When Denison resident Chris Bowling came across an article published in the Herald Democrat earlier this month about two inmates who escaped an Oklahoma prison in 1978 and the victims they killed, he was reminded again of just how close he came to dying when he was kidnapped by the same two violent criminals.
“It’s a never-ending experience,” Bowling said told the Herald Democrat in an interview. “I relive it every day.”
Bowling’s ordeal was first set in motion on Aug. 23, 1978, when two men escaped the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Claude Eugene Dennis, then 35, was serving 50 years for killing three people and Michael Charles Lancaster, then 25, was serving just as many years for armed robbery. The pair managed to tunnel under a prison wall and for 17 days no one, not even law enforcement, knew where the two had gone.
On the night of May 10, authorities learned the two men were in the Denison area after the owner of the Rogers Superette bait store, Bobby Spencer, was found shot to death in the back of his shop. Dennis and Lancaster kidnapped Spencer’s wife and took her to a campsite along the Red River where they tied her to a tree and raped her. She managed to escape as the two men slept and ran through woods to a nearby highway where she flagged down a passing motorist. Police from both Oklahoma and Texas responded with roadblocks throughout the area.
Dennis and Lancaster avoided capture, and the following morning Bowling, who was just 16 at the time, found himself caught in the middle of the manhunt.
“I was mowing a neighbor’s yard and I feel something on the back of my neck,” Bowling said. “I turn around and I’ve got a .357 Magnum pointed at my face. It was the two of them and I was told ‘If you scream or holler or do anything, I’ll kill you.’”
Bowling said the two men forced him into the neighbor’s home while she was away and, as they prepared to flee in her car, he said they bound his hands and feet behind his back and began a terrifying conversation.
“I laid on the floor of that kitchen, while these two men debated what they were going to do with me — shoot me in the head, cut my throat,” Bowling said. “They even said they were going to throw me in the trunk of that car and throw me off the river bridge. They were there for about 30 minutes and I listened to these two men decide whether I was going to live or whether I was going to die.”
Bowling said the men threatened to kill him if he moved and the two fled. After several minutes of lying still, Bowling said he crawled through the home and screamed until he was able to get the attention of a neighbor.
“Within a couple of minutes of that, there were so many police and highway patrol (officers) piled up in that little neighborhood,” Bowling said. “One of them pulled out a sheet of paper with some different mugshots and I positively pointed out the two. I did not know who they were at the time or anything about what they had done.”
Dennis and Lancaster fled Denison and headed to Alabama, where they shot a police officer and killed a retired school teacher, but the pair returned to Oklahoma two weeks later. State troopers located the two in Caddo, Oklahoma, and news of their return quickly spread.
“I was in driver’s ed at the time and the teacher had the radio going to monitor it,” Bowling said. “I was actually driving north of the Red River toward Durant, (Oklahoma,) when it came on the radio, that they were in Caddo. And at that point, I turned to my teacher and said, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to turn this car around.’”
Dennis and Lancaster engaged authorities in a bloody shootout and killed three state troopers before they were gunned down, ending the month-long manhunt.
“When I finally learned that they were deceased, it was a little bit of a relief,” Bowling said. “I was so afraid that because I had identified them and they came back to this area, that they were coming back to look for me.”
Investigators determined that Dennis and Lancaster killed at least eight people during their escape. Bowling said he felt especially lucky to have survived after he was told by an officer with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation that the men likely let him go because one had a son close to his age.
Decades after his run-in with the two escaped convicts, Bowling said he still struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and nerve damage caused by the ligatures. Bowling said the experience has motivated him to be compassionate toward others, but explained that it’s still difficult to describe just how much the ordeal has affected him.
“I used to be a very strong-willed, tough young man, but since the moment that gun was put to the back of my neck, I have a hard time controlling my emotions,” Bowling said. “It has made some people think I’m just weak, but none of them realize what I’ve been through.”