Three months after the murder of Debbie Carter, Detectives Dennis Smith and Mike Kieswetter went to the Williamson home and interviewed Ron for the first time. Juanita was present and took part in the meeting. When asked where he was on the night of December 7, Ron said he did not remember-it had been three months earlier. Yes, he frequented the Coachlight, as well as the other clubs around Ada. Juanita went to her diary, checked the date, and informed the detectives that her son had been at home at ten that night. She showed them the entry for December 7.
Ron was asked if he knew Debbie Carter. He said he wasn't sure. He certainly knew the name because everybody in town had talked of little else since the murder. Smith produced a photograph of the victim, and Ron studied it carefully. Maybe he'd met her before, maybe not. Later, he asked to see the photo again. She was vaguely familiar. He vehemently denied knowing anything about the murder, but did offer the opinion that the killer was probably a psychopath who followed her home, broke in on her, then fled town as soon as the crime was committed.
After about thirty minutes, the police asked Ron if he would provide fingerprint and hair samples. He agreed to do so, and followed them to the station when the interview was over.
Three days later, on March 17, they were back with the same questions. Ron again stated that he had nothing to do with the murder and that he was at home on the night of December 7.
The police also interviewed a man by the name of Dennis Fritz, whose only possible link to the murder investigation was his friendship with Ron Williamson. According to an early police report, Fritz was "a suspect or at least an acquaintance of a suspect in the Carter murder case."
Dennis rarely went to the Coachlight and had not been there for months prior to the murder. No witness placed him there; in fact, by March 1983 no witness had mentioned his name. He was new to the area and not well known around town. He had never driven Ron Williamson to the Coachlight. He did not know Debbie Carter, wasn't sure he'd ever seen her before, and had no idea where she lived. But since the investigators were now on the trail of Ron Williamson, and were apparently operating under the knee-jerk theory that there were two killers, they needed another suspect. Fritz was their man.
Dennis Fritz grew up near Kansas City, finished high school there, and earned a degree in biology from Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 1971. In 1973, his wife, Mary, gave birth to their only child, Elizabeth. They were living in Durant, Oklahoma, at the time. Mary was working for a nearby college, and Dennis had a good job with the railroad.
On Christmas Day 1975, while Dennis was working out of town,
Mary was murdered by a seventeen-year-old neighbor, shot in the head as she sat in a rocking chair in her own den.
For two years afterward, Dennis was unable to work. He was emotionally scarred and did nothing but care for Elizabeth. When she started school in 1981, he managed to pull himself together and get a job teaching junior high science in the town of Konawa. After a few months, he moved into a rental home in Ada, not far from the Williamsons, and not far from the apartment Debbie Carter would one day lease. His mother, Wanda, joined him in Ada to help with Elizabeth.
He took another job teaching ninth-grade biology and coaching basketball in the town of Noble, an hour away. The school officials allowed him to live in a small trailer on campus, and he commuted back and forth on weekends to spend time with Elizabeth and his mother. Noble had no nightlife, and occasionally Dennis would drive to Ada on a weeknight to see his daughter, then get a drink or perhaps meet a girl.
One night in November 1981, Dennis was in Ada. He was bored and wanted a beer, so he drove to a convenience store. Parked outside and sitting in the front seat of his mother's old Buick was Ron Williamson, strumming his guitar and watching the world go by. Dennis also played the guitar and just happened to have his in the backseat. The two struck up a conversation about music. Ron said he lived a few blocks away and invited Dennis over for a jam session. Both men were looking for friends.
The apartment was cramped and dirty, a sad little place, Fritz thought. Ron explained that he lived with his mother, who didn't tolerate tobacco or alcohol. He had no job, and when Dennis asked what he did all day, he replied that he usually slept. He was friendly enough, easy with conversation and quick with a laugh, but Fritz noticed a detached air. He would gaze off for long periods of time, then stare at Dennis as if he weren't there. A strange guy, thought Dennis.
But they enjoyed playing their guitars and talking about music. After a few visits, Fritz began to notice Ron's excessive drinking and mood swings. Ron loved beer and vodka, and his routine was to start drinking late in the afternoon, once he was fully awake and away from his mother. He was flat and depressed until the booze kicked in, then his personality came to life. They began to frequent the bars and lounges in town.
