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Meetings serve as 'homicide investigation for Tulsans who we believe were murdered in 1921,' Mayor Bynum says of mass graves search

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, holding a wireless microphone near his mouth, candidly expressed why the city will be engaging in a dogged project to locate potential mass burial sites from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

“If you get murdered in Tulsa, we have a basic contract with you that we will do everything we can to find out what happened to you and render justice for your family,” said Bynum. “That’s why we are treating this as a homicide investigation for Tulsans who we believe were murdered in 1921.”

Bynum’s remarks set the tone at the 36th Street Event Center in north Tulsa on Thursday night during the first public meeting to outline the purpose and process of the search for mass graves.


Tulsa World Coverage: 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Public meeting on plans for Tulsa Race Massacre mass graves investigation

Gallery: City holds first meeting of Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee 

The gathering came nearly a year after Bynum announced that the city would examine three sites for possible graves: Oaklawn Cemetery, 1133 E. 11th St.; Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens, previously called Booker T. Washington Cemetery, 4300 E. 91st St.; and an area near Newblock Park, 1414 Charles Page Blvd.

Among the goals of the project are to provide public oversight, historical context and actual physical evidence with assistance from members of several committees made up of community leaders, activists, historians and local government officials.

Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, who along with former state Sen. Maxine Horner is helping lead the city’s latest attempt to find unmarked mass graves, said providing some semblance of closure is just as important as the investigative work itself.

“It is my goal that our ancestors — who were brutally murdered and placed in mass graves — are given to their families and receive a proper burial so we as a city can have closure,” said Hall-Harper. “It is the work we must do and achieve together. It is work that must be done.”

Phase 1 of the project is expected to involve the use of ground-penetrating radar. City officials said that if anomalies are found, a second phase could include excavation.

The last time potential mass grave sites were examined was in the late 1990s and early 2000. That study was led by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. The upcoming exploration will be led by the state Medical Examiner’s Office and will include the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, which also assisted in the initial study.

Bynum was candid in acknowledging that the city has not established trust in considering the interests of black Tulsans in the decades that followed the massacre and burning of Tulsa’s Greenwood District.

During a lengthy public question-and-feedback session, several race massacre descendants, along with other residents, shared stories indicating that bodies might be buried at sites that were not included in the initial search plan. The oral stories, which varied, chronicled where bodies were taken throughout Tulsa and even beyond the city limits.

Brenda Mansker, who has relatives who were buried at Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens when it was Booker T. Washington Cemetery, said she was appreciative of the city’s efforts in searching for the graves decades after previous administrations started the work but were unable to complete it. However, she said she believes that her relatives’ graves were disturbed at some time in the past, and she wants to know why that happened.

“I feel as if I have been robbed,” Mansker told the panel of city officials in attendance. “I need some answers.”

Kamarjae Boyd, 13, said he had been told that mass graves might exist in a local park, and he expressed how difficult it is for him to cope with the thought that a mass grave site could rest in an area where he finds summer entertainment.

“As a black male, I should not have to go outside and feel scared for my ancestors going all the way back (to 1921),” Boyd said. “That is not fair to me, my cousins and my friends. I have been playing, prancing around — been eating food — on my ancestors’ graves.

“I appreciate the mayor coming out and helping my race get this stuff figured out. It should have been done a long time ago.”

Another meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. July 18 at the Rudisill Regional Library, 1520 N. Hartford Ave.

Fiery crash on I-44 near U.S. 169 results in fireball, smoke, highway closures

Eastbound lanes of Interstate 44 were shut down Thursday near U.S. 169 after firefighters took down a blaze caused when two trucks collided. An explosion shook the area around 10:40 a.m. It appeared an oversize load and an escort vehicle were involved underneath the overpass bridge. Andy Little, public information officer for the Tulsa Fire Department, said there were no fatalities and only minor injuries to drivers involved in the crash. Little said it was unclear how long the highway would be closed and to what extent the roadway was damaged from the intense heat. Flames reached high enough that they could be seen from a distance as fire crews arrived, Little said. Find more photos and a video at

