Missing people, buried bones at center of Oklahoma mystery

Photo for The Washington Post by Nick Oxford
Behind the 10-foot metal walls of this Oklahoma compound, authorities discovered human remains belonging to more than one person.

OKLAHOMA CITY – The caller had news but warned LaVonne Harris not to get her hopes up.

Harris’s son, 33-year-old Nathan Smith, had vanished along a dirt road in Oklahoma one freezing night more than two years earlier. Detectives had long stopped checking in with her, and Harris could feel her search growing lonelier with each passing month.

The call in April, from an advocate for families of the missing, wasn’t encouraging, but it was a lead: Authorities in rural Logan County, just north of here, had discovered human remains belonging to more than one person. Also, the caller added delicately, the remains weren’t intact.

Harris, 58, sat down to steady herself. She listened, then hung up to tell her daughter.

“I said, ‘Lou, they found these bodies,'” Harris recalled. “‘They’ve been burned and cut.'”

Smith is among a dozen or more people who have disappeared in recent years from the wooded, unincorporated terrain outside the Oklahoma City metro area, a rural haven for drug traffickers. Some families said they’re scared to call police or even to put up “missing person” signs because they suspect the involvement of violent white-supremacist prison gangs.

In April, authorities acting on a tip said they found charred piles of wood and bone on a five-acre patch of Logan County, opening one of the grisliest and most sensitive criminal investigations in Oklahoma’s recent history.

Behind the 10-foot metal walls of a compound with links to the Universal Aryan Brotherhood, a white-supremacist prison gang, officers found what they believe to be a body dumping ground where multiple people ended up dismembered and burned, according to four Oklahoma officials with knowledge of the investigation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the extraordinary security precautions around the case.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, or OSBI, which is leading the multiagency state and federal probe, confirms that remains have been found but will not say how many. An April 29 report in the Oklahoman newspaper – the first news of the discovery – quoted the state medical examiner and other sources as saying agents were investigating “whether a white-supremacist prison gang is behind nine or more disappearances” after the discovery of “the comingled remains of possibly three people.” The report said remains also were found at a second site, near an oil well about 18 miles away in the tiny town of Luther.

Four months later, the scope of the case remains murky. A law enforcement official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said they were informed the count was up to “12 different DNA profiles.” One family of a missing person said they were told of eight; another heard about three.

The OSBI has taken significant steps to keep the investigation opaque, including advising families of the missing to stay quiet.

“We’re just trying to keep some people alive at this point,” a second official said, describing the struggle to protect potential witnesses.

That level of danger is a jarring reminder of the unseen threat of white-supremacist prison gangs, whose leaders run crime syndicates from behind bars through a network of “enforcers” on the outside, according to extremism monitors and Justice Department court filings.

The gangs have carried out hate-fueled attacks both in and out of prison, with the bulk of their free-world violence targeting rivals and informants, authorities say. Because the gangs typically keep their business within the criminal underground, the attacks go largely undiscussed in the broader national conversation about rising violence by far-right groups.

Oklahoma is a “problem state,” with at least five significant white-supremacist prison gangs, said Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League researcher who has monitored the groups for decades. He co-authored a 2016 study that called prison gangs the fastest-growing and deadliest sector of the U.S. white-supremacist movement, noting 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 Logan County investigation, authorities say, involves one of the most ruthless of the gangs: the Universal Aryan Brotherhood, also known as the UAB.

One of the main UAB “shot-callers,” authorities say, is 57-year-old Mikell “Bulldog” Smith, an inmate so violent that an Oklahoma prison report once called him “the most dangerous man in the penitentiary” and corrections officials built a special cell for him in 1989. Smith is serving life without parole for the 1985 killing of a math teacher in a robbery. Soon after arriving in prison in 1987, he stabbed a fellow inmate. Two years later, he nearly killed a prison guard by stabbing him in the heart with a blade attached to a broom handle. In 2014, Smith was convicted of choking a cellmate to death with a sheet.

Members of Smith’s extended family own various parts of the five-acre area where remains were found in Logan County. Smith’s wife, Robin, was listed as owner of the fortified compound; his brother Charles owns an adjacent property, according to sale records. Another brother, Phillip, disappeared from the county in 2020, one of the long list of cases authorities say are under review.

On Aug. 19, according to state investigators, another Smith relative, David, was arrested at the compound on charges related to a stolen vehicle and possession of a firearm by a felon.

In the OSBI’s few public statements about the remains, there is no mention of the alleged ties to one of Oklahoma’s bloodiest prison gangs or reference to the site in Luther. The statement said only that “law enforcement from multiple agencies recovered bone fragments” in Logan County and were working to identify them and determine the cause of death.

