Residents of Murray County outraged by deal in rape case
MURRAY COUNTY — In south Oklahoma, among sandstone hills and the Arbuckle Mountains, the state’s third smallest county is reeling from what residents say is an inexplicable humiliation.
It was here last month that a man pleaded guilty to raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl at Falls Creek church camp, and received probation.
In the aftermath, this rural county of roughly 13,000 residents — who otherwise take pride in their high school football teams, the rich beauty of the rolling landscape and the ever-present draw of Turner Falls Park — has endured scorn from outsiders as news of the plea deal spread.
Outside the courthouse in the town of Sulphur this week, people still brimmed with outrage at a decision they say has disgraced their community.
Wyvondia Baker works at a convenience store off the highway. Strangers talk about the case when they pass through the shop.
Sitting in a car with her husband, she reached for a cigarette, looked up at the courthouse, and said visitors to the county have offered to bring about a justice Murray County was unable to muster.
“So many people who don’t even live here say how awful it is,” she said. “Men are saying, ‘let me get my hands on him.’ I had respect for this court until this happened. Something needs to be done. Rape a girl and don’t get jail. That’s not right.”
Her husband, Kenny Baker, sat in the driver’s seat and shook his head.
“I think he needs to be in the penitentiary, tied up and everything else,” he said. “The D.A., the judge, I think they should resign. This ain’t real to me. It’s a crying shame. People around here, they don’t like it a bit. They ought to look in the courthouse and see what’s going on.”
‘Shame on Oklahoma’
Benjamin Lawrence Petty, a 36-year-old Spencer man, was at the church camp as a cook when he tied rope around the girl’s wrists, raped her and then threatened her with physical harm if she told anyone, according to the criminal charge.
Murray County Assistant District Attorney David Pyle, who negotiated the guilty plea, said Petty is “legally blind” and that was a major factor in his decision not to insist on prison time.
Pyle also claimed that the girl and her parents live out of state, and they didn’t want to travel back and forth for the case.
In the fallout from the court’s decision, Pyle’s boss, the elected District Attorney Craig Ladd, admitted he was unaware of discussions between Pyle and the victim or her attorneys, about any aspect of the case.
Pyle abruptly resigned his post. Reached by phone this week, Pyle said “I don’t want to make anymore statements about this deal.”
Ladd was in trial this week and could not be reached for comment.
District Judge Wallace Coppedge said at the Jan. 19 hearing for Petty the “only reason” he sentenced Petty to probation was he had been assured the victim and her family agreed to the deal. Instead of prison, Coppedge gave Petty a punishment of 15 years on probation after he entered a negotiated guilty plea to three felonies.
First-degree rape. Forcible sodomy. Rape by instrumentation.
Petty also will be required to wear an ankle monitor for 24 months, register as a sex offender and obtain treatment.
Reached by phone this week, Coppedge declined to comment on his decision, citing conduct codes that prohibit judges from talking about cases.
More than 64,000 people from across the U.S. and around the world have signed an online petition calling for Coppedge to be removed as judge.
A person from the United Kingdom signed the document and wrote that Coppedge, who won an unopposed campaign for the post in 2010 and again in 2014, is not fit for the job.
“Shame on Oklahoma,” the person wrote. “You are disgusting.”
Rising to 1,400 feet above sea level at their western edge, the Arbuckle Mountains and their deposits of limestone, sandstone, and shale provide fertile ground for endeavoring geologists.
The Washita River cuts through the range, and Lake of the Arbuckles is a common destination for outdoorsmen, campers and boaters.
It is to this range that more than 50,000 youth arrive each year at Falls Creek church camp. It is there that the 13-year-old girl was raped in June 2016, according to court records filed in a civil lawsuit.
The rapist was brought to the camp to serve as a cook by The Country Estates Baptist Church of Midwest City, according to that lawsuit.
The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma is a cooperative owned by a partnership of Oklahoma Baptist churches. It owns and operates Falls Creek.
Area residents speak reverently about the camp. Many have attended retreats at Falls Creek, and sent sons and daughters there. But the rape case and subsequent furor over Petty’s sentence has Baptist leadership seeking to still the shaken faith of its Sooner State members.
In a Feb. 1 letter, Anthony L. Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, wrote “For more than 100 years, God has poured out His blessings on this special place. It is our prayer God’s wonderful grace and mighty mercy would continue to shine brightly at Falls Creek.”
Jordan called the matter “heart-wrenching,” and said he was shocked to hear Petty received a suspended sentence for his crimes. The spiritual well-being and safety of campers continues to be the ministry’s top priority, Jordan wrote.
“In my quiet moments with the Lord, I find my prayers focused on the camper, her family and everyone who has been affected,” he wrote.
Petty was not an employee or a volunteer of Falls Creek, ministry officials said. Still, the BGCO has reviewed its processes, which already include background checks, said Brian Hobbs, BGCO communications director.
More than 2.3 million campers and guests have enjoyed the ministry of Falls Creek, Hobbs said.
“Based on the overwhelming support we have received in recent weeks, we have confidence the ministry of Falls Creek will indeed move forward in 2018 and beyond,” he said.
‘The full extent’
State Highway 7 rolls through a part of southern Oklahoma some still call “Little Dixie.”
It’s a highway flanked by trees and pastures, the occasional vacant store and rusted trailer, then small businesses and the first of several churches, before cutting into the hearts of rural towns, where commerce and civic life abide.
In Murray County, this strip of Sooner State can lead one to a stay at The Artesian luxury hotel in Sulphur.
A traveler might stop and stare at the old KFC bucket sign slouched in front of a place called “Junk City USA” in Davis.
From there, visitors frequently drive south on U.S. 77 and stop for lunch at Smokin Joe’s Rib Ranch.
Outside the rustic barbecue joint on Jollyville Road, where locals and tourists alike enjoy big portions and a steady flow of classic country music, customers are still talking about what happened just down the highway at Falls Creek.
And in a Sulphur courthouse. For many here, the phrase “legally blind” triggers a visceral response.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with it,” said Lester Hawkins, of Stratford in nearby Garvin County. “That girl is ruined for the rest of her life. I think he got off way too easy. I believe if someone does something like that, they should get the full extent.”
Across the highway, at the Arbuckle Mountain Motel, owner Judy Chapman said she has never heard of such a thing happening at the Falls Creek camp. The land is “anointed” by God, she said.
Chapman glanced south, to the land where a man inflicted terror on a little girl, where he invited hell on Murray County.
“I think he should’ve gone away for life,” she said.
Kenny Baker and his wife, Wyvondia, share their opinions about the rape case sentencing agreement from inside their car after they finished business inside the Murray County Courthouse.
The entrance to Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center.
The north entrance to the Murray County Courthouse in Sulphur.
A sign directs visitors to the entrance of Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center.