Weleetka remembers two young girls killed 4 years ago today
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Friday, June 08, 2012
6/08/12 at 7:02 AM
Read previous stories on the girls’ deaths and the community reaction.
WELEETKA - At Graham Schools, an independent school district several miles from town, students used to go straight to their lockers and then to class in the mornings.
Now, before they spread out to different classrooms, everybody reports to the cafeteria.
"That lets us know who's on campus and who's not," explained elementary school Principal Wanda Mankin.
"We try to keep everybody together as much as possible."
It's an extraordinary level of security for such a small school, where seniors are often on a first-name basis with second-graders.
But officials take nothing for granted anymore, not since two of Mankin's students were killed exactly four years ago Friday.
Thirteen-year-old Taylor Paschal-Placker and 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker were shot several times as they walked down a dirt road near Taylor's home on June 8, 2008.
"The students don't remember so much; so many of them weren't here at the time," Mankin said. "But the faculty remember, and we think about it all the time."
A vague sense of danger hung over Weleetka as the investigation dragged on for more than three years and people began to doubt whether the killer would ever be found.
Now, with a suspect in custody, residents are beginning to relax again.
"At least we don't have to look at everybody we meet and wonder, 'Do they know anything?' " Mankin said.
A wooden cross still marks the spot where Taylor's grandfather found the bodies in a ditch on a lonely stretch of country road, where a car comes along about once every half-hour.
Spread out in front of the cross, most of the flowers are faded. Teddy bears are beginning to rot, and several framed photographs are smeared with mud.
But at least one bouquet looked fresh Thursday, evidence that people are still coming and still remembering.
"The town won't ever be able to forget," said Cynthia Williams, who helped organize a prayer vigil at the memorial site in 2009.
"But we're back to normal. You can even see kids playing in the street again, just like before."
The makeshift memorial lies four miles northeast of town, but Weleetka itself became synonymous with the killings.
If the rest of Oklahoma thinks about Weleetka at all, it thinks only about what happened four years ago, Williams said.
But "it doesn't define who we are," she said. "It's a good place to live."
Across the street from her family's small grocery store, where Williams was stocking shelves Thursday, several vacant lots show where a massive fire destroyed nearly an entire square block of downtown Weleetka in March 2009.
Among other businesses, the fire gutted the town's only sit-down restaurant, robbing Weleetka of a vital piece of local culture.
Mention the killings and locals will talk about the fire, too.
Even though the two tragedies came months apart and obviously are not related, they seem to go together psychologically.
"It was bad news on top of bad news," said Bob Nelson, market president of downtown Weleetka's Citizens Security Bank. "It felt like our luck had run out."
After the fire, Nelson and several other business leaders started a group called Pride Makers, who not only want to revitalize downtown but also to restore Weleetka's good name.
They're building flower planters along Main Street, putting up "welcome" signs and hosting outdoor movie nights in a vacant parking lot, complete with hot dogs and popcorn.
"Weleetka needs some positive news," Nelson said. "Good things are happening, and we're working hard to make good things keep happening."
The suspect in the killings, 25-year-old Kevin Sweat, is being held 40 miles away in the Seminole County Jail, where the facilities offer better security.
Sweat was charged in December, but he had already been in jail for months to face separate allegations that he killed his girlfriend, 23-year-old Ashley Taylor, last July.
Investigators connected Sweat to the Weleetka shootings with shell casings that were found on his father's property near town, where Sweat apparently did target practice.
Last September, Sweat reportedly told investigators that he shot the girls because he thought they were "two monsters" coming at him.
An arraignment was recently postponed until July 10.
June 8, 2008: Taylor Paschal-Placker, 13, and Skyla Whitaker, 11, are fatally shot.
March 6, 2009: A fire destroys nearly an entire square block of downtown Weleetka.
Aug. 3, 2011: Kevin Sweat, 25, is arrested in Henryetta in connection with the death of his girlfriend, Ashley Taylor.
Aug. 22: Investigators search Sweat's father's property near Weleetka and find shell casings that match some found near Taylor and Skyla's bodies.
Dec. 9: Charges are filed against Sweat in the Weleetka killings.
Original Print Headline: Weleetka looking ahead
Michael Overall 918-581-8383
Four years after the notorious shooting deaths of two elementary school students, banker Bob Nelson and other business leaders are trying to revitalize downtown and restore Weleetka's reputation. "We're not just the town where two girls were killed," Nelson says. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
A pickup passes by a roadside memorial to slain Weleetka girls Taylor Paschal-Placker and Skyla Whitaker on Thursday. Friday marks the fourth anniversary of the girls' death on this dirt road near the small town. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
Kevin Sweat is escorted to a waiting vehicle after a hearing at the Okfuskee County Courthouse in Okemah last December. Sweat is charged with killing Taylor Paschal-Placker and Skyla Whitaker near Weleetka. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
Nancy Ogle works at her desk at a senior citizen's center in Weleetka on Thursday. Ogle says the killings still linger in the minds of many townspeople. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
Weleetka resident Garey Ogle recalls the slayings of two girls four years ago during an interview Thursday. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World