Hanging from a holster on the hip of the Bible Belt you will find Oklahoma, where not-such-a-great-job has been done keeping the commandments. Not only has Thou Shalt Not Murder gone repeatedly unheeded, the grisly history of the Sooner State is full of inexplicably horrifying acts of deadly violence that would make diehard Satanists clutch their black pearls. Here are ten of Oklahoma’s most unbelievable unsolved murders.
1. Henry Lawrence “Jack” Burris
It must have been a hot night on June 7, 1952 to have the Mayes County Attorney out in his back yard working on the air conditioner by the light of his tractor. The prosecutor had made a name for himself while waging a war against liquor law violations in what was then a dry state, and made many potential enemies in that fight. As he tinkered with his cooling unit in the backyard of the small town of Locust Grove – a shotgun blast rang out – marking the end of Burris’ life and the beginning of an ongoing mystery.
In most unsolved murders investigators have hit a dead end of suspects and theories to explore, but in the case of Burris, there may have just been far too many to sort out. Besides an entire underworld of black market movers and shakers, there was the cousin of Jack’s second wife, who was known to have a strong grudge against the deceased. The strongest potential lead emerged six years later when a reporter claimed to have a recorded interview with a man claiming to be the killer. Investigators negotiated with the reporter for months, but were unable to obtain the alleged taped confession. Shortly thereafter the reporter vanished, whether of his own accord, or perhaps as a second murder which was committed to protect secrets about the killing of Jack Burris.
2. Mildred Ann Newlin Reynolds
It has been suggested that the death of the 22 year old chemistry student was merely a bizarre automobile accident, but the facts obtained after Reynolds’ remains were found in her charred vehicle make that theory a bit hard to believe. A coroner would later conclude that the March 13th, 1956 death was possibly accidental or intentional. A severe skull fracture was present that would be difficult to explain given the circumstances of the accident, which are almost too strange to wrap one’s head around.
In the middle of a red-dirt road the gray 1949 Chevy sedan was discovered to be in the first gear, the vehicle had veered, gone off road and hit a tree, backed up and hit a fence, and crossed the road two more times before coming to rest and burning so violently it ejected a spark plug several yards away. However investigators could not locate a second set of tire prints, nor any footprints, anywhere near the scene – which one would suspect if a killer had fled. The official cause of death was ruled to have been the fire, but because of the unusual skull fracture it remains possible that Reynolds’ was attacked previously and her erratic driving was a result of her head injury.
Reynolds’ husband Dee was a teacher at the Avard Public School. The gymnasium of that building was once converted into a skating rink and is now a restaurant. It is said to be haunted by a woman who locals believe to be the ghost of Ann Reynolds.
3. Sherry LaNell Gann Higgins
There are almost no details of Higgins’ life, nor death, available online. However what little information is available paints a terrifying picture of a cold demise.
Higgins is found nude and badly beaten in her trailer home on a cold January day in 1987. Every single inch of her body has been shaved. Her husband is arrested in connection with her death, but he is eventually released without charges. An autopsy concludes that Sherry died of hypothermia, and the mystery of her death remains frozen in time.
However it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to make a pretty good guess at what happened that night. The shaved body of Higgins is indicative of resentment and punishment. It is likely that Sherry’s husband became enraged with something he believed that she did, quite possible an act of infidelity, and took out his anger on her by beating her and shaving her body. At some point during such an altercation he might have banished her from the trailer, and when her bare body finally succumbed to the elements, her husband dragged it back inside to be discovered by investigators. A chain of events like this would be extremely difficult to prove in a courtroom, and so the husband probably walked free simply because it was too complicated to prosecute him. While this is only speculation on my part, it seems far more likely that her husband dictated the events which led to her death out of rage, than that the woman inexplicably shaved herself and then froze to death inside her own home.
4. Laura Long
After washing the family’s three cars on July 10, 1977, as she always did on Sunday afternoons, eighteen year old Laura drove into town to get gas, grab a Dr. Pepper and visit with a friend. Her family would never see her alive again. The next day Laura’s father found her car in a local shopping center, but there were no clues to her whereabouts. Her badly decomposed body was found in a ditch just outside of town by a boy riding his bicycle ten days later.
Investigators were unable to find any strong leads, and as the case of her killing cooled over the years, speculation and rumor were all her family had. The case was reopened several times, including a visit to question infamous serial killer and false confession enthusiast Henry Lee Lucas, who was eventually cleared of the crime. At some point a profile was created that suggested the killer was an older, macho and athletic good ol’ boy with ties to power.
