Oklahoma Highway Patrol remembers 1978 as its deadliest year
CADDO, Okla. (AP) — Two deadly gunbattles 40 years ago in southern Oklahoma between a pair of heavily armed prison escapees and Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers still impact the way state police are trained and equipped today.
Then-Gov. David Boren called the events of May 26, 1978, in Caddo and Kenefic “the worst single tragedy in the 40-year history of this law enforcement agency.”
Veteran troopers Billy G. Young, 50, Houston “Pappy” Summers, 62, and Lt. Pat Grimes, 36, were killed by two convicts who had escaped from the state penitentiary in McAlester on April 23. Another trooper, Lt. Hoyt Hughes, was wounded in the gunbattle. It all happened as most Oklahomans were preparing to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend.
The three would become the 14th, 15th and 16th members of the state police killed in the line of duty since the Department of Public Safety was formed in 1937, according to news reports at the time. The lawmen were killed trying to recapture escapees Claude Eugene Dennis and Michael Lancaster.
While this tragedy inflicted pain and deep sorrow among law enforcement throughout Oklahoma, the suffering would be repeated three more times before the end of the year, making 1978 the deadliest year in the annals of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
The dirt on the graves of Young, Summers and Grimes barely had settled when another tragedy befell the OHP.
On July 3, 1978, a Highway Patrol plane conducting a low-flying mission over the Salt Fork riverbed north of Hollis in southwestern Oklahoma clipped a heavy steel guy wire and crashed, killing the pilot, Trooper Richard Oldaker, and his spotter, Trooper Rondal Alexander. Also aboard the single-engine aircraft was Military Police Specialist Ronald Russell from Fort Sill in Lawton. Investigators said all three died instantly.
Less than two weeks would pass before members of the patrol once again draped their badges with heavy black ribbons.
Before dawn on July 13, Trooper Kenny L. Osborn, 30, died in a crash about seven miles west of Sapulpa on the Turner Turnpike. The five-year veteran was checking on an abandoned vehicle on the shoulder, creating a traffic hazard near the end of a construction zone. While out of his car, Osborn was struck by a tractor-trailer rig loaded with reinforced steel when the driver lost control while leaving the construction zone.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, relatives of the three officers who died in the 1978 shootout were joined by a large contingent of active and retired state troopers, friends, dignitaries and residents of Caddo and Bryan County in a memorial service. A monument was dedicated to the actions of the three troopers and unveiled in Boland Park, in a residential area in southwest Caddo.
The memorial features separate distinctive black granite markers with white engraving honoring each of the troopers. Portraits of Young, Summers and Grimes, dressed in their patrol uniforms, and replicas of their badges, are etched in the granite.
The markers rest atop a 35-foot-wide by 6-foot-deep arch-shaped red brick design on the park’s western edge. It stands only a few feet from the wood frame house and gravel drive where the final shots were fired in the gunbattle with Lancaster, 25, and Dennis, 35. The pair had eluded an extensive manhunt conducted by multiple agencies for more than a month.
The Caddo Lions Club erected a smaller and simpler monument a few years after the shootout. Weather and time eventually took their toll. Former State Rep. Paul Roan and his wife, Betty, visited the original marker within the past two years and took note of its disrepair.
Betty Roan said the monument had been “neglected” and looked worn.
Paul Roan, a retired trooper who helped with the escapee search in 1978, looked at the piece of stone and turned to his wife, telling her, “Those guys gave the ultimate sacrifice.” Saddened by what he saw, Roan said, “it is time to repair the memorial.”
The couple soon discovered the original stone tribute would be difficult, if not impossible, to refurbish. They expanded their options and met with other retired troopers.
The small group determined they would start over and design a new memorial if they were able to raise funds for the project.
They pitched their idea to potential benefactors and received not only support and encouragement but were given pledges of money from three groups that aid law enforcement and its members, the Oklahoman reported . Concerned Oklahomans for the Highway Patrol Society (COHPS), the Oklahoma State Troopers Association, and Oklahoma Retired Troopers Association all contributed substantial amounts of money, Roan said.
When news of the effort circulated, donations of varying amounts began to arrive. Soon, the necessary funds, and more, were deposited in an account. The Roans, who live in Tishomingo, give additional credit to the people of Caddo.
“The community of Caddo has been awesome; we’ve received great cooperation on this project,” the couple said together, nearly in concert.
The city donated a sizable piece of land where the monument rests. The Roans are pleased and grateful the monument is in a prominent spot where it can be viewed easily by visitors. They are satisfied knowing the historic events of that day in 1978 — and the actions of those lawmen — are now appropriately and respectfully memorialized for decades to come.
Mike Grimes worked many years for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, retiring at the rank of deputy chief in 2006. Today, at 76, he’s a criminal investigator for the Canadian County sheriff’s office, with the title of lieutenant. He said the events of May 26, 1978, cannot be forgotten.
He is the twin brother of Pat Grimes, the last trooper shot and killed in Caddo that fateful Friday morning.
His voice quivers a bit as he discusses the importance remembering “the sacrifice made by my brother and all the other officers who have fallen in the line of duty.”
