The Unsolved Mystery of the Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders

In the summer of 1977, Lori Farmer, Michelle Guse, and Doris Milner left for two weeks of fun at Camp Scott in Mayes County, Oklahoma. The three young Girl Scouts were excited to make new memories with new friends, but their camp experience and lives were cut short on their first night.

Michelle Guse / Lori Farmer / Denise Milner / Kristin Chenoweth / Lori Farmer / Gene Leroy Hart / Newspaper Clipping.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

The three young girls were assaulted and murdered in their tent. Their counselor found the girls’ bodies stuffed in their sleeping bags and scattered through the woods. Decades later, the crime remains a mystery and still haunts Oklahoma residents. However, evidence points to one primary suspect.

Excited for Camp

On June 12, 1977, 140 girls, including Denise Milner, Michelle Guse, and Lori Farmer, arrived at Camp Scott for a two-week stay. The three girls between the ages of eight and ten kissed their parents goodbye, not knowing they would never see them again. It was their first time staying together, but they were excited.

Michelle Guse / Lori Farmer / Denise Milner.
Michelle Guse, Lori Farmer, Denise Milner. Source: Pinterest

Milner, Guse, and Farmer met each other when they got to Camp Scott and were assigned to tent eight. The three bonded quickly, but they didn’t know their tent would connect them forever. Located in the Kiowa Unit, the girls’ tent was the furthest one from their counselors.

A Stormy Night

As the girls prepared for their first night, a thunderstorm caused the girls to seek shelter in their tent. They spent the evening writing letters to their parents before going to sleep. The tents were fanned out around the counselors’ quarters, but tent eight was almost impossible to see at night.

An image of a cloudy sky on a stormy night.
Photo by Comstock/Getty Images

All the campers were getting acquainted with their new friends and having fun with their flashlights before settling down. The chatter of the excited girls and the loud thunderstorm made it almost impossible to hear the screams of Milner, Guse, and Farmer as the killer entered their tent.

A Gruesome Discovery

In the middle of the night, several counselors reported hearing moans in the campgrounds. One of them got up to investigate, but the noises stopped as she walked around, so she went back to bed. The following morning, counselor Carla Wilhite got up early to prepare for the day.

A photo from the campground.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

As Wilhite walked around the campgrounds, she encountered a horrifying scene. First, she saw two sleeping bags and thought to pick them up so they could dry. Before she could do that, Wilhite noticed a lifeless girl on the road near the showers. As she got closer, she could tell the girl was dead.

Not Just Sleeping Bags

Wilhite tried to make sense of the scene, thinking the girl got scared, left her tent, ran into a tree, and died. She then returned to the other counselors and told them what she found. They started to count the campers and discovered that tent eight was empty. Wilhite immediately sprinted to the camp directors’ cabin.

Wilhite cries as she speaks during an interview.
Carla Wilhite. Source: Spiky Tv

She woke the camp directors up, and they ran toward the scene. They discovered that the sleeping bags had the bodies of two other girls in them. At that moment, everyone realized this wasn’t an accident, and the girls had been murdered. They quickly called the police.

People Heard the Murders

Although no one knew what was happening, many campers and counselors had heard disturbing noises throughout the night. Besides the moaning, a camper in tent seven was awoken when someone with a flashlight opened the flap of their tent. The person walked away moments later.

An image of a sign at the former Scout Girls camp.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

Around 3:00 am, another camper said she heard a scream from the area near the showers. Another girl said she also heard someone scream and cry, “Momma, momma.” Both girls didn’t know what to do, so they went back to sleep.

Evacuating the Camp

As soon as the staff found out about the murders, they devised a plan to ensure the campers didn’t see the bodies. They sent them to various camp areas until the busses arrived to take them home. At this point, news spread that three Girl Scouts had been killed.

An officer searches a drainage ditch.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

Parents anxiously waited for their children to arrive home at the Girl Scout headquarters. The victims’ names hadn’t been released, so no one knew if their daughter was one of the victims. As the busses arrived, everyone hugged and kissed their children.