Dennis stopped by one afternoon, earlier than usual and before Ron had a drink. He chatted with Juanita, a pleasant but longsuffering soul who said little but seemed to be fed up with her son. She disappeared, and Dennis found Ron in his bedroom, staring at the walls. The room made Ron nervous, and he seldom entered it.
There were large color photos of Patty, his ex-wife, and of himself in various baseball uniforms. "She was beautiful," Fritz said, looking at Patty.
"I once had it all," Ron said with sadness and bitterness. He was twenty-eight years old and had thoroughly given up.
Barhopping was always an adventure. Ron never entered a club quietly, and once inside he expected to be the center of attention. One of his favorite routines was to wear a nice suit and claim to be a rich Dallas lawyer. By 1981, he had already spent enough time in courtrooms to have the lingo and the mannerisms, and his "Tanner Act" was played out in lounges all over Norman and Oklahoma City.
Fritz would stay in the background and enjoy the show. He gave Ron plenty of room. He was also becoming a little tired of the adventures. A night out with Ron usually involved a conflict of some sort and an unexpected ending.
During the summer of 1982, they were returning to Ada after a night in the bars when Ron announced he wanted to go to Galveston. Fritz had made the mistake of telling a story about deep-sea fishing out of Galveston, and Ron claimed that he'd always wanted to do that. They were drunk, and an unplanned eight-hour drive did not seem totally farfetched. They were in Dennis's pickup truck. As always, Ron had no car, no license, and no money for gas.
School was out, Fritz had some cash in his pocket, so why not go fishing? They bought some more beer and headed south.
Somewhere in Texas, Dennis needed a nap, so Ron took the wheel. When Dennis woke up, there was a strange black man in the back of the pickup. "Picked up a hitchhiker," Ron said proudly. Somewhere in Houston, just before dawn, they stopped at a convenience store to buy beer and food, and when they returned, the truck was gone, stolen by the hitchhiker. Ron said he forgot and left the keys in the ignition, and upon further reflection admitted that he had not only left the keys in the ignition but had probably left the engine running as well. They drank a few beers and pondered their bad luck. Fritz insisted on calling the police, but Ron wasn't so sure. They argued, and Dennis called them anyway. When the cop heard the story, he laughed in their faces. They were in a very rough part of town, but they found a Pizza Hut. They ate pizza and drained several pitchers of beer, and began roaming around the city, quite lost. At dusk they stumbled upon a black honky-tonk, and Ron was determined to go inside and party. It was a crazy idea, but Fritz soon realized that things were probably safer inside the club than out. At the bar, Dennis sipped a beer and prayed no one would notice them. Ron, typically, began talking loud and attracting attention. He was wearing a suit and was now the hotshot Dallas lawyer. Dennis was worrying about his truck and hoping they didn't get knifed, while his sidekick was telling tall tales about his close, personal friend Reggie Jackson.
The main man of the club was a guy named Cortez, and he and Ron soon became pals. When Ron told the story of the stolen pickup, Cortez roared with laughter. When the honky-tonk closed, Ron and Dennis drove away with Cortez, whose apartment was nearby and did not have enough beds. The two white boys slept on the floor. When he awoke, Fritz was hungover, angry about his truck, and determined to get back to Ada in one piece. He jolted Ron out of his coma, and together they convinced Cortez to drive them, for a small fee, to a bank where Dennis could hopefully withdraw some money. At the bank, Cortez waited in the car while Ron and Dennis went inside. Dennis got the cash, and as they were leaving, a dozen police cars came screaming from all directions and surrounded Cortez. Heavily armed officers yanked him out of his car and threw him into the backseat of one of theirs.
Ron and Dennis ducked back into the bank, quickly assessed the raid in the parking lot, and made a hurried exit on the other side. They bought bus tickets. The ride home was long and painful. Fritz was sick of Ron and angry that he'd let the truck get away from them. He vowed to avoid him for a long time.
A month later, Ron called Dennis and wanted to go out. Since the adventure in Houston, the friendship had cooled considerably. Fritz enjoyed going out for a few beers and some dancing, but he kept things under control. Ron was fine as long as they were having a drink and playing guitars in his apartment, but once he hit the bars, anything could happen.
