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Investigating the perpetrators of the Reign of Terror

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Late Edition: Crime Beat Chronicles

Late Edition: Crime Beat Chronicles, a product of Lee Enterprises, is a collection of limited anthology style episodes exploring true stories as told  
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The latest episode of Late Edition: Crime Beat Chronicles is in partnership with the Tulsa World to introduce the story of the Osage Reign of Terror and the feature film Killers of the Flower Moon. In this episode, show producer Ambre Moton is joined by three writers from the Tulsa World, Randy Krehbiel, Jimmie Tramel and Tim Stanley, to discuss how the Bureau of Investigation came to investigate the killings, the handling of the case, the people held responsible for the killings and why the federal government had jurisdiction. 

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Episode transcript

Note: The following transcript was created by Slack and may contain misspellings and other inaccuracies as it was generated automatically:

Welcome to Late Edition Crime Beat Chronicles, a Lee Enterprises Podcast. I'm Ambre Moton, the producer and editor of the show, filling in for Nat Cardona who's taking some well-deserved time off. 

If you haven't listened to the first two episodes of our series about the Osage reign of terror, please go back and listen to those before starting this one. So far, we've talked about the history of the Osage tribe and how they ended up in what became the state of Oklahoma.

Their oil rich land. And how those rights were divided. And the horrible series of murders or suspicious deaths. Kidnappings and the environment of fear that made up what historians and journalists call the reign of terror. This week we're talking about the investigations into the crimes, what they found and more. Randy Krehbiel of The Tulsa World reminds us about how difficult it was to get proper investigations into the deaths of the Osage community.

Who hired a private detectives to find the cause for the suspicious deaths? The Osage Tribal Council finally petitioned the federal government to send investigators, and in April of 1923, the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI, assigned agents to the case. Here's what Randy had to say about the investigation.

Well, it was called the reign of terror, because people just lived in terror. They were afraid to to talk. And when the FBI came in there in 1923 to try and sort things out in their in their letters and reports and so forth from that time, you know, they talk about how people are just terrified to talk and and they would not talk to outsiders at all.

And, in fact, this is just been talked about a lot with with this book and movie. They wound up putting some some men undercover to try and insinuate themselves into the community so they could get information because people were afraid if they if they told what they knew or what they thought and they were honest about it, they they'd be killed.

And and this and this was true of a lot of a lot of people. And, you know, I think Mollie Burkhart, at one time, she told her priest that she was afraid. People just, you know, people people who were not part of the and even some of them who were part of the these these organizations that were that were doing these things were afraid to talk about it.

And sometimes they were afraid to talk about it because they were involved, too. You know, but but they often they were afraid to talk about it because of repercussions against themselves.

Tulsa World's Jimmy Trammel commented about the investigation's primary target. Who were the the FBI, you know, kind of focusing on or suspecting of all these crimes?

Well, Jesse Plemons plays the FBI character, I think, in the in the film. And as far as the actual suspects, you had some other people had kind of amateurish early tried to be the detective or figured this out or, you know, paid to find things out. What ended up happening was the gentleman who was ultimately the suspect and the primary culprit and was put on trial, many people was like, oh, my, he couldn't it couldn't be that guy.

He couldn't do it because he's friendly. He was probably the most soldiers. But I mean, you just never know. I mean, it was some kind of wolf in sheep's clothing kind of deal.

I asked Tulsa World's Tim Stanley about how well the boy investigated and who they held responsible for the 24 murders that they determined were on an official record.

Federal investigators did a good job in so far as it went. I mean, they did they did investigate it. They did bring charges. And they did get convictions. I think the problem is, is that they were more or less content to kind of tie a bow on the whole thing at that point and then move on, which I mean, that's we see that even today in cases of mass killings or where you have serial killers or who are suspected of being connected to any number of deaths, once they get the conviction on on one or two deaths and they get that person off the street, often that's the end of it.

You know, for them that, you know, the value in the case to them has, you know, they've they've achieved. But that's yeah. I mean, I think that's kind of what you had here is it was investigated and the federal agency which you know, as we may have discussed previously, the one that it would become the FBI, they did they did a solid job and bringing at least some justice in this case.

But they were they didn't really want to dig any further than than just the initial investigation. I mean, J. Edgar Hoover, you know, who was the boss at the time? You know, he got he was well-known for enjoying publicity. And he saw that as valuable to the agency. And he's right. I mean, public relations matter. So, you know, coming in and getting this getting some convictions here, getting a lot of good press out of it, I think satisfied him.

And he had no reason to to investigate it or direct that it be investigated further. So, yeah, unfortunate. But you know what that leads us here. You know, 100 years later and tribal members over the decades leaves us all asking a lot of questions that unfortunately can never be answered.

How many people were eventually held responsible or convicted, at least of some of these crimes?

There were three principal convictions. And the one that's, you know, most significant is the trial and conviction of William Hale and two of the others who were convicted along with him were associates of his. He he has always been considered the mastermind behind many in the slayings, although, again, I think, as we just discussed, the investigators were pretty happy to hang the whole thing on him that made it, you know, a cleaner case and then they could move on in all likelihood.

You know, there were many other perpetrators acting independently of Mr. Hale, just opportunists, again, close family members who saw an opportunity to inherit. He was the primary conviction. He was. And he was important, very significant. Even if even if the feds didn't, you know, go any further than this. I mean, it's just, you know, without a doubt, he was behind several of them.

And, you know, he ended up I think everyone, the three Hale and his associates were given life sentences, but they were all eventually paroled after just a handful of years, which, you know, is kind of a sad, you know, footnote to this is that while they did face justice, well, they were convicted. You know, they they did end up not serving all of that long.

