Oklahoma’s mystery revolves around bones and people who have gone missing.
White supremacist prison gangs are often not seen as a threat, but a high-stakes criminal investigation shows how dangerous they can be.
The person who called LaVonne Harris with news told her not to get her hopes up.
Nathan Smith, Harris’s 33-year-old son, was last seen on a dirt road in Oklahoma on a cold night more than two years ago. Detectives had stopped checking up on her for a long time, and Harris could feel that her search was getting more and more lonely as the months went by.
In April, a person who helped families of missing people got a call that wasn’t good news, but it was a lead: authorities in rural Logan County, just north of here, had found the bodies of more than one person. Also, the caller said softly, the body parts weren’t in one piece.
Harris, who was 58, sat down to get her balance. She listened and then put the phone down to tell her daughter.
“I told Lou, ‘These bodies were found,'” Harris remembered. “They’ve been burned and cut,” he said.
Smith is one of at least a dozen people who have gone missing from the wooded, unincorporated land outside the metro area of Oklahoma City in the past few years. This area is a rural haven for drug traffickers. Some families said they are afraid to call the police or even put up “missing person” signs because they think violent white supremacist prison gangs might be involved.
After getting a tip in April, authorities said they found burned piles of wood and bones on a five-acre piece of land in Logan County. This started one of the most grisly and sensitive criminal investigations in recent Oklahoma history.
Four Oklahoma officials with knowledge of the investigation say that behind the 10-foot metal walls of a compound with ties to the white supremacist prison gang Universal Aryan Brotherhood, officers found what they think is a place where bodies were dumped after being cut up and burned. They didn’t want to be identified because there were so many extra security measures around the case.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, or OSBI, which is in charge of the multiagency state and federal investigation, confirms that human remains have been found but won’t say how many. The Oklahoman newspaper first reported on the discovery on April 29. The state medical examiner and other sources were quoted as saying that agents were looking into “whether a white supremacist prison gang is behind nine or more disappearances” after “the mixed remains of maybe three people” were found. The report said that more remains were found in a small town called Luther, about 18 miles away, near an oil well.
Even after four months, it’s still not clear how big the case is. A law enforcement official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about an ongoing investigation, said they were told there were up to “12 different DNA profiles.” One family of a missing person was told there were eight, while another family was told there were only three.
The OSBI has done a lot to keep the investigation secret, like telling the families of the missing people to keep quiet.
“Right now, we’re just trying to keep some people alive,” said a second official, talking about how hard it was to protect possible witnesses.
Extremism monitors and Justice Department court documents show that the leaders of white supremacist prison gangs run crime networks from behind bars with the help of a network of “enforcers” on the outside. This level of danger is a shocking reminder of the threat that can’t be seen.
Authorities say that the gangs have attacked both inside and outside of prison, and that most of their violence in the free world has been aimed at rivals and informants. Since gangs usually do their business in the criminal underworld, the attacks aren’t talked about much when people talk about how violent far-right groups are getting.
Mark Pitcavage, a researcher for the Anti-Defamation League who has been watching these groups for decades, said that Oklahoma is a “problem state” because it has at least five major white supremacist prison gangs. In 2016, he co-wrote a study that called prison gangs the fastest-growing and deadliest part of the U.S. white supremacist movement and said that they “combine the criminal intent and know-how of organized crime with the racism and hate of white supremacy, making them twice as dangerous.”
The Universal Aryan Brotherhood, also known as the UAB, is one of the most dangerous gangs, according to the people in charge of the Logan County investigation.
Authorities say that Mikell “Bulldog” Smith, 57, is one of the main “shot-callers” at UAB. He is a violent inmate who was once called “the most dangerous man in the prison” in an Oklahoma prison report, and for whom a special cell was built in 1989. Smith is in prison for life without the chance to get out. In 1985, he killed a math teacher during a robbery. In 1987, soon after he went to prison, he stabbed another person. Two years later, he almost killed a prison guard by stabbing him in the heart with a blade attached to a broom handle. Smith was found guilty of killing a fellow prisoner with a sheet in 2014.
Smith’s extended family owns different parts of the five-acre area in Logan County where the bodies were found. Sale records show that Smith’s wife, Robin, is the owner of the fortified compound. His brother Charles owns a property next door. Phillip, another brother, went missing from the county in 2020. This is one of a long list of cases that authorities say they are looking into.
State investigators say that on August 19, David, another Smith relative, was arrested at the compound. He was charged with having a stolen car and a gun while he was a convicted felon.
