Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Counselor who found slain Girl Scouts has spent a lifetime overcoming trauma | Local News

An ancient Greek philosopher asserted that no one can step into the same river twice because both the river and the person are constantly changing.

The same thing could be said of a walk in the woods, it would seem.

But for Carla Wilhite, each time she revisits a particular walk in a certain forest, it’s always about 6 a.m., with the sky exhibiting that same steely blue-gray “6 a.m. color.”

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The air always has that same heavy, humid feel that follows an Oklahoma summer rain.

The scent on the breeze is always of the same sweet, woody sycamore trees.

And the walk always ends with the discovery of three young, dead Girl Scouts.

The walk is always the same.

And in that moment, so is Wilhite — an 18-year-old waking early on her first morning as a camp counselor, filled with excitement and anticipation for creating the same life-altering experience for these young girls that camp had always meant for her.

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But since that moment, nothing has ever been the same.

Changed irrevocably

It was June 13, 1977, and a group of Tulsa-area Girl Scouts had just spent their first night of a weeklong stay at Camp Scott near Locust Grove.

With Wilhite’s discovery of the murder scene, all camp plans ceased. Most of the girls were quickly returned to Tulsa by bus.

The families of three girls — Lori Lee Farmer, 8, Michele Guse, 9, and Doris Denise Milner, 10 — were given the devastating news of their children’s deaths. Two of the girls had been beaten to death, the third strangled.

And law enforcement authorities began a murder investigation that, in some circles, continues to this day.

Ultimately, an area man, Gene Leroy Hart, was arrested after an intense manhunt and charged with the crimes, but following a sensational trial, he was acquitted in March 1979.

Three months later — two years after the murders — Hart collapsed in prison and died. He was serving more than 100 years on unrelated burglary, rape and kidnapping charges.

Enough paper to account for a forest has been filled with theories, claims and hypotheses about what happened that night at Camp Scott and then what happened in the judicial system to the case that resulted from the killings.

But Wilhite doesn’t need to read those pages. She was there. She lived it. And it changed her irrevocably.

Such a heinous crime victimizes many more people than casual observers realize.

Much is written about how the families of the dead go on with their lives. But what of the others?

When recurring thoughts of a walk in the woods conjure memories of a real nightmare more horrific than any fiction could ever produce, how does life go on?

‘Just like any teenager’

Today, Wilhite, a native of Sand Springs, is an occupational therapist by profession and the program director of a graduate occupational therapy program at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.

After her 1977 graduation from Charles Page High School and the discovery of the Camp Scott murders, she went to college in Missouri for a while and then landed a little closer to home — at Oklahoma State University. Wilhite ended up in Farmington, New Mexico, where she worked for about 8½ years as a police officer and a detective, and then she went back to school.

At the University of New Mexico, she finished a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and then a second bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy.

Not yet done with school, she got a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Regis University in Denver and then finished her doctorate in occupational therapy through Creighton University.

Since the fall she has been an assistant professor at Colorado Mesa, where her practice expertise is bringing general occupational therapy skills to bear on the problems and concerns of agricultural producers, family members of farmers and ranchers, and farm workers.

“I never dreamed of being a police officer. I never dreamed of being an occupational therapist,” Wilhite said. “I was just like any teenager — I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star or a famous artist.”

But unlike most teenagers, who gradually let go of their dreams of fame and stardom, for Wilhite, all of that disappeared in that moment at Camp Scott.

After that, “I needed to help somebody,” she said.

It would be awhile before she got the chance, though.

‘It damaged me’

In the immediate hours and days after the three young girls were found slain, authorities didn’t know that two of them had also been raped and that they were looking for exclusively male suspects.

Therefore Wilhite, as the person who found the bodies, was treated not as a traumatized witness but as a murder suspect.

“Any adult counselors at camp were looked at as suspects,” she said. “They interrogated several young women until they found” the sperm.

The treatment by law enforcement officers “absolutely affected my ability to move on with my life,” she said. “I know it wasn’t intentional on their part. They were doing their job. I understand that part.

“But I also think there was no consideration — at least early in the investigation — that we were just barely adults, and to be interrogated and fingerprinted and give samples of your hair and saliva and your blood and even your pubic hair and asked to take a polygraph and have your Miranda rights read to you — it flipped my brain.”

Wilhite said the interrogation techniques were eerily similar to those detailed in the John Grisham book “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” a nonfiction account of a 1982 Ada murder investigation in which law enforcement questioning techniques of suspects came under scrutiny.

“They asked me questions like, ‘Did you dream that you did it? Have you ever fantasized about doing this?’” Wilhite said.

“I really wanted to help the investigation. I wanted justice to be done,” she said. “I never expected to be in that position. I was not emotionally, mentally (or) spiritually prepared for that.

“I understand that it was a different time and a different type of interrogation procedure. But I was still just an 18-year-old kid, and I know it damaged me.”

Although Wilhite said she has “no animus toward law enforcement,” her “experience with the investigation definitely influenced my decision to go into police work.”

And despite Hart’s acquittal, she remains convinced of his guilt.

“Having been in law enforcement, I feel like they had a really satisfactory case against him with all of the circumstantial evidence,” she said. “I never had any doubt that he was the perpetrator.”