Dennis picked him up and they went out for a drink. Fritz explained that it would be a short night because he had a rendezvous with a young lady planned for later. He was actively on the prowl for a love interest. His wife had been dead for seven years, and he longed for a stable relationship. Ron did not. Women were for sex and nothing else. Ron, though, proved difficult to shake that night, and when Dennis went to visit his lady friend, Ron went with him. When he finally realized he wasn't welcome, he got mad and left, but not on foot. He stole Dennis's car and drove to Bruce Leba's house. Fritz stayed with the woman, and when he got up the next morning, he realized his car was gone. He called the police, filed a report, then called Bruce Leba and asked if he'd seen Ron. Bruce agreed to drive Ron and the stolen car back to Ada, and when they arrived, both were stopped by the police. The charges were dropped, but Dennis and Ron did not speak for months.
Fritz was at home in Ada when he received a phone call from Detective Dennis Smith. The police wanted him to come down to the station and answer some questions. What kinds of questions? Fritz asked. We'll tell you when you get here, Smith replied. Fritz reluctantly went to the station. He had nothing to hide, but any such encounter with the police was unnerving. Smith and Gary Rogers asked him about his relationship with Ron Williamson, an old friend he hadn't seen in months. The questions were businesslike at first, but slowly became accusatory. "Where were you on the night of December 7?" Dennis wasn't sure at that moment; he'd need some time to think about it. "Did you know Debbie Carter?" No. And so on. After an hour, Fritz left the station, mildly concerned that he was even involved in the investigation.
Dennis Smith called again and asked Fritz if he would take a polygraph. With his science background, Fritz knew that polygraphs are wildly unreliable, and he wanted no part of an exam. At the same time, he'd never met Debbie Carter, and he wanted to prove this to Smith and Rogers. He reluctantly agreed, and a test was scheduled at the OSBI offices in Oklahoma City. As the day approached, Fritz became more and more nervous, and to calm his nerves, he took a Valium right before the exam.
The test was administered by OSBI agent Rusty Featherstone, with Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers lurking nearby. When it was over, the cops huddled over the graphs, grimly shaking their heads at the bad news.
Fritz was informed that he had "severely flunked" the exam.
"Impossible" was his first response.
You're hiding something, they said. Fritz admitted to being nervous and finally confessed that he'd taken a Valium. This upset the cops, and they insisted that he take another polygraph. He felt as though he had no choice.
A week later Featherstone brought his machine to Ada and set it up in the basement of the police department. Fritz was even more nervous than before, but answered the questions truthfully and easily.
He "severely flunked" it again, only this time even worse, according to Featherstone, Smith, and Rogers. The post-polygraph interrogation began with a fury. Rogers, playing the bad cop, began cursing and threatening and saying, "You're hiding something, Fritz," over and over. Smith tried to play the role of Fritz's true friend, but it was a juvenile act and an old one at that.
Rogers was dressed like a cowboy, boots and all, and his style was to strut around the room, fuming, cursing, threatening, talking about death row and lethal injections, then suddenly he would lunge at Fritz, jab him in the chest, and tell him that he was going to confess. The routine was frightening enough, but not very effective. Fritz said over and over, "Get out of my face."
Rogers finally accused him of the rape and murder. He got angry, and his language became even more abusive as he described how Fritz and his sidekick, Williamson, broke in on the girl, raped her and killed her, and now he, Rogers, was demanding a confession. With no evidence, only a confession could've solved the case, and the cops were desperate to squeeze one out of Fritz. But he didn't budge. He had nothing to confess, but after two hours of verbal abuse he wanted to give them something. He told the story of a road trip he and Ron had made to Norman the previous summer, a rowdy night in bars looking for girls, one of whom hopped in the backseat of Dennis's car and became hysterical when he wouldn't let her out. She finally jumped, ran away, called the cops, and Ron and Dennis slept in the car, in a parking lot, hiding from the police. No charges were filed.
That story seemed to placate the cops, for a few minutes anyway. Their clear focus was Williamson, and now they had more proof that he and Fritz were friends and drinking buddies. The relevance to the Carter murder was unclear to Fritz, but then most of what the cops were saying made little sense. Fritz knew he was innocent, and if Smith and Rogers were after him, then the real killer had little to worry about.
After hammering away for three hours, the cops finally quit. They were convinced Fritz was involved, but the case wouldn't be solved with a confession. Good police work was needed, so they began watching
Fritz, following him around town, stopping him for no reason. Several times Fritz woke up to the sight of a police car parked in front of his house.
Fritz voluntarily submitted hair, blood, and saliva samples. Why not give them everything? He had nothing to fear. The thought of talking to a lawyer crossed his mind briefly, but why bother? He was completely innocent, and the cops would soon realize this.
