“Oh, Camp Scott is the place to go to have a jolly good time.
The counselors are the best by far – to doubt it is a crime.
If you don’t believe it, all you have to do
is ask the counselors and girls and you’ll find that it’s true.”
– Song taught at Camp Scott, 1976
June 13th, 2017 marked forty years since the vicious murders of three innocent Girl Scouts that left a violent imprint on Oklahoma history forever. For almost half a century, the deaths of the victims – ages 8, 9, and 10 – along with the mysteries surrounding them have haunted the Midwest. The entire tragedy is painted like a ghost story told around a campfire: from an unexplained note found just months before the crime to rumors of black magic to the actual crime itself. It is the kind of tale little girls at Camp Scott should have been whispering to each other as they crawled into their tents and shut off their flashlights for the night after writing home to their families – not one that they were forced to experience on an innocent trip to camp.
There is unfortunately nothing fabricated about the sadistic deaths of Lori Lee Farmer, Denise Milner, and Michelle Guse. Because of a malicious predator who prowled the grounds of Locust Grove, Oklahoma, three Girl Scouts tucked themselves inside their sleeping bags and within hours were found beaten, raped, and dead outside of their tent.
It was the first night of camp.
My own mother attended Camp Scott the summer before the murders, and thus the horrific story was passed down to me when I was old enough to understand the gravity of what occurred. My maternal grandfather even played football against the only suspect ever tried for the crime, a local football star-turned-convicted rapist named Gene Leroy Hart, and has the high school program to prove it (“We beat them 49-0,” he proudly informed me).
Because of my family’s loose connection to the crime – and because forty years later, the families of three little girls still do not have justice – I’ve chosen to write this article in hopes of honoring the victims’ memories along with shedding some light on what happened on that illfated summer night.
I was originally going to discuss the life and crimes of Hart, along with a summary of the evidence against him, but I concluded that doing so was not only completely unnecessary, but was impertinent to the girls and their families. Hart’s existence was a single dissonant chord in the symphony of Michelle, Denise, and Lori’s lives, and their music is much more significant.
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.”
– Edna St. Vincent Mallay, 1937
THE GIRLS: WHO THEY WERE
Each of the girls only received a brief time here on earth. As with every violent crime, it is crucial to remember them for more than their deaths. Each child had a loving family, a happy home, and dreams of the future. They have loved ones who have missed them for forty years and will continue to miss them for many more. Lori, Michelle, and Denise are all more than murder victims; they are precious children who were loved and continue to be loved in their absence.
Lori Lee Farmer
Sheri Farmer’s eyes light up when she speaks about her daughter, who was only eight years old at the time of her death – the youngest Girl Scout at Camp Scott that year. A precocious and exceptionally bright girl who had skipped a grade, Lori was preparing to celebrate her ninth birthday that upcoming Saturday. She was the eldest of five children, and was always thrilled when another baby was brought home from the hospital. While other children are often jealous of the attention their new siblings receive, Lori instead eagerly helped her mother take care of her sisters and brother – even choosing the name given to her youngest sister, Kali, who was only a year old when the murders occurred.
Sheri was home with the two youngest children the afternoon of the thirteenth, washing dishes in the kitchen when her husband and his coworker came home with the excruciating news. She still remembers watching the painful footage on TV of the buses delivering the surviving Girl Scouts to their eager families, as parent after parent cried out, “God was with my child!”
“How could they say that?” Sheri reflects. “Was God not with my child? I think, perhaps, that God was with my child the most. He was with those three girls the most.”
Sheri has not found peace with her daughter’s death, and often finds herself waking up at the same time every morning between two and three a.m. – a time she wonders if is the approximate minute her daughter passed from this earth. Despite the horrific circumstances surrounding her daughter’s death, the incredulous trial, and the lack of justice for the past forty years, Sheri’s faith has remained unshaken.
“I have never doubted God,” she explains, “but I have wondered why it was my child.”
Michelle was an athletic nine-year-old at the time of the murders. Along with the other two girls, she wrote a letter to her family the first night of camp. When the bodies were discovered and identified, her parents were told that their daughter had died “in an accident” at the camp. It was only later when they watched the news that they discovered she was a victim of a triple homicide.
Denise was a vibrant and exceptionally intelligent child who spent her ten years on earth doing as many activities as possible.
“She loved to talk,” says her mother, Bettye Milner. “She loved to be with people. She taught herself how to read, write, and count when she was just four years old.” Her daughter loved going to the library and was also involved in gymnastics and tap dancing.
When she was growing up, the one thing she wanted most was to have a baby sister – and her wish was granted when she was five years old. Bettye taught her oldest daughter how to hold the baby properly, and describes Denise as being a “little momma” to her. They were close growing up despite their age difference; Denise was ten years old when she died, and her sister, Kathy, was five.
Denise had sold enough cookies to attend the camp, and although excited at first, her enthusiasm slowly turned to dread as the day approached. She changed her mind, says her mother, but was reassured that if she really didn’t like camp, she could ask a counselor if she could call them.
