County officials discuss killing, burying Gazette reporters
New Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond announced in March the initiative of Sunshine Week, an annual and nationwide celebration of access to public information and open government. Drummond wished to highlight government transparency in open meetings.
It had come to the newspaper publisher’s attention that the McCurtain County commissioners meetings continued after the meeting was seemingly closed to discuss items not on the agenda, in violation of Open Meeting laws.
The Gazette legally procured a recording of the entire meeting in the commissioner’s office from Monday, March 6, which not only confirmed the violation, but also revealed much more.
On March 6, McCurtain Gazette reporter Chris Willingham filed a federal defamation and civil rights lawsuit against Sheriff Kevin Clardy, Captain Alicia Manning, the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Department and the Board of County Commissioners.
On that same day at a county commissioners’ meeting, sheriff’s officers and commissioners discussed beating, killing and burying both Willingham and his father Bruce.
It was attended by Sheriff Kevin Clardy, jail administrator Larry Hendrix, Captain Manning, commissioners Mark Jennings and Robert Beck, and at times by commissioners’ secretary Heather Carter.
District 1 commissioner John Williams was not present that day.
Both the FBI and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office now have the full audio. At the conclusion of the series, both the full audio and the audio transcript will be released to the public. Clips from this story may be found at the QR link provided.
The early part of the meeting was legal, with a posted agenda listing items of business to be considered. But after publisher Bruce Willingham had left the meeting, the commissioners called for Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix, Captain Alicia Manning and Sheriff Kevin Clardy to the commissioners office. They were not on the agenda to discuss county business, which is a violation of the Open Meeting Law.
As it happens, commissioners and sheriff’s officers have, despite their oaths of office, been violating that law on many Mondays, in much the same way.
On March 6, the “off-agenda” commissioners meeting included a wide range of topics. This article will focus on the death of Danette Stowe in the arson fire, racism, and direct, violent threats to physically harm, kill and bury publisher Bruce Willingham and reporter Chris Willingham.
The death of Danette Stowe
A portion of the meeting included a discussion of Randy Sander setting the arson fire on March 2. Danette Stowe ran back in the home to rescue her two dogs, and she and the dogs perished in the blaze.
“She was one complaining ‘bout it. I mean, she was on the phone with us at the time. Recorded phone call. That’s what most people don’t know,” said Sheriff Kevin Clardy.
Clardy relayed what happened that day:
“The house was fully engulfed when officers arrived. There was no way anybody could survive.’
The sheriff spoke of the recovery of the body of Stowe:
“Anyway, you know we wrap it up in tinfoil to preserve the body and stuff like that. And (a newer female medical examiner) kept them, all the body, heart, stuff like that. Anyway, Kyler was out there,” The sheriff said, referring to his son, who is a deputy.
“Oh, body parts? She’d come apart?” Jennings asked.
“They really fall apart when they’re burnt?” The secretary asks.
“Yeah. You never had barbecue?…Same thing,” answered former undersheriff and current jail administrator Larry Hendrix.
“So we get her in the body bag and Kyler goes, you do know what we gotta do now, right? (Another deputy) goes, ‘no, what?’ He goes, ‘you gotta pre-heat the oven 350 degrees, leave her in there for 15 minutes. And she went (vomit sounds) (laughter). Bless her heart. It was… and then the medical examiner asked her, said hey we’re fixing to go eat.
And he looked her in the face and said you wanna go with me and go eat barbecue?
Manning discussed comforting Randy Sander’s wife the day of Stowe’s death, going as far as to do an impression of the woman crying.
“So Sanders, when he was at the Sheriff’s office, his wife and his granddaughter were sitting out in the lobby. And they was fixing to put him in cuffs and bring him on over. And so I told Lisa, our other deputy, I said go out there and deal with her….Cause I could hear her hyperventilating. And Lisa’s like, she don’t have any people skills at all. So I went and I told Dansby after that, I said I ain’t going out there. I don’t want to be on the front page of the damn paper. But I had to go out there so I just said ‘ma’am, calm down, it’s gonna be okay.’ And she’s like (pretend crying) ‘those law-breaking Christian people.’ And I’m like. Okay. Just take a deep breath.”
Racism in county government
Another topic discussed was the requirements for running for sheriff.
”I heard it the other day, said I heard two or 12 people were going for sheriff. I said fuck, lets get 20,” said Commissioner chairman Mark Jennings. “They don’t have a goddamn clue what they’re getting into. Not this day and age. I’m gonna tell you something. If it was back in the day, when that when Alan Marshton would take a damn Black guy and whoop their ass and throw him in the cell? I’d run for fucking sheriff.”
