The governor of Oklahoma is calling for the resignation of county officials who were reportedly caught on tape complaining that law enforcement can no longer “take a damn Black guy and whoop their ass” and comparing the burned body of a fire victim to “barbecue.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) says that McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, county Commissioner Mark Jennings, sheriff’s investigator Alicia Manning, and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix must step down after the recordings, taken by longtime local journalist Bruce Wellingham, were published, The Associated Press reported. A transcript of the recordings, which includes links to the audio files, provided to the AP purportedly revealed the disturbing conversations between county officials after a county commissioner’s meeting had closed to the public on March 6.
The officials are apparently heard complaining that they can’t commit violence against Black people without repercussions.
“It’s like somebody wanting this job, they don’t realize, like your job,” Jennings reportedly said. “I heard it the other day, said I heard 2 or 12 people were going for sheriff. I said f—, lets get 20. They don’t have a g—— clue what they’re getting into. Not this day and age. I’m gonna tell you something. If it was back in the day … when Alan Marshton would take a damn Black guy and whoop their ass and throw him in the cell? I’d run for f—— sheriff.”
“Yeah. Well, It’s not like that no more,” Clardy allegedly replied.
“I know,” Jennings said. “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.”
The speakers were also heard laughing as Clardy relayed a story comparing a fire victim to “barbecue” during an interaction with the medical examiner.
“So we get her in the body bag and Kyler goes, you do know what we gotta do now, right?” Clardy reportedly says, according to a transcript of the recording linked from the AP story. “Faith goes, no, what? He goes, you gotta pre-heat the oven 350 degrees, leave her in there for 15 minutes. And she went (vomit sounds) (laughter). Bless her heart. It was… and then the medical examiner asked her, said hey we’re fixing to go eat. And he looked her in the face and said you wanna go with me and go eat barbecue? (big laughter).”
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Jennings and Manning are also reportedly heard discussing “hit men” in connection with Bruce Willingham, the reporter who made the recordings. According to the transcript:
Jennings: But the thing of it is, you know.
Manning: We actually told the truth.
Jennings: I’ve known, I’ve known two or three hit men, they’re very quiet guys…
Jennings: And would cut no f—— mercy.
Jennings: In Louisiana. Cause this is all Mafia around here.
Kevin: Oh yeah
Manning: Yeah, but 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?
Sheriff: Who would be blamed for it?
Willingham, the publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, said he left a voice-activated recorder in the room after the meeting because he suspected the officials were still doing business after the meeting had officially ended, in violation of a state law that requires “all meetings of public bodies” to be open to the public.
“I talked on two different occasions to our attorneys to make sure I wasn’t doing anything illegal,” Bruce Willingham said, according to the Associated Press.
Chris Willingham, Bruce Willingham’s son, is also a reporter for the McCurtain County, a print publication that does not publish online. Chris Willingham had filed a federal lawsuit against Clardy and Manning the same day the recordings were made, alleging intimidation and harassment in retaliation for his reporting on county officials. That reporting included revelations of an alleged “sexual relationship” between Clardy and Manning and reports of favoritism and misconduct within the sheriff’s department.
Stitt’s condemnation of the county officials was unequivocal.
“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County,” Stitt said in a statement, according to the AP. “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.”
The McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Monday that the situation is “complex” and implies that the McCurtain Gazette may have violated state recording laws.
“The last 72 hours have been amongst the most difficult and disruptive in recent memory,” the MCSO said in a Facebook post. “This is a very complex situation and one we regret having to address.”
More from the sheriff’s office:
There is and has been an ongoing investigation into multiple, significant violation of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act, Title 13, Chapters 176.3 and 176.4 which states that it is illegal to secretly record a conversation in which you are not involved and do not have the consent of at least one of the involved parties. There is a significant number of victims of this criminal activity and it has taken significant effort and time to identify them and corroborate evidence.
Many of these recordings, like the one published by media outlets on Friday, have yet to be duly authenticated or validated. Our preliminary information indicates that the media released audio recording has, in fact, been altered. The motivation for doing so remains unclear at this point. That matter is actively being investigated.
In addition to being illegally obtained, the audio does not match the “transcription” of that audio, and is not precisely consistent with what has been put into print.
Multiple agencies are assisting in this ongoing investigation.
As a result of the press release that went out on Friday, a large number of threats of violence including death threats have been made against county employees and officials, their families and friends.
There will be continued press releases from this agency as the investigation comes to a close and findings are forwarded to the appropriate authorities for felony charges to be filed on those involved.
The lawyer representing Christopher Lee Willingham in the federal case against Clardy and Manning issued a statement on behalf of the father-and-son journalist team.
“The Willingham family is extremely grateful for the outpouring of support that has come from release of the McCurtain Gazette’s April 15-16, 2023, Weekend Edition,” attorney Christin Jones of the law firm Kilpatrick Townsend said in a statement emailed to Law&Crime. “For nearly a year, they have suffered intimidation, ridicule and harassment based solely on their efforts to report the news for McCurtain County. They love their county and the people in it dearly — the family has lived in the county for nearly 120 years and run the Gazette for over 40 years. While they are thankful for the wide attention the story has received, they look forward to the day when they can continue to report the news and not be the news.”
Jones also said that the full audio “is planned to be released on Thursday.”
McCurtain County is located in southeast Oklahoma and borders both Texas and Arkansas.
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