Camp Scott: Odd Murder at a Girl Scout Camp

Our previous case dealt with Ruth Ellis, a young English woman who killed her playboy lover in 1955. Sentenced to death, she refused to appeal her conviction or her sentence. She became the last woman to be hanged in England. Her case gave impetus to the movement to abolish the death penalty in the UK. This week, we return to the United States and the heart of America, to Camp Scott in Locust Grove, Oklahoma. There in the summer of 1977, three girls ages 8, 9, and 10 were brutally slain at a Girl Scout Camp. The case ignited tremendous public interest but officially remains unsolved.

Camp Scott, Oklahoma

When someone mentions Girl Scouts, it’s likely to conjure up wholesome images of young girls in green uniforms peddling cookies. Or you may think of girls sitting around a campfire singing songs while they toast marshmallows. Summer camps have been part of the scouting life since Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in 1912. In northeastern Oklahoma, camping meant one of two camps in near Locust Grove, east of Tulsa. Camp Garland, a Boy Scout camp was the easternmost of the two. Camp Scott, the westernmost of the two, was where the Girl Scouts camped.

Happier times at Camp Scott near Locust Grove, Oklahoma
Happier times at Camp Scott near Locust Grove, Oklahoma

Camp Scott took its name from H.J. “Scotty” and Florence Scott, two volunteers with the Tulsa Boy and Girl Scouts. In 1924, the Scotts donated 24 acres of land that would be the core of Camp Scott. Over the years, the Magic Empire Council of Girl Scouts used the proceeds from cookie sales and other funds to buy additional land. By the summer of 1977, Camp Scott consisted of 410 heavily wooded acres.

Trail sign at Camp Scott
Trail sign at Camp Scott

Camp Scott had ten camp units, each named after a Native American tribe. Besides the campsites, there were several buildings for offices and gatherings. There was also a health center and a cabin where the camp ranger lived with his family.

June 1977 at Camp Scott

On Sunday, June 12, 1977, about 140 girls arrived at Camp Scott for the first day of their two-week summer camp. At the Kiowa unit, counselors assigned girls to their tents. They put three girls in Tent #7: Lori Lee Farmer, Michelle Guse (goo-SAY), and Doris Denise Milner. None of the girls, ages 8, 9, and 10 respectively, knew each other previously, but they quickly became friends.

Lori Lee Farmer, 8, was the youngest of the three girls in Tent #7. She wrote her family just before going to bed on June 12 that she was having a lot of fun.
Lori Lee Farmer, 8, was the youngest of the three girls in Tent #7. She wrote her family just before going to bed on June 12 that she was having a lot of fun.

(Note: there is some confusion over the numbering of the tents. The Girl Scouts numbered the campers’ tents 1 through 7, not counting the counselors’ tent. This put the three girls in Tent #7. Subsequent police reports did count the counselors’ tent, placing the three in Tent #8.)

Michelle Heather Guse was an excellent student with a lot of friends. She wrote a letter to her Aunt Karen the night of June 12.
Michelle Heather Guse was an excellent student with a lot of friends. She wrote a letter to her Aunt Karen the night of June 12.

At roughly 5:45 p.m. on June 12, the campers sat down to dinner in the Great Hall. After the meal, campers and staff moved the Great Hall’s front porch. Counselor Dee Ann Elder led the group in camp songs until it started storming and raining heavily. Counselors then dismissed the girls back to their campsites.

Doris Denise Milner was the oldest girl in Tent #7. She wrote her mother that she didn't like camp, a letter that was never mailed.
Doris Denise Milner was the oldest girl in Tent #7. She wrote her mother that she didn’t like camp, a letter that was never mailed.

At the Kiowa unit, Dee made sure the campers got their tents and changed into dry clothes. She then secured all the tent flaps to keep the rain out. Around 10:00 p.m., she checked on each tent again, making sure the campers were okay and that they had enough blankets.

