The Tulsa World, Saturday, May 27, 1978

33-Day Reign Of Terror Ends In Caddo Gunfight

Of the World Staff

"I feel like Lancaster and Dennis got exactly what they deserved," Alabama State Trooper John Christenberry said Friday afternoon after learning they had been killed in a gunfight. "I just wished I could have been there to do it."

Claude Eugene Dennis and Charles Lancaster, escapees from the Oklahoma State Prison in McAlester, died Friday during a bloody shoot-out in Caddo. The battle ended a 33-day rampage that left at least eight others dead -- including three Oklahoma Highway Patrolmen shot to death Friday -- and triggered intense manhunts in 11 states.

Christenberry was one of the luckier persons encountering the pair--he's unhurt and alive.

Dennis and Lancaster were suspected of five murders and wounding a Butler, Ala., policeman when Christenberry tried to stop them early May 17 on a secluded country road a few miles north of the Sumter-Choctaw county line in southwest Alabama. The escapees, driving a stolen station
wagon, fired at Christenberry at least five times, crippling his cruiser and leaving him miraculously unscathed.

"My heart goes out to the loved ones of the three officers that were killed and the one who was injured,' said Christenberry, whose wife is expecting a child any day. "They almost got me, but the good Lord was riding with me."

Dennis and Lancaster began their violent journey the afternoon of April 23 when they escaped from the Oklahoma State Prison in McAlester. Wading through a half-flooded utility tunnel -- sealed by authorities one day after the escape -- the men slipped outside Big Mac's aging walls and burst into the home of Lt. Sam Key, a prison correctional officer.

Lancaster, a 25-year-old Manhattan, Kan., resident serving 25 years for armed robbery, and Dennis, serving 50 years for killing at Stephens County couple and 10-years-to-life for the murder of a Bryan County bulldozer operator, threatened Mrs. Key with a knife but did not harm her.

While one of the Key children ran for help they fled in the family car, taking a 12-gauge shotgun, a .357 Magnum revolver and a 30-30 rifle. Bullets from the 30-30 rifle and pellets from the 12-gauge shotgun were found in Christenberry's damaged cruiser.

Dennis and Lancaster have histories of escaping from prison. Lancaster had escaped from the Granite Reformatory and Cleveland County Jail. During one of his escapes he went to Woods County where he had been arrested earlier, held up a liquor store and exchanged gunfire with an
Oklahoma Highway Patrolman. Dennis, who was raised in Bristow, escaped from the Stephens County jail in 1975. Authorities described him a "cold blooded. He just shoots people."

From McAlester, it's believed the pair fled to Texas where they are suspected of killing at least four persons. The first to die was David Bobo, a 26-year-old Garland, Texas, man found shot to death April 29. Garland service station attendant Mithal Thanmikal, 31, was found gunned down May 2.

On May 10, 28-year-old Bobby Spencer was killed, his Denison, Texas convenience store near Lake Texoma robbed and his 22-year-old wife, Loretta, kidnapped.

Mrs. Spencer escaped from Dennis and Lancaster by jumping from a rubber raft as they crossed the Red River on the Oklahoma-Texas border. She was unharmed, but entered a hospital where she was treated for shock.

A fourth Texan, 57-year-old James Dowdy of Hemphill, has been missing since May 5. So has his pickup truck-camper. Authorities fear he is dead.

Law officers in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Utah, Mississippi and Alabama searched for Dennis and Lancaster. Leaving a trail of stolen cars and pickup trucks, the pair is believed to have moved through southeast Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, then into southwest Alabama.

Butler, Ala., policeman Dean Roberts spotted a suspicious vehicle about 3:30 a.m. May 16. He pulled the car over, got out and walked into a hail of gunfire. He was shot seven times in the face and arm.

"He almost lost an arm," a Butler policeman said Friday. "He was real happy when he heard what happened to those two up there."

Christenberry, who said he'll never forget Alabama license tag BUF 417, encountered Dennis and Lancaster the next night.

Monday night Stacie Beavers, a 68-year-old retired school teacher, had just returned to her Cuba, Ala., home from a church social. The next day a neighbor spotted her front door open and car missing. She called the police who found Mrs. Beaver's body. They believe Dennis and Lancaster were waiting outside her home for her.

"As she arrived and turned the key in her door, they stepped up and followed her on in," a police official said. "They hit her in the head and shot her behind the ear. It was the same M.O. (mode of operation) used in previous slayings in Texas."

More than 200 Alabama lawn enforcement officers search for Lancaster after the Roberts shooting and Beavers slaying. Highway patrolmen set up roadblocks in Mississippi but the pair slipped through to Oklahoma, returning to the Lake Texoma area.

Friday, a pickup truck was stolen and its owner sent fleeing. Two Oklahoma Highway Patrolmen manning a roadblock near Kenefic tried to stop the truck as it approached. Dennis and Lancaster opened fire, killing both troopers.

A Highway Patrol aircraft quickly spotted the pair and followed them to the Earnest Slack home in Caddo. There, Dennis and Lancaster made their last stand. In the 30-minute gun battle, one more trooper was killed and another injured.

Dennis was killed at the home and Lancaster died on a stretcher as he was carried to an ambulance. Witnesses said the two "were shot all over."

"I'm sorry that those troopers had to lose their lives," the Choctaw County, Ala., sheriff said, "but I'm proud and relieved that those two men aren't going to kill any more."