Twitter: @michaeldekkerTW


Flames rise above the highway as firefighters respond to a truck fire on Interstate 44 near U.S. 169 in Tulsa, Okla., on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Eastbound lanes of I-44 were shut down Thursday near U.S. 169 after firefighters took down a blaze caused when two trucks collided. An explosion shook the area around 10:40 a.m. It appeared an oversize load and an escort vehicle were involved underneath the overpass. Andy Little, public information officer for the Tulsa Fire Department, said there were only minor injuries to drivers involved in the crash. He said it was unclear as to what extent the roadway was damaged from the intense heat. Flames reached high enough that they could be seen from a distance as fire crews arrived, Little said. By 9:30 p.m., two of the three eastbound lanes had reopened. Find more photos and a video at  MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World

Fiery Democratic debate: Race, age, health care and Trump

MIAMI — Democratic divisions over race, age and ideology surged into public view Thursday night as the party’s leading presidential contenders faced off in a fiery debate over who is best positioned to take on President Donald Trump.

The Democratic Party’s early front-runner, 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden, was forced to defend his record on race in the face of tough questions from California Sen. Kamala Harris, the only African American on stage. That was only after he defended his age after jabs from one of two millennial candidates in the prime-time clash.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said, though she described Biden’s record of working with Republican segregationist senators on nonrace issues as “hurtful.”

Clearly on defense, Biden called the Harris attack “a complete mischaracterization of my record.” He declared, “I ran because of civil rights.”

The debate marked an abrupt turning point in a Democratic primary in which candidates have largely tiptoed around each other, focusing instead on their shared desire to beat Trump. But the debate revealed just how deep the fissures are within the Democratic Party eight months before primary voting begins.

Thursday’s debate and the one a night earlier gave millions of Americans their first peek inside the Democrats’ unruly 2020 season.

The showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates — according to early polls, at least. Those are Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg of Indiana and Harris. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who debated Wednesday night, is the fifth.

So many candidates are lining up to take on Trump that they do not all fit on one debate stage — or even two. Twenty Democrats debated on national television this week in two waves of 10, while a handful more were left out altogether.

The level of diversity on display was unprecedented for a major political party in the United States. The field features six women, two African Americans, one Asian American and two men under 40, one of them openly gay.

Yet in the early days of the campaign, two white septuagenarians are leading the polls: Biden and Sanders.

Thursday’s slate of candidates — and the debate itself — highlighted the unprecedented diversity of the Democratic Party’s 2020 class.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old gay former military officer, is four decades younger than Sanders and has been framing his candidacy as a call for generational change in his party. Harris is the only African American woman to qualify for the presidential debate stage. Any of the three women featured Thursday night would be the first ever elected president.

Buttigieg faced tough questions about a racially charged recent police shooting in his city in which a white officer shot and killed a black man, Eric Logan.

Buttigieg said an investigation was underway, and he acknowledged the underlying racial tensions in his city and others. “It’s a mess,” he said plainly. “And we’re hurting.”

One of the lesser-known candidates on stage, California Rep Eric Swalwell, called on Buttigieg to fire his police chief, even though the investigation was only beginning.

Swalwell also took a swipe at Biden’s advanced age. Either Biden or Sanders would be the oldest president ever elected.

“Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago,” Swalwell jabbed.

Biden responded: “I’m still holding onto that torch.”

The party’s broader fight over ideology played a back seat at times to the racial and generational divisions. But calls to embrace dramatic change on immigration, health care and the environment were not forgotten.

Sanders slapped at his party’s centrist candidates, vowing to fight for “real change.”

Biden downplayed his establishment leanings. For example, the former vice president, along with the other candidates on stage, raised his hand to say his health care plan would provide coverage for immigrants in the country illegally.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper predicted that an aggressive lurch to the left on key policies would ultimately hurt Democrats’ quest to defeat Trump.

“If we don’t clearly define we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists,” he warned.

Others on the stage Thursday night included Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado, New York businessman Andrew Yang and author and social activist Marianne Williamson.

The showdown played out in Florida, a general election battleground that could well determine whether Trump wins a second term next year.

Biden sought to sidestep the intraparty divisions altogether, training his venom on Trump.

“Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America. Ordinary middle-class Americans built America,” said the former vice president. He added: “Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation. We do have enormous income inequality.”

Biden’s strategy is designed to highlight his status as the front-runner, and as such, the Democrat best positioned to take down the president at the ballot box. Above any policy disagreement, Democratic voters report that nothing matters more than finding a candidate who can beat Trump.

Their first round of debates is finished, but the real struggle is just beginning for most of the candidates.

All will work aggressively to leverage their debate performance and the related media attention to their advantage in the coming days. There is a real sense of urgency for more than a dozen candidates who fear they may not reach donor and polling thresholds to qualify for subsequent debates.

Should they fail to qualify, and many will fail, this week’s debates may have marked the high point for their personal presidential ambitions.

Oz Decator learns his attacker died on death row: 'You don't have to be scared anymore'

The events were more than 22 years ago, but Oz Decator’s smile still fell Wednesday when he heard the name of his attacker, his mother’s killer.

It didn’t return until his grandmother, Mary Decator, explained to him that Shelton Jackson was dead.

“That man who hurt you? He’s gone,” she said during a phone interview. “You don’t have to be scared anymore. Does that make you feel better?

“Yup, he’s smiling now.”

Oz was only 2 when Jackson, his mother’s boyfriend, beat him for hours in a duplex east of downtown Tulsa, throwing him against walls and shoving a screwdriver down his throat.

Now he’s 24, soon to turn 25 in August, and Mary Decator said her grandson has come a long way since police found him wrapped in carpet, freezing and unconscious, in the crawl space of an abandoned house.

“Oz is still not able to walk, nor talk, but he’s alive, and he’s doing just fine,” she said. “He smiles; he’s happy.”

His mother, Monica Decator, 25, had been found 12 hours earlier, beaten to death in her nearby duplex.

Neighbors called 911 the morning of April 8, 1997, to report flames shooting from the duplex’s attic, and firefighters extinguished the blaze before it reached Monica’s body. She was found lying in a robe near the front door.

Jackson, then 24, had beaten her over a period of several hours after she returned home from work and discovered Oz’s abuse.

Jackson was convicted of first-degree murder, arson and injury to a child in 1998 and was sentenced to death after a jury trial.

He died in prison June 6, and Mary Decator received a phone call from VINE, a victim notification network.

She said the news came as a shock and that she still doesn’t know what to think.

“In a way, it’s a relief,” she said. “But closure? I don’t know. My child is still not here.”

Assistant District Attorney Mark Collier, who prosecuted Jackson, said he agrees that closure is relative but that he’s glad Jackson is gone.

“When you’ve lost a loved one, nothing brings that person back,” Collier said. “I think he belonged on death row. It is a horribly atrocious and cruel injury to Oz Decator and murder of Monica Decator. The fact that he died on death row is as satisfying to me as if he would have been executed.”

Mary Decator said she tried to get her daughter to stay at their Louisiana home, but she left with Oz, who was a few months old at the time, and headed to Oklahoma. She was only there a little more than a year before she was murdered.

“If she had a hard time, she would’ve known I would’ve come to get her,” she said. “I would’ve gotten my baby and Oz. All I needed was to know what was going on. And I didn’t know. What a way to find out.”

She said another of her daughters recently told her Monica was planning to surprise her with a visit shortly before she was killed, which might explain the silence.

Now 65, Decator raised Oz with the help of a caretaker.

Oz has the mindset of a child, and he loves the Justice League, SpongeBob SquarePants, Spider-Man and the Power Rangers, especially the Red Power Ranger.

He often scoots to get around the house, and though the two have their own “little sign language” to communicate, she’s teaching him to use his voice, even if he can’t say words.

He has taken to music, and Decator said she’ll pass by Oz’s room to find him listening to country and bluegrass music or strumming his guitar.

He can draw well, she said, and he loves seeing movies, visiting children’s museums and taking out-of-town trips.

“He’s my blessing, because Monica lives on through him,” she said. “I love him to pieces.”

Oz has lived in fear of Jackson since the day that changed his life forever, his grandmother said. Even when it was explained to him that Jackson was in prison and couldn’t get to him, it wasn’t enough. He’d still become fearful if he saw a picture of Jackson, heard his name or saw someone in public who resembled him, Mary said.

