‘Keepers Of The Ashes’ Spotlights A Dark Time In The Heartland

Keepers of the Ashes: The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders, couldn’t have been released at a worse time. The four-part docuseries dropped on Hulu on Tuesday, May 24, the same day 19 kids were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Not a lot of people probably wanted to sit through four hours of a docuseries about the murder of three girls as more information was coming out from Texas.

It doesn’t help matters that we’ve become such a shrewed culture that most people are review-bombing this series as a star vehicle for Kristen Chenoweth, a Broken Arrow, Okla. native, who went to school with one of the victims. Chenoweth, who has an Emmy and Tony award under the belt, says she was very close to going to camp but got sick and couldn’t attend.

Chenoweth had a hand in producing the series in association with ABC News Studios that has been mostly unknown outside of the state for the past 45 years. Michael Moore throws himself into the center of his documentaries and he wins awards. Some of the review bombings are about Chenoweth who isn’t featured as more as the rest of the interviewees in this documentary. Some of them are having to relive hard moments.

On June 13, 1977, at a camp outside the small town of Locust Grove, Okla. in the foothills of the Ozarks Mountains, Lori Lee Farmer, 8, Doris Denise Milner, 10, and Michele Heather Guse, 9, were all brutally killed by someone who had allegedly snuck on to the campsite. But why did he target them and why didn’t anyone else hear much of anything?

One thing the documentarty does do well is paint an era in American life in which there was an innocence. The campground is out in the middle of nowhere. As Tim Stanley, a reporter for the Tulsa World, says it’s miles from anything. It had to be someone who knew the camp was there and how to get there. I live about 15-20 miles south of there. There’s a lot of twisting and winding roads. Now, most are paved, but I’m sure in 1977, they were still dirt roads. The killer had to be a local.

Unfortunately, the killer has never been brought to justice. The documentary juxtaposes the innocence of young children in the 1970s along with the racism of the era. Even though Oklahoma has a very high Indigenous Native American and this area is considered part of the Cherokee Nation, there was a lot of racist ideas toward Indigenous people.

Law enforcment zeroed in on Gene Leroy Hart who had escaped from prison as he had been convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault charges. Harvey Pratt, an agent for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, said that Hart was the main focus of the investigation and manhunt as people made him out to be a mystical shapeshifter. Hart was eventually arrested and tried for the crimes.

However, Sid Wise, the prosecutor for Mayes County, Okla., had reportedly perjured himself by saying he hasn’t shared any reports from the OSBI with outside sources. But he had in fact been talking with a journalist about a possible book deal. Buddy Fallis, the Tulsa County District Attorney took over the case. In the end, Hart was acquitted, but even the reading of the verdicts were announced so fast family and friends of the victims couldn’t make it to court in time.

Michael Wheat, a photojournalist for the Pryor Jeffersonian, was called in to take pictures of the crime scene. What’s amazing here is Wheat’s clearance as he walks around the campsite taking pictures. I get the impression that Wheat’s relationship with law enforcement was more cordial and maybe no one else knew how to take pictures like him, so he was working with the investigators. This type of relationship wouldn’t exist today. Almost never was I allowed anywhere near a crime scene during an active investigation.

But at the heart of the story is how the families of those killed breathe life into still pictures of happier moments. One thing I’ve learned from speaking with family of murdered victims, they do like to talk about them. But there’s some stuff that’s hard to talk about. And there are some hard moments here.

Mike Reed, ther current sheriff of Mayes County, Okla., says that the DNA evidence points solely to Hart as the killer. But DNA wasn’t really available during the court proceedings in 1978. Hart was still in prison on kidnapping and sexual assault charges and was serving over 300 years in prison. Hart died of a heart attack on June 4, 1979.

To this day the murder case has been discussed in this area. In 2013, a low-budget movie, Candles, was released based on it. I haven’t seen it, but the trailer on YouTube didn’t look too intriquing. I’ve even heard rumors the case stretched as far as Hollywood and was the basis for the first Friday the 13th movie but things were changed. After 45 years, it’s likely we’ll never know once and for all who was responsible. I’ve heard that a Native American shaman said Hart would die within one year of the verdict if he was truly guilty.

Will the families ever know the truth? I hope so. I will admit some scenes of Chenoweth singing may seem out of place but I think they give the viewers some hope on a very awful case that has haunted people for almost half a century. When you hear a counseler, only a kid herself then and now middle-aged, say they had to quickly rush all the other campers to another location away from the crime scene by telling them they were in trouble and going to punish them with a hike, you can hear the pain and hurt in her voice.

While it may not be a program people will want to watch in light of recent current events, I would recommend that people try one day to watch it. If anything else, it’s to keep the memory of the three young girls alive.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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