STOLEN LIVES

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY JU­LIANA KEEP­ING Staff Writer | jkeep­ing@ok­la­homan.com

“Daddy,” the child asked. “Can I have a real gun?”

“Of course you can’t,” his fa­ther an­swered.

“I’ve al­ready got some,” ad­mit­ted the boy, hold­ing up a sack that held three pis­tols he’d dis­cov­ered on Sept. 3, 1978, in north­east Ok­la­homa City. His fa­ther called the po­lice.

Andy Coats, 82, Ok­la­homa County dis­trict at­tor­ney be­tween 1976 and 1980, re­called hear­ing the decades-old anec­dote from in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

The child, he said, had un­know­ingly found ev­i­dence that would link two 1978 sum­mer killing sprees un­par­al­leled at the time — the June 22 mur­ders of an Air Force fam­ily of three near Pur­cell, and the July 16 ex­e­cu­tion-style slay­ings of six work­ers at the Sir­loin Stock­ade, a south Ok­la­homa City steak­house.

The Sir­loin Stock­ade vic­tims in­cluded a fa­ther of four teenage girls; a beloved pas­tor fill­ing in for a night shift jan­i­tor; and four young teens work­ing sum­mer jobs, sav­ing up for their short-term dreams, things like a trip to Hawaii with a friend’s fam­ily and cus­tomiz­ing a pickup, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of get­ting a driver’s li­cense.

Firearms ex­perts would match one of the weapons the child found in the sack to both slay­ings, Coats said.

Even­tu­ally, there would be ar­rests, a trial and the ex­e­cu­tion of an un­re­pen­tant, mer­ci­less slayer named

Roger Dale Stafford.

Along the way, twists of fate would con­tin­u­ously ben­e­fit the state’s case.

Coats ac­knowl­edged that with­out a com­bi­na­tion of odd co­in­ci­dences — like the child who found the guns — a vig­i­lant pub­lic, and vig­or­ous, co­op­er­a­tive po­lice work, the killer could have walked free.

“The only thing you can say is that a ter­ri­ble crime was com­mit­ted. The per­son who com­mit­ted it was ap­pre­hended, pros­e­cuted, con­victed, and ex­e­cuted. That’s the way the sys­tem is sup­posed to work,” Coats said.

A fa­tal stop

The night of June 22, 1978, Air Force Tech.

Sgt. Melvin Lorenz, 38, his wife, Staff Sgt. Linda Lorenz, 31, and Melvin’s son, Richard Lorenz, 12, rode in a blue pickup that sported a white camper shell north on In­ter­state 35 from their home in San An­to­nio to at­tend Melvin’s mother’s fu­neral in Jamestown, North Dakota.

Around 3 a.m., they saw a woman near a car with its hood open near Pur­cell. The good Sa­mar­i­tans stopped.

It was a setup.

Roger Stafford, and his brother, Harold, hid be­hind the car, armed. Melvin Lorenz walked to the car; Roger Stafford shot him when he wouldn’t turn over all his money.

As Linda Lorenz ran to help her hus­band, the woman, Verna Stafford, knocked her down and Roger Stafford shot her, ac­cord­ing to later court tes­ti­mony.

Then the small voice of Richard Lorenz, 12, cried out for help from the back of the pickup.

The slim, mus­ta­chioed Roger Stafford stuck a gun through a win­dow and shot the child. Richard Lorenz was driven down the road, pos­si­bly still alive, pros­e­cu­tors would later al­lege. His body would be dumped about a half mile away from where his par­ents’ bod­ies were left along­side I-35.

The cou­ple drove to Still­wa­ter.

Coats said a vig­i­lant man care­fully watched the Staffords at a Still­wa­ter gas sta­tion, know­ing noth­ing about them, other than they seemed pe­cu­liar. He was later able to iden­tify the Lorenz pickup and pro­vide in­for­ma­tion for com­pos­ite sketches that would flood the po­lice with leads.

The Staffords, mean­while, trav­eled to Ok­la­homa City, where on July 16, they waited in­side the Sir­loin Stock­ade at SW 74 and Penn­syl­va­nia un­til clos­ing time.

Mean­while, Car­los Joy drove to the restau­rant to give his girl­friend, Terri Horst, a ride home. She gave him a soft drink and told him to wait in his car.