The medical examiner’s office and law enforcement agencies involved either declined to comment on the record or never responded to queries. The OSBI declined to comment beyond its news releases.

“The investigation is very fluid and very active,” said an OSBI release dated Aug. 8. “Because of that, the volume of rumors and speculation is high. The OSBI will not comment on rumors as that can jeopardize the ongoing investigation.”

The statement said state investigators and sheriff’s offices in three counties “have been working closely with the families of the missing persons,” including collecting DNA samples to help with identification. That work will take time, the release said, because of “the physical condition of the remains recovered.”

Buried secrets

On a scorching recent afternoon, Carol Knight looked out over her 20-acre plot in rural Choctaw, about half an hour’s drive from where the remains in Logan County were found. A successful bail bond agent, Knight bought the property in 2020 with plans to build a country dream home.

“Instead, I got a chop shop,” she said.

As Knight began clearing the land, she and her husband uncovered jaw-dropping surprises buried underground: “We dug up a car, we dug up a motorcycle. We hauled three boats off the property.” She carted off about 300 tires, apparent leftovers from cars that were “chopped” and sold for parts. Knight said she almost broke her ankle falling in a “hidey hole,” one of several camouflaged pits.

The previous residents had extensive criminal records and hung with a crowd that included known UAB associates, according to authorities and public records.

Knight said she saw the buried junk as an expensive nuisance – until she received a tip last year that a body also might be hidden on her land. Unsettled, Knight halted work and sought help from fellow bondsman Jathan Hunt, a licensed private detective who brings his specially trained German shepherds on searches for missing people.

“I said, ‘J, why don’t y’all bring your dogs out here and see if I got a dead body,'” she recalled.

The rumors were tied to the disappearance of 43-year-old David Anthony Orr, a Hispanic man from the Oklahoma City area who struggled with a methamphetamine addiction and ran in the same drug circles as UAB associates, according to one of Orr’s family members and public information compiled by Hunt.

In January, Hunt searched Knight’s property as part of a team of about two dozen volunteers using five dogs with training on “clandestine grave detection.” When the dogs “alerted” to two areas – near a large pit and a pond – the searchers called Oklahoma County investigators. The authorities left with a bone that Hunt thought resembled a metatarsal, part of the foot, but he said he never heard back on whether it was determined to be human.

After the search, Hunt said, he kept thinking about Orr and added the case to volunteer work he was doing with Oklahoma City Metro Search and Rescue, a nonprofit group that helps families of missing relatives.

In most cases he’d worked on, Hunt said, families were eager to hang posters or appear on local news. Not so with Orr, who was last seen on Jan. 16, 2021.

“This was the first one where I was like, ‘Man, no one is looking for this guy, not even his family or friends,'” Hunt said. “I thought, ‘That’s weird.'”

Hunt made inquiries and discovered that Orr does indeed have relatives who are desperate to find him – it’s just too dangerous, he said, for them to publicly seek information on his whereabouts.

One of Orr’s relatives, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the risks, said they were advised by people they described as Orr’s associates to stop searching or else they’d “end up like him.” On the street, the relative said, Orr’s death is accepted as fact, but the family can’t acknowledge it or mourn without confirmation.

“You have to live with the anxiety, you have to live with the fear that these people are still out there,” the relative said. “You’ve got to be careful who you talk to.”

Using the tips he was picking up, Hunt said, he found overlapping social connections among at least five missing people, including Orr, and UAB associates. Last spring, Hunt said, he received a tip that Orr’s body was burned and buried on a property in Logan County, possibly along with three others. Hunt said he tried to share the information with investigators, only to get the brush-off.

Finally, Hunt said, he reached a lead detective on the case, who told him to “sit on it” because “we’ve got something in the works.”

Two days later, authorities carried out the raid in which they found remains. The Logan County property matched the description Hunt had heard about in the search for Orr.

Hunt called Knight, whose response was: “Oh, s—.”

A risky raid

At daybreak on April 13, dozens of law enforcement officers massed outside the Logan County compound with a search warrant, prepared to face an ambush.

Given the reputation of the UAB, planners had gone over all the worst-case scenarios, law enforcement officials recalled. They had taken into account the possibility of booby traps and explosives. They wondered if cages could be opened remotely for the simultaneous release of the more than 25 pit bulls on the property.

Photo for The Washington Post by Nick Oxford
Logan County Sheriff Damon Devereaux was one of dozens of law enforcement officers who took part in the search of the Logan County compound.

