New Castle News

August 23, 2013

Murder tarnishes image of 'Duncan, U.S.A.'

Mike Smith
CNHI News Service

DUNCAN, Okla. — Many in this city of nearly 24,000 say they're from "Duncan, America." The proud phrase captures a community's image of itself — and, in many respects, the reality.

But the murder that happened here last Friday - Christopher Lane, 22, was jogging along Country Club Road when a car drove by and someone fired a bullet into his back - has put Duncan on the world map in the worst way.

The killing - and Duncan - are still making international headlines. Stories about the murder of the college student from Australia, and three teenagers accused of killing him in a fit of boredom, are shocking readers around the world.

People in Duncan are shocked, as well.

“I know people who are now refusing to go out and walk," said District Attorney Jason Hicks. "They are scared."

On Wednesday, Duncan schools opened to students for the second day of classes, but anonymous threats kept campuses otherwise closed. High school students were not allowed to leave for lunch, as they usually are.

Police Chief Danny Ford urges people to keep perspective. As tragic as the Lane murder is, he said, one cannot draw conclusions that “all of society is falling apart.”

“It’s not the time to holler that Duncan has gone bad,” said Ford. “It’s just as good as it ever was.”

There's not a lot of flash in Duncan. You might say it’s in the nation’s heartland, between Oklahoma City and Dallas. And while crime happens - even the occasional murder - there are civic clubs, well-kept parks and plenty of charity. High school basketball is big, but football is king.

Duncan is the oil town where Erle P. Halliburton started a well cementing business in 1919 that grew into an energy behemoth. The company still keeps a facility here, though it moved its headquarters to Houston years ago.

Most people in Duncan get along - including those on the City Council - and most will tell you it’s a great place to live.

“The citizens of Duncan know what kind of people we really are and that what has happened is not the norm in our community,” said City Manager Jim Frieda on Thursday.

But, Frieda acknowledged, "The reality is what people in Australia know about Duncan, what people in Israel know about Duncan, what people in England know about Duncan, they have gotten off of the coverage of this."

In fact, it wasn't Duncan's first murder of the year.

A 16-year-old, Michael Anthony Ray, is in the Stephens County Jail on charges that he killed a 14-year-old girl, Alyssa Wiles, in June. Another boy told police that Ray was angry she had broken up with him.

About a year earlier - and 20 miles away in Stephens County - Braylee Rae Henry, 16, was murdered in a convenience store. Miles Sterling Bench, 22, also is in the county jail facing a first-degree murder charge.

“I would never have believed that when I was elected sheriff five years ago, I would sit here today and have five murder suspects in our jail right now," said Sheriff Wayne McKinney. "… That is really alarming.”

But, like the police chief, McKinney stressed that Duncan is a safe place.

“I just don’t want people to think we have this major crime spree going on and being nervous about living here,” he said.

Last week's crime has also raised racial issues in this city, where about 85 percent of the population is white, about 5 percent are black, and others claim a mix of races including Native American.

Lane, the murder victim, was white, as is the teenager accused of driving the car used in the crime. The teenager accused of pulling the trigger is of mixed race, and the third one arrested is black. The latter two are charged with first-degree murder, while the driver faces lesser offenses that could still land him in prison for 90 years.

A sister of the black defendant said court officials acted with prejudice against the teens “of color," in part because they were denied bond while it was set at $1 million for the white teen.

Betty Greer, a Duncan resident who is black, said is sad for Lane's family, as well as those of the three teens. But while racial tension exists most everywhere, said Greer, she hasn’t felt any during her many years here.

“I don’t feel it, and I’m praying it doesn’t come to that because we don’t need it,” she said.

Duncan Mayor Gene Brown, who is black, expresses a similar sentiment.

“The thing I was thinking mostly about is trying to get people to understand that regardless of this sad time, we still have to keep a positive attitude and move forward,” he said. “We still have a great community, we just had a tragedy happen.”

Mike Smith writes for the Duncan Banner.