A Devastating Call

While finishing a night shift at the ER, Farmer’s father, Bo, got a call from the camp director saying his daughter was found dead. His partner took him home, and his wife, Sheri, knew something was wrong when they walked inside. They didn’t want to believe it was true.

A dated portrait of Denise Milner.
Denise Milner. Source: Pinterest

Milner’s mom was at work when the police showed up to tell her about the news. Milner’s mom was devastated and called the medical examiner. They told her Milner had been strangled. It was the last thing she wanted to hear.

The Staff Was Warned About the Crimes

Two months before Milner, Farmer, and Guse arrived at Camp Scott, the counselors had gathered at the camp for a training session. Their weekend ended early after a counselor’s cabin was ransacked. A bizarre note was discovered in an empty donut box with a warning.

Denise Milner’s mom speaks during an interview.
Denise Milner’s mom. Source: Spiky Tv

The note said, “We are on a mission to kill three girls in tent #1.” However, everyone thought it was a sick joke and forgot about it. Unfortunately, the girls’ lives could have been spared if the warning had been taken seriously.

Milner Didn’t Want to Go

The three girls had known each other less than 24 hours when they were murdered. Farmer was the youngest girl at camp, and it was her first time away from home. Guse had been to Camp Scott before and was happy to return for another summer.

A newspaper clipping of the murders.
Source: Pinterest

Unlike the other girls, Milner had asked to stay home, but her mom convinced her to go anyway. A fourth girl was supposed to be in their tent, but she wasn’t scheduled to arrive until the next day.

Asking to Come Home

Before they went to sleep, Milner wrote a letter to her mom. In her letter, she said, “Mom, I don’t like camp. It’s awful, and I don’t want to stay for two weeks. I want to come home and see Kathy and everybody.”

A portrait of Denise Milner.
Denise Milner. Source: Pinterest

Milner’s mom had spoken to the counselor on the bus and told her to help her daughter call if she felt homesick. The counselor assured her mom that she would watch out for Milner and ensure she was okay. Sadly, Milner didn’t get to call home.

Still Warm

The first officer on the scene reported that Milner’s body was still warm to the touch. They believed she had been killed not too long before her body was discovered. Investigators speculated that the killer heard Wilhite’s alarm and ran away, leaving his flashlight behind.

Officers are parked around Camp Scott.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

The other girls’ bodies were already cold, making the police think they were killed a while before Milner. The police put in a lot of effort to figure out who could have done something like this. Investigators were puzzled to find a suspect.

A Massive Investigation

Several Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) agents were called to help investigate the murders. They started to figure out how they would search the area and interview the surrounding property owners. None of the people in the area had anything to do with it.

An investigator and police officers talk as they search for the suspect.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

They looked in every abandoned farmhouse and cellar. Investigators looked for any clue that could lead them to a potential suspect. Agent Harvey Pratt from the OSBI was part of the search and found what appeared to be a cave in the woods.

The Cave in the Woods

As Pratt entered the cave, he noticed someone had built four small fires. It appeared to be ceremonial and symbolic. He also found sunglasses stolen from the camp and the tape used to cover the flashlight to dim the light.

An external photo of the cave.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

Investigators also found photographs but didn’t understand how they connected to the case. The police took the photos as evidence and released them to the public to see if anyone could give them information about the people in the pictures. It helped them find their top suspect.

They Had a Suspect

Once the police shared the photos with the public, it didn’t take long for people to call with tips. After reconstructing the ripped-up wedding photos, investigators identified the people in them. It led them to a photographer who had previously employed a convicted felon, Gene Leroy Hart.

An image of a sheriff addressing the public and media.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

Hart worked for the photographer as part of a work-release program. He had been sent back to prison but escaped before the murders. The photos connected him to the cave, and the tape and sunglasses connected him to Camp Scott. It appeared that the cave was Hart’s home.

Slipped Through the Cracks

Hart had been at large since 1973 after escaping from the Mayes Count Jail. He had been convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting two pregnant women. His mom had brought him a Bible with a file to help him see through the bars.