Detective Smith dug into Fritz's background and discovered a 1973 conviction for growing marijuana in the town of Durant. Armed with the information, an Ada policeman contacted the junior high school in Noble where Dennis was teaching and informed the authorities that Fritz not only was under investigation for murder but also had a drug conviction he'd neglected to disclose when he applied to teach. Fritz was fired immediately.
On March 17, Susan Land at the OSBI received from Dennis Smith "the known scalp and pubic hairs of Fritz and Williamson."
On March 21, Ron went to the police station and voluntarily submitted to a polygraph test administered by B. G. Jones, another examiner with the OSBI. Jones declared the exam to be inconclusive. Ron also gave a saliva sample. A week later, this was submitted to the OSBI, along with a sample from Dennis Fritz.
On March 28, Jerry Peters with the OSBI completed his fingerprint analysis. In his report he stated, without qualification, disclaimer, or equivocation, that the palm print on the Sheetrock sample did not belong to Debbie Carter, Dennis Fritz, or Ron Williamson. This should have been good news for the police. Find a match to the palm print, and they had their killer.
Instead, the police quietly informed the Carter family that Ron Williamson was their prime suspect. Though they did not have enough evidence, they were pursuing all leads and slowly, methodically, building a case against him. He certainly seemed suspicious; he acted strange, kept weird hours, lived with his mother, didn't have a job, was known to pester women, was a regular at the honky-tonks, and, most damning of all, lived close to the murder scene. By cutting through a back alley, he could be at Debbie Carter's apartment in minutes!
Plus, he'd had those two problems up in Tulsa. The man had to be a rapist, regardless of what the juries decided.
Not long after the murder, Debbie's aunt Glenna Lucas received an anonymous phone call in which a male voice said, "Debbie's dead, and you next will die." Glenna recalled, with horror, the words scrawled in nail polish: "Jim Smith next will die." The similarities sent her into a panic, but instead of notifying the police, she called the district attorney. Bill Peterson, a heavyset young man from a prominent Ada family, had been the prosecutor for three years. His district covered three counties-Pontotoc, Seminole, and Hughes-and his office was in the Pontotoc County Courthouse. He knew the Carter family, and like any small-town prosecutor, he was anxious to find a suspect and solve the crime. Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers were routinely updating Peterson on the investigation.
Glenna described the anonymous call to Bill Peterson, and they agreed that Ron Williamson was probably the caller, and the killer. By walking a few steps from his garage apartment to the back alley, he could actually see Debbie's place, and by walking a few steps down his mother's driveway, he could see Glenna's home. He was right there in the middle, the weird man with no job and strange hours, just watching the neighborhood around him.
Bill Peterson arranged for a recorder to be placed on Glenna's phone, but there were no other calls.
Her daughter, Christy, was eight years old and very aware of the family's ordeal. Glenna kept her close, never allowed her to be alone or use the phone, and made sure she was watched carefully at school.
There were whispers around the house, and around the family, about Williamson. Why would he kill Debbie? What were the police waiting for?
The whispers and gossip continued. Fear quickly spread throughout the neighborhood, then the entire town. The murderer was loose, out there for all to see, and everybody knew his name. Why didn't the police get him off the streets?
A year and a half after his last session with Dr. Snow, Ron certainly needed to be off the streets. He was in desperate need of long-term care in an institution. In June 1983, again at the urging of his mother, he made the familiar trek, on foot, over to the mental health clinic in Ada. He asked for help, again saying he was depressed and unable to function.
He was referred to another facility in Cushing, and there he was evaluated by Al Roberts, a rehabilitation counselor. Roberts noted that Ron's IQ was 114, "in the bright-normal range of intellectual functioning," but cautioned that he might be suffering some degree of brain impairment because of the alcohol abuse.
Roberts wrote, "This man may be exhibiting a cry for help." Ron was insecure, tense, worried, nervous, and depressed.
He is a very nonconforming person and is resentful of authority. His behavior is going to be erratic and unpredictable. He does have problems with impulse control. He is very suspicious and distrustful of others around him. He lacks social skills and is very uncomfortable in social situations. This individual is one who would accept little responsibility for his own behavior and he is likely to strike out in anger or hostility as a defense against being hurt. He sees the world as a very threatening and scary place and defends himself by being hostile or being withdrawn. Ron seems very immature and will present a picture of one who is rather unconcerned.