While wast­ing time driv­ing around the shop­ping cen­ter, Joy no­ticed a dirty green sta­tion wagon with the en­gine run­ning at the rear of the build­ing. He did an­other loop, then went in­side, call­ing Terri’s name.

Find­ing no one, he later tes­ti­fied, “he fig­ured they were hav­ing an of­fice meet­ing.”

But he grew wor­ried. He re­turned to his car, which had a CB ra­dio patched into a loud­speaker.

He said through his mi­cro­phone, “The build­ing is sur­rounded. This is the po­lice.”

Joy did not re­al­ize it at the time, but his ruse with the loud­speaker had prompted the Staffords to flee the restau­rant and speed out of the park­ing lot, onto In­ter­state 240, where they rear-ended an­other driver, said

Coats, the for­mer Ok­la­homa County dis­trict at­tor­ney.

That driver dur­ing the trial iden­ti­fied Roger Stafford as the driver of the get­away car. The brief en­counter would be a key el­e­ment on the path to jus­tice, Coats said.

Joy walked into the Sir­loin Stock­ade. Ac­cord­ing to trial cov­er­age by The Ok­la­homan, a restau­rant man­ager had driven to the lo­ca­tion af­ter his metic­u­lous as­sis­tant failed to phone in the re­ceipts to a dis­trict of­fice. The man­ager was the first to open the freezer and warned

Joy not to go in­side.

Joy went any­way. He yelled, “Oh, my

God, Terri,” spot­ting her amid a jum­ble of bod­ies, and heard her mum­bling. Horst, whose age at the time of her death has been re­ported as both 15 and 16, was a mem­ber of the state cham­pi­onship girls’ bas­ket­ball team and the only em­ployee still alive in the freezer, but she would die on ar­rival at Chil­dren’s Memo­rial Hos­pi­tal.

The vic­tims were Isaac Free­man, 56; David Lind­sey, 17; David Sals­man,

16; An­thony Tew, 17, Louis Zacharias, 43; and Horst.

The Staffords got away with $1,300, and the mur­ders. But not for long.

Mas­sive man­hunt

The slay­ings would touch off a mas­sive man­hunt and thou­sands of hours of in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Roger Dale Stafford’s brother, Harold, died six days af­ter the steak­house slay­ings in a Tulsa mo­tor­cy­cle crash. Some be­lieve it was a sui­cide.

It would be Roger Dale Stafford’s own hubris that led au­thor­i­ties to cap­ture him. On Jan. 3, 1979, drunk on two pints of whiskey, he called in a tip that named his brother and wife as sus­pects.

Be­fore the call, po­lice did not have any names. By mid-March, au­thor­i­ties had Verna and Roger Dale Stafford in cus­tody.

Verna Stafford would tes­tify that Roger Stafford had been an­gered by an as­sis­tant man­ager’s deroga­tory com­ments in­side the restau­rant be­fore he shot them all.

“The man­ager kept telling him he couldn’t un­der­stand why peo­ple couldn’t work for their own money in­stead of tak­ing it from oth­ers,” she tes­ti­fied in Oc­to­ber 1979.

Roger Stafford, she said, herded work­ers into the freezer and called his brother a cow­ard to goad him to help in the killings. He even forced Verna Stafford’s own hand on one of the guns and made her squeeze the trig­ger, she claimed at trial.

Arthur Linville, lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor on the cases with the Ok­la­homa

State Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion, told The Tulsa World in 1995 he never be­lieved rob­bery was the trio’s mo­tive, call­ing the steak­house deaths a “joy killing.”

On Oct. 17, 1979, an Ok­la­homa County jury con­victed then 27-yearold Robert Dale Stafford. A judge sen­tenced him to death.

Though the killings near Pur­cell hap­pened first, they were tried af­ter the Sir­loin Stock­ade slay­ings.

“This is my lit­tle nephew, Richard,” Melvin Lorenz’s brother, Den­nis Lorenz, told the jury on Feb. 28, 1980, dur­ing the Lorenz mur­der trial, The Ok­la­homan re­ported at the time. He held a photo of the dead boy and raised his head to glare at Roger Stafford.

Mean­while, Roger Dale Stafford’s de­fense at­tor- ney sought to min­i­mize his client’s role in the killings.