An interior shot of Hart’s cabin
Source: Oklahoman Archive

Hart was raised about a mile from Camp Scott, where he was a member of the Cherokee Nation. Hart stayed in the Locust Grove area when he escaped because he didn’t fear the authorities. Some people saw him in town, but the police never caught him.

It All Pointed to Him

Besides the tangible evidence found in the cave that connected Hart to the murders, the four fires seemed like a Native American ritual. He was believed to still be in the area when the murders occurred. The cave also wasn’t far from the crime scene.

Police escort Hart outside the courthouse.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: Oklahoman Archive

As soon as the police had their suspect, it turned into a manhunt. While everyone thought it would be a quick end to the tragic case, they were wrong. It took investigators a while to catch Hart, which wasn’t even the end.

A Frustrating Search

Authorities had no idea where Hart could be, but they released photos and sketches of him to the public. The story was on the news and in the papers every day. Residents wanted Hart to be brought to justice. Everyone came out to help search for Hart.

A photo of Hart’s arrest.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: Oklahoman Archive

They searched miles and miles of land but couldn’t find him. Search dogs were brought in from out of state to see if they could follow a trail from the girls’ tent to where the killer lived. That’s when strange things started happening.

He Covered His Tracks Well

As the dogs followed the scent trail, they would become confused. They lost the scent at some point because the perpetrator had covered his tracks well. Authorities knew he was good at hiding himself, and it was frustrating that they couldn’t find Hart. He wasn’t leaving anything for them to find.

Hart cries during the trial.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: Oklahoman Archive

Hart was an expert woodsman who had lived in the woods for so long that he could stay hidden. It turned him into this anti-hero who was almost like a mythical figure because the police couldn’t catch him. However, they knew he had help.

People Were Helping Him

The police knew no one could live in the Oklahoma woods for that long because of the ticks, snakes, and lack of food. The area was also home to a large group of Native Americans, and Hart had a family. Investigators thought they were helping to hide him.

An exterior shot of Hart’s cabin.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

Gary Pitchlynn, a Native American and former legal advisor, said that Native Americans didn’t trust the authorities. The government had hurt them so many times that they felt Hart was being used as a scapegoat, as it was easy to pin the murders on him.

He Had a Promising Future

In high school, Hart was a football star. Everyone in Locust Grove knew him because he was the star of the local football team. He received several scholarships offers to play college football, but Hart declined them to stay in the area and work.

A video still of Hart arriving at court.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: News 9

Instead of going to college, he got married and raised children. He married right after high school, but the relationship didn’t work out. Hart and his wife split up, and his life turned dark. The police believed he was the killer based on his criminal history.

It Caused the Families Pain

Many residents started to think Hart wasn’t the killer, but the police blamed him because he was Native American. When Milner’s mom, Bettye, was working or in town, people would come up to her and say, “I don’t think Gene Hart killed your daughter.”

A portrait of Hart.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: Pinterest

They were trying to seek justice, but everyone was rooting for Hart. Bettye resented that because no one had sympathy for her situation. Farmer’s family also wanted justice, and Hart’s past offenses made him seem like he might have killed their daughters.

They Almost Ended Their Search

After a long hunt for Hart, the police felt like they hit a dead end. Many people were ready to give up because they couldn’t find Hart. They decided to try one last thing to get information that could lead them to Hart. The police sent Native American agents from the OSBI to go undercover.

An image of police escorting Hart on his way to court.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: Oklahoman Archive

The police asked Agent Harvey Pratt to go to the local bars in the area and see what he could find out. He managed to visit some people, and it gave him a lead. They heard Hart was staying with a medicine man who had lost his brother.

They Finally Caught Him

The police started going through obituaries to find the medicine man’s dead brother. They found Sam Pigeon, the medicine man. The police figured out where Pigeon’s house was and watched it for a few hours before knocking on the door. Pigeon’s wife answered the door.

Hart’s mugshot.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: Pinterest

Pratt told her who they were looking for and that they would kill Hart if someone else found him. He promised her they would keep him alive, so she led them to another cabin in the woods. After ten long months, the police finally arrested Hart.

