Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Girl Scout Murders

I normally don't think of events that happened within the past fifty years or so (within the span of my memory) as history, and consequently I seldom write about such events. However, the murder of three girl scouts between the ages of 8 and 10 in June of 1977 in rural Mayes County, Oklahoma, at the western edge of the Ozarks stands out in my memory so much that I'm going to make an exception.
Sunday, June 12, 1977, was the first day of camp at Camp Scott, located near Locust Grove. A rain came up that evening, and the three girls huddled together in their tent in a wooded area at the edge of the camp. The next morning a camp counselor discovered the dead bodies of all three girls not far from the tent. One of the girls had been strangled and the other two bludgeoned to death. They had also been sexually molested. Two months prior to the crime, a camp counselor's belongings had been ransacked, her doughnuts stolen, and an ominous note left in the empty doughnut box saying that three girls would be murdered. However, the note was dismissed as a prank.
Gene Leroy Hart, a Native American who had grown up in the immediate area and who had been a star athlete in high school at Locust Grove, was almost immediately suspected of the crime. At the time of the crime, he was a fugitive from justice, having escaped from jail about three or four years earlier after being convicted of raping two pregnant women. He managed to elude capture for almost another year by hiding out in the rugged Cookson Hills that he was so familiar with and because, it is said, he had the help of friends in the area. When he was finally arrested, the case was considered solved, as the local sheriff announced that he was positive that Hart was guilty.
In a surprising verdict, however, Hart was found not guilty. In the end, though, it made little difference (at least from his standpoint), since he was sent back to prison to finish the term of 300 and some-odd years he had to serve for the rapes he had previously been convicted of. Not long afterwards he died while exercising in the prison yard, reportedly of a heart attack. In 2008, DNA testing not available at the time of the crimes was conducted on evidence taken from the scene, but it proved inconclusive, since the samples were too old.
The reason this event is so memorable to me is that it seemed so horrific and because the news coverage about it was so prevalent. The story dominated the TV news here in Joplin when it first happened, and the local stations continued to follow the story when Hart was captured, during his trial, and when he died in prison. And Camp Scott was not even in the normal viewing area of the Joplin stations. Camp Scott, which closed in the aftermath of the crimes, was nearer to Tulsa and also probably nearer to Fayetteville than to Joplin.

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