DUNCAN — 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.
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.
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.
He added that race did not appear to be a factor in Lane's killing.
“In reality, three boys chose to randomly shoot somebody,” Ford said. “That's the scary part about it.”
Ford expressed concern about the proliferation of single-parent households, lack of supervision, violent rap music and the negative influence of social media that allows people to portray themselves as something they're not.
Ford said he doesn't believe any of the three teenagers were involved with gangs and does not believe the shooting was gang-related.
But photos on Edwards' Facebook page show stacks of hundred-dollar bills, a handgun, Edwards holding a rifle, and Edwards and Luna appearing to flash gang signs.
“If you play that long enough, you begin to believe what you say on social media,” Ford said. “You get to where you think you can play out the role.
“People begin to see it and then you have to live it out or you're living a lie.”
The killing also provided fodder for the ongoing national debate over gun control.
Nelson, the pastor, said he believes the case points up the need for some “grown-up conversation about accessibility to firearms.”
“If I defend my rights, my freedom, to such an extent it gives license to someone else to do the wrong thing, well, then I have participated in a system that has denied that young man of his life. That's a hard conversation for any town in America to have.”
Ford, the police chief, discounted discussion about the effect gun control measures might have had.
“If they hadn't had a gun, they would have run over his ass. They were out to hurt somebody,” Ford said.
‘Did we do enough?'
Duncan School Superintendent Sherry Labyer said she believes the shootings are indicative of broader societal problems more than they are a reflection of Duncan.
“This could have happened anywhere there is a breakdown of the family, where there is a lack of supervision, where children are not held accountable from the time they are able to know right from wrong,” Labyer said.
She also noted the lack of resources for troubled students. She said Duncan has no psychiatrists, mental health facilities or the type of family therapy that can make a difference in children's lives. She said the 4,000-student district struggles to find enough teachers, let alone counselors who could work with troubled students.
“It's a critical need,” she said. “I go back to the breakdown of the family. And then drugs are so prevalent. When you couple those two together, as a society, you're going to have these kinds of problems.”
Labyer said she knows Lane's girlfriend, Sarah Harper, who she said was a star softball catcher and golfer at the high school.
“A Duncan Demon through and through,'' Labyer called her.
Labyer also knows all three of the boys accused in the killing. Although the police have said all three have had previous run-ins with the law, Labyer described them as bright and full of potential. She also knows two of their families.
“When you know those kids and you talk to them and you have relationships with them, done things for them, it's heart-wrenching,” she said. “It's just heart-wrenching. And I am sad for their families. But that doesn't change the fact that what they did was permanent. That's the part I can't seem to get past. What they did to someone else is permanent. That's hard.”
Labyer said the boys weren't isolated at school. Adults reached out.
“I know they made those human connections and tried to develop relationships,” she said. “Did we do enough? If we needed to do something different, I honestly don't know what it would be.”
Labyer said she hates to see Duncan portrayed as a racist, unsafe place to live.
“I find that tragic,” she said. “I don't think that that's an accurate depiction of who we are. It's horrible. Just horrible.”
The shooting hiked tension in Duncan.
In the first few days after, police received a large increase in the number of people reporting suspicious activity, even though the suspects had been taken into custody the night of the killing, Ford said. They were arrested in a church parking lot after a resident on Ash Street called 911 saying teens with guns were outside his home.
At their first appearance in court Tuesday, the judge, noting that emotions were running high, warned those in the courtroom against any outbursts.
That evening, an anonymous caller told police that a group would be coming to Duncan High School the next day to shoot people. Police and school officials took the threat seriously, Labyer said.
On Wednesday, the district limited student movement on its campuses and bolstered the number of police at the high school from one to seven. Students who stayed home had their absences waived. By Thursday, school was back to normal except for a few extra police still patrolling the hallways.
Frieda, the city manager, said residents are both outraged and fearful.
“How could that happen in a town like this? It's difficult to answer,” Frieda said. “The only thing you can do is react to it, reassure the community and let the outside world know that this is a good town. It's almost a boring place to live.”
He said he's saddened and bothered by some media portrayals of the community.
He thinks assigning racial motives to the crime is wrong. He pointed out that one of the suspects is white and notes that in a city where blacks make up about 3 percent of the population, the mayor is African-American.
“I think that says something about the community,” Frieda said. “This is not a racially motivated thing. This is a random act of violence.”
He also discounted criticism by some, including the Ardmore branch of the NAACP, that the white suspect, Jones, was being given preferential treatment by receiving a lesser charge and being allowed to post bond while the two black teenagers were not.
“My answer to them is, how quickly do you think he'll make a $1 million bond?” Frieda said. “Because that's what his bond is set at. The charge is different, but the bond is still $1 million.”
Luna and Edwards face charges of first-degree murder. Jones is charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact and the use of a vehicle in the discharge of a weapon.
All three face potential life sentences.
“The target was somebody who happened to jog by when they wanted to find out what it would feel like to murder somebody,” Frieda said. “That's my perception.”
The Rev. Nelson said he expects Lane's death will be a defining experience for Duncan, much like he said the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was for Oklahoma City.
“I think there will be people who measure time by that experience,” he said. “It's a day that will live forever.”
In reality, three boys chose to randomly shoot somebody. That's the scary part about it.”
Police Chief Danny Ford,