The Public Supported Hart

Many people didn’t believe Hart killed Milner, Farmer, and Guse. However, the girls’ families wanted justice and hoped whoever did it would receive the death penalty. It would be another year before the trial began, and that year was agony for Farmer’s family.

A video still of Hart during an interview.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: YouTube

Due to the public’s sympathy for Hart, Sheri Farmer believed it wouldn’t be a fair trial. She didn’t know if he was guilty and said the public didn’t know either, so they shouldn’t assume he was innocent. But no one was on their side.

His Trial Began

A year after the murders, Hart’s preliminary trial took place not far from the campgrounds. It was one of the longest preliminary trials in Oklahoma’s history, and he was charged with three counts of first-degree murder. The judge ruled that there was probable cause and set a trial date.

A dated portrait of Hart.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: YouTube

The jury selection was made up of mostly local people. They tried to find open-minded people, but most people were already on Hart’s side. Surprisingly, the jury was hostile towards the victims’ families because they wanted justice. The DA also made some missteps.

The DA Ruined Their Chances

At the time, the district attorney in charge of prosecuting Hart was Side Wise. He wasn’t a criminal prosecutor but a banker who ran for DA and won. He made some mistakes from the beginning. It was discovered that Wise shared reports from the OSBI with a journalist.

An image of a car taking several girls scouts out from Camp Scott.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

Wise shared the reports because he had a contract to do a book about this case. The DA had a financial purpose in prosecuting the case, which ruined his credibility. Wise was asked in court if he gave reports to anyone other than law enforcement, and he lied under oath.

Too Many Issues

Wise put the trial at risk because the public turned against him after he lied about giving police reports to a journalist. There were also problems with the investigation and Hart, causing everyone to believe that the jury would be on Hart’s side regardless of what they heard in court.

An image of parents picking up their children from the camp.
Photo by David Heckel

Farmer’s parents vowed to uncover the truth about her daughter’s murder. They saw what was happening in the press as a no-win situation. Therefore, they contacted Buddy Fallis, the DA for Tulsa County, and pleaded with him to intervene.

Hoping for a Better Outcome

Wise resigned from the case, and Fallis was brought in to prosecute the case. He was well-known and knew how to do his job. The Farmers only wanted justice, and they thought Fallis could help them. However, Hart had Garvin Isaacs, a successful lawyer, on his team.

Officers search the area of the crime.
Photo by Richard Pulliam

Hart’s trial began on March 9, 1979, and the courtroom was full of people rooting for Hart. The prosecution used evidence from the crime scene that linked back to the cave where Hart reportedly lived. But it quickly went off the rails.

Problems With the Investigation

The glasses found in Hart’s cave were initially in the property room upon the first search of the campground. Hart’s lawyers questioned how they got from the property room to the cave. It was one of the first questions that came up during the trial.

A photo of Hart handcuffed.
Photo by Doug Hicks

The rock-solid piece of evidence, the flashlight, had a fingerprint on it. The prosecution used this as their magic bullet. However, Isaacs said the print didn’t match his client, which was true. It was unidentified, so Isaacs only said half the truth because they couldn’t get a match.

The Pictures Were Moved

During the trial, Isaacs announced that the photos that connected Hart to the cave were in Pete Weaver’s desk when Hart broke out of jail. Pete Weaver, the Mayes County Sheriff, hated Hart. He wanted to take Hart down no matter what it took.

An image of Hart at his arrest.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: Tulsa World File

It started to look like Hart was framed. Isaacs came up with many theories to create doubt, but he had the evidence to support them. The pictures and the glasses looked like the police had planted evidence to pin the murders on Hart.

Their Case Wasn’t Solid

Although the prosecution felt they had a solid case, it quickly fell apart. The trial took place a decade before DNA evidence could be used in court. They didn’t have the technology to test the biological evidence. The police had sperm, but they couldn’t match it to Hart.

Hart addresses the media at a conference.
Gene Leroy Hart. Source: Tulsa World File

Hart’s defense put enough doubt in the jury’s mind to be on Hart’s side. The trial isolated the victims’ families because people cared more about Hart than seeking justice for their three murdered children. It seemed like no one cared about those girls.