At 1:30 a.m., the counselors heard the latrine door slam. Counselor Carla Wilhite left the counselors’ tent to escort the noisy campers back to their own tent.

Horrible Murders at Camp Scott

Carla Wilhite’s windup alarm clock rang at 6:00 a.m. in June 13. The alarm also woke Dee Elder, but she decided to stay in bed. Counselor Susan Emery apparently slept through the alarm. Carla got up and headed to the staff house to take a hot shower. She returned moments later, yelling that the counselors needed to count the kids. Carla said that she’d seen something in the road, and they needed to check on the children. Dee ran to Tent #7 while Carla and Susan bolted to Tent #1. They would meet in the middle at Tent #4.

Carla Wilhite, counselor at Camp Scott
Carla Wilhite, counselor at Camp Scott

Tent #7 was empty. Dee called out to the other counselors. Carla and Susan converged on Tent #7. They noticed that the sleeping bags and mattress covers were missing from the cots and there was what appeared to be a large amount of blood on the floor. Checking the other tents, they determined that three campers were missing.

The ill-fated Tent #7 in the Kiowa unit of Camp Scott (photo taken in 1971)
The ill-fated Tent #7 in the Kiowa unit of Camp Scott (photo taken in 1971)

Then Susan saw a dead child lying on the ground. Dee told Susan to stay at Kiowa while she jumped in her car and drove to the Staff House to get help. With reinforcements arriving and the police on the way, Dee came up with a plan to get the campers out of the area using a back road. Later, the entire camp was evacuated, and the campers sent home on buses.

The body Susan had seen was that of Denise Milner. She was partially clothed and lying on top of her sleeping bag. Soon, the bodies of Michelle Guse and Lori Farmer were discovered nearby, zipped up in their sleeping bags. All three girls had been sexually assaulted in some manner. Autopsies conducted later on June 13 determined the Lori and Michelle had been bludgeoned to death while Denise had been strangled.

A Suspect and a Trial

Police quickly focused on Gene Leroy Hart as a suspect. Hart was a convicted felon. He was also a fugitive. While serving time for kidnapping, burglary, and rape, he managed to escape from the Mayes County Jail. He remained at large for four years, aided, authorities suspected, by the Cherokee community in the area (Hart was a member of the Cherokee Nation).

Gene Leroy Hart, the only person arrested or tried for the Camp Scott murders
Gene Leroy Hart, the only person arrested or tried for the Camp Scott murders

Arrested and charged with three counts of murder, Hart’s future looked bleak. But his attorney, Garvin Isaacs, himself a Native American, mounted a spirited defense. Despite what seemed like a formidable array of evidence against Hart, Issacs won an acquittal for his client.

DNA testing could have nailed or exonerated Hart, but it wasn’t available in 1977. As DNA testing emerged and matured, authorities made several attempts to test samples from the Camp Scott murders. None of these tests were conclusive and, over time, the samples degraded to the point where further testing is not possible.

Epilogue

Mayes County Sheriff Glen H. “Pete” Weaver insisted until his death that Hart was the man responsible for the Camp Scott murders. Subsequent sheriffs investigated new angles, some of which indicated the involvement of more than one person. But the case officially remains unsolved.

Gene Hart meets the press
Gene Hart meets the press

The parents of the three girls sued the Magic Empire Council of Girl Scouts and their insurer for $5 million in 1985, citing negligence. The plaintiffs presented considerable evidence that the design of Camp Scott introduced many security risks. Furthermore, camp directors and the Magic Empire Council were aware of several disturbing incidents at the camp prior to June 13, 1977. Inexplicably, the jury voted 9-3 in favor of the Magic Empire Council, a verdict upheld on appeal.

The Girl Scouts evacuated Camp Scott after the discovery of the three bodies. It never reopened.

Although acquitted of murdering the three Girl Scouts, Gene Leroy Hart returned to prison. He owed the State of Oklahoma 308 years for his previous sentences. On June 4, 1979, four days after his acquittal Hart dropped dead of a heart attack at age 35. He maintained his innocence in the Camp Scott case.

