Back in my early newspaper days, we young reporters would grouse about stonewalling officials and bigwigs committing dubious deeds. A common refrain was, “This is a clear-cut case for tactical nuclear weaponry.”

          We had no such arsenal, of course. We were smiling. And, most importantly, many of our tormentors were pals of our publisher.

          Nearly 50 years later, such talk could be construed as a terroristic threat. And often is.

          Early in July, KFOR-TV reported, “A Del City man has been charged with threatening a judge in Tulsa.

          “Del City police said Danny Hass was accused of asking his divorce lawyer how much it will cost to kill a judge.”

          The divorce proceedings took place in 2007. The conversation with his lawyer, late last year.

          Statute 21-1378 of the Oklahoma statutes addresses, “Attempting, conspiring or endeavoring to perform act of violence involving serious bodily harm or death – Threats – Devising plan, scheme or program of action to cause serious bodily harm or death.”

          Three sections address actual attempts, a felony; threats, a misdemeanor and another felony involving, “Any person who shall devise any plan, scheme or program of action to cause serious bodily harm or death of another person with intent to perform such malicious act of violence, whether alone or by conspiring with others.”

          Hass appears to fall into the second category. Making a threat.

          He obviously lacks the right contacts.

          In April, McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, County Commissioner Mark Jennings and sheriff’s Capt. Alicia Manning were caught on tape discussing (planning or scheming?) the possible demise of McCurtain Gazette-News reporter Chris Willingham and his father Bruce, the paper’s publisher.

          Jennings opines, “ I know where two big deep holes are here if you ever need them.” When Clardy says he has an excavator, Jennings replies, “ Well, these are already pre-dug.”

          After an apparent aside about the newspaper’s investigation into possible Sheriff Department troubles, Jennings offers, “ I’ve known, I’ve known two or three hit men, they’re very quiet guys (who) would cut no fucking mercy….in Louisiana. Cause this is all Mafia around here.”

          That’s pretty scary talk coming from people who do have arsenals. Yet, at the end of June, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said that the investigation by his office and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation found, “no evidence of criminal acts or other conduct that would be statutory grounds for ouster proceedings.”

          The investigation came at the insistence of Gov. Kevin Stitt, whose call for the resignation of the three caught on tape plus two others –  Commissioner Mark Jennings and jail administrator Larry Hendrix – resulted in only Jennings’ resignation.

          But, Drummond, gave those discussing disposing of newsmen a pass:

          ““While I understand this outcome may be frustrating to you after calling for the Sheriff’s resignation and removal, it is the only appropriate conclusion under the law,” he wrote in a letter to Stitt,  “There are countless examples of incidents from across the country where public officials make inflammatory comments that spark severe condemnation. Oftentimes the offending official resigns in disgrace. Sometimes the outrage fades and the matter is forgotten. Regardless, there is no provision of law in Oklahoma to throw elected officials out of office merely for saying something offensive.”

          Those “inflammatory comments” included crude joking comparing the body of a house fire victim to barbecue and Jennings lamenting “back in the day” when a former sheriff “would take a damned Black guy and whoop their ass and throw them in a cell.”

          Jennings said he would run for sheriff if such conditions prevailed today. But, the sheriff told him, “It’s not like that no more.”

          “I know,” Jennings said. “Take ‘em down on Mud Creek and hang ‘em up on a damn rope. But you can’t do that no more. They got more rights that we got.”

          If you notice, Drummond addressed the “inflammatory” racist comments, free speech that they are. But, he sidestepped those threats against the Willinghams – pre-dug holes and hitmen. Nor does he stray from the topic of an official ouster proceeding toward the threats themselves.

          Many McCurtain County residents protested after their officials’ remarks were publicized. One of them, Lonnie Watson, expressed what many might think:

          “If it was you, me and the mayor talking about doing that to the sheriff, what do you think would happen to us?” he asked  Tulsa’s 2News. “It wouldn’t be locker room talk, then, would it? No, it wouldn’t.”

          Is the evidence less compelling than that against Hass wondering about the cost of a hitman?

          Then, on July 19, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol arrested a man for phoning in a bomb threat against the AG’s Office.

          According to KFOR, the man called in the threat to the Highway Patrol, declared that he wanted to speak to a captain or lieutenant and told the dispatcher to send a SWAT team to the AG’s office.

          An OHP bomb unit and OKC police were at the scene when the aggrieved guy arrived. They took him into custody without incident – and no bomb was found. Nor was he reported to be armed.

          I doubt if the suspect was sent on his way without even a slap on the wrist. We wait for AG Drummond to defend his free speech rights.

          Meanwhile, following Drummond’s exoneration of the McCurtain County officials, Chris Willingham told Tulsa’s 2News, “The AG’s office has never contacted me once throughout this entire thing, which is kind of upsetting.”

          Well, wagon-circling officials don’t need too much outside information when it comes to taking care of their own kind.

          The younger Willingham also told the TV station that he is planning to move since the threat has limited his family’s existence to work and church.

          “I am somewhat jaded by this and I just don’t want to raise my children here anymore,” he said. “If we see a sheriff’s deputy vehicle, my children are terrified. My youngest asked me, ‘Dad, are they going to kill you?’ and I wish I could answer, ‘Of course not!’ But I can’t.”

          (Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party.)

Threats depend on who’s talking

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