Ron applied to a vocational training program at East Central University in Ada, stating that he wanted to get a degree in chemistry or, in the alternative, one in physical education so he could coach. He agreed to a more thorough psychological evaluation using a series of tests. The examiner was Melvin Brooking, a psychological assistant with Vocational Rehabilitation.
Brooking knew Ron and the Williamson family well, perhaps too well. His behavorial observations were loaded with anecdotes, and he referred to him as "Ronnie."
On his athletic career, Brooking wrote, "I don't know what kind of student Ronnie was in high school, but I do know that he was an outstanding athlete but was always handicapped by temper tantrums on and off the court and generally rude, immature behavior, and a highly self-centered, arrogant attitude. His prima donna attitude, his inability to get along with people, and his disregard for rules and regulations made him an unfit player about everywhere he went."
On the family, he said, "Ronnie's mother has been a hard working woman all of her life. She has owned and operated a beauty shop downtown for many years. Both Ronnie's mother and father have stood by him through many, many crises, and his mother is evidently still providing support, although she is just about emotionally, physically and financially drained."
On the failed marriage, he wrote, "He married a very beautiful girl, who was a former Miss Ada, but she finally could not tolerate Ronnie's mood swings and inability to make a living and divorced him."
Evidently, Ron was forthcoming about his alcohol and drug abuse. Brooking observed, "Ronnie has had serious alcohol and drug abuse problems in the past... He has been a serious pill taker. Most of his drug taking seems to be an attempt to medicate himself out of serious depression. He says that he is no longer drinking or doing drugs."
Brooking began his diagnosis with bipolar disorder and described it as follows:
Bipolar disorder means that this young man suffers from tremendous mood swings, going from manic highs to stupor level depressive lows. I will diagnose depressed type because that is characteristically where he stays most of the time. His manic highs are usually drug induced and short lived. For the last three or four years, Ronnie has been seriously depressed, living in the back room of his mama's house, sleeping most of the time, working very, very little and totally dependent on those around him for his upkeep. He's come out of the house three or four times and made major moves as though he were going to rehabilitate himself, but they've never worked out. Brooking also diagnosed a paranoid personality disorder because of "a pervasive and unwarranted suspiciousness and mistrust of people, hypersensitivity and restricted affectivity."
And, for good measure, he added alcohol and substance dependence. His prognosis was "guarded," and he concluded by saying, "This young man has never gotten it together since he left home more than ten years ago. His life has been a series of problems and devastating crises. He continues to try and get his feet on solid ground, but so far he has never been able to make it."
Brooking's job was to evaluate Ron, not to treat him. By the late summer of 1983, Ron's mental condition was worsening, and he was not getting the help he needed. Long-term, institutionalized psychotherapy was required, but the family couldn't afford it, the state couldn't provide it, and Ron wouldn't agree to it anyway.
His application to East Central University included a request for financial aid. The request was granted, and he was notified that a check was available at the business office of the school. He arrived to pick it up, in his usual unkempt condition with long hair and a mustache, accompanied by two other shady characters, both of whom seemed very interested in the prospect of Ron getting some money. The check was made payable to Ron, but also to an officer of the school. Ron was in a hurry, but he was told to wait in a long line. He felt the money was rightfully his, and he didn't feel like waiting. His two buddies were anxious to get the cash, so Ron quickly forged the name of the school official.
He left with $300.
The forgery was witnessed by Nancy Carson, the wife of Rick Carson, Ron's childhood friend who was an Ada policeman. Mrs. Carson worked in the business office and had known Ron for many years. She was appalled at what she had just seen, so she called her husband.
An official from the college knew the Williamson family. He drove straight to Juanita's beauty shop and told her about Ron's forgery. If she would reimburse the school the $300, no criminal charges would be pursued. Juanita quickly wrote a check for the money and went to find her son.
The following day Ron was arrested for uttering a forged instrument, a felony that carried a maximum prison sentence of eight years. He was placed in the Pontotoc County jail. He could not post bail, and his family couldn't help him.
The murder investigation was proceeding slowly. There was still no word from the OSBI lab on the initial fingerprint, hair, and saliva submissions. Samples from thirty-one Ada men, including Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, were being processed. Glen Gore still had not been asked to provide hair and saliva.
By September 1983, all hair samples were on the backlogged desk of Melvin Hett, an OSBI hair analyst.
