“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.