steno paper. A few of the pages were filled with the word 'kill' scrawled over and over, dozens of times. The last page, though, was even more sinister. On that page was a letter that promised to 'kill three girls.' The camp director thought this was all a prank, and threw the note away.
The flashlight found near the bodies was wrapped in a trash bag and tape, allowing only a thin strip of light to emit. It was a large red flashlight with a white flange around the lens, the kind that takes a lantern battery and has a handle along the top. Items were missing from another tent, including a mirror and a toy pipe. Rope stained with blood was found in tent 8, as well as a hastily cleaned bloodstain on the wood floor, and photographs of women who were only identified after the photos ran in local newspapers. One of the girls' shoes was missing from her body. Later on during the investigation, someone left the shoe on the doorstep of one of the buildings at the camp. No one saw this happen, and the person who returned the shoe has not been discovered.
Camp counselors and other attendees were quickly ruled out as being responsible.
Objects were found around the campsite that had been reported stolen such as women's glasses, small toys, and a hand mirror stolen from a counselor's purse. In a cave about three miles from Camp Scott, more items like these were found, as well as four small fires described by an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations agent as 'ritualistic.' These fires were what made investigators suspect the possibility of a Native American being responsible for the thefts, if not also the murders.
THE SUSPECT: There has only ever been one official suspect in this case, a Cherokee Native American named Gene Leroy Hart. He was a known rapist who had escaped from Mayes County Jail four years before the Camp Scott murders. In fact, he was born near the camp compound.
Hart was named a suspect just ten days after the investigation began, and a manhunt ensued in order to try and find him. He had escaped from jail before and had become something of a local legend at the time for his actions. Hundreds of volunteers and police officials searched thousands of square miles to find him. Scent dogs were brought in to try and track the suspect from the site of the murders to wherever he was hiding. The dogs often got confused and lost the trail. Two of the dogs died either during the investigation or shortly after it was completed, both of unusual circumstances. Ultimately, this only added to Hart's legend.
Ten months after the murders, on April 6th, 1978, they found Hart hiding in a cabin owned by a Native medicine man, Sam Pigeon. They immediately charged him with the Girl Scout murders put him under arrest. He was brought to trial in what was a highly anticipated, and very public, trial. The defense made accusations of evidence tampering and a poorly-executed investigation and these public declarations tainted the public perception of the proceedings from the start.
Evidence found in both the cave where Hart was hiding out at the time of the murders, and the shack where he was finally found, was damning. A roll of tape that matched that which was used to modify the flashlight was found. A witness for the prosecution testified that Hart commonly used tape to wrap flashlights this way. The missing mirror and toy pipe was found, as well as a pair of sunglasses stolen from a camp counselor. A guitar capo belonging to Michelle Hoffman was found on the ground. A set of wedding photographs developed by Hart was found as well. Defense attorney Gavin Isaacs claimed at trial that the photos were planted by sheriff at the time Pete Weaver, who he says held a grudge against Hart for his many crimes and escapes from prison. When Hart was discovered, he was wearing women's eyeglasses that may have belonged to one of his prior rape victims. It's worth noting that Hart was known for stealing eyeglasses from victims.
Both sides of the trial presented large amounts of evidence and many witnesses, and the jury only took five hours to acquit Hart. Residents of the Cherokee community banded together to show their support for Hart, who was a local football hero and was definitely a sort of local celebrity. Many people, Cherokee or otherwise, didn't believe he could have committed these murders, despite his other convictions and the mountain of evidence in the case.
The details of the girls' murders were similar to Hart's previous crimes, which he confessed to. Evidence in the cases were nearly identical, including his use of duct tape as a restraint on the hands of previous victims and Denise Milner.
Nearly all of the evidence that points to Hart is circumstantial, and there are pieces of evidence that point to more than one person being responsible and that Hart may not have been one of them. One of the points made at trial was that Hart had had a vasectomy years prior, and could not have left behind sperm that was found in and on the girls' bodies. Indigenous people in the United States have long been untrusting of white authorities, and with many good reasons. These are not reasons I will get into here, as I could write an entire series of posts on this subject alone, but they're worth mentioning.