In 2011 an anonymous letter was sent to investigators that contained a bold claim about the identity of the killer. At the time of the murder the writer claims to have been employed with a man who would often skip his shift, and go out carousing and partying, and on the night of Long’s murder returned scratched and disheveled near the end of the shift and revealed to a third co-worker that he had accidentally killed a woman. The man, who had been questioned years before in the aftermath, was named Bill Dikeman.
The investigator who received the letter questioned Bill about his involvement, but he firmly denied any connection. He volunteered to take a polygraph test, which concluded he was not telling the truth, but still no confession came. Bill’s brother Jimmy contacted the investigator and was furious that authorities were harassing his beloved sibling, but soon the pieces started to fall together. Bill had been employed by the local Claremore police at one point as a meter reader, and had developed a close friendship with detective Jack Tanner, who was an initial investigator in the murder of Long. It was also revealed that when investigators travelled to Texas to question Lucas, for some inexplicable reason they were driven there by Bill’s brother Jimmy. As it started to become clear that there was likely a cover-up by the local good old boys network to clear Bill Dikeman, the suspect died in 2012, and with him any certainty as to his involvement. Interestingly Dikeman fit the profile given years earlier so closely that when he was first re-questioned years later, he was wearing bib overalls as the profiler suggested he might and had a history with the local, former minor league baseball team- The Claremore Clowns.
5. Reverend Carol Daniels
Sometimes the circumstances of a murder are so brutal and peculiar that they immediately draw huge amounts of public attention, which draws out an avalanche of unhelpful information which muddies the investigation so much it becomes almost impossible to sift through and find relevant facts. The murder of the sixty one year old pastor in her Anadarko church on August 3rd, 2009 is one of these.
On this morning a visitor was surprised to find the church, which should have been in the middle of services, quiet and locked. Feeling something was amiss, they walked to a local police station to report their concerns, and were soon justified in doing so. Inside of the church the nude body of Daniels was found laid out behind the alter in a crucifixion position. Daniels throat had been cut so vigorously that she was almost decapitated, along with other stab wounds on her face and torso. Her hair had been burned and there were defensive wounds on her hands, but despite the nudity, she had not been sexually assaulted. Her purse and briefcase were missing, as were her clothes, and the area all around her had been doused with cleaning chemicals that destroyed any potential genetic evidence.
A few suspects were investigated and questioned, and some investigators believe a pair of no-goodnik addicts who authorities later pinpointed did actually commit the atrocities during a botched robbery, but the overdose death of the main suspect ruled out a definitive courtroom examination of their innocence or guilt. Nor did there appear to be any similar incidents anywhere pointing to a serial killer with a religious agenda. The robbery gone wrong theory is troublesome. It is entirely inconsistent in crimes like this which include such excessive violence and thematically orchestrated crime scenes. And the sort of drug-crazed mind that is able to dream up such a gruesomely staged murder scene is unlikely to simultaneously be cognitively capable of leaving no trace evidence behind.
Not longer after her death Daniel’s church was razed, a final nail in the coffin of a congregation that had declined over the years and was finally done in by the death of the one person who refused to give up on it. Today a memorial plaque honors the late Reverend Daniels at the site of the former place of worship that ended as a house of horror.
6. Lyrik Martin
On February 3rd, 2012 the ten month old girl was taken to the emergency room by her mother’s boyfriend due to an apparent illness. Later that night her mother contacted paramedics saying that Lyrik was pale and unresponsive. She survived four more days in an intensive care unit before succumbing to the head trauma, broken ribs, spinal injury and internal bleeding that medical technicians discovered.
Only two people were present in the home that night, Lyrik’s mother and her boyfriend. Authorities have claimed there is a third suspect, but have given no identity and no information to clarify details regarding their involvement. There have been no developments in the case in the eight years since, and the mother appears to have moved on with her life and is not seeking resolution, and the boyfriend refers all inquiries to his lawyer.
Did the helpless infant die of child abuse by her mother and/or the boyfriend? Or did a third party commit the brutal attacks to send those two a message, and they have remained silent out of fear? While the family of Lyrik appear to have concluded interest in seeking answers and justice, there are those who continue to advocate for a conclusive investigation and conviction.
7. Dena Dean
Dena Dean was a sixteen year old girl who was head over heels in love with her boyfriend, who was preparing to head off to college soon. In the days before she disappeared, Dena told him that she was pregnant with his child. She was not, but whether she believed she was has not been reported. It could have been a mistake, wishful thinking or a ruse to keep her boyfriend from leaving. It is also most likely what precipitated the events which concluded with her death on June 6, 1998.
