By Dylan Goforth
Phoenix Staff Writer
As we march on to a new year, join us for a look back at the 10 most newsworthy stories of 2012, as voted on by the staff of the Muskogee Phoenix.
10. Courthouse security
Two laptops given to the Muskogee County’s District Attorney’s Office in 2012 were in the middle of a storm of controversy.
Muskogee County Sheriff Charles Pearson gave District Attorney Larry Moore’s office two laptops to cut down on paperwork and trips between the two offices. However, included on the laptops was software that could have — though no specific allegations have been lodged — allowed prosecutors to eavesdrop on what defense attorneys had believed to be private conversations with their clients.
As a result, a handful of cases were removed from trial schedules, and a case against a man accused of rape was dismissed as attorneys, judges and prosecutors awaited a conclusion to the allegations.
Moore said the fact that video and audio from courtrooms was being recorded was widely known information, and the laptops, which had the surveillance software removed, did not have DVR capability. Any video seen on those laptops, Moore said, had to be witnessed live.
Attorneys asked the Oklahoma Bar Association, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to look into the matter. None responded. However, the OSBI did initiate an investigation into the DA’s office at Moore’s request. That investigation is ongoing.
Hundreds of Muskogee citizens and area leaders shared their thoughts during a series of Action In Muskogee (AIM) meetings during 2012.
AIM was a community planning project organized by the Muskogee City-County Port Authority to “develop a community-inspired implementation plan with accountability to improve Muskogee.”
The effort is modeled after Oklahoma City’s MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects Plan) and Ardmore’s GAPS (Giving Ardmore a Plan for Success) programs.
After the five meetings were completed, consultants drafted a report on how to put into action nine initiatives AIM settled on. Those initiatives are:
• Educational excellence.
• Safe and secure community.
• Strong economy.
• Community pride.
• Clean and beautiful community.
• Great place to live.
• Health and wellness.
• Great place to visit.
• Community infrastructure.
8. Former city resident admits sodomy of teen
Roger Wayne Bingham, 40, pleaded guilty to 27 counts of forcible sodomy of a teenage boy.
Associate District Judge Norman Thygesen heard Bingham’s guilty plea Jan. 25 and sentenced him to 27 concurrent 20-year terms. At least 85 percent of a sentence for a forcible sodomy conviction must be served before an inmate is eligible for parole. It will be 2029 before Bingham is eligible for parole.
After the sentencing, Bingham was returned to Pennsylvania, where he’s serving time for a similar crime. Thygesen said Bingham will return to Oklahoma to serve his sentence here after he completes his Pennsylvania sentence.
7. Checotah soldier dies in Afghanistan
Spc. James E. Dutton, 25, was killed March 31 in Logar province in Afghanistan.
Dutton, a Checotah native and 2006 graduate of Weleetka High School, was married to Ellen Marie Dutton. A Department of Defense media release stated Dutton was known as “the only service member in Southern Afghanistan that can fix fire trucks.”
Dutton’s body was returned to Muskogee County April 20, and its route from Davis Field Airport to Dutton’s final resting place at Fort Gibson National Cemetery was a celebrated one. Dozens of Patriot Guard motorcycle riders embraced Dutton’s family as his casket was lowered from a plane. Hundreds of flag-waving residents showed support by lining Muskogee streets as the body was escorted to a Muskogee funeral home.
Dutton was buried April 23.
6. Checotah teacher guilty of rape
A former Checotah Public Schools teacher charged in 2011 with the rape of high school students pleaded guilty Aug. 1 to nine counts of having sex with teenagers.
Michelle Diane McCutchan, 40, was found guilty of :
• Two counts of second-degree rape.
• Two counts of sodomy.
• One count of child neglect.
• Four counts of furnishing alcohol to a person under 21.
She was sentenced Sept. 5 to 15 years in prison, and, as the felonies fall under the 85 percent statute, she will spend almost 13 years in prison before being eligible for parole.
Authorities alleged McCutchan, a former fifth-grade teacher in the Checotah school system, engaged in a sexual relationship with three boys, two of whom were students at Checotah High School. Some of the acts involved a teenage girl, prosecutors said. Some of the acts were filmed and photographed.
McCutchan testified to withstanding years of sexual abuse as a teenager.
5. OMHOF gets a reprieve
A $209,000 grant to the city of Muskogee gave the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame a break from its money troubles.
OMHOF briefly closed its doors in February after announcing financial issues had led to staff cuts. But in June, the city received a grant, $160,000 of which was used to buy land that had been donated to OMHOF. That money was used to pay off a $35,000 debt for the museum’s children’s exhibit and the organization’s operations.
OMHOF’s governing board had requested $205,000 to fund operations, upgrades and marketing, but that request had been denied.
4. Ronald Sanders’ body discovered
Man’s best friend helped bring the story of a missing man turned fugitive to a gruesome end.
In the span of less than two months Ronald Sanders, 46, went from being a missing person, to a missing fugitive, to a deceased person after a dog dragged Sanders’ decomposed arm and dropped it on a section of 12th Street in October. The complete body, later identified by dental records as that of Sanders, was found a block away in a wooded area.
Sanders walked out of a house at 1611 Fairmont St. on Aug. 2. Muskogee County Sheriff’s Investigator Faye Banks spent a handful of days getting information and looking for Sanders before officially asking for the public’s assistance Aug. 10.