‘Not how guilt works’

Wilhite is a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts. As a young girl, she joined the Brownies and stayed in Girl Scouts until she had achieved the rank of Senior Scout and earned her First Class Award, now called the Gold Award, which is the equivalent of the Boy Scouts’ Eagle Scout rank.

She had attended Camp Scott since 1971 and was a counselor-in-training for two summers prior to 1977.

In June 1977, Carla Wilhite found the bodies of three murdered Girl Scouts near this tree at Camp Scott.

“We were so well-trained for accidents, snake bites, wounds — the whole nine yards of what to do in an emergency,” she said.

“One year a tornado knocked a tree down that landed on a tent. None of the girls were hurt, but we handled that emergency.”

But there was no training for what do in case of violence.

“That kind of stuff just didn’t happen then — until then,” Wilhite said. “It was unprecedented. It truly was a different world.

“But Gene Leroy Hart changed all of that.”

So in a world where such horror was so unprecedented that student leaders had been given no preparation for what to do if it were to happen, one would have to hope that those student leaders understood how this couldn’t have been their fault.

But “that’s not how guilt works,” Wilhite said.

In the grasp of guilt, she said, she has told herself that “the parents never would have sued the Girl Scouts if they thought I had done right and had been brave and had done my job.”

All evidence points to the contrary.

“They have been compassionate and sent messages to me, and that has helped a lot,” Wilhite said. “I’m just fearful to meet them.”

She said she has communicated via Facebook with Betty Milner, Denise’s mother, “and she has been nothing but a sacred human being — just so compassionate.”

But Wilhite said she can’t face meeting the parents because it reminds her that she “didn’t wake up. I didn’t discover what was happening — back to that ‘I should have.’

“I think that for most survivors of violence or proximity to violence (the reaction) is not ‘Thank God I’m alive’ but more ‘It should have been me. I should have done something.’

“I’ve had to learn to ‘unguilt’ and let go of guilt and be more pragmatic.”

‘Life changed — forever’

“June is always the month,” Wilhite said.

“Every June is not hard, but no June has ever passed without an acknowledgment that my life changed in June 1977 — forever.”

But trauma isn’t something a survivor deals with one month out of a year.

“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep — the sleep of the innocent — you know, the deep, restful sleep — since 1977,” she said.

“For a long time I couldn’t sleep in a sleeping bag. I can do it now, but I kind of have to will myself to do it.”

Wilhite does still go camping, an activity she loves — has always loved. She still enjoys hiking and sitting around a campfire.

“I still do all of those things. I just might not zip up my sleeping bag, no matter how cold I am.

“And like with post-traumatic stress disorder, I’m hypervigilant,” she said. “I’m always aware of what or who is around me, what’s going on.”

Progress might be slow, but it comes.

“I don’t have as many disruptive memories as I used to where I might see something that triggers the memory of seeing the dead body that I first saw of the little Milner girl as I was walking to go take my shower,” she said.

Wilhite used to be bothered by the smell of sycamore trees or wet leaves or certain times of the morning.

“For a long time, I couldn’t get up at 6 a.m. and look outside,” she said. “It was too much like that moment. But over the years I can do all of those things without getting I guess what you would say ‘triggered.’

“That association with your environment and those things that trigger you lessens over time.”

‘He was a human being’

Perhaps surprisingly, Wilhite is even able to point to some good that has come out of the horror that changed her life so dramatically.

“I’m definitely more compassionate,” she said. “I think I’m less judgmental of other people and definitely more compassionate, and I think that’s made me a better occupational therapist and a better teacher.

“I will say I don’t think that made me a better police officer.”

Some of that compassion Wilhite even reserves for the man who took so much from her and others — Hart himself.

“I suspect that if that’s the kind of person that he was, redemption would have been kind of elusive,” she said. “We don’t know what his psychological makeup was, but we do know that he was capable of great cruelty and inflicting enormous pain.

“But he wasn’t a monster. He was a man who did monstrous things,” she said. “If we say he’s a monster, we say he’s different from us — that he wasn’t a human being.

“But he was a human being. And I don’t think we’ll ever understand why he did what he did.”

‘Bad things happen to all of us’

Forty-five years after the murders, Wilhite doesn’t spend many of her waking hours dwelling on the whys and hows anymore.

“I think I live a pretty normal life. I go home, and I’m a couch potato,” she said. “I go to movies. I read books.

“I think overall I’ve had a very ordinary life. I love my career; I love teaching and occupational therapy.

“I am functioning. I have accomplished a lot. I have driven myself to live a good life despite what happened.”

She insists that time — and a good bit of therapy — does help.

“The biggest part is the more life experience you have in managing your post-traumatic stress — self-managing your depression with the help of your doctor and your therapists over the years — you get better.

“And I do kind of believe in that mantra that recovery happens,” she said. “I really believe that. I still believe that I can recover from what happened.

“Bad things happen to all of us. All of us have had to bear trauma, letdowns or worse — violence,” Wilhite said.

“The right question isn’t ‘Why did this happen to me?’ The question for everybody else is ‘Why didn’t it happen to me?’

“We’re all going to have a disability. We’re all just temporarily able.”

Tulsa World Newsroom podcast: Questions still remain about the Oklahoma Girl Scout murders 45 years later

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