The Oklahoma Highway Patrol's deadliest day

By: Emi FitzGerald Email
By: Emi FitzGerald Email

BRYAN COUNTY, Okla. - In a time before cell phones and the Internet, Bryan County residents used an operator-based phone system.

On May 26th, 1978, that system was flooded when two fugitives were believed to be in the area.

The manhunt for them had a fatal ending. And as Emi Fitzgerald tells us, it changed the way many viewed life and how other fugitives are tracked down to this day.

A story from thirty years ago seems vividly fresh for those involved. It’s the deadliest day in Oklahoma Highway Patrol history where three troopers were killed in gun battle.

It was a violent, tragic end to a real violent situation that started about 30 days before and it happened in all of about 30 minutes.

Two men, Claude Dennis and Michael Lancaster, escaped from prison in McAlester. They spent 34 days on the run, killing anyone who got in their way.

"These guys killed for the thrill of it. They would kill someone for a $20 bill. They would kill someone for a mode of transportation."

In all, 20 people in three states lost their lives, including a woman in Alabama. When her car surfaced near Fort Washita, Texoma went on high alert.

"Crazy day. People in this part of the world were scared to death."

To the point some people would even leave their keys in the trucks. Sometimes with food and a note saying, take my car, but don't kill me; just so the two crazed men would leave them alone.

"I met him and the guy said, 'I know you're a hardworking man, a family man, so I'm not going to kill you.'"

Russell Washington is one of those who came face to face with the killers. On May 26th, 1978, he and a ranch hand entered his home on Highway 48 in Bryan County to find Dennis and Lancaster in the kitchen.

He recognized Dennis instantly. Just months before he had let this Dennis and some friends quail hunt on his land.

"He was being very nice. As nice as a guy could be when you're tying him up on his own kitchen floor."

Dennis and Lancaster took cash, weapons, and Washington's pickup.

"My dad was sitting right here when he saw my truck drive by."

As the men drove away, they encountered two Highway Patrol Troopers, Houston 'Pappy' Summers and Billy Young.

That's when the bloody battle began. The fugitives began shooting, killing both troopers.

A helicopter flew overhead with frantic traffic as the men drove into Caddo, with one thing on their minds.

"The only way we're going is dead. We don't care how many people we have to kill for a few more days of freedom."

More troopers found the truck, now sprayed with bullet holes and began firing at the men.

Lieutenant James Grimes died and Lieutenant Hoyte Hughes was injured. Another trooper fired the shots to finally kill the violent men.

As for Russell Washington, he says in those minutes held at gunpoint, he had an epiphany.

"Suddenly what were really important were not the material things in my life, it was my kids."

He found a purpose, to tell the story of the miraculous in a tragic situation. He later became an educator and everyday is thankful for a small shred of mercy displayed by otherwise ruthless killers.

He's thankful his faith helped him stay calm, to live past that deadly day.

“I have 11 grandkids. I don't want to miss them."

As for the Highway Patrol, they have not had that kind of carnage since May 26th, 1978. They now use the event to train future troopers.

"It's still something that's on everybody's mind every time we're on a manhunt."

Etched in the minds of Bryan County residents, is remembering three lawmen who gave the ultimate sacrifice to keep people safe.

The actual anniversary is Monday, May 26. A memorial is scheduled for that day at 10 a.m. at the corner of Court and McPherson streets in Caddo where the violence ended. Troopers plan a 21-gun salute to remember the event.


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