In the few public statements made by the OSBI about the remains, neither the alleged ties to one of Oklahoma’s most violent prison gangs nor the site in Luther are mentioned. The only thing the statement said was that “law enforcement from multiple agencies found bone fragments” in Logan County and were trying to figure out who they belonged to and what killed them.
The medical examiner’s office and the police departments involved either didn’t want to say anything about the case or didn’t answer questions about it. The OSBI wouldn’t say anything more than what was in its news releases.
A press release from the OSBI on August 8 said, “The investigation is very fluid and very busy.” “Because of this, there are a lot of rumors and rumors about rumors. The OSBI will not comment on rumors because doing so could hurt the investigation that is already going on.
In the statement, it said that state investigators and sheriff’s offices in three counties “have been working closely with the families of the missing persons.” This includes collecting DNA samples to help find the people. “The physical condition of the remains recovered” means that this work will take time.
On a hot day not long ago, Carol Knight looked out over her 20-acre plot in rural Choctaw, which was about a half-drive hour’s from where the bodies were found in Logan County. Knight bought the land in 2020 with plans to build a country dream home. He was a successful bail bond agent.
“I got a chop shop instead,” she said.
As Knight and her husband started to clear the land, they found some amazing things buried in the ground: “We dug up a car, we dug up a motorcycle. We took three boats off the land.” She took away about 300 tires, which seemed to be the remains of cars that had been “hacked up” and sold for parts. Knight said that she almost broke her ankle when she fell into a “hidey hole,” which was one of a number of pits that were hidden.
Authorities and public records say that the people who lived there before had long criminal records and hung out with people who were known to be connected to UAB.
Knight said that she thought the buried trash was an expensive problem until she heard last year that a body might also be buried on her property. Uneasy, Knight stopped working and asked a fellow bondsman, Jathan Hunt, for help. Hunt is a licensed private detective who looks for missing people with his specially trained German shepherds.
“I told J, ‘Why don’t you bring your dogs out here and see if I have a dead body?'” she remembered.
The rumors were connected to the disappearance of 43-year-old David Anthony Orr, a Hispanic man from the Oklahoma City area who was addicted to methamphetamine and used drugs with people from UAB, according to one of Orr’s family members and public information gathered by Hunt.
In January, Hunt searched Knight’s property with about a dozen other volunteers and five dogs that had been trained to find “hidden graves.” When the dogs “alerted” to two places, near a large pit and a pond, the searchers called Oklahoma County investigators. The police took a bone that Hunt thought looked like a metatarsal, which is part of the foot, but he said he never found out if it was human or not.
Hunt said that he kept thinking about Orr after the search, so he added the case to the volunteer work he was already doing with Oklahoma City Metro Search and Rescue, a non-profit group that helps families find their missing loved ones.
Hunt said that in most of the cases he had worked on, the families were eager to put up posters or be on the local news. Not so with Orr. The last time anyone saw him was on January 16, 2021.
“This was the first time I thought, ‘Man, no one is looking for this guy, not even his family or friends,'” Hunt said. “That’s strange,” I thought.
Hunt asked around and found out that Orr does have family members who are desperate to find him. He said it would be too dangerous for them to ask the public about his whereabouts, though.
One of Orr’s relatives, who asked to remain anonymous because of the risks, said that people they said were Orr’s friends told them to stop looking or they’d “end up like him.” On the street, the relative said, Orr’s death is known to be true, but the family can’t accept it or grieve until they know for sure.
The relative said, “You have to live with the worry and fear that these people are still out there.” “Be careful about who you talk to.”
Hunt said that he used the tips he was getting to find connections between at least five missing people, including Orr, and UAB employees. Hunt said he heard last spring that Orr’s body had been burned and buried on a property in Logan County, possibly with the bodies of three other people. Hunt said he tried to tell the police about the information, but they told him to go away.
Hunt said that he finally got in touch with the case’s lead detective, who told him to “sit on it” because “we’re working on something.”
Two days later, the authorities did the search and found the bodies. In his search for Orr, Hunt had heard about a place in Logan County that fit the description he had heard.
When Hunt called Knight, Knight said, “Oh, s—-.”
A risky raid
At first light on April 13, dozens of police officers gathered outside the Logan County compound with a search warrant, ready for a trap.
Law enforcement officials said that, because of the UAB’s reputation, all the worst-case scenarios had been planned for. They had thought about the fact that there could be booby traps and bombs. They wondered if cages could be opened from afar so that all of the more than 25 pit bulls on the property could be let out at once.