THE AFTERMATH: After police evacuated Camp Scott on the morning of June 13th, it was never used again. It is private property now, overgrown and abandoned. Those who have gone onto the property with permission from the owners have shared photos of the old campsites, which have fallen into disrepair. The Kiowa area is overgrown, with nothing but the concrete foundation for the showers marking the site where the girls were murdered.
Gene Leroy Hart died of a heart attack on June 4th, 1979 while jogging in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. This is less than three months after his acquittal for the girls' murders. He was there serving out the rest of his 308-year sentence for his previous crimes and escape from jail. As he was only 35 at the time, there are conspiracy theories about his death, but he had a brother who also died of a heart attack around the same age, and was found at autopsy to have a 90% blockage in at least one artery leading to the heart. This suggest a genetic component to his death at such a young age.
After Hart's acquittal, no other suspect has been named publicly. Testing of the evidence over the years has shown links to him, but also to other unknown parties. Some of that evidence (such as hair comparison) is no longer considered accurate and therefore is not admissible as evidence. At his autopsy, the medical examiner who discovered his cause of death to be a heart attack also discovered that the vasectomy he'd had years before had been unsuccessful, which meant Hart would leave sperm behind during sexual activity, consensual or otherwise. This revelation voids one of his defense lawyer's arguments, but still doesn't condemn him in this case.
The victims' families filed a lawsuit against the Girl Scout Council regarding the lack of information given prior to the trip and the 86 yard distance between tent 8 and the rest of the camp. The lawsuit focused on previous thefts in the camps, including the theft of children's property from tents, and the note left in the ransacked counselor's tent. Another point in the lawsuit was that at least some of the families were not aware of the layout of the campsite, specifically how spread out the tents would be once the girls arrived. A jury ruled in favor of the Magic Empire in a 9-3 vote.
Girl Scout practices for overnight camping trips changed after the Camp Scott murders. Girls began carrying danger whistles and campsites are no longer laid out with children's tents so far from adults. Tents may even be linked together so larger numbers of children are near each other for safety.
DNA and fingerprints have been retested over the years, but unfortunately the tests were all inconclusive and in 2002, the evidence was too degraded to yield further results with the testing methods available at the time. While most believe that Hart was the murderer of these girls, evidence, time, and lack of witnesses have left many wondering if he was involved at all, and if this horrific crime will ever be solved.
Members of the families of Denise Milner, Lori Farmer, and Michele Guse became active in the victims' advocacy communities, and have spoken out on many occasions about the deaths of these beautiful girls. Whether they were in fact killed by Gene Leroy Hart or not, the families deserve to know who took their daughters away that night. And a community that has never been able to let go of what happened that tragic night deserves answers, as well.
UPDATE: There has been a major update to this case, and the Oklahoma Department of Investigations now considers it closed. DNA testing performed on samples taken from the girls' bodies and the crime scene points to the original and only solid suspect, Gene Leroy Hart. The DNA did not lead to a definitive match, but police are more convinced than ever that he was solely responsible. The evidence, according to Sheriff Mike Reed, rules out every known suspect but Hart.
Barring new evidence or a confession from another suspect, Gene Leroy Hart is believed to be the sole responsible party in the rapes and murders of Lori Farmer, Denise Milner, and Michele Guse.
This update, as well as further information about the murders, has been covered in an excellent new Hulu documentary, Keeper of the Ashes. Award-winning actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth speaks about her time in the Girl Scouts, and the events of this horrible day. She was supposed to be on this trip and wound up unable to attend due to illness. She said in the doc that the Oklahoma Girl Scout murders have haunted her all these years.
If you have any information about the murders of Denise Milner, Michele Guse, and Lori Farmer, please contact the Mayes County Sheriff's Department at 918-825-3535.