Herald Democrat reporter Drew Smith wrote an interesting article in Sunday’s newspaper about a 1978 prison break that was still haunting a Denison man who was kidnapped by escapees. The article brought back a lot of memories for me too.
I was city editor at the Denison Herald when the escapees, Claude Eugene Dennis and Michael Lancaster, tunneled their way out of the state prison in McAlester, Oklahoma on April 23, 1978. We followed the story heavily from that day until the two were killed in a shootout at Caddo, Oklahoma, on May 26, 1978.
But it was the day of the shootout that is embedded in my memory. Editor John Crawford was out of the office that day and I was in charge. We had just put the afternoon edition of the paper to bed when we heard the police scanner talking about the two escapees, who had been on a killing spree that covered states from Texas to Alabama, being sighted near Kenefic, 10 miles west of Caddo. A blue pickup stolen from an area rancher, in which they were traveling was spotted by Oklahoma troopers. Officers moved in and the two escapees opened fire. One Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper was killed and at least one more was injured in the first encounter.
The late Irene Flaherty, our star reporter at the time, listened intently as the scanner excitedly broadcast the events unfolding. The entire staff stopped what they were doing and we held our collective breaths. When other troopers heard the message, all units rushed from every direction toward the scene, sealing off every possible route of escape.
The two fugitives raced east toward Caddo only to encounter more troopers as they neared the town. They shot their way past one car and spun out trying to head for cover. By then more than half a dozen units had the car in sight. The two men bailed out of the pickup, running and firing wildly in every direction. Return fire from officers hit Dennis and he crumbled in a yard before he reached a vacant house.
Lancaster made it inside the house, but was seriously wounded. He kept up his gunfire until troopers riddled the side of the house where he made his last stand.
Meanwhile back at the newsroom, Irene and Scott Hancock headed to Caddo at breakneck speed. As soon as we got the word, Irene looked at me and said “what do you want me to do?” I told her to take off for Oklahoma as fast as she could and to call us back as soon as she knew anything. Scott was working the wire that day but was jumping up and down wanting to go too. So off they went.
Our sports editor, Steve Waggoner, wasn’t far behind to bring back film that the two would be shooting when they arrived at the scene. A member of the advertising staff volunteered to take a young reporter, Laura Wallis (now Weisberg) to the hospital in Durant where the wounded would no doubt be taken. We were on pins and needles back at the office and I called the regular wire editor, Jack Donovan, on his day off and asked him to come in as quick as he could. He tore up the “dummy” for pages one and two and started over while we waited for news from Caddo. Pat Welch stood by to develop the film and print the pictures as soon as Steve returned with it. We had a staff of 11 and were short that day with Crawford and the regular wire editor out of the office.
By chance, Armstrong Avenue was the route Jack took to work and in my excitement, I neglected to tell him the shootout was in Armstrong, Oklahoma. His first thought was that the action was on his own Armstrong Avenue. When he arrived at the office he was relieved, but sorry he missed the action.
The late John Clift, a veteran newsman who handled coverage of Oklahoma, had a direct telephone line to Durant. One of his contacts in law enforcement called to say the convicts had been spotted at Armstrong, Oklahoma, and that there had been shooting and possible deaths. As word got out, a crowd began gathering in the newsroom and the phone began to ring, some from radio and television stations across the country who were eager to know just what was going on. We passed along news as we heard it.
Two troopers were killed in the running gunfight making the death toll three officers. The wounded trooper was taken to Durant to the hospital. The area was sealed off around the vacant house south of Caddo that the fugitives had used as a hideout from the time they escaped until they surfaced May 11 when Bobby Spencer was killed at Rodgers Sporting Goods Store in Denison.
Photos at the scene were almost impossible to take, but one taken by Scott from a distance showing officers at the scene and one by Laura taken at the hospital where the wounded officer from Edmond, Oklahoma, walked under his own power after being treated for wounds in his shoulder made it into the day’s paper.
You’ll remember this was before everyone carried a cellphone or a laptop so Irene and Scott were pretty much on their own to get the story back to the office. Irene paid a woman in Caddo to allow her to make a long distance call to Denison and relate the information that she and Scott had gathered. It was quickly put together and photos were processed and as I remember the afternoon paper had the story and pictures and was only an hour or two late on the street that day. Subsequent stories and pictures were in the next day’s newspaper.
After things settled down and we all relaxed and were discussing the day’s events, we got a phone call from Durant. It was Laura wanting to know if anyone was going to bring her home. We had forgotten all about her in all the excitement so Steve, who had picked up her film on the way back to Denison with film that was taken by Irene and Scott, made another trip to Durant to pick her up.
In the 33 days that the escapees were on the loose, they had added a series of charges to what they already faced. Dennis was serving 50 years for manslaughter growing out of the deaths of a Stephens County, Oklahoma, couple and 10 years to life for the death of a Bryan County man. Lancaster was serving 25 years for armed robbery.
During their reign of terror, the two were responsible for the murder of a Garland minister who had left home for a fishing trip to a lake near Farmersville; a Garland service station operator shot to death during a robbery, a man who left his Toledo Bend Lake home hear Hemphill with a load of trash headed to a dump site; Bobby Spencer, manager of Rodgers Sporting Good Store north of Denison; a policeman in Butler, Alabama, who was shot when he stepped out of his patrol car; and a woman who was murdered in her home at Cuba, Alabama, as well as the three troopers killed in Oklahoma.
The day was one of those when the adrenalin was flowing pretty heavy for all of us. Reporter are famous for wanting to be involved in a “big story.” This one tested what we could handle. And wouldn’t you know it, I was in charge.
The rest of the story was a shocker to all of us. Several weeks later, John Clift and I were sitting in the break room with a young teletype settler (I forgot her name) when she said she had something that she wanted to tell us. It seems that she was the former wife of Dennis and was living in Caddo at the time of the manhunt with her young children. I seem to remember she was on duty the day of the shootout and set the type for the stories. She said she was protecting her children by not speaking up that day. We honored her request and never mentioned her name in any of the stories.
This is just one more story that I will never forget and thanks to Drew and his story about Chris Bowling, who as a teenager was kidnapped and left tied up by the escapees on the run, today it was almost as fresh on my mind as the day of the “Caddo Shootout,” as we named it.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.