Recording of Linda: “…When I walked into that courtroom in Norman and he was sitting right there, and I was, you know, a foot away from him and saw his face, I just *sharp inhale*… Oh God….”
K: Welcome back to Uncovered: The Lovers’ Lane Murders. At the end of episode four, police called Frank Gilley at work and told him to hurry home. When he arrived, he was arrested. Here, Linda Adams, the sister of Sheryl Benham, is describing the first time she had come in contact with Frank Gilley, the man she believes killed her sister and her date, David Sloan, 21 years earlier.
Recording of Linda: “I thought, “I’ve seen you. And now you’ve seen me.”
K: Ballistics tests had come back negative for guns collected from a search of Gilley’s home in November 1990, when officers found a sawed-off shotgun and tried to connect it with the murders of David and Sheryl. The sawed-off shotgun allowed them to arrest him for an illegal weapons charge, but eventually he was released to go home in Desoto, Texas. In the following months, officers deliberated how best to pin Gilley down for the murders. They felt the options were running slim, until February 1991.
Recording of Pearo: “There were a bunch of them that sat there and kind of kicked it around and decided that they weren’t going to go for an arrest warrant but wanted to go for a grand jury, which to me was very disappointing because I’m a go get them arrest them kind of guy.”
K: That’s David Pearo, the lead case investigator for the Norman Police Department in the 1990s. When it was decided the case would once again be brought to a grand jury in February 1991, the trajectory looked similar to when the murders were first investigated in the 1970s: A team of investigators followed Gilley, arrested him for a related but not directly connected charge and then a grand jury determines whether he could stand trial.
And we started to hear this idea that the Norman police were “covering themselves” and trying to make up for the public outcry against them 20 years earlier.
Recording of Pearo: “It’s bad enough in a normal murder case, I mean we know we take every murder seriously but if there’s a dirty cop somewhere, that looks bad on all of us. And so we’re not letting that go. We’re just, you just don’t let it go. I mean this guy was a cop and he did this stuff. That was good enough for me to go after him with everything I had.”
K: Mike Brake, the reporter who covered the case in its earlier days, said the same thing.
Recording of Brake: “Well the second one, the guys at the Norman Police Department really wanted to solve the darn thing. Because those guys weren’t even policemen when this thing happened. They were younger detectives and they knew that was kind of like a festering sore. Dave Pearo and some of those guys, they really wanted to go after it.”
K: Along with the drive NPD felt to clear its name, the clock was ticking. Two decades had gone by and the investigators weren’t going to gather much more than they already had, Ken Jacobson, the 1970s OSBI investigator, said.
Recording of Ken: “As far as physical evidence, evidence is required to sustain a murder conviction, we didn’t have any…. But the DA at that time was adamant that the case was going to go to trial with what we had because, you know, the case wasn’t improving. Witnesses were dying, people were moving or losing track of them. It wasn’t going to get any better.”
K: Eventually, Norman prosecutors declared they would be seeking the death penalty for Gilley due to the “period of torture and terror” David and Sheryl endured while being locked alive in the trunk. David was shot 11 times and Sheryl 14. Most of these shots were in the upper body and head.
And on March 1, 1991, after roughly a month of testimony and deliberation, the second Cleveland County grand jury looking into Gilley returned an indictment. The charges: One count of perjury. Two counts of first-degree murder.
-Light music –
K: Four days later, Pearo and other officers arrested Gilley at the auto parts store where he worked and booked him once again into the Dallas County jail. A monthslong extradition fight began, ending in May 1991 with Gilley being brought to the Cleveland County jail.
In July, a hearing was held to determine whether the case had enough evidence to go to trial. It would be the public’s first look at new details and theories regarding the case.
K: The first full day of the July hearing had testimony from seven witnesses, including Gilley’s parents, a former wife and the Norman police chief from the 1970s, Bill Henslee. Gilley’s parents testified he was at his home the night of the murders, but his former wife said she couldn’t confirm where he was that night. Henslee said he had fired Gilley a few days after the murders because of the tip that Gilley liked to harass couples on lovers’ lanes, but also said he had “never seen any physical evidence to this day that ties Gilley to the crime.”
Recording of Ken: “One of the comments Henslee made… was that he didn’t have enough power to influence a murder investigation. Which, the police chief, if he doesn’t have enough power to influence, who’s going to?”
