The Daily Oklahoman, Thursday, July 27, 1978

Fatal OHP Shootout - How Could It Happen?

By Judy Fossett

How could it happen?

Two convicts crawl through a utility tunnel to freedom on April 23, and 34 days later, a stunned state counts 11 persons dead or missing. In that number are the fugitives themselves, killed in a final showdown with Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers.

And more specifically, how could it happen that three troopers, three veteran law enforcement officers, lose their lives at the hands of the escapees, Claude Dennis and Michael Lancaster?

OHP officials seeking an answer to that question found it in the filming of a reconstruction of the events of the morning of May 26 when Patrolmen H.F. Summers, Billy Young and Lt. Pat Grimes were killed and Lt. Hoyt Hughes was wounded in pitched gun battles that also took the lives of Dennis and Lancaster.

It is in this 70-minute videotape of interviews with witnesses and camera views of what these witnesses saw that provide a virtual step by step dramatization of those final minutes.

It was shortly before 10 a.m. on April 26 that Russell Washington and a friend, G.D. Busby, entered Washington's home in rural Kenefic to find themselves face to face with fugitives Lancaster and Dennis.

"Hi'ya, boys," Dennis said. Washington, knowing the two must be the wanted men, murmured to himself, "Lord, help us," and walked into the room.

For the film, Washington told how Lancaster tied them at Dennis' instructions and that Dennis told him, "I know you're a family man and a hard-working old boy and I'm not going to kill you." He said Dennis told him, "If  you'd been connected with the courts or on the jury that convicted me or a law enforcement officer, I'd kill you in a minute."

Just seven minutes later, Dennis and Lancaster would have their opportunity.

Aware of a roadblock north of the Washington house on SH 48, the fugitives take Washington's blue pickup truck and turn east on a Bryan County road south of Kenefic. Washington frees himself and notifies the patrol his truck has been stolen.

Troopers Summers and Young, assigned as a roving patrol in that area, drive west on that same county road, unaware they are moments from death.

According to OHP reconstruction, the patrol car and the blue pickup stop face to face about 80 yards apart near the homes of Dorothy Haggerty and Etta Mae Renfro. From inside their homes, the two women watch the drama unfold.

Young, perhaps still unsure this is the truck the fugitives have stolen, leaves the patrol car and walks 35 feet toward the truck, taking some cover from a tree at the side of the road. Summers takes cover behind the passenger door.

Dennis and Lancaster are apparently still inside the truck.

Lancaster fires one round of buckshot, Young fires four rounds and Summers fires once with his 30-30 rifle. Young retreats behind the patrol car to reload while Dennis and Lancaster take positions behind the truck.

Intense fire from the fugitives shatters the back and front windshields as well as the window where Summers is crouching, sending slivers into Summers eyes and blinding him. As Summers tries to wipe his eyes and radio for help, he is shot in the upper left side of his back.

Young, apparently still trying to reload, peers around the patrol car either to see Dennis and Lancaster or to check on the injured Summers. He is fatally shot in the forehead.

Mrs. Haggerty sees "one patrolman under the car face up. He was hurt real bad or was dead." She calls for an ambulance. Next door, Mrs. Renfro "went and got a shotgun and some shells handy just in case they came to my house."

Having gotten no return fire from the fallen troopers, Dennis and Lancaster get back into the truck and drive-slowly toward the patrol car, firing at the wounded Summers as they approach. Missing him with shots through the front of the car, they draw closer.

One of the gunmen fires the fatal shot at Summers at almost point-blank range as the veteran trooper crouches partially inside the car, his arm raised futilely for protection.

Seconds later, the pickup truck is spotted by troopers in the highway patrol airplane as the vehicle moves deliberately toward Caddo. Enroute, too, are Lt. Pat Grimes and Lt. Hoyt Hughes in one car and Lt. Mike Williams in another.

Grimes and Hughes, who is driving, arrive first.

As pilot Lloyd Basinger watches from the circling plane and directs the ground search, the two fugitives drive into a residential area of Caddo, turning suddenly into a driveway only yards from an alley that leads to at least momentary freedom.

Hughes, recounting those dramatic final moments, said he and Grimes pulled up even with the driveway thinking only of the children playing in the street as potential hostages. He expected the two fugitives to be holed up inside the house.

As he and Grimes look right into the driveway, they find themselves looking down the barrel of Lancaster's shotgun.

"We observed the subject (Lancaster) raise up and put his gun to his shoulder. I reached around Pat and fired one or two rounds (with a service revolver). Then the window exploded and we were either knocked by the concussion or we ducked.

"We raised back up ... and about that time Pat was hit." Pat was killed.

Hughes empties his gun at Lancaster, fatally wounding him, then grabs the semi-automatic rifle in Grimes' lap and empties that at the gunmen.

There is still smoke in the air from the first round of gunfire when Lt. Williams pulls up several yards away. He sees Lancaster stagger and fall. As Lancaster begins to crawl away, Williams "takes a bead" on him.

He watches as Dennis, in a crouched position, "watched Hoyt Hughes, stood straight up, looked at Hoyt Hughes, then turned toward my position. I took aim and fired three to four rounds (with a semi-automatic rifle). The subject was staggering and as he turned I fired four or five more rounds and the subject went down."

Williams walks cautiously toward the yard where the two gunmen lay. Dennis is dead. Lancaster, shot in the neck near his ear by Hughes, is still alive "on the ground moving." Both subjects were on the ground, one still moving slightly, turning, looking at me.

"He tried to put his hands up. He'd raise them and they'd fall," Williams said. But minutes later, Lancaster, too, is dead.

Hughes has been shot in the shoulder.

Officials say Dennis and Lancaster deliberately caused the shootout that cost them their lives and finally ended a 34-day spree that left a trail of abandoned roadblocks, stolen cars and 11 bodies, including their own.

Could it happen again?

OHP officials, who insist they have "learned" from this tragic episode, shrugged their shoulders Wednesday and said, "Yes, because we can't control events. If we're ambushed, we're ambushed."

Lt. Larry Owens, who headed the videotaping team, agrees: "We don't get to shoot first."