As they came in through what Logan County Sheriff Damon Devereaux called the “fatal funnel,” a narrow driveway entrance with metal walls, they were most worried about a possible gunfight.
He said, “We were ready for the worst day of our lives.”
Instead, it was easy for the police to get to the empty site. Devereaux said he saw 28 dogs in cages. The dogs looked healthy and well-fed. On the second day of the search, an OSBI agent sent him a text message that said, “Just confirming that we have found some human remains.”
The sheriff said he thought, “Holy cow, this is a big deal.”
Devereaux said he would only talk about parts of the investigation that were already known to the public. He didn’t say anything about the remains or any possible suspects, saying that the OSBI should handle that.
Before he became sheriff in 2017, Devereaux, who is 52 years old, was the head of the police department in Guthrie, his hometown and the county seat. He went to college parties and dealt with everyday crime, but nothing like the violent people he’s met as sheriff, he said.
Devereaux said that the county jail is often home to members of white supremacist prison gangs, people who are in danger of being killed by Mexican drug cartels, and many other people who are charged with being part of drug rings that run in the middle of nowhere in the United States.
“They’re introducing me to the Irish Mob and the UAB, and I’m like, “Excuse me?” Devereaux said this about prison gangs in the state that are made up of white supremacists. “I didn’t know about it until I became sheriff, since it’s all inside these walls.”
Devereaux thinks he is a stickler for law enforcement that puts constitutional rights first. So, he said, when he first saw the compound “getting fortified with metal 10-foot fencing and iron gates,” he thought it was strange but didn’t have a good reason to look into it.
“We live in a county where people like to burn trash, shoot guns, and drink beer. “We kind of like the freedom to do all of that in Oklahoma,” he said. “A lot of people move out there to get away from people.”
But then, maybe six months ago, his deputies started hearing rumors about a missing man whose body was hidden in Logan County. Devereaux said that other police officers also started to look into the tips, and soon the investigation grew into a huge effort involving about six agencies.
Devereaux said, “This puzzle was missing a lot of pieces.” “And now, all of a sudden, we’re starting to put some of the pieces together and see the big picture.”
An agonizing wait
Harris, the mother of Nathan Smith, who is not related to Mikell Smith, said she calls the medical examiner’s office almost every week to make sure that investigators are still looking for her son among the bodies.
Harris’s heart sank when she heard that there might be a link to a white supremacist prison gang. She said that early on in her search, a family friend helped her look through her son’s social media contacts for hints about where he might be. “She says, ‘Look, they’re from the Aryan Brotherhood!’ “A lot of these people are doing the signal,'” Harris said, referring to gang hand signs. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what has my son done?’
Nathan Smith’s mother said that, like other missing people, he was linked to people suspected of being in a prison gang because of drugs, specifically methamphetamines. Authorities and a 2018 federal indictment of 18 UAB members for racketeering show that the group is a major player in the meth trade in Oklahoma.
The indictment is one of the most detailed public accounts of how UAB works. It says that the gang sells about 2,500 kilos of meth every year in Oklahoma and lists crimes like murder, kidnapping, intimidating witnesses, and breaking into homes. As part of a plea deal, one member said that he and others kidnapped people they thought were informants and tried to scare and intimidate them with tarps, shovels, blow torches, and other things.
According to court documents and news stories, the UAB is still going strong and is still linked to gruesome murders and big drug cases. In August, nine people with ties to the UAB were accused of killing a member of a rival gang. Prosecutors say the man was lured out of his motel room, tortured, and then dumped in a ditch.
Most of the people who have been reported missing in the Logan County case are men who have been arrested for drugs many times and spent time in prison. One person who hasn’t been seen since January 11 is 21-year-old Audrey Slack, who just got married.
That morning, Slack called her family from a motel outside of Oklahoma City. She was on a road trip with her husband, Stephen Walker, who is more than twice her age and has tattoos that show he is a member of another white supremacist prison gang.
Slack said that the couple would be home by 8 o’clock, but they never showed up. A search warrant filed on August 2 says that their black pickup truck was found with a bullet hole, blood, and bleach on the inside.
Relatives of Slack, who asked that their names and other identifying information not be made public, said that investigators had called them out of the blue in April to ask for dental records. Even though the family had already given DNA samples, they said they wouldn’t do it again unless the detective told them what was going on. The family then found out that several human remains had been found about 15 minutes from where the missing couple had been seen last.
Since that day, they have been in the same painful limbo as the other families, waiting for identifications that could take many more months.
“I need to know,” said a family member of Slack. “I need to put my mind at ease.”