Thirty-four years ago, three young Girl Scouts were raped and murdered in Camp Scott, Okla. The accused was acquitted and the case went cold.
Now, John Russell Penn, an ex-con who admits that he has "a checkered past," claims that he will reveal the true perpetrator of the infamous 1977 Girl Scout murders in his upcoming indie film, "Candles," for which he is casting actors.
Penn, who was previously convicted of check fraud and now goes by the name John Russell, claims that the true killer admitted to the murders in a drunken stupor one night in 1978 while both men were holed up in an Ottawa County, Okla., jail cell.
"I was in county jail with the suspect that I am naming as the actual killer, and he got drunk one night and started talking about murders he had committed in northeast Oklahoma, along with the Girl Scout murders," Penn said. "Then, when he was asked about the Girl Scout murders the next morning, he became highly upset, which was not in his nature. He was a very laid back, lethargic guy, and he got to the point of being physically angry."
According to Penn, the true killer is a convicted rapist and murderer who currently sits on death row in Oklahoma. The filmmaker claims that he has been reaching out to law enforcement officials and state representatives with information about the true killer for more than 30 years, during which time there were alleged attempts on Penn's life. But Penn said his phones remained silent and his mailbox empty.
"No one would listen to me because of my criminal record," he said. "The only way to open up the investigation and back the state of Oklahoma into doing their job was to make a film about it and tell my story."
Murders That Shocked the Nation
In the early morning hours of June 13, 1977, Doris Denis Milner, 10, Lori Lee Farmer, 8, and Michelle Gusa, 9, were found in their crumpled sleeping bags bludgeoned, strangled, raped and murdered. According to The Associated Press, two of the girls had been bludgeoned to death while the other was found outside their tent, face-up, hands taped behind her back, apparently strangled.
A 10-day man-hunt was followed by the arrest of a former high school football star, Gene Leroy Hart. Hart, a fugitive from Mayes County Jail at the time of his arrest, was found not guilty of the three charges of first-degree murder. Two months later, he died of a heart attack in Oklahoma State Prison, where he was serving a state sentence for previous convictions of burglary, rape and kidnapping.
"It was O.J. before O.J.," said retired Oklahoma state senator Dick Wilkerson, who also served as the deputy director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) during the 1979 trial. Wilkerson led OSBI in Hart's capture and arrest from an isolated cabin in northeast Oklahoma in 1978. He believes that the evidence against Hart was "overwhelming," and that law enforcement officers were maligned in what was an unfair trial.
"It was the first time I ever saw the system fail," Wilkerson said.
But Penn claims that the trial was a "pretty bungled job."
"Evidence was floating around and being contaminated," he said. "My investigation shows a lot of loopholes and a lot of things that just don't add up as far as naming [Hart] as the suspect."
Penn does not deny that Hart was at the scene of the crime during the murder, saying, "In my opinion, I don't believe he was alone if he was involved."
Wilkerson later attempted to use DNA samples to prove Hart's guilt, but evidence was too old and "degraded" and each time results were inconclusive.
Kickback From Local Residents
Many Oklahoma residents are questioning Penn's motives.
"My question all along had been, if you can solve a 34-year-old murder, why not go to police with information rather than making a movie for profit?" asked Jill Sanders, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office.
Sanders pointed to Penn's claim in the Tulsa World that he encourages potential lawsuits against the film as one of the many red flags that prevented the state agency's involvement in the movie.
"When somebody is publicly provoking lawsuits, no, we're not going to get involved in that," said Sanders.
Wilkinson believes that if the filmmaker has direct evidence about the murder, he needs to tell law enforcement, or in absence of that, law enforcement should seek him out.
"Witnesses don't have the right to remain silent, so he needs to put up or shut up," he said.
Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation public information officer Jessica Brown said Penn only contacted the bureau with his information after he told state media that police were not cooperating with him. Since then, an agent has been assigned to follow Penn's lead, one of many that officials have received over the past 30 years.
Still, the director said, 500 hopefuls attended his casting calls last week in Tulsa, including aspiring actors from surrounding states.
Regarding the controversy around the film, which is set to be released in spring 2012, Penn said, "I decided to go ahead and make a film based on the fact that this was the only avenue I had for people to stop and listen, and it's had that exact effect."