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Community perception: Slaying gives Duncan something new to be known for

International media glare prompted by the Aug. 16 “thrill killing” of an East Central University baseball player from Australia is casting the community of Duncan in a far different light.
by Phillip O'Connor Modified: August 24, 2013 at 1:46 am •  Published: August 25, 2013

— Until earlier this month, this southwest Oklahoma city might best have been known as the state's Crape Myrtle Capital. Or as a long-ago stop on the historic Chisholm Trail. Or the place where in 1919 Erle P. Halliburton founded his namesake oil and gas company.

No more.

International media glare prompted by the Aug. 16 “thrill killing” of an East Central University baseball player from Australia is casting the community of 23,000 residents in a far different light — one that paints Duncan as being racked by gangs and racism, overrun with guns and in the grip of unrestrained violence.

“I'm concerned the perception is we are some out-of-control small community that's living in the Old West, and that's about as far from the truth as it can be,” Duncan City Manager James M. Frieda said Thursday while sitting in his office with a sweeping view of the city's tidy downtown.

Residents here are still reeling after three area teenagers were charged Tuesday in connection with the drive-by shooting of Christopher Lane, who was killed as he jogged along a residential Duncan street. Lane, 22, was in town visiting his girlfriend's family.

James Francis Edwards Jr., 15, Chancey Allen Luna, 16, and Michael Dewayne Jones, 17, have been charged in the case. Authorities allege Jones was driving, Edwards was a passenger, and Luna fired the fatal shot from the back seat. Police have said that Jones confessed that the boys followed Lane and shot him because they were bored.

The international twist and senseless nature of the crime helped fuel a frenzy of media coverage that included no shortage of commentary on issues ranging from gun control to youth violence. The shooting sparked outrage in Australia, with one former leading politician calling for tourists to boycott the U.S.

But residents and community leaders here say many of the factors that may have played a part in Lane's senseless slaughter are not unique to Duncan.

“I think it's typical of American life,” said the Rev. Arnold Nelson, pastor of First Christian Church in downtown Duncan. “We have kids who have too much time on their hands and access to things that can get them in trouble and who have a pretty profound lack of imagination about what to do when they're bored.”

Still, the killing prompted widespread sorrow, sadness and soul-searching in Duncan, he said.

“It's easy to idealize a place, but any idealizing going on has really been challenged by what we've experienced,” Nelson said. “Now we know that anything bad that can happen can happen in Duncan.”

An afternoon run

If he took the most direct route on his run that Friday afternoon, Lane left his girlfriend's house on Crescent Drive and headed north on Country Club Road. As he ran up a slight hill, he would have passed the manicured fairways of the Duncan Golf and Tennis Club on his left and well-kept ranch-style homes on his right. He would have run past the blue-painted tennis courts and a pond with a decorative fountain spraying a plume of water into the hot summer air.

A little farther on, he would have crested a rise and begun a blocks-long downhill stretch. It's uncertain if about a mile into his jog he noticed on his right the rundown house at the northeast corner of Palm Drive and Country Club Road with a crooked no-trespassing sign hanging on the front porch. It's here, at a house where juveniles are known to congregate, that police say the three boys watched as Lane ran past.

Police Chief Danny Ford said the suspects waited a few minutes before trailing behind Lane in Jones's 2003 Ford Focus.

At Plato Road, Country Club Road narrows, with curbs giving way to roadside ditches. As Lane passed Plato Elementary School, he began to climb another hill.

He had a half-mile to live.

A passer-by found Lane about 3 p.m. lying along the side of the road just south of Twilight Beach Road. He was bleeding from a single .22-caliber bullet wound in his lower back. He died a short time later at a hospital.

An impromptu memorial of flowers and photos marks the spot where he was found near three blooming crape myrtle trees and across the street from a pole flying a large American flag.

Community responds

The killing is having a profound effect on Duncan, prompting conversations in churches, kitchens and coffee shops across the city.

“Our sympathies, condolences and concern are with Chris's family,” said Chris Deal, who heads the Duncan Chamber of Commerce. “This is not just a shock to the family, it's a tragedy for everyone. You can feel the pain in the community. This is not our normal.”

Across the city, people are looking for some way to respond in a positive manner.

“People are shocked. They're angry, sad, and they're embarrassed,” said Nelson, the minister.

Mayor Gene Brown sent a letter of sympathy and regret to the Lane family. Collection boxes bearing a picture of Lane and his girlfriend, Sarah Harper, have popped up at restaurants and businesses around the city.

A website was established to help raise money to pay for the return of Lane's body to Australia. A goal of $15,000 was set, but by 3 p.m. Friday more than $151,000 had been donated and the body had been returned.

Nelson said he'd like to consider using the extra money to pay for the construction of a youth baseball field in Melbourne, the hometown of Lane, who had come to the United States to play the game he loved and pursue a college degree.

“Something that would connect with that family,” Nelson offered.

A message of thanks attributed to Lane's family was posted on the website Thursday.

“We want people to know we don't believe what happened was a reflection of the people of Duncan or Oklahoma,” read the message, which also said any extra funds would go into a foundation that will make donations in Lane's name to causes he was passionate about.

Asked if he was saddened by how Duncan was being portrayed in the media, Nelson said that was “a secondary issue.”

“The issue is that a young life was taken for no reason at all, and that family is going to live with that grief long after this isn't a news story. If it becomes a bad reflection on Duncan that pushes the community to be more imaginative about how it deals with young people, that will be a net gain for the community.”

Duncan experiences little violent crime, murders are rare, and problems with juveniles are no worse than in any other similar-size city across the country, said Ford, the police chief.

“This idea that one spot is different from another is ludicrous,” Ford said.

Continue reading this story on the...

by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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