On November 9, Ron, while in jail, submitted to another polygraph exam, this one also administered by the OSBI agent Rusty Featherstone. It was a two-hour meeting, with lots of questions before Ron was wired for the polygraph. He continually and adamantly denied any involvement in, or knowledge of, the murder. The test was again deemed inconclusive, and the entire interview was videotaped.
Ron adjusted to life behind bars. He kicked the booze and pills because he had no choice, and he managed to continue his habit of sleeping twenty hours a day. But without medication or treatment of any type, he continued a slow mental decline.
Later in November, another inmate, Vicki Michelle Owens Smith, told Detective Dennis Smith an odd story about Ron. Dennis Smith made the following report:
At 0300 or 0400 hours Saturday morning, Ron Williamson looked out his window and saw Vicki. Williamson yelled that she was a witch and that Vicki was the one who took him to Debbie Carter's house and now she had brought him Debbie's spirit into his cell and it was haunting the hell out of him. Williamson also screamed for his mother to forgive him.
In December, one year after the murder, Glen Gore was asked to stop by the police station and give a statement. He denied any involvement in the death of Debbie Carter. He said he'd seen her at the Coachlight a few hours before she was killed, and added the new wrinkle that she had asked him to dance with her because Ron Williamson was making her uncomfortable. The fact that no one else at the Coachlight reported seeing Ron there was apparently insignificant.
But as anxious as the cops were to paste together a case against him, the evidence was simply too scant. There was not a single fingerprint lifted from the Carter apartment that matched either Ron or Dennis Fritz, a gaping hole in the theory that the two were there during the prolonged and violent attack. There were no eyewitnesses; no one heard a sound that night. The hair analysis, always shaky at best, was still bot-tlenecked in Melvin Hett's office at the OSBI.
The case against Ron consisted of two "inconclusive" polygraph exams, a bad reputation, a residence not far from that of the victim's, and the delayed, half-baked eyewitness identification of Glen Gore.
The case against Dennis Fritz was even weaker. One year after the murder, the only tangible result of the investigation had been the firing of a ninth-grade science teacher. In January 1984, Ron pleaded guilty to the forgery charge and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was transported to a correctional center near Tulsa, and it wasn't long before his odd behavior attracted the attention of the staff. He was transferred to an intermediate mental health unit for observation. Dr. Robert Briody interviewed him on the morning of February 13 and noted: "He is usually subdued and appears in control of his actions." But during an interview that afternoon, Dr. Briody saw a different person. Ron was "hypomanic, loud, irritable, easily excited, has loose associations, flight of ideas, irrational thoughts, and some paranoid ideation." Further evaluation was suggested. Security was not tight at the intermediate unit. Ron found a baseball field nearby and enjoyed sneaking over at night for the solitude. A policeman found him once, napping on the field, and escorted him back to the unit. The staff slapped his wrist and made him write a report. It reads:
I was feeling down the other nite and needed some time to think things out. I've always felt peaceful on a ballfield. I strolled out to the ballfield's southeast corner and kind of like an old blue-tick hound I curled up under the shade tree. A few minutes later a police officer asked me to go back to the CTC Building. I met Brents halfway up the field and we walked in the front door together. He said that, after seeing I wasn't up to no good, that he'd forget it. However, as this letter attests, I've been given a write-up.
With the prime suspect behind bars, the investigation into the murder of Debbie Carter came to a virtual halt. Weeks passed with little activity. Dennis Fritz worked for a short time in a nursing home, then a factory.
The Ada police harassed him occasionally but eventually lost interest. Glen Gore was still in town but of little interest to the cops.
The police were frustrated, tensions were high, and the pressure was about to increase dramatically.
In April 1984, another young woman was murdered in Ada, and though her death was unrelated to Debbie Carter's, it would eventually have a profound impact on the lives of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz.
Denice Haraway was a twenty-four-year-old student at East Central who worked parttime at McAnally's convenience store on the eastern edge of Ada. She had been married for eight months to Steve Haraway, also a student at East Central and the son of a prominent dentist in town. The newlyweds lived in a small apartment owned by Dr. Haraway and were working their way through college.
On Saturday night, April 28, around 8:30, a customer was approaching the entrance to McAnally's when he was met by an attractive young woman who was leaving the store. She was accompanied by a young man. His arm was around her waist; they appeared to be just another pair of lovers. They walked to a pickup truck, where the woman got in first, on the passenger's side. Then the young man got in and slammed the door, and a few seconds later the engine started. They left going east, away from town. The truck was an old Chevrolet with a spotty, gray-primered paint job.
