Meridian (Mississippi) Star, Monday, May 29, 1978
By SIDNEY CEARNAL
An odyssey of frustration for Alabama and Mississippi lawmen which began in the early morning hours of Monday, May 15 ended Friday, 10 days later when two Oklahoma prison escapees died after terrorizing rural residents from Texas and Alabama.
Claude Eugene Dennis, 35, and Michael Lancaster, 25, left a trail of robberies and deaths before they were finally killed in a gunbattle with Oklahoma law enforcement authorities.
"It started with me Monday morning a week ago." Choctaw County Sheriff Don Lolley said Friday afternoon. "My jailer called and said he had received a call from the Butler City Hall of shots being fired at the intersection of Highway 10 and Woodley Avenue.
"As I was getting into my pants." the sheriff said, "another call came saying Officer (Dean) Roberts was at the hospital."
"My first thought was they (the assailants) are at the car."
Lolley said, however, when he got to the police car there was no one there and the car was as Roberts had left it when he got out to check out a suspicious vehicle. The blue lights on top of the car were still on, he said.
When he got to the emergency room and saw Roberts, he said, the downed officer said "it was a red Camero with a Mississippi tag and two white male occupants." While Roberts was being prepared for a transfer to a Meridian hospital, the sheriff said, "he repeatedly told us it was a red Camero with two black stripes."
Sheriff Lolley said he put out a dispatch on the incident saying that the occupants of the vehicle were armed. "I wanted everyone to know they were dangerous and would shoot to kill."
"I thought at the time they (the fugitives) were putting as much distance between us and themselves as they could," he said.
The 35-year old sheriff had no idea at the time that the city officer's assailants were Dennis and Lancaster.
Earlier that same night, a Kewanee, Miss. service station had been robbed. Although the description of the car was not the same the same type of weapon, an automatic shotgun, had been used in both incidents. Lauderdale County Sheriff Everette Keller said later that Tuesday morning his officer was in contact with the Choctaw County sheriff trying to see if there was indeed a connection.
It later turned out that the two were unrelated.
"It was Tuesday morning before we found out they had stolen the red Camero from Buckatunna and apparently came into Alabama on U.S. 84 from Mississippi and then turned north to Butler on Alabama 17.
The idea that the assailants were fleeing the area continued to "be our reactions until they stole a black over yellow 1970 Mercury from the Tuscahoma Landing Road on Wednesday night approximately 9 p.m."
Lancaster and Dennis, the law officer found out later, had broken into a house on the road and eaten and then walked past a house trailer down into the street where the Mercury was parked beneath a street light.
When the two broke into the house, it was later discovered, they cut the telephone lines, took pillow cases, and took a single barrel shotgun which they later broke the stock off of.
"It will always be a mystery that they only carried the barrel," the sheriff said. "It also seemed to be a mystery at the time they would carry pillow cases"-that fact later "proved to be one of the things that helped identify them later."
As of Wednesday night Lolley and Keller were still of the opinion that the occupants of the red Camero had committed the Mississippi robbery, doubled back to Wayne County, stolen another vehicle and headed back north on U.S. 84.
Alabama trooper John Christenberry was in Cuba, Alabama in Sumter County north of Choctaw County that Wednesday night when he received word that the Mercury had been stolen and that officers were to be on the lookout for the car.
He said he proceeded to Alabama Highway 17 and set up a watch near the Sumter - Choctaw county line. During the past year, the trooper had tied with another Sumter County based trooper for the most stolen cars recovered in the state.
Several minutes after setting up the watch, Christenberry said he "saw lights coming north and recognized it (the car) as fitting the description of the stolen vehicle.
Christenberry said he flashed his spotlight on the vehicle and "that's when I realized something was wrong and I really started feeling eerie -- I couldn't see through the back window ... it seemed to be shattered and I didn't know how many people were in the car."
The trooper said the "minute I turned on my blue light they started shooting. I'll bet it didn't even go around one time."
Asked what he did then, the father of one who said his wife is expecting another child anytime answered "I turned it off."
He said he pulled off the road to "get glass out of my eyes" and as he was doing so, his right front tire was blown out with a blast.
Christenberry radioed his need for assistance and then drove back onto the road. He stayed a distance behind the car, he said, and the suspects "just eased on -- still shooting." He followed the car several miles, he said, even though he was traveling on the rim of the tire. Finally, he said, "I had to stop because I didn't know whether the car was on fire or not. The sparks (from the rim of the tire hitting the highway "were shooting a flame up over the fender."