And so while the people obviously it's often this way with justice, but obviously the people that they killed, you know, that that was it for them that these guys did eventually get to get out. But yeah, so three primary, there may have been some others and some tangentially related cases, but three primary convictions. And with William Hale being the chief one.

We have to take a quick break. So don't go too far. And Randy added more details about those held responsible and a little about those who weren't. How many people were held responsible for the reign of terror?

Almost no one. Almost no one. So in the case of the murders that are highlighted in killers of the flower moon, the two main defendants, as it turned out, were Bill Hale, who was accused of being that kind of the mastermind, and a guy named John Ramsey, who was kind of a ne'er do well cowboy, who basically just, you know, did whatever Hale told him to do.

And so each of them was tried three times in federal court for the same murder. And and they were of the first time was a hung jury. They were convicted. This is they were convicted in the next two. And and after the first conviction, there was an appeal. And so they had to be tried again. So those two guys went to prison.

Molly Burkhart has been also went to prison. A guy named Kelsey Mawson who killed Anna Brown, who was who was Molly Burkhart sister, he went to prison. Byron Burkhart, who was a Molly Burkhart brother in law, even though he had confessed to killing Hannah Brown, never went to prison. He he testified against Kelsey Morse and in his trial ended in a hung jury.

He was never retried. And I'm getting a little bit off your your question here, but I think you'll find this interesting. In the sixties, there was an Osage woman die and she left behind a letter that said, if something happens to me, look at Byron. Well, she was living with Byron Burkhart, who had been involved in these things 40 years before and in and again, he nothing ever happened to him.

So I think there were some others that were prosecuted, but but they were very few. And one of the things you realize, especially in going through these FBI papers and reading the trial stories, is how hard it was to get convictions in these things. And and emails case. He had a lot of money and he just pretty blatantly went out and bought tried to buy alibis.

I mean the the federal officials and some of the state officials that they were working with were just furious at what they considered to be dishonest and unethical behavior, behavior by his lawyers and some of these lawyers were pretty well known. One of them was a former attorney general in the state of Oklahoma, the the his defense lawyers.

So the answer to your question is not many and not only not many, you know, go to prison over this. They really didn't stay very long. They'll have all got out in 16 years. But Burkhart got out before that but then got in trouble again. He violated parole. And so they put him back in in prison. Kelsey Morrison got out in a few years and was killed in a shootout in Texas.

So, you know, most of these guys, they didn't serve very long in it. I remember, you know, I was reading some of this stuff and at the same time, we had the the Jones case going on here. And and, you know, whether you think he's guilty or whatever. But I just I couldn't help thinking about the difference in the way, you know, we think about that, at least in Oklahoma.

It's pretty routine for people to get life without parole, if not the death penalty. And these guys were out in 16 years. So, you know, I'm sure somebody who is a lot smarter than I am to try and figure out what all of the different racial biases and so forth were in the criminal justice system or in the criminal justice system.

I will say just in general, at that time, they didn't they tended not to keep people in prison any longer than they had to. They were you know, they were.

It wasn't for profit back then?

It wasn't. Well, no, it was it was a cost. And a lot of the states didn't have a lot of money to to they'd rather turn the guys loose and than keep housing and feeding them.

Right. Yeah, exactly.

How did the government kind of impact this? The FBI came in to investigate. Was the federal government making sure allocations and money were going to the right places and right people? Was it state or was it tribal responsibility?

So in theory and this is one of the things that we're still fighting about in Oklahoma, but in theory, the the Osage reservation was dissolved, that statehood. And that's pretty much held up even with some recent Supreme Court decisions that have decided that some of the other reservations weren't dissolved, that statehood. So it was dissolved, that statehood. However, you still had the Osage is owned a lot of the land there because it had been allotted to them.

So again, this gets a little complicated, but the state officials did not think they could get a conviction in this case, in state court and in Pawhuska. They wanted the federal government to come in. They wanted. And so the federal government has jurisdiction over Indian land. And and so and there was a lot of discussion at the time to our guys even have any kind of authority here.

The the FBI was not even the FBI at that time. It was just the Bureau of Investigation in the Department of Justice. And it had very, very limited authority. And so the key sort of the key thing in bringing this case down, or one of the key things was that one of the men who who was killed, Henry Roan, was killed on an allotment that was still owned by the original L.A. The federal judge in Oklahoma originally ruled that the federal government didn't have authority over that allotment, and it went up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The US Supreme Court said no and allotment is Indian land. And that means the federal the federal government has the authority to to to do this. And so almost all of the real police work, if you will, on this was done by the by the Bureau of Investigation. And they were helped by somewhat by state and local officials.

But in their letters, they talk about they just didn't feel like there were many of those people they could trust because of their interest in, first of all, what was going on in Osage County. But then more broadly, you know, they did not want anybody looking too closely into the what was going on with these Indian allotments and in the mineral rights.

So. So the involvement of the federal government was key. It's really unlikely that that anything could have been done in the Osage Nation, had actually gone to Congress and asked them to intervene. The Osage is pay a big part and maybe all of the federal government's expenses in prosecuting this case. They paid the federal government to investigate these, or at least they paid the expenses of the federal government to do that.

I think another important person in this does not get a lot of attention was Charles Curtis. Charles Curtis was a U.S. senator from Kansas, his whose mother was a college Indian, who was born in in that in what is now Oklahoma. And he was later the vice president of the United States. And he got involved in it and and pushed the Department of Justice to do something.

And that, folks, is where we're leaving it for this episode. Thanks for listening to Late Edition Crime Beat Chronicles. Don't forget to hit that. Subscribe button so you don't miss what's coming up next. A look at where the head write stand currently with the Osages and how the Reign of Terror has its own place in pop culture.

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