Inside the store, the customer saw no one. The cash register drawer was open and had been emptied. A cigarette was still burning in the ashtray. Beside it was an open beer can, and behind the counter was a brown purse and an open textbook. The customer tried to find the clerk, but the store was empty. Then he decided that perhaps there had been a robbery, so he called the police.
In the brown purse an officer found a driver's license belonging to Denice Haraway. The customer looked at the photo on the license and made a positive identification. That was the young lady he'd passed on the way into the store less than half an hour earlier. Yes, he was sure it was Denice Haraway because he stopped at McAnally's often and knew her face.
Detective Dennis Smith was already in bed when the call came. "Treat it like a crime scene," he said, then went back to sleep. His orders, though, were not followed. The manager of the store lived nearby and he soon arrived. He checked the safe; it had not been opened. He found $400 in cash under the counter, awaiting transfer to the safe, and he found $150 in another cash drawer. As they waited for a detective, the manager tidied up the place. He emptied the ashtray with a single cigarette butt in it and threw away the beer can. The police didn't stop him. If there were fingerprints, they were gone.
Steve Haraway was studying and waiting for his wife to come home after McAnally's closed at 11:00 p.m. A phone call from the police stunned him, and he was soon at the store, identifying his wife's car, textbooks, and purse. He gave the police a description and tried to remember what she was wearing-blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a blouse he couldn't recall.
Early Sunday morning, every policeman on Ada 's thirty-three man force was called in for duty. State troopers arrived from nearby districts. Dozens of local groups, including Steve's fraternity brothers, volunteered to help in the search. OSBI agent Gary Rogers was assigned to lead the investigation from the state level, and once again Dennis Smith was to direct the Ada police. They divided the county into sections and assigned teams to search every street, highway, road, river, ditch, and field.
A clerk at JP's, another convenience store a half a mile from McAnally's, came forward and told the police about two strange young men who'd stopped by and spooked her not long before Denice disappeared. Both were in their early twenties with long hair and weird behavior. They shot a game of pool before leaving in an old pickup truck. The customer at McAnally's had seen only one man leaving with Denice, and she did not appear to be frightened by him. His general description sort of matched the general description of the two weird boys at JP's, so the police had the first hint of a trail. They were looking for two white males, between twenty-two and twenty-four years of age, one between five feet eight and five feet ten with blond hair below his ears and a light complexion, the other with shoulder-length light brown hair and a slim build.
The intense manhunt on Sunday produced nothing, not a single clue. Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers called it off after dark and made plans to reassemble early the next morning. On Monday, they obtained a college photograph of Denice and printed flyers with her pretty face and general descriptionfive feet five inches tall, 110 pounds, brown eyes, dark blond hair, light complexion. The flyer also listed a description of the two young men seen at JP's, along with one of the old pickup truck. These were placed in every store window in and around Ada by cops and volunteers.
A police artist worked with the clerk from JP's and put together two sketches. When the drawings were shown to the customer at McAnally's, he said that one of them was at least "in the ballpark." The two composites were given to the local television station, and when the town got its first look at the possible suspects, calls poured in to the police station.
Ada had four detectives at the time-Dennis Smith, Mike Baskin, D. W. Barrett, and James Fox-and they were soon overwhelmed with the number of calls. More than a hundred, with about twenty-five names given for potential suspects.
Two names stood out. Billy Charley was suggested by about thirty of the callers, so he was invited in for questioning. He arrived at the police station with his parents, who said that he had been at home with them throughout Saturday night.
The other name given by about thirty concerned citizens was that of Tommy Ward, a local boy the police knew well. Tommy had been arrested several times for misdemeanors-public drunkenness, petty theft-but nothing violent. He had family all over Ada, and the Wards were known as generally decent folks who worked hard and tended to their own business. Tommy was twenty-four years old, the second youngest of eight children, a high school dropout.
He voluntarily came in for questioning. Detectives Smith and Baskin asked him about last Saturday night. He'd been fishing with a friend, Karl Fontenot, then they'd gone to a party, stayed out until 4:00 a.m., then walked home. Tommy didn't own a vehicle. The detectives noticed that Ward's blond hair had been cut very short, a hack job that was uneven and obviously unprofessional. They took a Polaroid of the back of his head and dated it May 1.