Lt. Pat Grimes, who had 12 years with the department, and his partner, Lt. Hoyt Hughes, were tracking manhunt and roadblock updates on their patrol car radio when a report came through the speaker that alerted officers the inmates had engaged Summers and Young in a shootout along a desolate section of county road named Nail’s Crossing.
Paul Roan said the troopers were outgunned when they came upon the pair who had stopped on the road and were standing in the bed of a pickup. The escapees opened fire.
Young was able to get to his radio’s microphone and blurt out three words, “We’ve been hit.”
Help didn’t come in time.
When backup arrived, Summers and Young were already dead. And the escapees had eluded capture once more. That’s the way one trooper, David Blackburn, remembers it 40 years later.
A patrol aircraft followed the pair from above, relaying information to troopers hoping to intercept the pickup and its bloodthirsty occupants. Trooper David Blackburn was the spotter that day while another trooper piloted the plane. Blackburn remembers the plane flying slow and as low as was safe. So low, he said, that he recalls seeing the face of the driver of the truck. And then he added, “I could see puffs of smoke coming from the truck so I knew they were shooting at us.”
Driving a stolen getaway pickup and armed with rifles and weapons they took from a home they broke into earlier that morning, the escapees raced toward Caddo.
Blackburn said it was only a few minutes until the pickup pulled into the gravel driveway of a home. The property was partially obscured by heavy brush, trees and shrubs. The convicts grabbed their rifles, jumped from the vehicle and took cover.
Sitting inside the Dairy Queen on the far west side of Caddo recently, Blackburn recounted the details of that tragic day. Blackburn said the final engagements between lawmen and the escapees didn’t last long.
He estimated the duration of both encounters between troopers and escapees was “15 minutes,” but recalculated quickly and said it may have been less — “only 10 minutes.”
He knows for sure the last exchange of gunfire was less than a minute. “It was all over fast,’” he said.
When the shooting stopped, Lancaster and Dennis lay dead in front of the house after being fatally wounded by Hughes and another trooper, Lt. Mike Williams. Blackburn is certain Williams’ quick response, shooting accuracy and bravery saved the life of Hughes. His partner, Pat Grimes, was covered in blood, dead just outside the passenger side of the patrol car.
The two escaped inmates also had been killed. They left a lengthy trail of burglary, kidnapping, robbery, auto theft, assault and murder during their brief stint of freedom.
Three veteran state troopers were dead, too.
The manhunt was over. The fear that overtook southern Oklahoma while the convicts were on the loose had ended. Troopers were in shock as they learned about the brutal deaths of three of their partners.
Mike Grimes has grieved for his twin brother and for troopers Summers and Young. However, he said something good also came as a result of the horrific events of that day.
Administrators and officials with the Highway Patrol were determined to not let the deaths of the three men be in vain. They set out to learn everything possible about the tactics and the command decisions and the logistics employed during the manhunt and at the shootouts.
“We conducted an extensive and complete study of how our troopers got killed,” Grimes said.
As a result, the department established new safety factors into the training of cadets and for commissioned officers. Grimes said the training would go with the trooper from the academy to the field.
“We revised manhunt procedures. We revised roadblock procedures,” Grimes said. “We brought every trooper back in for additional training.”
The emphasis was on keeping state troopers safe and alive. And Grimes agreed the changes were necessary and were a positive approach to training.
Additional changes include giving protective vests to all members of the patrol. Previously, only troopers assigned to patrol the roads were given vests. This policy remains in effect today. None of the three troopers killed that day were wearing a vest.
In 1978, troopers carried a pistol and a shotgun. After events in Caddo, funds were made available to purchase Ruger mini-14 semi-automatic rifles with three 30-round magazines. Today, troopers are armed with Colt AR-15 rifles.
Old shotguns were replaced with new and modernized Remington 12-gauge Model 870 weapons.
And, numbers were painted on the roof of every patrol vehicle. This is to aid spotters in the air directing units on the ground.
Since 1999, Mike Grimes has worked with families of troopers and other law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. He assists the families with their various needs, especially paperwork, which can overwhelm grieving loved ones.
He values the opportunity to reach out to families when they are mourning. “We can’t take the hurt away, but we can make it easier for them,” Grimes said.
When he meets with relatives of a fallen law officer, he tries to bring comfort when he assures them, “It never goes away, the sad memories and the pain — but, it does get better. Time helps.”
He encourages survivors to focus on remembering the really good things about their loved one. Grimes said he is consistently “moved and inspired by the respect that is paid to the families of those killed in the line of duty.”
Thinking back to 1978, Grimes pauses to remember those six troopers who died in the line of duty that year and promises he will always remember not only his twin brother and the other two troopers killed in Caddo, but also the other three (troopers Oldaker, Alexander and Osborn) and all who paid what Grimes respectfully refers to as “the ultimate price” for us.
“We don’t ever want to forget their sacrifice.”
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. Kera Philippi confirmed that 36 state troopers have died in the line of duty since the patrol was formed in 1937.
The most recent fatality occurred in July, 2017, when Lt. Heath Meyer was assisting fellow troopers in a high speed pursuit of a fleeing driver on Interstate 35. Meyer deployed stop sticks near 27th St. in Moore, in an attempt to disable the driver’s car. He was struck by another patrol car that was chasing the motorist. He died of his injuries 10 days later.
No female troopers have been killed in the line of duty.
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com