The governor of Oklahoma has demanded the resignations of the sheriff and other top officials in a rural county after they were caught on tape discussing “beating, killing, and burying” a father and son team of local reporters and lamenting the fact that they could no longer hang Black people with a “damned rope.”
After an article appeared in the McCurtain County Gazette-News over the weekend detailing the events captured on the recording, Governor Kevin Stitt demanded the resignations of McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, County Commissioner Mark Jennings, Sheriff’s Investigator Alicia Manning, and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix.
“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County,” Stitt said in a statement released Sunday. “There is simply no place for such hateful rhetoric in the state of Oklahoma, especially by those that serve to represent the community through their respective office.”
Stitt, a Republican, said he had asked the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to “initiate an investigation to determine whether any illegal conduct has occurred.” Bruce Willingham, who works at a newspaper owned by his family, has reportedly sent the whole audio recording to the FBI and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office.
Meanwhile, scores of county residents protested the officials’ remarks on Monday outside the McCurtain County Commissioners’ headquarters in the hamlet of Idabel, around 200 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, according to NBC affiliate KFOR of Oklahoma City.
While McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office officials could not be reached for comment late Monday, they did issue a statement saying that the recording was “illegally obtained,” that it appears to have been altered, and that it may have been produced in violation of state law prohibiting secret recordings by third parties.
An investigation into how the recording was obtained and if it violated the secret recording law has been announced by the office, which claims it has received threats of violence and murder over the incident. According to the sheriff’s office, the investigation’s results will be “forwarded to the appropriate authorities for felony charges to be filed on those involved.”
NBC News attempted to contact the Willinghams, but they did not respond. However, the law firm representing the Willingham family, Kilpatrick Townsend, has stated that they are grateful for the outpouring of support they have received.
“For nearly a year, they have suffered intimidation, ridicule, and harassment based solely on their efforts to report the news for McCurtain County,” the statement said. The latest controversy began on March 6 when Willingham allegedly left a recording device in the commissioners’ chamber after receiving information that they were doing county business after the public sessions had ended.
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Christopher Lee Willingham, a reporter for the newspaper and the son of Willingham, had filed a complaint against Clardy, Manning, and the commissioners in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma earlier that day, seeking damages. He said the “slander” was their way of getting back at him for his honest reporting.
After retrieving the device, Willingham heard a disturbing discussion in which a fire victim was compared to BBQ, followed by a discussion of his son. “My papaw would have whipped his ass, would have wiped him and used him for toilet paper,” Manning said of the younger Willingham, according to the newspaper.
“If my dad hadn’t been run over by a vehicle, he would have been down there.” Amidst this discussion, Jennings chimed in, “I know where two big, deep holes are here if you ever need them.” Clardy reportedly said, “I’ve got an excavator,” adding that this was something he owned.
Jennings allegedly continued by saying he knew “two or three hit men” from the Louisiana mafia, as reported by the newspaper. “They’re very quiet guys and would cut no f—ing mercy,” he reportedly said. “Who would get the blame if anything was done” to Christopher Lee Willingham’s wife Angie was reportedly discussed by Manning, as reported by the newspaper.
The publication said that the initial batch of recordings included “caustic” criticism of local District Attorney Mark Matloff. A member of Matloff’s staff at the McCurtain County Courthouse claimed that he had no comment on the report. “Some of the discussion included not only harsh criticism of judges but also the possibility of assaults on judges here,” the newspaper reported.
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@SIfill_) April 17, 2023
During a discussion of possible challengers to Clardy’s sheriffalty, Jenning remarked that a previous sheriff “would take a damned Black guy and whoop their ass and throw them in the cell.” Clardy’s alleged response, “Yeah,” was reported in the paper. “It’s not like that anymore.”
“I know,” said Jennings. “Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damned rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They’ve got more rights than we’ve got.” Willingham’s attorneys have stated that he will be releasing two additional sets of recordings.
The Willinghams, longtime residents of McCurtain County, have been running the local newspaper for 40 years. It has been around since 1905, making it an unusual survivor in the dying newspaper industry. And this isn’t the first time it’s made headlines nationwide.
After the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Willingham employed a freelancer named J.D. Cash, who later was mocked as a “conspiracy theorist” by some rival newspapers for his reporting on the inquiry into the horrific terror assault. Cash passed away in 2007.
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