One week after an Australian college student was shot dead in the southern Oklahoma town of Duncan, the small town is still trying to figure out why three local high-school boys pulled the trigger in what police say was a “thrill kill.”
While police say they’re confident there was no motive other than the teens’ admitted boredom, at the same time speculation has risen about possible gang ties.
“You never hear anything like this in Duncan,” said Mark Morrow, a youth pastor with the Faith Church. “We live in Mayberry, America. I’ve lived here for eight years, and I have never locked my front door. I never thought it would come to our town. It’s pretty surreal. People are pretty shocked. ”
Fifteen-year-old James Edwards, a standout high-school wrestler, and Chancey Allen Luna, 16, were charged Tuesday with first-degree murder. Michael Dewayne Jones, 17, a gifted drummer and singer, was charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact and use of a vehicle in the discharge of a weapon. Prosecutors say Luna fired the handgun while Jones drove the getaway car. Edwards was a passenger.
The teens are accused of fatally shooting 23-year-old Australian exchange student Christopher Lane, who was on a baseball scholarship at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, as he was taking an afternoon jog near his girlfriend’s home in the affluent north end of Duncan. After they were arrested, Jones confessed that they shot the university baseball team catcher “because they were bored.”
“That is crazy,” said Morrow. “If that is the case, that is really sad. When I’m bored, I go to the movies. When it becomes an option to kill someone, it is a sad day.”
Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks told The Oklahoman on Thursday that they were looking at other motives as well. “There are a couple of other possibilities that we're exploring,” he said.
Police Chief Danny Ford, however, doesn’t believe another motive will be found. "Everyone is saying there has got to be more motive but, friends, that is it. They targeted him because he jogged by the house. It is what they decided to do. I really doubt they planned it. I think they had the gun and the potential was there, and when they had the opportunity and worked up the courage they pulled the trigger.”
Ford also dismisses the notion, prevalent in much of the case’s national media cover, that race played a factor in the killing. “You have a black person, a black person of mixed race and a white person,” he said about the suspects. “I don’t know where you can get race. It is not the case here. The people around here are saying why are we playing that. It keeps feeding itself. I get tired of listening to it. I have no use for speculation.”
The senseless shooting in the small city of 25,000, located 95 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, has prompted outrage from around the world, particularly in Australia. “It is another example of murder mayhem on Main Street,” former Australian deputy prime minister Tim Fischer told CNN’s Piers Morgan. “People thinking of going to the U.S.A. for business or tourist trips should think carefully about it, given the statistical fact you are 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the U.S.A. than in Australia, per capita.”
Ryan Benton, the youth pastor for First Christian Church, said Lane’s death is the second murder this summer in Duncan. “A 14-year-old girl was killed by her boyfriend at the beginning of the summer,” he said. “It took everybody back. It’s a hard time for everybody.”
Benton described Edwards as a witty and gregarious teen who received free meals through an at-risk youth program but had aspirations to attend college on a scholarship for wrestling. “He was a little guy who was stout and quick,” Benton said. “It was his dream. To be valued as a wrestler he would have been happy with, but it’s all under the bridge right now.”
However, questions have been raised about whether the teens were affiliated with a gang—and if the shooting was a gang initiation—after a photo surfaced on Facebook showing Edwards and Luna flashing gang signs.
“Lawton [Oklahoma] is a hop, skip, and a jump away, and they have had problems with gangs,” Ford said. “I don’t know about these kids’ involvement, but I know about the apartment complex where [Edwards] lives and there are a lot of younger adults and college-age kids that have really nice cars and things. If you don’t have that, you might look up to those type of people.”
Ford said Duncan doesn’t have a gang problem; he believes the suspects were wannabe gangsters. "I think they have tried to emulate the gang life, and now it’s put up or shut up—either demonstrate you are a gangster or not. They are not. To kill an innocent person is an absolute no-no for a gang. I can't get my mind around the thinking in that direction. There is no gang to initiate into."
Morrow said that both Edwards and Jones used to attend his church’s youth services up until a few years ago. “They haven’t been around in a couple of years,” he said. “I never felt we really connected on a solid level with them.”
“James [Edwards] always seemed frustrated,” Morrow recalled. “He seemed like he was misunderstood. They called him ‘bug” and “little buggy.’”
Jones, said Morrow, was a talented musician who used to sing and play drums at the church’s yearly summer camps. “Michael was a kid who could blend into whatever situation he was in,” he said. “He had a really big heart but not a big moral compass. He was kind of a chameleon-type kid. He is probably the one I am most shocked about. He seemed to be more stable.”
The tragic tale began about 3 p.m. on August 16, when the call came into the Duncan Police Department that a white male wearing blue pants and a gray shirt “is sitting in the ditch and has blood on his back.”
Officers reported that Lane had been shot in the back and was not breathing. Police quickly pulled surveillance footage from the scene and obtained video of a black small two-door hatchback. One of the detectives “knew the car to be very similar to a car Michael Jones drove,” according to court documents.
Four hours later, officers were called to the home of 52-year-old James Johnson because Jones, Edwards, and Luna were parked outside his home with guns, and had threatened on Facebook to kill his 17-year-old son, Christopher. “My son called me and said, ‘They're saying they're coming to kill me' so I called the police and they got here within about three minutes,” Johnson told an Australian newspaper. “They threatened to kill my son because they are in a gang, the Crips, and were trying to get my son in it and I wouldn't let him do it. I told him he couldn't run with those boys. He's a little terrified.”
The teens were arrested in the nearby parking lot of Immanuel Baptist Church. Police then served a search warrant on Jones’s car and found a dismantled 12-gauge shotgun with the serial numbers ground off in the trunk underneath the spare tire, as well a number of .22-caliber bullets. However, the gun used in the shooting was not found.
Shortly after Edwards, Jones, and Luna were transported to the Stephens County Jail, Jones asked to speak to one of the investigators. After initially refusing to cooperate he told investigators that he could not tell them who shot Lane because “if he did he would get killed.”
Prosecutor Jason Hicks told reporters that when Edwards was booked for murder he did “a little dance.”
"None of them are remorseful,” Chief Ford said. “The driver feels a little bit of remorse. He seems to have some emotion. It’s not a ton of it. But the other two danced. Edwards thought it was cool."
“We are very saddened by this whole situation,” said Dr. Sherry Labyer, the superintendant for the Duncan School District. On Tuesday, Labyer said police told her an anonymous tipster called Crime Stoppers about a threat to the high school where the three teens attended in the spring. “They said they were going to shoot some people,” she said.
Labyer said she sent letters out to parents informing them of the threat and let them decide whether the students should return to school on Wednesday or not. “We only had 300 in attendance,” she said. (One thousand students regularly attend, she said.)
Ford said the tip involved a group of gansters from neighboring Lawton. “They were angry with the boys,” he said. “We have Lawton nearby. They have significant problems with gangs.”
“I don’t want Duncan to be painted with this broad brush,” Labyer said. “We have an amazing group of students, and 99 percent of our students do the right thing.”