By Corky Siemaszko
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK — The governor of Oklahoma has called for the resignations of the sheriff and other top officials in a rural county after they were recorded talking about “beating, killing and burying” a father/son team of local reporters — and lamenting that they could no longer hang Black people with a “damned rope.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt called for McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, county Commissioner Mark Jennings, sheriff’s investigator Alicia Manning, and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix to step down after the McCurtain County Gazette-News published an article over the weekend about what was captured on the recording.
“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 has ordered the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to “initiate an investigation to determine whether any illegal conduct has occurred.”
Bruce Willingham, who works for his family-owned newspaper, has turned the full audio over to the FBI and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, his lawyers said.
Meanwhile, dozens of county residents angered by the officials’ comments picketed Monday outside the headquarters of the McCurtain County Commissioners in the town of Idabel, which is about 200 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, NBC affiliate KFOR of Oklahoma City reported.
None of the four officials named by Stitt could be reached for comment, but late Monday the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that the recording was “illegally obtained,” appears to have been altered, and may have been produced in violation of state law prohibiting secret recordings by third parties.
The office, which said it has received threats of violence and death over the saga, said it was investigating how the recording was obtained and whether it violated the secret recording law.
Investigative findings, the sheriff’s office said, will be “forwarded to the appropriate authorities for felony charges to be filed on those involved.”
The Willinghams also did not respond to inquiries from NBC News. But Kilpatrick Townsend, the law firm representing the Willingham family, said they appreciated the expressions of support.
“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 furor erupted after Willingham, acting on a tip that the commissioners were illegally engaging in county business after the public meetings were over, left a recording device on March 6 in the commissioners’ chamber, the newspaper reported.
Earlier that day, Willingham’s son, Christopher Lee Willingham, who is also a reporter at the newspaper, had filed a lawsuit against Clardy, Manning and the commissioners in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma seeking unspecified damages. He claimed they were punishing him for his hard-hitting reporting by spreading “slander” about him.
When Willingham retrieved the device, he discovered that the conversation began with a grisly conversation about a fire victim being compared to “barbecue” before the group turned to talking about 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 daddy hadn’t been run over by a vehicle, he would have been down there.”
Jennings then piped in, saying “I know where two big, deep holes are here if you ever need them.”
“I’ve got an excavator,” Clardy chimed in, according to the newspaper.
Jennings, according to the newspaper, then said he knew “two or three hit men” who belong to the Louisiana mafia.
“They’re very quiet guys and would cut no f—ing mercy,” he reportedly said.
Manning, according to the newspaper, discussed “who would get the blame if anything was done” to Christopher Lee Willingham’s wife, Angie.
There was also “caustic” criticism of local District Attorney Mark Matloff, the newspaper reported in the first batch of recordings it released.
Matloff is not commenting on the report, a member of his staff said at the McCurtain County Courthouse.
“Some of the discussion included not only harsh criticism of judges, but also the possibility of assaults on judges here,” the newspaper reported.
When the talk turned to who might run for sheriff against Clardy, Jennings recalled how a former sheriff “would take a damned Black guy and whoop their ass and throw them in the cell.”
“Yeah,” Clardy replied, according to the newspaper. “It’s not like that no more.”
“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.”
Two more batches of recordings made by Willingham are to be released soon, his lawyers said.
The Willingham family has lived in the county for 120 years and has operated The McCurtain County Gazette-News for 40 years. Founded in 1905, it is a print-only publication, a rarity in the rapidly diminishing world of newspapers. And this is not the first time it has made national news.
In the wake of the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Willingham hired a freelancer named J.D. Cash who produced a number of scoops about the investigation into the deadly terror attack and who was later derided as a “conspiracy theorist” by some of the newspaper’s competitors. Cash died in 2007.