In view of the fact that the escapees killed the three troopers in Oklahoma, Christenberry said he felt he "was lucky."
Sumter County Sheriff Melvin Stephens came into the picture at that time. Five days later, and elderly woman in his county was to die at the hands of the men, police have described as "thrill killers" but that Wednesday night all Stephens knew was that an Alabama State Trooper was being attacked in his county.
"I heard the call about 9:30 that night," Stephens said as he sat with Christenberry in his office
He Pulled Off The Road To 'Get Glass Out Of My Eyes ......'
Friday afternoon. Alabama Patrol Inspector Ed Billingsley went one way, the sheriff said and he went another, closing in on the area Christenberry was in from both the north and south ends of the highway. Billingsley reached the trooper first. "It was only a few minutes," Christenberry said but "it seemed like three hours." But, the black and yellow Mercury had disappeared.
The sheriff and highway patrol troopers began a search for the car still not knowing for sure that Christenberry's assailants were the same as Roberts although they suspected it.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Lolley had gone to Gadsden, Ala. to interview two people who were thought to be harboring a grudge for Roberts.
He said he had called his jail earlier Wednesday night from Gadsden and learned the Mercury had been stolen.
After interviewing the men being held, Lolley said, he "was going from the third floor of the Etowa County Court House to the docket room when the radio dispatcher stopped us with the report that two men had opened fire at an Alabama highway patrolman at the Sumter-Choctaw county line and were thought to be hemmed up on a Whitfield road." He said he arrived back in the Whitfield area about daybreak.
Sometime Thursday afternoon the sheriff said, he came back to Butler with the thought "just my own stubbornness, I guess" that the red Camero had been abandoned somewhere on the Tuscahoma Landing Road.
Lolley said he asked the Choctaw County Rescue Unit to get together a search party in the Landing Road area and search for the Camero.
"They located it just at dark by "just hard down looking," Lolley said. The area where the car was found was roped off, he said, and a search was started immediately from about 100 yards from the vehicle outward "looking for anything" that might lead to the suspects. The searchers had "no luck," Lolley said.
The car had been well camouflaged, the Choctaw County sheriff said. Lancaster and Dennis had driven it into a heavy brush and covered all reflective parts with a mixture of pine straw and mud. Then, the two men had covered the vehicle with branches of trees blending the abandoned vehicle into the landscape.
On Thursday night a vehicle had been reported stolen in Demopolis in Marengo County. The vehicle wrecked, Lolley said, and two men were seen leaving the vehicle. Marengo County officials called for bloodhounds and trailed their suspects to a house where they found two black juveniles. So another lead proved of no consequence.
"After we found the Camero," Lolley said, "it gave us knowledge of what we would be looking for" in the search for the Mercury.
"Then on Friday we had a report that a house trailer was burglarized near the Shalom Church near Whitfield, Alabama," Lolley said. The victims had reported that in addition to firearms and food, the burglars had taken pillowcases. At last a break.
Sheriff Lolley carried his personal bloodhounds into the area but they were unable to pick up a trail.
By that time, the two sheriffs had "pretty well decided" that the two men they were looking for were the Oklahoma escapees.
Alabama Highway Patrol Captain G.H. Jones had "remembered something about two Oklahoma escapees and contacted Oklahoma authorities. They confirmed them by their M.O.'s (method of operation), camouflaging vehicles and taking pillow cases and in most places the two would cut the telephone lines. The Oklahoma authorities also said "they would kill you."
Sometime Saturday morning a heavy concentrated search in the Whitfield area took place.
Saturday night two patrol officers and Lolley decided to "go ride and look for the car (the Mercury).
They wound up back at the church near the burglarized trailer, Lolley said, and the officers "decided to put ourselves in the shoes of the two firing the shots at Christenberry."
"The most logical thing would be to get off the road," he said.
The lawmen pulled off on a dirt road behind the church and got out of the car. "We saw a real dim road leading behind the church, he said, "and saw signs of a vehicle. We followed the road onto a small field and in the woods behind the field found grass which had been weighted down" indicating a car had been through there.
Capt. Jones and Lolley went into the woods behind the field and followed the road out to another open area where an old hood was resting on a tree. "Behind the opening about 200 yards, we saw the reflection of a tail light. We spread out and very slowly walked to where it could be verified it was a car," Lolley said.