On that night Dena went to meet her boyfriend in the parking lot of Marvin’s Grocery. Witnesses would later claim to have seen her being yelled at by her boyfriend’s father, who did not like the fact that his son might forego a higher education because of their relationship. Witnesses also reported other interactions the Tulsa teenager had at Marvin’s that night, where her parents later found her car with her purse still inside. Dena’s badly decomposed body was found six days later in a nearby field, and although the coroner could not determine a precise cause of death, it was ruled a homicide.
The boyfriend and his father were long considered suspects, but there was never strong enough evidence to support a case against them. Years later in 2016 new evidence emerged which pointed towards the boyfriend’s uncle, and DNA tests were conducted, but results have never been released. No new developments have been publically shared, but the family of the slain teen continue to hold a yearly vigil to keep her memory alive in the hopes that one day the final piece of the puzzle will be shared by someone who knows something.
8. Carina Saunders
In the weeks that have elapsed since I first began researching Oklahoma’s most mind-boggling murders, developments have been reported in two cases that I earmarked for inclusion into this article, including a conviction in the Freeman-Bible murders. There have also been several developments in the case of Carina Saunders, and with any luck this entry will soon no longer be classified as unsolved.
On October 13th, 2011 a gruesome discovery was made outside of a Homelands grocery store, where authorities had been called to investigate a foul odor. When they arrived they found a large duffel bag which contained the head and other partial remains of nineteen year old Carina Saunders. The Bethany teen was last seen five days earlier getting into a truck, and had fallen on some difficult times over the past few years. As a result she had gotten connected to people involved in criminal activities, including drugs and sex trafficking. This caused many rumors to surface, and to the chagrin of her loved ones, some insensitive and judgmental reports to emerge in the media.
The claim which appears to have gained the most momentum is that Carina was tortured and killed in an abandoned house as a way of coercing other female witnesses present to submit to prostitution, perhaps because she herself had refused to take part in that activity. In 2017 authorities excavated a property of interest and recovered several items possibly connected to the murder. In January of 2020 a woman who was being charged with kidnapping claimed to have witnessed Carina’s murder. Then in October a new search warrant was filed to retrieve email records that have never been seen. Earlier this month the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation renewed it’s $10,000 reward and released a sketch of a man they said they would like to speak to.
Saunders was a young woman still struggling against herself to find her path forward in life, and the accounts of her last days appear to be evidence that she was starting to build positive momentum. Her life was tragically taken before she was able to fully able discover herself, so hopefully it can at least be discovered who took that opportunity away from her, and soon.
9. Tina Duffell
Apparently not one to shy away from work, Tina held multiple jobs, including diverse roles as a physician’s receptionist, a clerk at a convenience store where she was abducted, and as an assistant at the local post office where she had mysteriously asked the postmaster to hold onto a letter for safekeeping – and in case something should happen to her.
On October 17th, 1974 Duffell was last seen alive at the Quapaw convenience store where she worked. Her purse, keys and an open soft drink were found on the counter, and there was two hundred and fifty dollars and some beer missing from the store. The next day Tina’s body was found floating upside down in a mining pond a few miles away, weighted with timber – her throat sliced and stabbed in the back. A shawl which she had been wearing was found two miles away.
Before her death Tina had retrieved the mysterious sealed letter from the post office, and the night before the tragic events she had shown the letter to a woman at a local football game. Tina’s husband claims that the woman from the football game visited him shortly after her death, claiming she was afraid she would be killed for having knowledge of whatever was in the letter. Mr. Duffell claimed to believe the contents of the letter involved knowledge of local drug operations which she had accidentally discovered while at work. The woman later denied her visit with the husband and said the letter she was shown only involved routine public school board matters she hoped to have addressed. Even as recently as 2006 investigators believe their greatest hope in solving Duffell’s murder lies in recovering that mysterious letter.
Convicted murderer Karl Myers has also been named as a suspect, as he has in the Girl Scout Murders, which I will address in Part 2. However the motives and methods present in his other known and suspected crimes are not apparent in Duffell’s death, making that theory unlikely. And even if he did it would have had nothing to do with a letter, since Meyer was illiterate.
Even though the final hopes seem to rest on finding that letter, I wonder if that isn’t a bit of a red herring. It provides the sort of mysterious element which we want to believe is meaningful, which also makes it an easy method of misdirection for the killer to exploit. And alarmist appeals to narcotic activities were all too common in the years after Nixon initiated the drug war, and often all too effectively used as red herrings, especially in a relatively small community like Quapaw. If this murder is ever solved I would put my money on the husband as the culprit, although an investigation into him almost half a century later is unlikely since he expired in 2013.