“You’re up here try­ing to pin this on your hus­band, aren’t you?” J. Malone Brewer de­manded of Verna Stafford.

“I’m up here try­ing to straighten things out,” she said on Feb. 28, 1980, in the McClain County court­house.

McClain County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Kay Huff, Ok­la­homa’s first fe­male dis­trict at­tor­ney, had long pre­pared to seek the death penalty in the Lorenz fam­ily slay­ings. A re­port from the time noted she sat be­hind Roger Dale Stafford at the ear­lier trial, at times just five feet away, tak­ing notes.

The Lorenz fam­ily, she said in her clos­ing ar­gu­ments in March 1980, had been “killed for kind­ness.”

“How will we feel when we pass a stranded mo­torist? Will we stop or go on think­ing for­ever of two men crouched be­hind a car?” Huff said. “Roger Dale Stafford de­stroyed for us one of the bet­ter qual­i­ties that sep­a­rates us from an­i­mals, our kind­ness, be­cause he used one of the worst qual­i­ties that also sep­a­rates us from an­i­mals, the sense­less slaugh­ter of our own kind.”

Stafford’s de­fense at­tor­ney con­tin­ued to ac­cuse Verna Stafford of ly­ing to save her­self.

For­ever felt

The jury sided with the pros­e­cu­tion. Roger Dale Stafford was sen­tenced to die for the triple slay­ing, bring­ing the tally of his death sen­tences to nine.

Af­ter the ver­dicts were read aloud and the trial ended, a non­cha­lant Stafford grinned and said “Bye-bye” to two of his sup­port­ers as he was led from the court­room.

Verna Stafford was yet to be charged.

Af­ter serv­ing as state’s prin­ci­pal wit­ness in the two tri­als, she pleaded guilty to two sec­ond­de­gree mur­der charges in March 1980 and was sen­tenced un­der a plea agree­ment to 10 years to life.

In 1982, the cou­ple di­vorced.

By 1989, Verna Stafford hoped to be re­leased af­ter a re­sen­tenc­ing. In­stead, an Ok­la­homa County dis­trict judge stiff­ened her sen­tence with two back-to-back life terms, telling her, “I would wa­ger that there’s one of the hottest corners of hell va­cant, with your name right above it ...”

Pros­e­cu­tors in 1989 told the judge she knew the rob­bery vic­tims were go­ing to be killed and she took a more ac­tive role than she ad­mits.

Roger Dale Stafford wore a wide grin un­til he lost con­scious­ness in the death cham­ber at the State Pen­i­ten­tiary in McAlester dur­ing his ex­e­cu­tion on July 1, 1995, for the Lorenz fam­ily slay­ings.

The sense­less­ness of the nine killings, the losses for­ever felt in the hearts of the vic­tims’ friends and fam­ily mem­bers were noth­ing but “dread­ful,” Coats said.

The only sil­ver lin­ing? Through a com­bi­na­tion of pub­lic vig­i­lance, dili­gent in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and quirks of fate that aided the pros­e­cu­tion, “The sys­tem worked,” he said.

[OK­LA­HOMAN AR­CHIVES PHOTO]

Pla­toons of po­lice­men de­scended on the Sir­loin Stock­ade, 1620 SW 74, af­ter the dis­cov­ery of five slain em­ploy­ees and one fa­tally wounded worker on July 16, 1978. Of­fi­cers combed ev­ery inch of the park­ing area in search for clues. Some dropped change was found, pos­si­bly rob­bery loot.

[OK­LA­HOMAN AR­CHIVES PHOTO]

LEFT: Roger Dale Stafford

ABOVE: Three of the vic­tims, from left, were David Lind­sey, 17, David Sals­man, 15, and Louis Zacarias, 43. The work­ers at the Sir­loin Stock­ade were slain on July 16, 1978, in what was then the worst mass mur­der in Ok­la­homa his­tory.

[OK­LA­HOMAN AR­CHIVES PHO­TOS]

LEFT: Guns used in slay­ings are .357 Mag­num, top left, which killed steak­house em­ploy­ees; .38-cal­iber Tau­rus, right, which killed Texas fam­ily; and at bot­tom a .22-cal­iber au­to­matic.

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