The story took a twist the next week when officials discovered Sanders was wanted. He had allegedly entered a house in 2009 and beaten a teenager with a baseball bat.
Sanders had moved to Florida after the alleged attack and had returned to Muskogee in August to visit family. The search for Sanders, who was wanted on a $100,000 arrest warrant, switched gears from a missing-person search to a manhunt.
No cause of death has been determined by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
3. Tyler Alred sentenced to church
In a story equal parts tragic, hopeful and controversial, a teenager charged with manslaughter was sentenced to church as part of his punishment.
Tyler Alred, 17, was drinking Dec. 3, 2011, when the pickup he was driving crashed, killing John Luke Dum, 16.
Alred was eventually charged as a youthful offender with manslaughter, and he pleaded guilty in August. In November, District Judge Mike Norman hit Alred with 10 years of probation, along with a litany of conditions. Some of the conditions, such as undergoing drug and alcohol assessment, and taking part in victim’s impact panels, were common. But when Norman told Alred he’d have to go to church for 10 years or be sent to prison, what had been a tragic, local story went national. Crews from across the state and nation interviewed Norman, who defended the sentence, and Alred’s attorney, Donn Baker, who said Alred attended church voluntarily.
The Oklahoma American Civil Liberties Union took issue with the sentence, eventually filing a complaint against Norman. ACLU spokesman Brady Henderson said the complaint could end in the possible dismissal of Norman as a district judge. Muskogee County District Attorney Larry Moore said he would be hesitant to revoke Alred’s probation should the teenager ever stop going to church.
2. Municipal elections
A rift regarding labor rights that began in 2011 led to the largest turnover in Muskogee City Council in more than two decades.
Candidates attributed the historic shift to public backlash that grew from the previous council’s decision to strip non-uniform employees of their collective bargaining rights.
The 2012 municipal elections produced four new city councilors, representing a 45 percent change in membership. City Clerk Pam Bates said the election of three new councilors in 1992 was next-largest turnover in recent history.
The new members were Councilors Lee Ann Langston, Ward I; Dan Hall, Ward II; Derrick Reed, Ward III; and Wayne Johnson, Ward IV. Bob Coburn, who was elected mayor in 2012, had been appointed in 2010 as a Ward I representative after a failed mayoral bid against then-Mayor John Tyler Hammons.
The new city councilors pushed through amendments to an ordinance that authorized the employee group to reorganize but was seen as unreasonably prohibitive. Once the amended ordinance passed, non-uniform employees voted overwhelmingly to reorganize, authorizing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2465 to serve as their collective bargaining agent.
1. Fowler convicted in mall shooting
A deadly chapter in Muskogee history ended this year when Dondray Fowler was convicted of murder in the fatal Arrowhead Mall shooting.
Fowler was found guilty July 20 on one count of first-degree murder for the death of Jerrod Reed, 17. Fowler also faced four counts of assault and battery with a deadly weapon.
Fowler, 22, was sentenced Oct. 3 to life with the possibility of parole on the murder charge. He also was sentenced to 30 years each on the four counts of assault and battery with a deadly weapon. With the sentences to be served consecutively, Fowler will be incarcerated for at least 140 years before he will be eligible for parole.
Reporters D.E. Smoot and Wendy Burton contributed to this report.
Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or dgoforth @muskogeephoenix.com.
Notable deaths during the year
Feb. 22 — Gloria Doris Schumann, 91, commissioned to paint President Richard Nixon’s inaugural portrait as well as that of former Attorney General John Mitchell and many other prominent people. But her portraits of children gave her the reputation as America’s “painter of little men.”
March 9 — Okay rancher Richard Jason Rousselot, 50, the secretary of the Wagoner County Election Board from 2002 to 2007.
March 31 — Spc. James E. Dutton of Checotah was killed in Logar province, Afghanistan. Dutton, 25, was assigned to the 125th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas.
April 11 — Wadie L. Morton, a retired longtime Muskogee Police officer, died at age 63.
April 12 — Steven Wayne Williams, 54, died in a gun-cleaning accident. Williams was the manager of Greenleaf State Park, Tenkiller State Park and Cherokee Landing State Park.
June 25 — C. Clay Harrell, former city manager and beautification leader, died two days short of his 99th birthday. Before he retired in 1995, he served twice as city manager, during 1952-61 and 1979-82. He also founded A More Beautiful Muskogee Inc., which focuses on civic beautification, in 1988.
June 29 — Dr. David Andrew Reifsteck, 64, was brushhogging when the tractor he was riding rolled over onto him.
July 7 — Bill Hearn, 69, was a longtime music instructor in Muskogee Public Schools.
Aug. 19 — Joe Rector,77, Indian artist, world champion weightlifter, school teacher, musician, died surrounded by family in Florida.
Oct. 12 — James Hodge, 69, owned James Hodge Ford.
Oct. 12 — Steven Mark “the Pepsi Man” Lowrimore, 53, was the chief of Brushy Mountain Volunteer Fire Department for 23 years.
Oct. 30 — William Bruce Guthrie, longtime clerk of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Oklahoma, died at 65. He was appointed clerk in 1989.
Dec. 9 — Curtis Calvin Brackeen, 79, was a Muskogee Public Schools teacher and coach.