Last month, a reporter in Oklahoma left a recording device in a room where he hoped to catch local officials holding a secret meeting. The contents of that recording have rocked the community, launched an FBI investigation, and led the governor to call for the attendees to resign. The recording caught four officials allegedly talking about lynching Black people and hiring a hit man to murder reporters.
On March 6, Bruce Willingham, publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, left a voice-activated recorder inside a room where the McCurtain County Commission meets. Willingham thought he might catch officials discussing county business in violation of Oklahoma’s open meetings law.
Instead, he allegedly recorded them discussing hiring a hit man to murder Willingham and his son, Chris, who is also a reporter with the McCurtain Gazette-News, and longing for the days when police lynched Black people without repercussions.
The officials at the meeting were reportedly McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, Sheriff’s Captain Alicia Manning, District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings, and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix. The Daily Dot has not independently authenticated the audio.
According to the recording and a transcript of the meeting, the print-only McCurtain Gazette-News has provided to the public, Commissioner Jennings and Sheriff Clardy then purportedly reminisced about the days when Black people were beaten and lynched.
“If it was back in the day, when that when Alan Marshton would take a damn Black guy and whoop their ass and throw him in the cell? I’d run for fucking sheriff,” Jennings said, per the transcript.
The sheriff reportedly replied, “Yeah. Well, it’s not like that no more.”
“I know. Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damn rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They got more rights than we got,” Jennings allegedly said, apparently suggesting that Black people have more rights than whites.
The group also allegedly discussed murdering the Willinghams.
The transcript states that Jennings said he knows where “two deep holes” are, presumably referring to graves for the journalists, to which Sheriff Clardy replied he has an excavator.
“Well, these are already pre-dug,” Jennings reportedly said.
Jennings later allegedly said he’s known two or three hit men who are “very quiet guys … and would cut no fucking mercy.”
The transcript says that Sheriff’s Captain Manning lamented that the public might not respond favorably to the Willinghams or their families getting hurt.
“Here’s the reality. If a hair on his wife’s head, Chris Willingham’s head, or any of those people that really were behind that, if any hair on their head got touched by anybody, who would be the bad guy?” Manning reportedly said.
The sheriff added, “Who would be blamed for it?” to which Manning replied, “Yeah!”
The recording was reportedly made the same day Chris Willingham filed a defamation suit against the county commission, Sheriff Clardy, and Sheriff’s Captain Manning. The suit claims that Manning falsely told someone during a teleconference that Chris was exchanging marijuana for child porn, according to journalist Erin Christy.
“The lawsuit says Manning’s statements about Willingham are false and slanderous, causing personal humiliation, impaired reputation and mental anguish,” Christy tweeted on Tuesday.
Manning’s alleged statements were made after the McCurtain Gazette-News published an eight-part investigation about homicide evidence being tainted, addressing rumors of an affair between Sheriff Clardy and Manning, and other alleged misconduct by the sheriff’s office.
Bruce Willingham said he was “completely appalled and frightened, quite frankly” when he listened to the tape.
The explosive recording has launched a scandal that’s reached far beyond McCurtain County.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) has called on all four officials to resign.
“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County. 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. I will not stand idly by while this takes place,” Stitt said in a statement.
Stitt said he would ask the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to investigate. Local news reports that the FBI is already investigating.
The story is going viral online, where it’s generating outrage and further calls for the four to resign and potentially face legal repercussions.
People are rallying behind the Willinghams.
“If there is any way for you to reach out to the paper to let the reporters know we are supporting Chris & Bruce Willingham, that would be great,” one Twitter user wrote.
TikToker @ariella.elm published portions of the recording.
“This is why local elections matter,” @ariella.elm said, “this is why you should read your local newspaper.”
@ariella.elm #mccurtaincounty #mccurtaincountyoklahoma #mccurtaingazette #mccurtaincountycommissioners #localelectionsmatter ♬ Vote! – The Linda Lindas
The TikTok has over 1 million views and thousands of comments as of this writing.
People are horrified by the cavalier discussion of murdering journalists and lynching Black people. “What the hell is wrong with people, it’s 2023 not 1950!!! I hope they are successful with getting these people out [of] office,” wrote one.
On Monday evening, the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scandal. In a Facebook post, it claimed that the recording hasn’t been authenticated and alleged that it was altered. It described the scandal as a “difficult,” “disruptive,” and “very complex situation.”
It also said it is investigating whether the recording was made illegally and if it has been altered.
The McCurtain Gazette-News plans to publish the full recording upon completion of its series about the contents.