The Duncan Banner

August 22, 2013

Shooting tarnishes image but not reality of Duncan

Mike Smith
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — There are lots of folks in this city of nearly 24,000 who refer to their hometown as Duncan, America.

“Yep,” they say, “I grew up right here in Duncan, America,” or “I bought this truck in Duncan, America.”

It’s a light-hearted yet proud phrase that captures Duncan’s image — and in many respects the reality.

It’s not a big city, not a lot of flash. You could say it’s in the nation’s heartland, although by national media standards, that can be most any place west of the Appalachians or east of the Rockies.

It’s not Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. Real crime occurs, even murders now and then. Police carry guns, and use them now and then. But there are civic clubs and nicely kept parks and kindness and charity is bountiful. High school basketball is big, but football is king.

Most people get along, including those on the City Council, and most will tell you it’s a great place to live and raise a family. It’s perhaps Duncan’s greatest selling point, and thousands moved here to do that.

“The citizens of Duncan know what kind of people we really are and that what has happened is not the norm in our community,” Duncan City Manager Jim Frieda said Thursday.

What happened — as most everyone in Duncan knows and many in the world know — is that 22-year-old Christopher Lane of Australia was jogging along Country Club Road last Friday when a car drove by and someone fired a bullet into his back.

Lane died and three teenagers are accused in connection with his death — two of them facing charges of first-degree murder and the other for driving the car and trying to cover up the crime. One teen told police they did it because they were bored, simply wanted to kill someone.

The crime has put Duncan on the world map in the worst way. That, too, is a fact.

“The reality is what people in Australia know about Duncan, what people in Israel know about Duncan, what people in England know about Duncan, they have gotten off of the coverage of this,” Frieda said.  

“The nature of the coverage has wandered away from the crime and turned it into something sensational. So it’s going to be difficult to change that image abroad.”

Duncan is not, as some media accounts have tried to portray it, some sleepy little town on a lonely highway. Television news crews from outside the area come here sometimes.

Not, of course, like they have this week. The crime — and Duncan — have made headlines around the world and been the lead stories on national and international news telecasts.

The crime has shocked millions around the world, but people in Duncan are shocked as well.

Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks, standing in front of a horde of reporters after filing charges against the teens this week, said this crime was not representtive of Duncan or Stephens County, Oklahoma.

But it has, he said, shaken the community to its foundation.

“I know people who are now refusing to go out and walk. They are scared,” Hicks said.

There have been aftershocks, too.

On Wednesday, the second day of classes at Duncan Public Schools this year, the buildings were open to students but the campuses were closed because of some anonymous threats. Students at Duncan High School were not allowed to leave the campus at lunch and come back as they usually are.

It is not this year’s first murder in Duncan, either.

A 16-year-old, Michael Anthony Ray, is in the Stephens County Jail on charges that he killed a 14-year-old girl, Alyssa Wiles, in Duncan on June 11. Another boy told police that Ray was angry she had broken up with him.

About a year earlier and 20 miles away in Stephens County, 16-year-old Braylee Rae Henry of Velma was killed at a convenience store in that town. Miles Sterling Bench, 22, also is in the Stephens County Jail facing a first-degree murder charge.

“I would never have believed that when I was elected sheriff five years ago, I would sit here today and have five murder suspects in our jail right now and four of them are juveniles and one is barely an adult,” McKinney said after the three teens were arrested in the drive-by killing. “That is really alarming.”

McKinney, who has served in law enforcement at the city, county, state and national levels, said there is no doubt there are more juveniles today — in Oklahoma and across the country — who place little value on human life.

And crime exists everywhere in America.

But, he and Duncan Police Chief Danny Ford say, people need to keep things in perspective.

“I just don’t want people to think we have this major crime spree going on and being nervous about living here,” McKinney said. “Duncan and Marlow and this whole county is a safe place, we just need to be on heightened alert because it’s the society we live in.”

Ford said as tragic as the Lane murder is, one cannot draw conclusions that “all of society is falling apart.” Very, very few people in Duncan are involved in crime, he said.

“It’s not the time to holler that Duncan has gone bad,” Ford said. “It’s just as good as it ever was.”

Steve Whitten, who was born in Duncan in 1949 and has lived here all but a few of those years since, also believes that’s true. He was among many people going about his day Thursday, stopping off at the post office downtown.

“It’s like most things that are front page,” Whitten said of the negative national spotlight. “This will fade pretty quickly and life will get back to normal. There will be another headline to replace it.

“I will be glad when things get back to normal. We don’t need this kind of publicity.”

There have been racial claims voiced about the crime and the charges that were filed. They cut both ways.

Numerous people from Duncan and other states phoned The Banner newsroom in the days following the shooting, demanding to know why this newspaper was not revealing the race of the teens who were arrested. The identities and the race of the boys was not released until Tuesday when they were charged.

The alleged driver of the car the boys were in is white, the one who prosecutors say pulled the trigger is of mixed race and the other teen is black. The latter two are charged with first-degree murder, the driver with lesser offenses that could still land him in prison for 90 years.

A sister of the black defendant said court officials had acted with prejudice against the teens “of color,” in part because they were denied bond while it was set at $1 million for the white teen.

Betty Greer of Duncan, who is black, said she was sad for the families of the victims and the teens and although racial tension exists most everywhere, she hasn’t felt any during her many years here.

“I don’t feel it and I’m praying it doesn’t come to that because we don’t need it,” said Greer, who spent many years working for Duncan Public Schools.

Frieda, the city manager, said much of the media coverage — especially abroad — has painted a distorted picture of Duncan. That includes racial issues, he said.

“We are a town of 24,000 people and if ever a community needed a role model, they only need look at our mayor, who, by the way, is a black man, and he has been on the City Council — except for three years — since 1979,” Frieda said.

That mayor, Gene Brown, has been one of Duncan’s biggest cheerleaders for years. He remembers when crime in general was much worse, especially during the oil boom years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“The thing I was thinking mostly about is trying to get people to understand that regardless of this sad time, we still have to keep a positive attitude and move forward,” Brown said. “We still have a great community, we just had a tragedy happen.”