They Came to a Conclusion

Hart’s trial ended on March 30, 1979. The jury deliberated for seven hours and returned with a unanimous verdict that Hart was not guilty. It caused thunderous applause in the courtroom, and Hart cried as he was acquitted of the charges.

Hart smiles as he exits the courtroom.
Source: Tulsa World File

However, Hart was not a free man. He still had over 300 years to serve for the sexual assault charges and escaping prison. Shortly after being sent back to prison, Hart died of a heart attack at age 35. He collapsed after lifting weights and jogging in the prison exercise yard.

Another Potential Suspect

Isaacs stunned the courtroom when he claimed that Bill Stevens, a convict serving time in Kansas, was the person who killed the three girls. There was possible evidence to support this theory. Dean Boyd, a waitress at a diner 12 miles from Camp Scott, saw Stevens the day of the murders.

An image of Hart outside the courthouse.
Source: The Tulsa Tribune

Boyd told the jury that Stevens came in between 5 and 6 am, took his shirt off outside, and put on a clean one. She said he seemed very nervous, stating, “He’d look at his hands, put them in his pockets, and look at them again.”

He Was Connected to the Flashlight

Boyd reported what she saw after Stevens’ photograph appeared on the news. His picture was released after Joyce Payne identified the flashlight found near the girls like the one she’d given Stevens in 1977. Payne said Stevens visited her home the morning the bodies were found.

Gene Leroy Hart’s mother, Ella Mae Buckskin, cries as she hugs Hart’s attorney.
Hart’s Mother, Ella. Source: Tulsa World File

Payne testified that Stevens had claw marks on his arms and reddish-brown stains on his boots. Unfortunately, the trail went cold when an OSBI chemist said the hairs found in the tent and on the tape did not match Stevens. The sperm also didn’t match him.

Continuing to Fight for Justice

When technology improved, DNA testing was conducted. It showed that three of the five probes matched Hart’s DNA. Still, the DNA from 1 in 7,700 Native Americans would have had the same results. Years later, in 2008, authorities conducted DNA testing on stains from the girls’ pillowcases.

A crowd of townspeople stands outside the courthouse.
Source: Oklahoman Archive

Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive because the samples were too deteriorated to obtain DNA. This didn’t stop the families from seeking the truth. In 2017, the sheriff raised $30,000 for a new DNA test with the latest technology.

Some Possible Answers

After 45 years, authorities revealed that DNA evidence strongly suggested Hart’s involvement in the murders. The results had been known since 2019, but they were not made public until the victims’ families gave their consent. However, no one knows the truth.

Carla cries as she speaks during an interview.
Source: Tulsa World

While there is a possibility that Hart killed Milner, Farmer, and Guse, the families never got a solid answer. They still think about their children and wonder if the killer is still on the loose. Over the years, they have continued to fight, but others have been affected.

She Is Still Haunted

In 2022, ABC released a four-part documentary about the case shortly before the 45th anniversary of the murders. Hosted by Kristen Chenoweth, the actress grew up close to Camp Scott and was just a child in 1977. She wanted to go to the Girl Scout camp but was too sick to attend.

A still of Kristen Chenoweth in the documentary.
Kristen Chenoweth. Source: ABC News

Chenoweth said, “I could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve been on that camping trip.” The murders still haunt her because the case has never been solved. She regularly visits her Oklahoma hometown, where she went to school with Guse.

They Became Advocates

After the murders, the parents of the three girls did their best to find the light in a dark situation. Farmer’s mom founded the Oklahoma chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. Sheri has been vocal about finding justice for her daughter and helped pass Marsy’s law.

A photo of Kristen Chenoweth / A dated picture of Lori Farmer.
Kristen Chenoweth, Lori Farmer. Source: ABC News

The law gives crime victims in Oklahoma access to several resources. Meanwhile, Richard Guse’s father helped the state legislature pass the Oklahoma Victims’ Bill of Rights. He also helped found the Oklahoma Crime Victims Compensation Board. They hope to get justice one day.