Editor's Note: The Tulsa World spent a year producing a six-part narrative in 2017 on what remains perhaps the state's most infamous cold case: the unsolved murders of three girls — Lori Farmer, Denise Milner and Michele Guse — at a Girl Scout camp near Locust Grove 43 years ago. Arrested after an intense manhunt, Gene Leroy Hart, who was charged with the crimes, was ultimately acquitted after a sensational trial. The series examines the details of what happened and the lingering effects on those who survived.
CHAPTER ONE: INTO THE DARKNESS
Total, all-consuming darkness.
Michelle Hoffman has never forgotten her first experience with it.
"My first year at Camp Scott I remember going 'Whoa!' — because it is dark, dark, dark in those woods at night," she said.
"If you've never been camping in a platform tent in the deep woods, it's a little intimidating."
"After your first time there," she added, "you get it. You're just prepared. It's going to be dark."
For the Girl Scouts of the Tulsa-based Magic Empire Council, the dark nights were all part of the experience of Camp Scott, where their annual two-week summer camps were held.
Hoffman was 9 years old her first summer there.
She had fallen in love with everything about it, she said — the hiking, swimming, the sleeping in tents — and had come back every year.
Hoffman's seventh summer was going to be different, though. For one thing, she was no longer a camper. At 15, she had "aged out." Instead, she would serve as an aide to the camp director.
Something else was different, too, although Hoffman had no way of knowing it going in.
Every summer up to then, despite what a little girl's imagination might sometimes conjure up, the night had not been hiding any real terrors.
But that summer, in June 1977, there was something in the darkness at Camp Scott that had not been there before.
On the morning of Sunday, June 12, by the time Hoffman arrived at Girl Scout headquarters in Tulsa, the parking lot was already swarming.
"There were girls everywhere," she said, "excited, loading up the buses."
But in all the hubbub, one girl caught her eye.
"She just stood out to me," Hoffman said, recalling the first time she saw Denise Milner.
A 10-year-old Girl Scout who was going to camp for the first time, "Denise was one of the only African-American girls in the group. I could tell she was nervous," Hoffman said.
Thinking she could use a little encouragement, Hoffman walked over and introduced herself to Denise and her mother, Bettye Milner.
Denise was feeling homesick, Bettye told her, and not wanting to go.
"Why don't you come with me?" Hoffman offered. "We'll ride down together."
Denise agreed, and the two claimed the front seat of their bus. Bettye came on board with them to say goodbye, then left. But she came back again just before the bus pulled out, Hoffman said.
"She wanted to ask me, if Denise was still homesick tomorrow, if I would help her to call home," she recalled. "I assured her I would. Although I knew full well we don't normally do that. You try to divert the kids from being homesick. And calling home does not help."
On the hour-and-a-half journey that followed, Denise mostly stayed quiet and stared out of the window. Hoffman helped lead camp songs.
She tried to talk to Denise a little, she said, doing her best to be encouraging.
"I kept saying 'You're going to do great, you'll have a good time.'"
In her "15-year-old wisdom," Hoffman added, she had no reason to doubt that.
Located two miles from the town of Locust Grove in Mayes County, about 50 miles from Tulsa, Camp Scott had been operated by the Girl Scouts since 1928.
With a creek on site and occupying 410 acres of the area's densely wooded hill country, the camp was an ideal spot to leave civilization behind and was used by the Scouts year-round.
The units, consisting of several campers' tents and a counselors' tent, were named after Indian tribes.
The tents themselves, about 12-by-14 feet, with canvas sides that could be rolled up, sat on wooden platforms and held four cots for sleeping.
For the first two-week session in June 1977, more than 130 campers were attending, most of them from the Tulsa area.
Arrival at Camp Scott, Hoffman said, was always a sort of "stepping off."
Turning off Oklahoma 82 onto Cookie Trail Road — the narrow route to the camp entrance — it was like the wilderness suddenly sprang to life, looming up on all sides.
On the buses, the singing and talking would start to die down, and an expectant hush fall over the campers.
"It's dark,” Hoffman said. “There's trees that line the road. It changes. You can feel people quiet down. It's like 'Well, here we are.'"
