The Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association suspended the McCurtain County sheriff and two other staffers Tuesday after they were secretly recorded talking about killing reporters and lynching Black residents after a public meeting.
The vote to suspend Sheriff Kevin Clardy, sheriff's investigator Alicia Manning and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix was unanimous, the sheriffs’ association said on Facebook. The suspension does not remove them from their jobs with the sheriff’s department.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt called for the trio's resignations Monday and for County Commissioner Mark Jennings to step down, as well.
The McCurtain County Gazette-News identified the four as the officials who were recorded March 6 making threatening and racist statements after a meeting of the McCurtain County Commission.
None have spoken publicly about the scandal engulfing the county. On Monday the sheriff’s office claimed that the recording had been “illegally obtained,” appeared to have been altered and may have violated a state law prohibiting secret recordings by third parties.
Christin Jones, of the law firm Kilpatrick Townsend, which represents the newspaper, insisted the recording had not been tampered with and that reporter Bruce Willingham, whose family has owned the newspaper for 40 years, did not break the law in making it.
“It is an accurate recording and does not violate the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act,” Jones said by email. “The full audio is planned to be released on Thursday.”
The entire recording has already been turned over to the FBI and the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, the law firm has said.
Dozens of picketers descended Monday on the headquarters of the McCurtain County Commissioners in the town of Idabel to demand the ousters of Clardy and the others following publication of the newspaper article.
On Tuesday, McCurtain Memorial Hospital in Idabel was evacuated after it got a bomb threat a little after 2 p.m. ET. It was not immediately clear whether it was related to the protests.
"The bomb threat was real, and the evacuation is real," an Idabel police dispatcher said. "But we don't know yet if the bomb is real, and we have a bomb squad there right now."
The hospital said in a statement confirming the threat that "a demand was made or else, the bomb would be detonated." It did not elaborate further.
Earlier, hundreds of critics went to Clardy's official Facebook page and blasted the sheriff’s office for suggesting Willingham had done something wrong.
"Absolute scum of the Earth," Christian Sage Walker wrote. "You got caught on tape talking about lynching black people and hanging journalists and now you want sympathy."
Another poster, Jay Stiles, mocked the sheriff's response.
"When you’re caught making fun of an arson victim, lamenting that you can’t lynch people and talking about hiring hitmen to take out a journalist ... and this is your response ... ," Stiles wrote. "Classy move McCurtain County Sheriff's Office."
Aside from the Facebook posting by the sheriff’s office, none of the embattled McCurtain County officials have commented on the scandal sweeping through Idabel and have not responded to emails and calls seeking comment. Willingham has not responded to requests for comment.
The drama began after Willingham, acting on a tip that the commissioners were illegally engaging in county business after the public meetings were over, left a recording device in the commissioners’ chamber, the newspaper reported.
Earlier that day, Willingham’s son, Christopher Lee Willingham, who is also a reporter at the newspaper, had sued Clardy, Manning and the commissioners in U.S. District Court for Eastern Oklahoma seeking unspecified damages. He claimed they were punishing him for his hard-hitting reporting by spreading “slander” about him.
When Willingham retrieved the device, he discovered that the conversation began with a grisly conversation about a fire victim being compared to “barbecue” before the group turned to talking about his son and hiring hitmen from the Louisiana mafia to take him out.
Perhaps the most explosive part of the recording came when the talk turned to who might run against Clardy in the coming election and Jennings recalled how a former sheriff “would take a damned Black guy and whoop their ass and throw them in the cell,” the newspaper reported.
“Yeah,” Clardy replied, according to the newspaper. “It’s not like that no more.”
“I know,” Jennings said. “Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damned rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They’ve got more rights than we’ve got.”