“Yeah. Well, It’s not like that nomore,” the sheriff responded.
“I know,” answered Jennings. “Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damn rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They got more rights than we got.”
Threats of violence to reporters
Throughout the meeting, the conversation returned to Bruce Willingham, Chris Willingham and the Gazette. Chris Willingham has been writing a series of newspaper articles on corruption within the sheriff’s department for the past two years.
“Who’s got people scared around here,” Captain Alicia Manning asked.
“Hmm? I’m not scared of no sonofabitch walking around here,” answered Jennings.
“Want to go to the UPS store with me? It’s right next door to the newspaper!” Manning relayed.
“I don’t think I can contain myself,” Manning said.
‘Oh, you’re talking about you can’t control yourself,” said Jennings.
“ Yeah, I ain’t worried about what he’s gonna do to me, I’m worried about what I might do to him.”
Commissioner Jennings offered another idea. “What you need to do is I’m gonna go with Cody (McDaniel) I’m gonna buy him a worn out tank it’s got a, let’s see, it’s got a bad steering clutch on the left and and we’ll go about 30 miles through town, we’ll go through that stop sign and just make a detour right through GI and right through make a detour and right through and just say sorry I couldn’t stop this motherfucker.”
Clardy replied, “You’ll have to beat my son to it. He’s already got a bright idea he’s gonna put rip right in the front door.”
Manning went on to boast of times she’s intimidated reporter Chris Willingham in public.
“I saw him at Walmart one day, pushing his little buggy with his little six pack in and I mean I was like right here. And I mean I didn’t even check up. I not even check up and that little sonofabitch bout wrecked his buggy. And I’m like, what the hell’s wrong with you?”
The sheriff also relayed an incident of a deputy intimidating and verbally assaulting the reporter.
“My son the other day, cause, I mean, he doesn’t, he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. He walked into Choctaw Travel Plaza. Chris was standing in line when he walked up when he got there. Chris turned around started on, and looked at him and said something to him and Kyler looked at him said ‘fuck you motherfucker! Don’t talk to me.’ Said Chris had a bag of chips and threw it on the counter and said I don’t think I need that then turned around and walked out. Kyler said he just started dying laughing.”
At one point Jennings expressed his frustration with the newspaper.
“You know when Bruce put that in the paper about the commissioners fucked up on that election deal cause it wasn’t run three times, four times,” said Jennings. “Cause Karen dingbat-ass didn’t put it in the paper. A lot of bull. So this is the lawsuit. I ain’t talking bout anything I cant. You know, he said you know someone said call the editor is Bruce….
“Yes,” Manning said.
“At lot of people in our county ain’t fucking smart enough for that shit,” said Jennings. So. Anyway, he read that he said, well I thought that the two new commissioners wasn’t be not as corrupt as the old commissioners or the current, or something like that. My dad said he started to go down there and just kill him. He said ‘I’m fucking 86 years old ain’t got nothing to lose.’
“Well, I think I’ll hang out with your Dad awhile,” said Manning.
“You know what my papaw would have done?” She asked.
“Whooped his ass. Would have wiped him and used him for toilet paper. Orville would have used him for toilet paper. A shit show,” answered Jennings.
“My papaw would have walked his big ass down there and whooped his ass like, like you never would have mentioned my name ever again,” said Manning.
From here the conversation turned darker, and the topic of killing the publisher and reporter was discussed.
“I know where two big deep holes are here if you ever need them,” said Jennings.
“I’ve got an excavator,” responded Clardy.
“Well, these are already pre-dug,” said Jennings.
Later in the meeting the discussion returned to the killing of Chris and Bruce Willingham.
“But the thing of it is, you know,” Jennings said, “I’ve known, I’ve known two or three hit men, they’re very quiet guys…”
“Yeah?” Manning responded.
“And would cut no fucking mercy,”
“Yeah,” said Manning.
“In Louisiana. Cause this is all Mafia around here.”
“Oh yeah,” answered Sheriff Clardy.
Manning brought up the topic of also killing Chris Willingham’s wife, editor Angie Willingham, but lamented she would shoulder the blame for it.
“Yeah, but here’s the reality,” Manning said. “If a hair on his wife’s head, Chris Willingham’s head, or any of those people that really were behind that, if any hair on their head got touched by anybody, who would be the bad guy?”
“One of these days I’m gonna bounce his ass. Give him something…” said Sheriff Clardy.