‘Not right’

Res­i­dents of Mur­ray County out­raged by deal in rape case

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOSH DULANEY Staff Writer jdu­laney@ok­la­homan.com

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.”

‘Our prayer’

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.

[PHO­TOS BY JIM BECKEL, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

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.

[PHO­TOS BY JIM BECKEL, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

The north en­trance to the Mur­ray County Court­house in Sul­phur.

A sign di­rects visi­tors to the en­trance of Falls Creek Bap­tist Con­fer­ence Cen­ter.

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