Above all, they worried about a potential shootout as they entered through what Logan County Sheriff Damon Devereaux called the “fatal funnel,” a narrow, metal-sided driveway entrance.

“We were prepared for the worst day of our lives,” he said.

Instead, authorities easily swept onto the empty site. Devereaux said he counted 28 dogs in cages; they looked healthy and well-fed. He recalled it was the second day of the search when a text arrived from an OSBI investigator saying: “Just confirming that we have found some human remains.”

“Holy cow, this is a big deal,” the sheriff recalled thinking.

Devereaux agreed to address only parts of the investigation that are already public knowledge. He declined to give details on the remains or any possible suspects, deferring to the OSBI.

Before he became sheriff in 2017, Devereaux, 52, had served as police chief in his hometown, Guthrie, the Logan County seat. He dealt with college parties and garden-variety crime, he said, but nothing like the violent characters he’s encountered as sheriff.

The county jail, Devereaux said, regularly holds associates of white-supremacist prison gangs, people facing hits from Mexican cartels, and a host of others charged in connection with the drug rings that operate in the backwoods of middle America.

“They’re introducing me to the Irish Mob and the UAB and it’s just like, ‘Excuse me?'” Devereaux said, referring to white-supremacist prison gangs in the state. “I had no idea until I became the sheriff, because it’s confined in these walls.”

Devereaux considers himself a stickler for policing that prioritizes constitutional rights. So, he said, when he first noticed the compound “getting fortified with metal 10-foot fencing and iron gates,” he was suspicious but had no probable cause to investigate.

“We’re a county that likes to burn our trash, shoot our guns and drink our beer. And that’s kind of what we embrace in Oklahoma, the freedom to do all that,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who move out there to be left alone.”

But then, maybe six months ago, he said, his deputies started hearing rumors about a missing man whose body was hidden in Logan County. Other law enforcement officers started looking into the tips, too, Devereaux said, and soon the investigation ballooned into a mammoth effort with about half a dozen agencies involved.

“This puzzle had a lot of lost pieces,” Devereaux said. “And now all of a sudden we’re putting some pieces together and starting to see the picture.”

An agonizing wait

Harris, the mother of Nathan Smith, who is no relation to Mikell Smith, said she calls the medical examiner’s office almost weekly to make sure investigators are still looking for her son among the remains.

When Harris heard the latest twist – a possible connection to a white-supremacist prison gang – her heart sank. Early in her search, she said, a family friend had helped her go through her son’s social media contacts looking for clues about his disappearance. “She says, ‘They’re Aryan Brotherhood, look! All these people – a lot of them – are doing the signal,'” Harris said, alluding to gang hand signs. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what has my son got into?'”

As with other missing people, Nathan Smith’s intersection with suspected prison-gang associates stemmed from drugs, specifically methamphetamines, his mother said. The UAB is known to be a major player in Oklahoma meth trafficking, according to authorities and a 2018 federal indictment of 18 members on racketeering charges.

The indictment, one of the most detailed public accounts of UAB operations, accused the gang of distributing an estimated 2,500 kilos of meth annually in Oklahoma, and laid out related crimes such as “murder, kidnapping, witness intimidation, home invasions.” As part of a plea agreement, one member described how he and others kidnapped suspected informants and “used tarps, shovels, blow torches and other items in an attempt to scare and intimidate the victims.”

Today, the UAB remains active, still tied to gruesome homicides and big drug cases, according to court papers and news reports. In August, nine UAB-linked suspects were charged in the killing of a rival gang member who prosecutors say was lured out of his motel room, tortured and dumped in a ditch.

The missing people authorities have mentioned in connection with the Logan County case are mostly men with long histories of drug arrests and prison stints. One exception is 21-year-old newlywed Audrey Slack, who hasn’t been seen since Jan. 11.

That morning, Slack called her family from a motel outside Oklahoma City while on a road trip with her husband, Stephen Walker, who is more than twice her age and whose tattoos signal membership in another white-supremacist prison gang.

Slack said to expect the couple home by 8 p.m., but they never arrived. Their black pickup truck was found with a bullet hole and traces of blood and bleach on the interior, according to a search warrant filed Aug. 2.

Slack’s relatives, who asked that their names and other identifying details be withheld, said investigators had called out of the blue in April to ask for dental records. The family, which had already submitted DNA samples, refused unless the detective told them what was going on. That’s when the family learned that multiple human remains had been found about a 15-minute drive from where the missing couple were last seen.

Since that day, they’ve been stuck in the same excruciating limbo as the other families, waiting for identifications that could take many more months.

“I need to know,” said one of Slack’s relatives. “I need to settle my heart.”