The Camp Scott murders inspired several books and documentaries. Someone Cry for the Children was the first book about the case, published in 1981. That was also the title of a later documentary film. The Camp Scott Murders includes a detailed timeline and excerpts from Gene Hart’s preliminary hearing. Gloyd McCoy’s Tent Number 8 purports to contain insight into the case that can’t be found anywhere else.

Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter

Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this, sign up for the newsletter today.

UpStairs Lounge: Big Arson Fire Kills 32 People

My last blog dealt with the case of Timothy McVeigh, the infamous Oklahoma City Bomber. This week’s case is also horrifying but has had much less publicity. It’s the case of the arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

UpStairs Lounge

It was 1974. Only four years earlier, in June 1969, the so-called “Stonewall Riots” first brought public attention to the issue of gay rights. Not a great deal of progress had been made in those four years. Yet many in the LGBTQIA+ community no longer hid their sexual orientation.

It was this community that the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) served. Founded in 1968 in Los Angeles, MCC was a pro-LGBTQIA+ protestant denomination. For a while in New Orleans, the MCC met in the theater of the UpStairs Lounge. The UpStairs Lounge itself was a gay bar. It occupied the second floor of an historic three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iverville Streets.

Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire
Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire

UpStairs Lounge in Flames

Sunday, June 24, 1973, marked the end of nationwide Pride celebrations that were glaringly lacking in the Big Easy. That evening, the UpStairs Lounge held its usual “beer bust” between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Many MCC members were in attendance. After 7:00, the crowed thinned a bit but there were still between sixty and ninety customers in the lounge. They talked and listened to pianist George Steven “Bud” Matyi perform.

At 7:56, the downstairs door buzzer sounded. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked Luther Boggs to answer the door. When Boggs opened the door, he found the front staircase in flames. He also noticed the strong smell of lighter fluid.

The UpStairs Lounge burns
The UpStairs Lounge burns

A backdraft caused the fire to spread quickly. Bartender Rasmussen immediately led about twenty people to the roof, where they could access an adjacent building and climb down. Boggs tried to escape thorough one of the floor-to-ceiling windows but was severely burned in the process. He died on July 10, sixteen days later.

Aftermath of the fire
Aftermath of the fire

Firefighters from a nearby fire station found it difficult to reach the club as cars and pedestrians blocked their way. One engine tried to use the sidewalk but ended up colliding with a taxicab. When the fire department did manage to arrive on the scene, they quickly brought the blaze under control. It had been only sixteen minutes since Boggs first spotted the flames.

Epilogue

Thirty-two people died the UpStairs Lounge fire and eighteen suffered injuries. Police questioned a suspect, Roger Dale Nunez, but never developed enough evidence to charge him. Nunez, a gay man with a history of mental health issues, had been ejected from the club for fighting earlier in the evening. Nunez committed suicide in November 1974.

Firefighters attend to the injured
Firefighters attend to the injured

Local news outlets gave the fire prominent coverage but soft-pedaled the fact that LGBTQIA+ patrons comprised most of the victims. Editorials and right-wing talk show hosts made light of the tragedy.

The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)
The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)

You can read more about the UpStairs Lounge tragedy in Tinderbox by Robert W. Fieseler or The Up Stairs Lounge Arson by Clayton Delery-Edwards.

Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter

Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this, sign up for the newsletter today.

Tera Smith: Strange Case of a Lost Teen Girl

From last week’s case of a bizarre murder-for-hire, we turn our attention this week to a missing persons case. As heartbreaking as homicide is, an unsolved disappearance, with its lack of closure, can sometimes be worse. Such was the case of Tera Smith, a California teen who vanished over two decades ago.

Tera Smith

In 1998, Tera Lynn Smith was a 16-year-old high school student from Redding, California. She made good grades and had a lot of friends. She worked at the Oasis Fun Center, the business near their home that her parents owned and ran. In all respects, she was a typical teenager. But, like many teens, Tera also had a rebellious streak.

