The truth cannot hide...

Courthouses, State Bureau Investigators, Fort Gibson and True Grit


Day 4, US research trip, Believe No One

Believe No One takes Fennimore & Simms to the United States Mid West.
These blogs document the places we visited and people we met during the research trip.

Friday 4th May, 2012

Morning – Tahlequah – OSBI labs
Afternoon – Sapulpa – District Attorney Brian Kuester

Oklahoma Plain lge

Tahlequah is nearly 70 miles from Tulsa. On the drive out, we see fields and more fields – a wide, flat stretch of land that could fit the Cheshire Plain in its back pocket. Along the highway, a shimmering haze, silver pools on the road ahead, mirages that disappear like quicksilver, billboards as big as a truck, and over it all the wide blue Oklahoma sky. Along the way, red and black cattle wallow in farm ponds. (Aberdeens? – I make a note to check.) Notices along the highway read, ‘Vote (insert name) Sheriff!’ We see blueberry farms and ranches. Pink and purple flowers bloom in the verges and golden honeysuckle clambers over fences. There are lots of lakes out here – every small farm has its ‘pond’. This is partly historical: after the dustbowl, damns, flood control systems and lakes were created – over 200 by the 1960s – the largest number in any state.

Small towns will have a jailer, records clerk and dispatcher – all civilians – present in the sheriff’s office. They would be matched by 3 officers (deputies) to provide 24 h cover.They have no money to train deputies, but they’re allowed to employ them for up to 6 months, the maximum time allowed before they have to be certified, so they do that, then terminate the contract. Often deputies will move on to the next county. An officer might have a good cumulative knowledge, but no proper training. It also means they might have heard/seen other cases… Many law enforcement officers draw food stamps.  Some deputies work from county to county, never getting their certification, or being fully sworn in, on short term contracts. Already the young deputy who will feature in Believe No One is taking shape in my head.

We drive through Wagoner, Cherokee County, on the way to Tahlequah. Wagoner features in Charles Portis’s True Grit – as does the Indian Territory and Fort Gibson. The town has a strip mall with murals of a wagon painted across it, and, as predicted by Bill Bryson in Lost Continent, it has a live bait shop. (There’s a lot of fishing talk in Tulsa over the week.) A little further on we see a clapboard wood-frame house with the name ‘Jessie’s salon’ painted in white over blue above the door. Only the frontage remains, the rest has fallen to pieces. A Union Pacific freight train trundles past on a rail that runs parallel to the road for a stretch.

The OSBI Office

OSBI office smlEvery state has its own State Bureau of Investigation. I am surprised to see that the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is housed in a low, grey very nondescript building on the outskirts of town, just off the highway. The air smells fresh and green, and it’s a little cooler out here than in the city. US National flag flies next to the Oklahoma State flag. (There are all KINDS of rules attached to flying the national flag.)

The OSBI agent who greets us has a thoughtful way of looking at people, and a quiet, reflective style. She explains that the OSBI can only come in to an investigation in any county if they are invited. Resources a likely to be scarce in a small county with just a few deputies and an elected sheriff – the OSBI can help with that. Whichever agency is involved, OSBI is a resource, a facilitator, but the sheriff’s office does the case clearance, takes the credit. The elected sheriff may not want what he sees as OSBI ‘interference’ as he sees it. That said, the OSBI is mostly brought in on murder cases. State Highway Patrol might also get involved if a body is found by the side of the road.

I make a note: in any investigation you have to think about resources, money and egos – more so when the sheriff has to run for election, and if a sheriff is set against outside ‘interference’, there’s not much you can do except flatter and persuade and hope he’ll come around to your way of thinking.

Our story will involve murders across two states (Oklahoma and Missouri). We’re told that the while a perpetrator may be extradited to another jurisdiction (c.f. Ted Bundy), and info shared back and forth, investigations in various counties and in individual states would continue independently. Everyone makes – and prosecutes – their own case.

We ask about the possibility of setting up an interstate task force to investigate the murders, and we’re told that in Oklahoma, a task force has in fact been set up to investigate the murders women along I-40. There’s more about it on the FBI’s website.

Sapulpa Courthouse

Sapulpa - a mid west town

We were scheduled to meet DA Brian Keuster, the District Attorney in District 27 (rural Oklahoma), in Wagoner in the morning, but he’s had to reschedule, so we make our way to Sapulpa in the afternoon, instead. There are four counties under DA Keuster’s jurisdiction, and he has 8 prosecutors to cover the entire area.

We go through security at Sapulpa Courthouse, and as my handbag trundles through the X-ray gizmo, the security guard (a woman) says, ‘Woah! Do you have a skeleton key in there, ma’am? I can’t imagine what she means, but as I empty out my bag, I realise that the machine has identified a key for the mortise lock on our back door at home. She has no idea what a mortise key is. ‘You need to show me,’ she says. I open the key wallet and she’s satisfied. ‘You weren’t gettin’ through here with a skeleton key in your purse,’ she laughs. Then she asks me a favour: will I say ‘bloody?’ She just loves the way the Brits say ‘bloody’.

We talk through the problems for our young deputy in trying to persuade a sheriff to accept outside help, if he doesn’t want it. ‘It’s his rodeo,’ I hear more than once over the next few days. But she might have a quiet word with one of the Assistant District Attorneys – in a small town you’d run into the ADA in a nearby café. They have meetings with deputies to discuss preliminary hearings, and they have pre-trial conferences. There is plenty of contact between deputies and ADAs. Or she might see if the Medical Examiner will have a sit-down with the sheriff, bring some pressure to bear. She could even take it to the State Bureau of Investigation herself, but that would be professional suicide.

On the way out, I see that the same woman is on security. I lean in close. ‘Just wanted to say, that was bloody fascinating!’

She laughs uproariously. ‘You made my day!’

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