"We discussed whether to go on to the car but pulled back until Saturday morning until fingerprint experts could get there.
"By then the (Alabama Board of Corrections) bloodhounds arrived and picked up a track about 20-30 yards away. It appeared to be a very hot track." Lolley, Sheriff Stephens, a lumber man who knew the area, and Livingston Police Chief Larry Moody and others "ran the track three or three and a half miles to a creek. It was just like you had cut a rope into the trail," Lolley said. "We didn't know where they had gone."
Lolley said "I'm sure they were there (at the car) when we (he and Jones) were. I don't know why they didn't kill us."
The rest of Saturday, Sunday and Sunday night the search was concentrated around the Whitfield Road area. More than 300 law officers are said to have taken part in it.
Then late Monday afternoon, the searchers pulled out and began searching the Kinterbish area, south of the Whitfield road search area. There had been reports of a man being seen in the woods behind the Kinterbish Mercantile area. The search in that area continued through Monday night.
Then Tuesday morning, Sheriff Stephens received a call that there was a problem at the home of Miss Stacey Beavers in Cuba. "I knew right away what it was," the Sumter County sheriff said.
He went to the Beavers home and found the 69-year-old woman dead just inside her front door. "She had a wound behind each ear and her throat had been cut." Stephens said. And, the sheriff found the telephone wires leading to the house had been cut.
When he heard of the Beavers murder, Lolley said, "I was sick. I went on up to the home where she had been killed. The sheriff was awfully upset."
Tracing Miss Beavers steps Monday night, the lawmen determined she had probably been killed when she returned home about 9 p.m. from a church social. "She still had the front door key in her hand when she was found," Stephens said, which led him to believe the woman was met by the two fugitives as she unlocked her door and hit from behind.
Bloodhounds brought to the scene picked up a trail leading to the house from railroad tracks behind the home. Lancaster and Dennis were known to favor traveling on railroad tracks.
Miss Beavers' car was also missing and the lawmen knew the two had probably had 10 or 11 hours advantage on them. But, they continued to search the Kinterbish area hoping for some sign of a break.
The news of Miss Beavers death put West Central Alabama and East Central Mississippi area residents in a state of terror. Lancaster and Dennis had succeeded in alluding searchers for a week. Where would they strike next?
The Mississippi Highway Patrol set up a command post about 8 a.m. Tuesday in the yard of the J.D. Hurtt's at Rt.1, Toomsuba. Shortly after noon, Alabama authorities moved their command post to the same location.
Keller and his deputies had been in contact with the Alabama sheriff's throughout the proceeding week and the Lauderdale County sheriff arrived at the command post for a more in-depth planning session.
The Choctaw County Rescue Unit, who had been with the searchers since Thursday in Alabama, also were there dispensing food, drinks, and other comforts for the searching officers. The Lauderdale County Red Cross set up an aid station at the scene Tuesday afternoon and said they planned to remain throughout the search.
Bloodhounds from the Mississippi Board of Corrections arrived from Parchman to assist the Alabama dogs.
All day Tuesday and Tuesday night, the officers tracked down leads. People were scared and reports of suspicious characters were abundant.
At one road block, reporters found Trooper Christenberry, the man who probably most wanted the fugitives.
Then, Wednesday morning, a message came in from Bryan County Oklahoma that the Beavers
'She Had A Wound Behind Each Ear And Her Throat Had Been Cut'
woman's car had been found abandoned in that county. Following Miss Beavers' murder, Lancaster and Dennis had apparently gone back to the county from which they had originally escaped.
For the Alabama and Mississippi lawmen the immediate danger was ended. But, they were still uneasy lest the two backtracked once again back into this area of the country.
Finally on Friday morning, after killing three Oklahoma highway patrolmen, Lancaster and Dennis died in the drive-way of a home in the small Oklahoma town of Caddo. The furious gun battle left another Oklahoma patrolman slightly wounded.
"It was a high cost (the murdered lawmen) for such low class people," Sheriff Keller said after learning of the deaths. He said his entire staff was "deeply saddened" by the deaths of the patrolmen.
Sheriff Lolley said, "I don't like to see anybody die but it was a thrill to know Dennis and Lancaster were dead."
Sumter County Sheriff Stephens said he was "glad of it. I'm just sorry they had to take three officers with them."
And, Trooper Christenberry, who was one of five people who came in contact with the escapees and lived to tell of it said, "I'm glad they are dead. I only wish I could have been there to help. I guess the Lord was just with me."