"Camp Scott was an important place for me," Hoffman said. "It was really where I started growing up."
Her hope, after the 1977 session, was to train to become a counselor, she said.
And after that — who knew? One day she might even become camp director.
That was her dream, she said.
When the campers arrived on Sunday afternoon, things went according to plan.
Spilling out of their buses, the girls scurried to find their units and tents, dropping off their sleeping bags and backpacks.
Hoffman stuck with Denise.
She helped her grab her things, she said, then, together, they went to find her tent in the Kiowa unit.
When Hoffman saw it, she couldn't help smiling. It was the same tent in which she had spent one of her own summer camps.
In fact, she told Denise, Kiowa Tent No. 8 was pretty much her all-time favorite tent.
Later, she'd claimed it on her troop's camp outings.
The tents were arranged in a horseshoe shape and, while technically the last one in the row, Hoffman liked it because "it was close to the bathroom and the kitchen unit."
Once, she even wrote her name inside it.
The canvas had been changed out, though, so it wasn't there anymore, she said.
As the kids in the Kiowa unit began settling in, Carla Wilhite did her best to put names with faces.
Denise's face made a definite impression.
"She was just a beautiful and radiant child," said Wilhite, 18 at the time and one of three Kiowa counselors. "She was the only African-American and a first-time camper, and I remember thinking we would want to make sure she had a good start and great experience."
Both of which seemed likely.
Denise and her tent mates, Michele and Lori, had not known each other. But they appeared to be bonding quickly, Wilhite said.
Individually "three of the quietest kids," their tent was "just as loud and lively as many of the other tents," she said.
Late Sunday evening, after some songs around the campfire, Hoffman returned to check on Denise.
She found her getting ready for bed with her two new friends. Just as Hoffman had hoped, she seemed to be adjusting.
"Good night, see you in the morning," she told Denise cheerfully.
A few minutes later, Hoffman was climbing into her own cot in another unit.
"The first day is exhausting," she said. "You are wiped out from the sun and the excitement and the girls."
Except for an early-evening thunderstorm, which had given the camp a good soaking, everything had gone pretty much like normal, Hoffman added.
She just knew everyone would sleep well, and wake up ready for a fun Monday.
Around the camp, one by one, lights went out.
Before turning in, a lot of the girls engaged in a little horseplay with their flashlights.
One of them was 10-year-old Amy Sullivan.
Another first-time camper, she wrote in her diary that night by flashlight.
When she finally switched it off, the last in her tent to do so, she remembers the feeling of being swallowed up by darkness.
"It was the darkest dark I had ever known," she said, adding it was both a little scary and little magical at the same time. "I couldn't tell if my eyes were open or shut."
Sullivan didn't know it then, but that darkness would stay with her. "It became my personal measure of any darkness — from that night forward, and ever after."
Not only could the campers not see anything, not much could be heard either.
The platform tents were sturdy structures, and the trees and undergrowth crowding in helped absorb sound.
Gradually, the giggles subsided. The girls drifted off.
By 8 a.m. Monday, June 13, just as Tulsa-area residents were getting the work week started, the first news reports were beginning to break.
At first it sounded too strange — the kind of news you ask to hear a second time and then a third to make sure you understand.
Three Girl Scouts had been found dead at Camp Scott near Locust Grove.
The reports differed initially over the circumstances — whether the deaths were foul play or some freak mishap.
But as the morning advanced, more details emerged.
And they were shocking.
Three Tulsa Girl Scouts had been beaten to death overnight at Camp Scott.
Initial evidence indicated they had also been raped.
Police were looking for a killer or killers.
Just under 24 hours earlier, they had been dropping their daughters off for camp and saying their goodbyes.
Now, the families began to get the alarming news about the deaths.
They heard it in different ways. One mother was at a beauty shop when the news came over the radio there.
"They were about to blow my hair dry, and I rushed to the phone and called my husband," she told a reporter later.
Through Scouts officials, families were able to learn that the buses would be bringing their children back to Tulsa.
And before noon, they began gathering at the council building in anticipation.
There, huddled in groups, some inside, others on the lawn, they waited.
