The Girl Scout Murders
Garvin Isaacs on a career-turning case and client
Published in 2020 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
on October 29, 2020
Updated on November 6, 2020
In 1977, when Garvin Isaacs and his co-counsel visited client Gene Leroy Hart in jail, the first words out of Hart’s mouth were: “I want you guys to know something—I didn’t kill those Girl Scouts.”
That June, the bodies of three girls, ages 8, 9 and 10, were found on a trail approximately 150 yards from their tent at a summer camp near Locust Grove, Hart’s hometown. They had been raped, bludgeoned and strangled.
Despite Hart’s criminal record—the Cherokee tribe member had previously been convicted of unrelated rape, kidnapping and burglary charges, and had twice broken out of the Mayes County Jail—Isaacs believed him. “The Keetoowah Band’s number one rule was: You never judge a man by the color of his skin, the length of his hair, or the clothes he wears; everybody’s entitled to justice,” Isaacs says. “They were some of the most thoughtful people you could ever have around you, and that’s the environment Gene Leroy Hart grew up in.”
According to Isaacs, Mayes County Sheriff Pete Weaver was “an arrogant, egotistical jerk” who had it in for Hart, a fugitive since escaping from jail twice in one week four years earlier. During that stretch, Hart hid with his uncle and medicine man Groundhog Sullateskee who, after the murders, told tribe members he was with the defendant that night.
A few minutes after the sheriff and his deputy pulled up to the crime scene, Isaacs says, “Pete Weaver lights a cigarette and says … ‘Gene Leroy Hart did this.’” The hunt began the next day, but it took nearly one year to find Hart.
To hear Isaacs tell it, the sheriff had no real evidence. And there were no aha! moments in the case, nor any lucky breaks—just the hard work of gathering exculpatory evidence, interviewing witnesses and studying the crime scene. “I knew from my prior experience doing murder cases as a public defender in the Oklahoma County District Court that you never assume anything,” he says. “You investigate and you document, and you use good experts to help you.”
Due to the intense media coverage surrounding the case, Isaacs filed, and was granted, a motion for individual sequestered voir dire. “That was one of the longest voir dires in Oklahoma history,” he says.
To complicate matters, Hart’s uncle, who would have been Isaac’s alibi witness, suffered a heart attack and died before Hart was arrested. Nevertheless, “we had all kinds of witnesses that impeached the testimony that they were trying to use to frame him,” says Isaacs.
At the close of the three-week murder trial in March 1979, the jury acquitted Hart. Sadly, that summer, while Isaacs was seeking post-conviction relief for Hart’s previous sentences, Hart, too, died of a heart attack; he was exercising on the Oklahoma State Penitentiary grounds. Isaacs and his co-counsel, Gary Pitchlynn, served as pallbearers at the funeral, which drew thousands.
To this day, the case remains officially unsolved. But there are still people trying to find justice. “We’ve got a suspect and we’re trying to get to DNA,” Isaacs says. “[But] that person’s dead.”
Isaacs, who is currently authoring an account of the Hart case and dedicating it to the jury, considers the case a turning point in his career. “It made me realize how important it is to be honest, to be prepared, do your legal research, never assume anything, always look at the facts, verify everything that you’re going to present to the jury,” he says. “There’s nothing more important than being truthful to the jury and the court.”
The first time Gene Leroy Hart escaped jail, he and his cellmate hid in a house a block from the sheriff’s office. “They were there hiding, and they found a coffeepot,” Isaacs says. “They were able to get some coffee from a grocery store, and they’re making coffee and the smoke from the pot goes out the window. A fireman sees the smoke and thinks the house is on fire.”
The firefighter found the two escapees and they were again arrested. “And then Hart sawed his way out again a week later,” says Isaacs, and went to live with his uncle in Tulsa.