The day they were packing up to leave for the camp, Kathy intuitively asked her mother what happens when people die.
“I asked her what she meant, and she asked me what happens to the world when people die. And I told her people are being born all the time on earth, and she told me, ‘Everyone is going to die tomorrow.’”
The next day, the Milner family was notified of Denise’s death. Denise had also written a letter to her parents the night she died, explaining that she “didn’t like camp.”
“The pain doesn’t ever go away,” Bettye says.
Julie Winthrop was ten years old when she arrived at Camp Scott on June 12, 1977. She had gone to several day camps, but that year was the first she had sold enough cookies to be able to attend the overnight camp. She was thrilled to be able to spend the week with her fellow Girl Scouts, of whom she had been a member with since the second grade.
“You could feel the excitement from the other girls and the counselors,” Julie describes. “Lots of giggling, screaming girls ready for a fun week of activities and adventure.”
The excitement lasted late into that first night as the scouts stayed up long past their curfew, talking and scaring each other as counselors repeatedly came by their tents to hush them.
“We could hear lots of giggles and squeals and screams throughout the night, but didn’t think anything about it,” Julie states. “The counselors had walked around and made sure everyone was in their tent for the night, and because of all the noise we all were making, came back a couple of times before I fell asleep to tell us to be quiet and get rest because it was going to be an early morning.”
The energy shifted drastically when Julie and her tentmates woke up the following day. The counselors all appeared to be stressed and in foul moods, which the scouts ashamedly attributed to their rowdiness from the night before. The girls were immediately told to pack their things to return home, which caused a lot of confusion amongst the campers.
“We were all clueless and kept asking why we had to go home after one night,” Julie remembers. “We were told that there was a problem with the swimming pool and it could not be repaired until the end of the week, so we had to go back home. Of course, we all were saying we didn’t need a swimming pool.”
The Girl Scouts were fed breakfast and taken on a hike before loading onto the buses, presumably to distract them from the commotion of police cars and crime scene investigators in the Kiowa unit. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, save for the anxious temperament of the adults.
Julie’s mother, Elsie Cook, also offers some insight into what it was like to be a parent of a Girl Scout during the terrifying ordeal:
“The first word we got about the murders was a “breaking news” alert on the television. [Julie’s father] Eldon immediately started trying to call the Girl Scout service center and could not get through. The lines were all tied up with other parents trying to get information. He finally got confirmation of Julie being okay and immediately fell to his knees, sobbing like I have never seen him cry before. It seemed like an eternity waiting for Eldon to get her and bring her home.”
Julie later had to be taken to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to be interviewed and examine some items that had been recovered from the crime scene.
“None of them were hers,” Elsie recalls, “but the flashlight we sent with her was never found.”
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
– Amos 5:24
On June 13th, 2017, three families gathered at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa for a quiet memorial service. It was the first time in decades that the Farmers, the Milners, and the Guses had been together again. Despite the media swarm that had been buzzing over the anniversary, the ceremony remained private and undisturbed.
Where would these three girls be today? What would their lives have become had they not had the cruel misfortune of ending up in Tent 8 of the Kiowa unit forty years ago? Denise, Lori, and Michelle were each beautiful, gifted, and loving children who had endless opportunities for the future. Would they have pursued a college education, been married, or have had children of their own? How would they have impacted the world?
Perhaps some things are not meant to be known here on this earth. DNA technology continues to advance, and evidence continues to be tested, but as Bettye Milner rationalizes, finding the culprit or culprits “won’t bring the girls back.”
“I often wonder how she would have contributed to the world,” says Sheri Farmer, whose four surviving children grew up to be compassionate and successful members of society. She said she misses Lori the most at large family gatherings, where everybody is present – everybody except one.
The girls did not die in vain, however. Sheri and her husband, Bo, founded the Oklahoma chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. Sheri has counseled grieving families for many years, and continues to be an advocate for victims’ rights. The Guses lobbied for the passing of the Victim’s Bill of Rights and helped found the Oklahoma Victims Compensation Board.
Security at summer camps is also something that was drastically changed after the closing of Camp Scott, which many have agreed desperately lacked safety measures in 1977. The tent the three girls slept in was the most secluded of the Kiowa Unit and partially out of the view of the counselor’s tent; a note specifically threatening the lives of three Girl Scouts was found two months before the murders occurred, but ultimately considered a prank and forgotten about. A lawsuit against the Magic Empire Counsel of Girl Scouts concerning the safety of Lori, Michelle, and Denise was sought by two of the families and lost, but many agree that the jury’s decision was a mistake.
And finally, the lack of justice for the three girls has haunted Oklahoma for the past forty years, but the resilience of the families has remained undeterred. They have continued to grow and thrive despite the unspeakable heartbreak they cope with each day, and use it to bless others as well.
Sheri Farmer illustrates the beauty that has emerged from the tragedy perfectly.
“It’s like God took our broken glass windowpane and created a wind chime.”