Although she thinks it will take awhile for the news of Jackson’s death to truly settle in, she said Oz seemed to be relieved after carrying a burden of worry for two decades.

“He’s been upset all these years,” she said. “Now that he’s dead, he knows he can’t come back.

“He’s shaking his head up and down, yes.”

‘Let that baby enjoy life’

Mary Decator still cannot understand what kind of hatred would cause anyone to hurt a child, but she said she doesn’t want to, either.

Her family once received a letter from Jackson while he was in prison, but she couldn’t bring herself to touch it knowing his hands had also touched it and knowing what his hands had done.

She asked whether he ever showed any remorse.

She didn’t follow the trial, and she still doesn’t care to read the letter, which is long gone.

According to Tulsa World archives, Jackson mumbled, “I want to apologize for my actions,” in a courtroom before he was sentenced to death.

Decator says she thinks she has forgiven Jackson, but sometimes she’s not sure. She often prays for his family, though, because she knows that his actions were not an extension of them.

She said she mostly worries for the other women and children who might be in a position similar to what her daughter and Oz were in.

“How many more Sheltons are there out there? Don’t be afraid to pick that baby up and leave. Pick that baby up and run. Let that baby enjoy life.”

Mary remembered fondly those who saved Oz’s life. She spoke of the female police detective who was small enough to crawl under the abandoned home and lie with Oz in the mud to keep him warm, the other police officers who came regularly to read at his hospital bedside when he was in a coma, and how Oz had “the best” doctors.

More than two decades later, she says Jackson’s death might sink in one day.

“In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying Oz,” she said. “That’ll keep me going.”

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Supreme Court asks for more argument in 'Indian Country' jurisdiction case, to go on court's fall calendar

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday asked for additional arguments from attorneys representing the state of Oklahoma and an Oklahoma man who claimed he should have been tried in federal court rather than state court.

The Supreme Court restored the case to the court’s calendar for reargument in the fall term.

The state is appealing an appellate ruling that vacated the man’s death sentence in a case that could shift jurisdiction for many criminal prosecutions from state to federal court and might have additional implications, as well.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 ruled in favor of Patrick Dwayne Murphy’s claim that his conviction and death sentence should be vacated because the state of Oklahoma did not have jurisdiction to prosecute him.

Attorneys for Murphy contend that federal officials had jurisdiction in the 1999 murder of a man in McIntosh County because Murphy is Native American and the death occurred in “Indian country.”

Murphy is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

While the federal government previously has assumed jurisdiction in criminal cases occurring on tribal-owned properties, experts say a ruling for Murphy would greatly expand what is considered “Indian country” to include all land in a region spanning 11 counties across Oklahoma, including Tulsa County, regardless of whether it is owned by the Creek Nation or one of its members.

Muscogee (Creek) Nation officials said in a statement that it welcomed the court’s decision.

“The Muscogee (Creek) Nation respects and welcomes the Court’s decision calling for additional argument. The Nation remains steadfast in its conviction that the 1866 Creek Reservation has never been disestablished and very much looks forward to this opportunity to present further arguments to the court this fall.”

Experts say a ruling for Murphy would mean any crime committed by or against a Native American in the boundaries of the Creek Nation could not be prosecuted by the state of Oklahoma.

Mike McBride III, a Tulsa attorney who specializes in federal Indian law, called the court’s decision to hear more argument “very unusual.”

The move “leads me to believe that maybe they’ve just run out of time and are still negotiating with each other over an opinion on unresolved questions. It could be also that they have a four-to-four split but this case has such magnitude that they didn’t want to leave it unresolved, affirming the 10th Circuit decision by virtue of a four-to-four split,” McBride said.

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch recused himself from the case, setting up a potential tie vote by the remaining eight justices. Gorsuch was a member of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals when Murphy’s case was before the appellate court.

While there are no rules saying he couldn’t, McBride doubted that Gorsuch would unrecuse himself from the case when it is reargued in the fall.

The 10th Circuit ruled in favor of Murphy, relying on prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings to determine that Congress had never disestablished the Creek Nation tribal boundaries established in 1866.