Although they knew that the victims' families had been informed, most of those on hand were firm in their agreement: They would not — could not — rest until they saw their child step off that bus.
That would take a while.
And the waiting only fed the tension.
"I won't believe she's all right until I see her," one mother told a reporter. As she walked back and forth, the woman patted other parents on their arms — as if by reassuring others she was reassuring herself.
About 2:15 p.m., the three Greyhound buses finally arrived. Before the doors even opened, the waiting groups "surged forward, straining for a glimpse," the Tulsa Tribune reported.
As the campers began, one at a time, to emerge, more than a few of the adults fought back tears.
The campers still knew nothing of what had happened. And the scene before them — parents, news cameras and vans — only added to their confusion.
"I think every single one of us on the buses just stood up when we saw them all," said Sullivan, the camper who'd been writing in her diary the night before. "It was like a mob scene."
Explanations, for most, would have to wait, though.
Sullivan remembers her grandmother, who picked her up because her parents were in Dallas, looking distraught as she came out of the crowd.
Together they collected her things and then drove away.
"A few minutes later at a stoplight," Sullivan recalled, "I remember looking at her very closely. I asked her what happened."
"Oh, honey," her grandmother replied, crying. "Three girls were killed at your camp last night."
"'Killed?'" Sullivan asked. The word didn't quite register.
"'At camp? While I slept?' I could not understand how that could be."
Among the girls on the buses, she said, the rumors had been swirling. However, "the possibility of a tragedy didn't enter my 10-year-old brain."
The light turned green, and her grandmother accelerated. But the tears on her cheeks, Sullivan remembers, stayed there, as if frozen.
That night in her diary, after her own tears had finally come, Sullivan tried to sum up the day:
"I came home from camp," she wrote, "because something happened at camp. Three girls got killed ..."
Sullivan doesn't remember when, but sometime later she crossed out "killed" and above it wrote "murdered."
"Before this," she said, "I didn't even know what that word meant."
After the buses had left Camp Scott for Tulsa, Michelle Hoffman stayed behind, helping camp officials as they assisted authorities.
Unable to even begin absorbing what had happened, she spent much of the day, she said, answering the main office phone. It rang constantly, with calls coming in from media around the world.
Hoffman finally got back to Tulsa that evening.
Met by her mother, she said, it was then, for the first time all day, that she cried.
"For some reason, (seeing my mother) made it real," she said.
The worst moment, though, wouldn't come for a few days.
Hoffman still remembers how it hit her — the terrible revelation. Sitting in the living room with her parents, she was poring over the newspaper and the latest reports about the murders.
For the umpteenth time, she looked at the victims' faces, read the names.
Lori Lee Farmer.
Doris Denise Milner.
And suddenly Hoffman felt very sick.
The bus ride to camp flashed in her mind, then the bedtime check-in. "Good night. See you in the morning" — suddenly it all came back.
Up to that moment, the first name "Doris" — and the artificial quality of the photo — had thrown her, kept her from making the connection.
"Oh my God, Mom," Hoffman blurted out, holding up the newspaper.
"This is the girl I rode the bus with!
"This — is Denise."
The complete Girl Scout Murders series
Chapter 1: Tulsans react to the stunning news that three area girls have been murdered at a Girl Scout camp near Locust Grove.
Chapter 2: The largest manhunt in Oklahoma history kicks off in pursuit of two-time prison escapee Gene Leroy Hart, who, despite being charged with the murders, has a growing number of supporters.
Chapter 3: One of the state's most-anticipated and sensational trials pits a seasoned, successful district attorney from Tulsa County against a scrappy, young Oklahoma City defense attorney in a battle over evidence and accusations that Hart is being framed.
Chapter 4: Officials stop pursuing the case despite a not-guilty verdict, and Hart dies unexpectedly while in prison for unrelated crimes.
Chapter 5: In the years following the murders, the survivors and others affected continue trying to make sense of it all, while maintaining hope that advancements in DNA testing may ultimately bring answers.
Chapter 6: After 40 years, the victims' families show their resilience, undeterred by the mystery that still surrounds the case.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!