MAYES COUNTY, Okla. – Eight-year-old Lori Farmer sat in the quiet of her tent at Camp Scott and wrote her first letter home.
It would also be her last.
Lori and her two tent mates, nine-year old Michelle Guse and 10-year old Denise Milner, would be brutally murdered at the Girl Scout Camp outside of Locust Grove, Oklahoma.
It was June 13, 1977.
Investigators would find their bodies under a tree more than 100 yards from their tent. The girls had been raped, mutilated, beaten and strangled.
It is Oklahoma’s most notorious cold case that’s now 40 years old.
One of the first on the scene was Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Howard Barry.
“You’re just not ready to drive up on something like that and find three little girls. That’s something I’ll take to my grave,” he said.
600 volunteers would begin what would be the largest manhunt in Oklahoma state history.
Law enforcement focused on 33-year-old Gene Leroy Hart as their main suspect.
A Cherokee Indian, his relatives and friends successfully hid him for months. But then, an informant came forward.
“She said, ‘That’s where he’s probably staying,’” says former OSBI agent Harvey Pratt.
Pratt describes it as a “little tarpaper cabin. It had a little front porch. Front door and a back door. Maybe two windows on each side.”
The OSBI agents organized a search.
“The one assault car drove right up to the front door and they all jumped out. And, they ran in,” said Pratt.
Gene Leroy Hart was there.
The OSBI’s chief investigator, Dick Wilkerson, believed then, and believes now, that they had captured the killer.
“This was as strong a murder case as I’ve ever seen,” Wilkerson says.
Garvin Isaacs, a young attorney, was hired to defend Hart on the murder charges.
“Gene Leroy Hart was an innocent man, wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit,” Isaacs said.
The battle lines were drawn. Was Gene Hart a killer or victim?
Isaacs says his client was framed and points out a flashlight found near the bodies.
“We believe it’s a thumb print on the lens of the flashlight that is not Gene Leroy Hart’s fingerprint,” said Isaacs.
And, there was more.
“The tent where the murders happened had a footprint in the blood. That footprint was a 9 1/2. Hart’s footprints would be an 11 ½,” Isaacs said.
But investigators and prosecutors argued that Hart, a twice-convicted rapist, left the same telltale signs on the little girls as on he had on his previous victims.
The case went to the jury who acquitted Hart.
“They had the courage to stand up for justice,” said Isaacs.
“It broke my heart. It was the first time I’d seen the system not work. I just wouldn’t believe it. I believed the good guys always won,” said OSBI agent Dick Wilkerson.
Hart was taken to prison to serve the remaining 300 years on his previous rape and burglary convictions.
Only weeks later, he died of a heart attack while jogging in the prison yard.
The Girl Scout Murders remain Oklahoma’s most troubling cold case.
For 40 years, the Girl Scout camp has been abandoned. Young saplings have become multi-story trees, virtually hiding the crime scene.
Camp Scott now exists only in the black and white print of crime reports.
The sign over the entrance is gone. The land is leased for hunting.
Time has ravaged the abandoned buildings.
But for decades, the question still hasn’t been answered: Who did this?
“It’s kind of hard to believe that only one person could do all that, took place that night, said Bo Farmer, Lori’s Dad.
Reports show the bodies were carried over 100 yards from the girls’ tent.
Investigators collected evidence of rape, mutilation, brutal beatings and strangulation.
But the injuries didn’t stop there. The crime also inflicted wounds on the victims’ families.
“Some of the things I’ve never talked about include the emotional journey,” said Sheri Farmer.
“For me, it was a lot of guilt for letting Lori go to camp, which I still bear that guilt every day,” she said. “Living with depression. Living with anxiety. And living with panic attacks. Some days I’d just get up and think if I could just get from now to noon. Okay, if I can get from noon to supper.”
“It was difficult to absorb what happened. I became a workaholic. I worked all the time. I struggled for an extended period of time,” Bo said.
Lori was the oldest of their five children.
“Someone would ask me if one of the children could go swim. And I would say to myself, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can decide that because I let Lori go to camp and she didn’t come back. So, what if let a child go swimming and they didn’t come back,” Sheri said.
The Farmers used their unwanted notoriety to fight for the rights of crime victims.
The 1970’s were a time when victims and their families had no say in the criminal process.
Lori’s sisters and brother are now adults. And Lori would have been 48 years old now.
“We can’t help but wonder what she would be like. What she would look like,” Farmer said.
And, they wonder if time will reveal who killed their daughter and her new friends.
“We do want to know if there is anybody who knows anything. We want to get to the bottom of this case,” said Bo.
So does Mike Reed.
‘I was born and raised here. I was 8-years-old when this took place,” said Reed, who was about the same age as Lori Farmer when she was killed.
Reed is now the Mayes County Sheriff and he wants the case solved.
“I remember even at that time, it was on every channel of the news,” he said.
Sheriff Reed has assigned a reserve deputy to the case full-time. The two of them have opened their own file on the murders.
But, more than that, he’s enlisted the help of Mayes County residents.
They’ve donated $30,000 to conduct new DNA tests on evidence taken from the girls’ bodies.
“As long as I’m in this office, we’re going to keep pushing and digging and trying,” he says. “We’re hoping and believing we’ll get some results.”
The evidence is now at an independent lab in Virginia. It’s a forensics lab that specializes in mitochondrial DNA analysis. Sheriff Reed says he wants only one outcome.
“What you want is the truth,” he said. “Anybody can go ‘Well, it’s never going to happen.’ You have to make a decision to think positively. If the family feels some peace out of our efforts, that’s all that matters to me.”
Much of the evidence from the Girl Scout Murders is still held at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
Agents have worked the case since day one.
Ultimately, the break may come from technical advances in forensics.
Or, it may come from someone who has kept a secret for 40 years.
“Maybe now, with so much time passed, someone is more comfortable coming forward and presenting information that, for whatever reason, they’ve been withholding all these years,” says OSBI Director Stan Florence.
“These girls and their families certainly deserve justice.”