The suspects in the composites both had long, light-colored hair.
Detective Baskin found Karl Fontenot, a man he did not know, and asked him to stop by the station for some questions. Fontenot agreed, but never arrived. Baskin didn't pursue it. Fontenot had long, dark hair.
As the search continued with great urgency in and around Ponto-toc County, Denice Haraway's name and description were broadcast to law enforcement officials nationwide. Calls came from everywhere, but not one was of any benefit. Denice had simply vanished without leaving a single clue.
When Steve Haraway wasn't handing out flyers or driving the back roads, he was secluded in his apartment with a few friends. The phone rang constantly, and with each call there was a moment of hope.
There was no reason for Denice to run away. They had been married less than a year and were still very much in love. Both were seniors at East Central, looking forward to graduation and leaving Ada for a life somewhere else. She had been taken against her will, he was certain of that.
Each passing day brought a greater likelihood that Denice would not be found alive. If she had been grabbed by a rapist, she would have been released after the assault. If she had been kidnapped, someone would have demanded a ransom. There were rumors of an old lover down in Texas, but they came and went. And there were rumors of drug traffickers and such, but then most bizarre crimes had a few of those.
Ada, again, was shocked by the crime. Debbie Carter had been murdered seventeen months earlier, and the town had just settled down from that nightmare. Now doors were locked and double-locked, curfews were tightened on teenagers, and there was a brisk run of gun sales at the local pawnshops. What was happening to the nice little college town with two churches on every corner?
Weeks passed, and life slowly returned to normal for most of Ada 's population. It was soon summertime and the kids were out of school. The rumors died down but didn't stop altogether. A suspect in Texas boasted of killing ten women, and the Ada police raced off to interview him. A woman's body was found in Missouri, with tattoos on her legs. Denice had no tattoos.
And so it went through the summer and into the fall. Not a single break or piece of evidence of any kind that would lead the police to the body of Denice Haraway. And no progress in the Carter investigation. With two sensational murders remaining unsolved, the atmosphere around the police department was heavy and strained. Long hours were worked, with nothing to show for the time. Old leads were reviewed and chased again, with the same results. The lives of Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers were consumed with the two murders.
For Rogers, the pressure was even worse. One year before the disappearance of Denice Haraway, a similar crime had been committed in Seminole, thirty miles north of Ada. An eighteen-year-old girl named Patty Hamilton was working at an all-night convenience store when she vanished. A customer walked in and found the store empty, the cash register cleaned out, two open soft drink cans on the counter, no sign of a struggle. Her locked car was found outside the store. She was gone without a clue, and for a year the police had assumed she'd been abducted and murdered.
The OSBI agent in charge of the Patty Hamilton case was Gary Rogers. Debbie Carter, Denice Haraway, Patty HamiltonAgent Rogers had the unsolved murders of three young women on his desk.
When Oklahoma was still a territory, Ada had a colorful and richly deserved reputation as an open haven for gunslingers and outlaws. Disputes were settled with six-shooters, and the quickest on the draw walked away with no fear of punishment from civil authorities. Bank robbers and cattle thieves drifted to Ada because it was still Indian territory and not a part of the States. Sheriffs, when they could be found, were no match for the professional criminals who settled in and around Ada.
The town's reputation for lawlessness changed dramatically in 1909, when the locals finally got fed up with living in fear. A respected rancher named Gus Bobbitt was gunned down by a professional killer hired by a rival landowner. The killer and three conspirators were arrested, and an epidemic of hanging fever swept through the town. Led by the Masons, the upstanding members of Ada, a lynch mob formed early on the morning of April 19, 1909. Forty members marched solemnly out of the Masonic Hall on Twelfth at Broadway in downtown Ada and arrived at the jail a few minutes later. They subdued the sheriff, yanked the four thugs out of their cells, and dragged them across the street to a livery stable that had been chosen for the occasion. Each of the four had his wrists and ankles bound with baling wire, then each was ceremoniously hanged.
Early the next morning a photographer set up his camera in the barn and took some pictures. One survived over the years, a faded black and white that clearly shows all four men suspended by their ropes, motionless, almost peaceful, and quite dead. Years later, the photo was reproduced on a postcard and handed out at the Chamber of Commerce office.
For decades, the lynchings were Ada 's proudest moment.