Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- There's no doubt the OSBI handles some of the toughest murder mysteries in our state and we know the agency can't solve them all. But according to a former OSBI agent, one look at the agency's cold cases puts a chill up his spine. He said he immediately found four murders in which the suspect should be in prison and they're not. In this report, the Oklahoma Impact Team takes a look at one of those cases and the alleged problems within the agency.
The Ola Kirk Case
It was May of this year in Phoenix, Arizona. U.S. marshals tracked down and arrested Lester Blackbear. Marshals said he's a sexual predator who'd fallen off the grid. In Oklahoma, one family has a special interest in his arrest.
"It was just amazing, just whenever I saw that," said Lauren Layman. "There is hope."
Layman was just 10 years old when her great-grandmother, 77-year-old Ola Kirk, was brutally raped and beaten to death in Geary, Oklahoma in 1983.
"The way that she died is just, I cannot imagine the pain that she went through. I just can't," Layman said.
Kirk's murder is unsolved. In fact, for the last 27 years Kirk's family thought there was no suspect, but the family recently learned there was in fact a suspect all along -- Lester Blackbear. They found out about the suspect in a newspaper article written about the OSBI's Cold Case Unit. The family said they were shocked.
The Cold Case Investigator
Kyle Eastridge became an OSBI agent after retiring from a 24 year career with the Oklahoma City Police Department. Shortly after he was hired as a cold case investigator, Eastridge said other agents told him about several cases that needed his attention. He said he was stunned to find Kirk's case unsolved.
"This isn't one of those just we speculate he did it," said Eastridge. "This is one you got witnesses and DNA evidence that says he did it."
Eastridge said the evidence clearly pointed to Blackbear, but he said Blackbear was never arrested because the Blaine County District Attorney on the case told the OSBI agent they needed more evidence to get a conviction. He said the OSBI should have pressed harder.
"If you know what you're doing there are ways to deal with these issues," said Eastridge. "And number one, you don't sit and wait for a weak DA to make a decision. Arrest the guy on the probable cause that you have."
Eastridge said within the OSBI there are district attorneys and assistant district attorneys known to agents as "tough" and some known as "weak." He said agents never have to worry about presenting their cases to the tough prosecutors.
"They'll always do the right thing," he said.
But he said there are problems when it comes to the prosecutors the agents consider "weak." The relationship is strained when agents push the district attorney's office to file charges against a suspect when the district attorney doesn't know it will be a winning case. He said many district attorneys won't accept a case unless it's a slam dunk.
"You can't base every move you make on what the district attorney says. They're political animals," Eastridge said.
According to two other retired OSBI agents, one of whom was a supervisor at the agency, the relationship between OSBI agents and prosecutors is a problem. The former supervisor said the OSBI has fallen into a routine of working for DA's, not victim's families. He said some agents won't even present their case to the DA out of fear it will be rejected. He said he believes that is one reason many cases go cold. He added that some agents seem to become frustrated by this relationship and become less passionate about their jobs.
The New Director
OSBI's new director, Stan Florence, started his new job today. In a telephone interview Florence stated he needs some time, as the director, to become familiar with the complaints against the OSBI. He said he is not comfortable commenting at length about the issues raised in this story.
Florence did say it is true that each district attorney's office has a different standard for prosecution. He said the OSBI should do a thorough job on every case no matter the DA's standard. He said it is wise for agents to consult with district attorneys to make sure there is enough evidence to prosecute suspects. Florence said he has not noticed a problem in the relationships between district attorneys and agents and doesn't believe cases go cold because of it.
Since Ola Kirk's case went cold in 1983, Lester Blackbear has been arrested in three other states. In Oklahoma alone he's been charged with three burglaries, larceny and two rapes. He's escaped twice from Oklahoma prisons.
When Eastridge was a cold case investigator for the OSBI he said he tracked Blackbear to Phoenix and got an arrest warrant for him. Blackbear was arrested and charged with failing to register as a sex offender. Blackbear is back in an Oklahoma prison and soon will be up for parole.
Kirk's great-granddaughter said she has done everything possible to bring Kirk's case to the OSBI's attention. She even took Kirk's purse to OSBI headquarters and physically handed it to the agent in charge of the case. She said it's been a struggle to get anyone to remember that her great-grandmother was a real person and has a family waiting for justice.
"I do not have time to wait," said Layman. "I'm scared that this person is either going to get out of prison or he's going to die in prison and my family really needs closure."
Stan Florence said Kirk's case is still open and a high priority at OSBI. He said that case is not a "slam dunk." He added that the OSBI does arrest suspects on probable cause when necessary.
The current Blaine County District Attorney, Cathy Stocker, confirmed there is new forensic testing in Kirk's case, but Stocker said there's not been any reason to charge anyone in Kirk's murder. Stocker would not comment any further about evidence in the case.
In the meantime, Eastridge has offered to help Kirk's family as much as he can as a private investigator, free of charge. He's also started a website, where he profiles Kirk's case and several other cases he believes the OSBI can solve right now. He urges the site's visitors to put pressure on the authorities involved. On his website, he talks about other issues he has with the OSBI and the way their cold case unit is run.
The OSBI's spokesperson, Jessica Brown, called Eastridge a disgruntled former employee.
"I am disgruntled," said Eastridge. "I'm disgruntled for the citizens of this state who are depending upon these people to bring justice to their families for these murders. I'm not only disgruntled I'm furious about it."
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