A southeastern Oklahoma sheriff’s office says the recording in which the sheriff and others are reportedly heard discussing killing two journalists was illegal and predicted felony charges will be filed.
A statement on the sheriff’s office Facebook page, the first public statement since the comments by Sheriff Kevin Clardy and others were reported by the McCurtain Gazette-News, does not address the recorded comments about killing journalists and hanging Black people, but calls the situation “complex” and one “we regret having to address.”
The threatening comments by the officials that were recorded have sparked outrage and protests. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and state Rep. Eddy Dempsey, a Republican who represents the area, have called for Clardy and others to resign.
The sheriff’s statement calls the past 72 hours “amongst the most difficult and disruptive in recent memory” and says the recording was altered and involves many victims.
“There is and has been an ongoing investigation into multiple, significant violation(s) of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act … which states that it is illegal to secretly record a conversation in which you are not involved and do not have the consent of at least one of the involved parties,” according to the statement.
Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, said under Oklahoma law, the recording would be legal if it were obtained in a place where the officials being recorded did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Bruce Willingham, the longtime publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, said the recording was made March 6 when he left a voice-activated recorder inside the room after a county commissioner’s meeting because he suspected the group was continuing to conduct county business after the meeting had ended in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Act.
Willingham said he twice spoke with his attorneys to be sure he was doing nothing illegal.
The newspaper released portions of the recording in which Clardy, sheriff’s Capt. Alicia Manning and District 2 County Commissioner Mark Jennings appear to discuss Bruce and Chris Willingham, a reporter for the newspaper who is Bruce Willingham’s son. Jennings tells Clardy and Manning “I know where two deep holes are dug if you ever need them,” and the sheriff responded, “I’ve got an excavator.”
Jennings also reportedly says he’s known “two or three hit men” in Louisiana, adding “they’re very quiet guys.”
In the recording, Jennings also appears to complain about not being able to hang Black people, saying: “They got more rights than we got.”
Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix was also present during the conversation.
The Associated Press could not immediately verify the authenticity of the recording. None of the four have returned telephone calls or emails from The Associated Press.
A spokesperson for the FBI’s office in Oklahoma City said the agency’s policy is not to confirm or deny any ongoing investigation. Phil Bacharach, a spokesperson for Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, said the agency had received an audio recording and is investigating the incident, but declined to comment further.
More than 100 people gathered outside the McCurtain County Courthouse in Idabel on Monday, with many of them calling for the sheriff and other county officials to resign.
The sheriff’s office statement said there have been “a large number of threats of violence including death threats” against unspecified county employees, officials, their families and friends since the conversation was first reported.
The statement said the sheriff’s office will issue news releases until its investigation concludes “and findings are forwarded to the appropriate authorities for felony charges to be filed on those involved.”