Tera Lynn Smith (Shasta County Sheriff's Office)
Tera Lynn Smith (Shasta County Sheriff’s Office)

August 22, 1998 was the last Saturday before the school year started. Tera was due to work at the Oasis Fun Center at 7:00 p.m. Sometime that evening, but before she was due at work, Tera decided to go for a jog. Her sister, Sierra, admonished her, since the girls weren’t supposed to leave the house alone. Tera replied that she’d be back before her parents got home. Sierra watched as Tera jogged out of sight.

Tera Smith, Missing Person

The normally reliable Tera failed to show up for her scheduled shift at the fun center. Her parents were initially unconcerned but, when she hadn’t shown up by 9:00 p.m., they called police. What investigators found was disturbing.

Tera was due at the Smith's Oasis Fun Center when she disappeared (Google Maps)
Tera was due at the Smith’s Oasis Fun Center when she disappeared (Google Maps)

The last person known to see Tera alive was 29-year-old Charles “Troy” Zink. Zink was Tera’s Tae Kwon Do instructor. But her family found letters and journal entries that strongly suggested she and Zink had a sexual relationship. Zink denied this, although he admitted seeing Tera that August day. He said Tera called and they met near her home at 6:30 p.m. According to his story, she wanted to borrow $2,000 and he refused. At her request, he dropped her off at the intersection of Old Oregon Trail and Old Alturas Road. He then drove to Hang Glider Hill, where he claims he “prayed” until 11:30.

When police dug into Zink’s background, they found he pleaded guilty to rape seven years before Tera disappeared. Searching his home, they found several guns and arrested him for violating his parole. However, they didn’t find any evidence to connect him to Tera’s disappearance.

Charles "Troy" Zink at the time of the disappearance (Hard Copy)
Charles “Troy” Zink at the time of the disappearance (Hard Copy)

Epilogue

It’s been more than twenty years since Tera Smith disappeared. If she’s alive, she would be 40 years old. Her family, however, believes she is dead. There has been no trace of Tera since that early autumn day in 1998.

The family suspects Troy Zink is more involved in the case than he admitted, which Zink denies. Police have found no evidence linking him to the disappearance. Nor have they found anything to indicate that a crime was committed. Probably, though, Tera Lynn Smith died the day she disappeared.

Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email that takes a look at true crime in the news. In it, I cover topics that do not appeared in the blog, plus occasionally something extra. You won’t want to miss this. Sign up for the newsletter today.

Ruby Stapleton: Attractive Teacher Found Dead, Her Murder Unsolved

Last week we looked at the mysterious 1910 disappearance of Dorothy Arnold. No one ever saw Miss Arnold after December 12, 1910. This week’s case is another unsolved mystery. In 1963, a hunter found the body of popular college instructor Ruby Stapleton. Her killer was never found.

Ruby Stapleton

Ruby Stapleton née Lowrey was a native of Davenport, Nebraska. She graduated from Harding College (now Harding University) in Morrilton, Arkansas in 1926. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, she returned to Harding to teach. There she was popular with students and faculty. In fact, when the school moved from Morrilton to Searcy in 1934, the college put Ruby in charge of coordinating the move.

Ruby Lowrey's 1926 Harding College yearbook photo (aymag.com)
Ruby Lowrey’s 1926 Harding College yearbook photo (aymag.com)

Ruby’s husband, Emmett Raymond “Ray” Stapleton was also a member of the Harding faculty. By 1963, though, Ray had left Arkansas to accept a teaching position in Superior, Wisconsin. Although they remained married, Ruby stayed in Arkansas, living with her daughter, Mary Claire, and a niece, Clarita Bartley. Both the younger women were students at Harding College.