Yet there was a mysterious letter, so what secrets were revealed within it? Was it just a salty tirade against the local school board that she was being overdramatic about, or was it perhaps a revelation of problems she was having in her marriage that made her afraid for her life? Was there a reason besides an extravagant enthusiasm for labor that Tina spent so much time away from home? Did her husband push police to look for the letter because he had already destroyed it himself and knew it was a dead end? And perhaps the strangest question I have is, did the children know of their father’s guilt, and either decided or were coerced to protect the one parent they had left – which is why they were not more adamant over the years that authorities search for their mother’s killer?
10. The OKC Butcher
Three men wandered around an Oklahoma neighborhood known for drugs, prostitution and other criminal activity while waiting for a coworker on April 1st, 1976. At some point they wandered into an abandoned house and made a grisly discovery – a popcorn bucket with a dismembered head in it. When police arrived shortly thereafter the rest of the woman’s body was discovered all throughout the filthy home, dismembered and disfigured. Police were unable to identify the victim, although they determined it was a native woman aged 18-22 who was likely an area sex worker. Because indigenous prostitutes were not a priority for the people of Oklahoma City, the case quickly went cold and received almost no media attention.
Three years later on April 19th, 1979 some kids were playing basketball in the same neighborhood when a dog dragged a woman’s disfigured head near the court. By the time police arrived more body parts were discovered all throughout the area, mostly bits of flesh that had been washed clean. For the next few weeks more chunks of human flesh were being scattered throughout the neighborhood, but this time investigators were able to identify the victim as Arley Killian. Killian was well known to police, and a victim of abuse by her father, which drove her into heavy drug use and sex work. She was also Native American. Coincidentally, her criminally insane brother had escaped from an institution the very same day, but he was soon cleared as a suspect. Authorities also considered Henry Lee Lucas, but that also did not pan out. A third person of interest was also confidently cleared. This time there was more local interest by police, the media and the public – but when no more similar killings occurred over the next seven years, it was eventually all but forgotten.
Then on March 6th, 1986, about a half mile from the first two gruesome crime scenes, a man found a woman’s torso, lower leg and bits of assorted flesh laid out in his backyard. Once again the bodily remains were found to be methodically cut up, cleansed of blood and spread throughout the neighborhood in a haphazard manner. On March 6th, just around the corner, a woman’s head had been placed in a trash can and set on fire. The OKC Butcher was back, after seven years, and he wanted it to be known. Investigators were able to identify the victim as a young, homeless, native woman involved in local sex work – 22 year old Tina Marcia Sanders.
Investigators realized the three murders were connected, because the similarities between the crimes and the victims. They reasoned that he chose young, homeless prostitutes, all of whom were thought to have been homeless at the time of their death, because they were easy victims who would not elicit much concern by police, media or the public. New details were revealed that also tended to support the serial killer theory, such as all three victims having had their sex organs removed and remained missing. It was thought that perhaps a medical worker from the nearby university hospital might have been involved, but was later determined that the cuts were too crude to be attributed to a surgical professional.
The FBI were called in to help, and a profile of the killer was created. It was thought that the perpetrator would be a young, loner male who had an enormous hatred of women. He was also likely to be sexually repressed, due to his upbringing, or because he got a venereal disease at some point – which is why he killed female sex workers with impunity and withheld their genitals. It was also assumed that he either lived in the area, or had spent enough time there at some point to know it very well. Because the OKC Butcher’s crimes were so brutal, his need for destruction and depravity so great, it was believed he had committed other violent acts and had been incarcerated for one of them during the seven year period between his 2nd and 3rd murders.
Still, the killer went silent and the case went cold. In 1993 the identity of the first victim was finally discovered to be Cathy Lyn Shakelford, whose family had been looking for her for 17 years. In 2007 a man named Roderick Webster was arrested for an extremely savage murder that occurred in 1989. Roderick was a nurse’s aide who lived in the neighborhood where the OKC Butcher attacks had taken place, and also had anger towards women. His 1989 victim had also had her genitals removed. However she was an elderly woman, and other details of the killing did not match, so the possibility of Webster being the OKC Butcher has been ruled inconclusive by authorities.
If the killer was a young man in the late 1970s it is likely that he is still alive. Did he get his fill and retire his depravity? Was he incarcerated for some other violent act? Is he still in Oklahoma City, or has he moved somewhere else? Have we seen the last of his psychotic cruelties, or is the OKC Butcher just silently stewing in his deadly lust until he can no longer control his sadistic urges?