I am Bruce Willingham, publisher and majority owner of the McCurtain Gazette since 1988. I have reported on courthouse matters and court cases since 1980. My son Chris has been a police beat reporter at the McCurtain Gazette for 18 years. Earlier this year, I became suspicious that county commissioners were meeting people who were not on the agendas after I left their meetings on Mondays. I (and often other audience members) had been staying for the business items on the agenda, then leaving because commissioners have several inches of purchase orders to sign. No more action, we thought. But at one recent meeting, Commissioner Mark Jennings asked me if I could find out how state legislators are paid and how much they are paid. I came back to the newspaper, got that information in just a few minutes, and returned to the meeting. Jail administrator Larry Hendrix was seated at the head of the table and talking to commissioners when I came in. I then asked my son Chris to check with his attorney about the legality of secretly recording the meeting after I left, and she researched it. With her blessing on what I wanted to do, I then used a discrete recording device so I could see who else commissioners were speaking with at the portion of the meeting after audience members left. They did indeed meet with several people who were not on the agenda to discuss county business that was not on the agenda. Several of these were public officials who should have known what they were doing was illegal.
I did this on March 6 in hopes of catching them and sending irrefutable proof to the Attorney General’s Office during “Sunshine Week” in hopes he would take action against the illegal behavior. I did this because our district attorney has been unwilling to prosecute Open Records Act and Open Meetings Law cases here, despite our frequent reporting on the sheriff’s office regularly breaking the Open Records Act (See Article 8: “Sheriff regularly breaking law now”) and my specifically requesting the D.A. charge the sheriff or at least allow us to present evidence to his investigator. He didn’t do either.
When I played back the four-hour recording on March 6, I was astounded to hear discussion of killing my son and me and burying us. In that portion of the meeting, present are the sheriff Kevin Clardy, jail administrator Larry Hendrix, sheriff’s department Captain of Criminal Investigations Alicia Manning, and commissioners Mark Jennings and Robert Beck. The commissioners’ secretary may be there as well. She doesn’t talk much, so it’s hard to tell when she’s there.
After listening to the hours of audio, I then went to the Idabel Police Department and reported what I had recorded. After a discussion of the possibility of various people beating me and my son, Commissioner Jennings said he has two deep holes pre-dug, and we think it was the sheriff who said he has an excavator. Jennings also said he knows of a hitman in Louisiana who works quietly and “would cut no fucking mercy.”
The McCurtain Gazette has conducted a years-long investigation into corruption, violence and illegal actions at the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office. The McCurtain Gazette began a series of investigations beginning in November of 2021 and continuing through today into corruption, violence and malfeasance at the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office for a total of 34 articles.
In retaliation for the investigation, the sheriff’s department began to refuse to release Open Record reports of their cases. Our reporter used to read 60 to 80 sheriff’s department reports a week, and we were granted access to all the reports, except juvenile cases. Now they select what we see, and we are only allowed access to about five to eight reports a week. The Gazette is being represented pro bono by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press regarding the withholding of reports and body cams of the tasering and subsequent death of a hog-tied man, Bobby Dale Barrick, supposedly after a burglary attempt and a mental health episode in March 2022. That case was filed in McCurtain County District Court on March 10, 2023.
Also in retaliation for the articles, Captain of All Officers Alecia Manning began a bogus investigation and slandering of reporter Chris Willingham, alleging he was a pedophile, with the apparent goal of damaging his reputation with her law enforcement officers and possibly the public who talk to those officers, and to obtain his cell phone to discover his sources within the sheriff’s department. The Gazette obtained a recording of Manning (June 2022) confirming her false investigation into Chris was due to his reporting on Sheriff Clardy and Captain Manning’s alleged relationship. After a law enforcement officer approached Chris with recordings of Manning misusing her office to try to smear Chris and making false allegations against him, and after her false allegations sparked a social media post, Chris finally filed a defamation and civil rights lawsuit against Manning, the sheriff and county commissioners. That suit was filed in the Eastern District Court at Muskogee on March 6, 2023. There are comments on the March 6 commissioners’ meeting recording that show those who conspired to murder my son and me did not yet know of the filing of the case in Muskogee.
Reporter Chris Willingham of the McCurtain Gazette begins his investigation of alleged corruption in the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office, late 2021
McCurtain Gazette’s investigation into corruption and illegal actions at the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office and the McCurtain County Board of County Commissioners.
During the summer of 2021 Gazette police reporter Chris Willingham began hearing from multiple sources within the sheriff’s department of an alleged affair between the McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy and new hire domestic violence officer Alecia Manning. Clardy created a new position for her within the department, Captain of All Officers, raising her to the third-highest ranking position. At that time they also began firing and demoting many officers and long-term employees at the county jail who raised concerns about changes within the department.
It was at this time the Gazette obtained photographs of the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Department’s ransacked evidence room and compromised evidence for trials. It was at this time, late November 2021 that reporter Chris Willingham wrote his first article in his years-long series of investigation into the sheriff’s department. (Article 1).
The article was an interview with Sheriff Kevin Clardy where he denied any improper relationship with Captain Alecia Manning and was accompanied by photos of the evidence room.
In response, Sheriff Clardy and then-Undersheriff Larry Hendrix began to demote and fire many, many employees “for the good of the department,” and remaining officers were threatened with firing if they spoke to reporter Chris Willingham. Alecia Manning’s brother Mike Manning, who at that time was not CLEET certified, was later named undersheriff, and Larry Hendrix became jail administrator.