Ray and Ruby Stapleton appear side by side in the Harding College yearbook (aymag.com)
Ray and Ruby Stapleton appear side by side in the Harding College yearbook (aymag.com)

Ruby Stapleton Disappears

On October 8, 1963, a Tuesday, Ruby’s son, Glen, had a broken washing machine. That evening, Ruby picked up Glen’s dirty laundry and took it with hers to a laundromat in Searcy. When her daughter returned home around 10:00 p.m., Ruby was not there. Alarmed, Mary Claire called the police. Her laundry and her station wagon were still at the washateria, but there was no sign of Ruby. Ominously, someone had broken into two tire stores adjacent to the laundromat. Police wondered if the burglaries and Ruby’s abduction were related.

When Ray Stapleton learned of the disappearance, he flew to Searcy the next day. Naturally, police interviewed him, as the spouse is always suspect in a murder or disappearance. And there was another reason to be suspicious of Ray. He hadn’t left the Harding College faculty voluntarily. The college asked him to leave after he had sexual liaisons with other men. In 1963, being gay was taboo, especially in the South. Moreover, Harding had an affiliation with the Church of Christ. However, Ray’s alibi (he was in Wisconsin) checked out. Also, there was no evidence he’d conspired with or hired anybody to kill his wife.

Ruby Lowrey Stapeleton (aymag.com)
Ruby Lowrey Stapeleton (aymag.com)

Police did arrest two men in a Lubbock, Texas drugstore for phoning Ray and demanding money from him. But they were able to prove they were in Lubbock at the time of Ruby’s abduction and were only guilty of trying to extort money from her husband.

The Murder of Ruby Stapleton

Eleven days after she disappeared, 21-year-old Jerry Bass went squirrel hunting along Bull Creek. There he saw Ruby’s nude and badly decomposed body in a dry section of the creek bed just outside of Beebe, Arkansas. It appeared she’d been dead since her abduction. The fact that her killer had undressed her suggested a sexual motive. But decomposition was too far advanced to determine if she’d been sexually assaulted.

Investigators followed multiple leads, including the flimsiest of tips. They looked hard at Ray Stapleton but found no evidence connecting him to the crime. They also investigated Oren Ray Hays, a bootlegger. Hays may have been angry with Ruby for her efforts to keep alcohol out of the hands of Harding students. But in the end, police couldn’t connect him to the murder either.

A few days after Ruby’s funeral, police arrested five boys for burgling the tire stores adjacent to the laundromat. Polygraph examinations cleared to five of involvement in the Stapleton murder.

Later Investigations

There the case sat until 2013, when Heather Bates, Mary Claire’s daughter and Ruby’s granddaughter took up the case. She tried to get Ruby’s case featured on the television program Cold Justice. However, the producers would only accept cases referred by law enforcement, so Heather contacted the Arkansas State Police The ASP refused both to cooperate with Cold Justice and her request to view Ruby’s file.

Roger Burns confessed to a similar crime near Bellville, Illinois in 1965. Police could not connect him to the Arkansas murder (aymag.com)
Roger Burns confessed to a similar crime near Bellville, Illinois in 1965. Police could not connect him to the Arkansas murder (aymag.com)

Heather sued and was eventually able to see the file. It led to another possible suspect. In 1965, an army radar technician named Roger Burns confessed to abducting and killing Roseann Curran from an Illinois laundromat. The details of that crime were eerily similar to the circumstances of Ruby Stapleton’s abduction and murder. The ASP tried to determine if Burns had been stationed at a missile silo in White County, Arkansas in 1963. However, relevant records were either missing or destroyed.

Epilogue

In 2014, the ASP assigned the Ruby Stapleton case to their Special Investigations Unit, where it is today.

An undated photograph of Ruby Stapleton (nwaonline.com)
An undated photograph of Ruby Stapleton (nwaonline.com)

Today, few people outside her family and Arkansas law enforcement remember Ruby Stapleton’s murder. Unlike many other unsolved crimes, no books tell her story. You can read about it in the online About You magazine article, Most Likely to Be Murdered.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.