U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Oklahoma public officials accused of discussing killing local journalists

Incident Details

March 6, 2023

Several McCurtain County officials are accused of discussing how to kill two local journalists and making racist comments following a Board of Commissioners meeting on March 6, 2023 in Idabel, Oklahoma.

The McCurtain Gazette-News first published excerpts from the recording in its April 15 weekend print edition and released the audio in full four days later. Publisher Bruce Willingham told News 9 that he left his recording device in the room following the conclusion of the meeting in an attempt to confirm his suspicion that they were still discussing official business, in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Act.

The Oklahoman, which noted it had not independently verified the recording, published the audio to its YouTube channel and identified six public officials’ voices. The 3-½ hour recording allegedly captures McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, Sheriff’s investigator Alicia Manning, Commissioner Mark Jennings and Jail administrator Larry Hendrix discussing the killing of Bruce Willingham and his son Chris Willingham, a reporter for the Gazette-News.

In the recording, an official says he knows of hit men to hire in Louisiana. “I've known two or three hit men, they're very quiet guys, yeah, who would cut no fucking mercy,” the official said.

The group also discussed where to hide the journalists’ bodies, and buying an old military tank in order to drive it into the newspaper’s building, the Oklahoman reported.

When reached for comment, the Gazette-News directed the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker to its attorney, Christin Jones. Jones was unable to be reached by phone, and did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The audio was recorded on the same day that Chris Willingham filed a defamation lawsuit against the board of county commissioners, the sheriff’s office, its investigator Manning and Sheriff Clardy. In the suit, he alleges that during a June 2022 teleconference, Manning accused him of exchanging marijuana for pornographic videos of children, connecting him to a man recently arrested for such crimes. Chris Willingham said the accusation was in direct retaliation for his 8-part series of articles investigating allegations of misconduct at the sheriff’s office.

Bruce Willingham told the Associated Press he believes the officials were upset by other articles published in the Gazette-News. The newspaper had filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office for body camera footage and records in the 2022 death of an Oklahoma man.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt called for the resignations of the county officials on April 16, releasing this statement:

“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County. There is simply no place for such hateful rhetoric in the state of Oklahoma, especially by those that serve to represent the community through their respective office. I will not stand idly by while this takes place.”

Stitt also announced that he would be calling on the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to determine whether the officials had engaged in criminal conduct.

KSLA News 12 reported that approximately 100 people protested outside the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office on April 17, demanding that Clardy and the other officials resign. Later that evening, the sheriff’s office issued a statement on Facebook, writing that, “This is a very complex situation and one we regret having to address.”

The statement goes on to say the recordings have not been authenticated, and that the sheriff’s office is conducting an ongoing investigation into whether Bruce Willingham illegally recorded the conversation in violation of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act.

Idabel Mayor Craig Young criticized the sheriff’s office for “doubling down” defending itself amid the allegations, according to Public Radio Tulsa, and echoed calls for the officials’ resignations.

Commissioner Jennings resigned his position on April 18, according to the Oklahoman. On April 21 Stitt called on the state’s attorney general to investigate complaints of misconduct against Clardy and remove him from office.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]