“There’s over a hundred years of legal history here, and it’s a hugely important case, and I think it could go in a number of different directions on various legal theories if they want to make an Oklahoma exception” to its prior disestablishment rulings, McBride said.

Stephen Greetham, senior counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, said in an interview that he agreed with others who speculated that the ruling, had it not been delayed, might have been a split.

“I suspect the chief justice, rather than issue a 4-4 ruling, which would simply affirm the 10th Circuit and not provide any additional guidance, decided to carry it over, which gives the parties additional opportunities on how to steer the ship,” he said.

“The court is obviously going to have to decide the jurisdictional question where Mr. Murphy is concerned, but any broader implications from the case the state and the tribes can work out on their own,” Greetham continued.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole tribes issued the following joint statement Thursday: “The Five Tribes and the state of Oklahoma have worked through many important and complicated intergovernmental issues together. It is clear the Supreme Court’s carrying this matter over to the next session gives the tribes and the state an opportunity to work outside the litigation process to address any implicated issues. History shows we accomplish more together than any of us do alone, and we remain confident that will be the case here.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said in a statement that he appreciated the court’s patience on what he called a monumental case.

“This case has implications for millions of Oklahomans, both tribal and nontribal citizens,” Hunter said. “It is vital to the state that the Supreme Court justices make the right decision on behalf of all Oklahomans. While today’s court action does not alter the status quo, it demonstrates the care and consideration the justices are putting into this case.

“Meanwhile, my team and I will continue proactively working with our tribal partners on our shared interests. A top priority for our office is to continue to preserve and grow our unity and prosperity.”

Creek Nation officials and other tribes have hailed the appellate court ruling as affirmation that its tribal boundaries, dating from 1866, remain intact.

State and federal officials, meanwhile, have painted a dire legal landscape if the appellate court ruling is allowed to stand.

“Oklahoma stands on the brink of the most radical jurisdictional shift since statehood,” attorneys for the state of Oklahoma argued in a reply brief filed with the Supreme Court.

The 10th Circuit court relied in its ruling in part upon the 1984 Supreme Court decision referred to as Solem v. Bartlett. That decision laid out steps to determine whether Congress had disestablished or diminished a reservation. Only Congress may disestablish or diminish an Indian reservation, according to the ruling.

After reviewing the evidence, the appellate court determined that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had never been disestablished by Congress.

The case drew attention from a variety of interests.

The Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association filed a friend of the court brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.

“The designation of this huge tract of land as Indian country does far more than replace state criminal jurisdiction with federal criminal jurisdiction,” the group argues in its brief. “It could subject business owners to tribal taxes, exempt tribes and their members from state taxes, subject non-Indians to tribal land-use regulations, affect the alienability of oil and gas leases, and dramatically change the environmental regulation of oil and gas wells.”

The federal government, which backed the state of Oklahoma’s appeal, said it would have exclusive jurisdiction over most crimes by or against Indians in most of eight counties, including the city of Tulsa, if the ruling stands.

“The federal government lacks sufficient investigatory and prosecutorial resources in the area to handle that volume of cases; the FBI currently has the equivalent of seven agents for all of eastern Oklahoma,” attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department wrote.

A McIntosh County jury convicted Murphy in 2000 of murdering George Jacobs Sr., 49, who was Murphy’s girlfriend’s ex-husband.

Jacobs’ body was found in a ditch along a county road near Vernon, about 15 miles west of Eufaula, on Aug. 28, 1999. Testimony at the trial indicated that Jacobs was dragged from a vehicle by three men, who then kicked and punched him before he was attacked with a knife.

A passerby found Jacobs in the ditch with his face bloodied and slashes across his chest and stomach, according to the ruling. Jacobs’ genitals had been severed, and his throat was slit.

It was estimated that Jacobs bled to death in four to 12 minutes.

Featured video

Tulsa City Councilors offered a forum recently on the Equality Indicators report, which uses 54 equality measures that compare outcomes of groups likely to experience inequalities.

Read the story: 'We have to realize we're one city': Discussion on Equality Indicators offers chance at dialogue