K: A few days in, the couples that identified Gilley in 1970 as the man who harassed them on Lovers’ Lanes told the grand jury Gilley had mentioned the murders of David and Sheryl to them when he approached their cars. Jacobson also testified. He spoke of how Gilley admitted to him he did know David before the murders, though Gilley previously testified he had never met David. Other officers also took the stand, saying Gilley kept several guns in his work locker at the police department, one of which was a .22 caliber rifle with a hexagon barrel, the specific caliber of weapon used in the murders. Pearo also testified, noting that almost all the evidence from the crime scene had disappeared, except one bullet casing.
K: Most of these testimonies didn’t come as a shock to those intimately involved with the case. Gilley’s attorney, Robert Perrine, said most of the evidence was not conclusive. On the last day of the pretrial, one of the most interesting pieces of evidence emerged, though it was never corroborated, when a new witness was called to the stand. W. E. Joslin, a worker on the Norman dairy farm owned by Charles Haynes in western Norman, said he arrived at the property, which has a view of the lovers’ lane where David and Sheryl were killed, at about 3 a.m. to go to work on Mother’s Day 1970. As he was leaving the barn about 7 a.m., he saw two men standing next to two parked cars. Shortly afterward, he heard gunshots.
The next day, after testimony from 33 witnesses and 21 years since the murders, District Judge Patricia Herron ruled Gilley would stand trial in Cleveland County for the murders of David Sloan and Sheryl Benham.
Recording of Minty: “He just sat there quietly at the defense table the entire time. Rarely did he make any type of gestures that would draw any interest….He was quiet and he didn’t do anything to call attention to himself.”
K: That’s Chip Minty, a reporter at The Oklahoman who covered the trial, describing Gilley’s demeanor on Oct. 21, 1991, as jurors were picked. Two days later, testimony began.
K: Sheryl’s dad, Ben Benham, testified, answering questions on what it was like to file a missing persons report for his daughter. A woman who was a clerk for NPD in 1970, said Gilley was in the office around 3:30 a.m. Sunday, within a few hours of the murders, and acted unusual. Sloan’s ex-girlfriend, who helped find the car after Ben Benham reported his daughter missing, told the jury she drove to the lovers’ lane area and happened upon the car, but left and reported it to police when she realized there was blood in the front seat and she smelled what she described in news articles as “the smell of death.” The medical examiner explained in detail how Dave and Sheryl died, both shot over 10 times, including bullets fired directly into each of their eyes.
Two of Gilley’s ex-wives testified, saying he never mentioned to them his work in Norman as a police officer, though they knew of his work in Amarillo. A daughter of an ex-wife said Gilley told her he had killed someone and kept a diary of old cases with pictures of dead bodies. Jacobson pointed to the unusual handling of the case and what he considered obstruction that interfered with the investigation. Henslee said he thought Gilley was the target of a hate plot and a smear campaign.
K: The defense strategy was one of continual questioning. Perrine put in dozens of requests, ranging from declaring a mistrial to requesting that words like “grotesque” not be allowed in the courtroom. Re-reading articles and court documents, it’s clear he challenged every step of the trial. He questioned witnesses intensely, returning again and again to the lack of physical evidence and the 20-year gap between the murders and the trial that might affect recollections of what happened.
Recording of Minty: “…his job was to cast some kind of doubt on the jury’s mind about whether, you know, the validity of those claims. Any kind of doubt that he could create was important to him. And I think he did use time as an ally to just cast some doubt on the allegations that were made and the accuracy of the allegations and the accuracy of the witness recollection…”
K: Perrine also focused on technicalities, like Gilley not being read his Miranda Rights at certain points or the lawfulness of using testimony from witnesses who had died before the trial started. And then, on the last full day of trial, on Friday, Nov. 8, Perrine put Gilley on the stand.
Gilley said he was not guilty. He spoke of other things he usually did on weekends, like playing card games with friends. He maintained that his wife at the time of the murders was with him before he started his night shift, though she denied it. Gilley said he had never met Sloan. He brought up the likelihood that Butch Green, his former partner who died a year after the murders, was the real potential suspect. Soon after he testified, the jury began deliberations.
Brake and Jacobson had personal theories they shared with me on exactly what happened the night of the murders. They believe the incident started before Gilley’s NPD shift started around midnight Saturday.
Recording of Jacobson: “David Sloan was from Amarillo, and when they tried Gilley on his aggravated assault out there, they tried it like a murder case because it was a horrible thing for a law enforcement officer to be accused of aggravated assault. They’d see Gilley’s pictures in the papers, on TV — Amarillo’s not that big of a town. What we think happened is Sloan and Benham were up on the lovers’ lane and Gilley approached them, probably came up to David Sloan, his side of the car, and said I’m the sheriff of Cleveland County, probably made David get out and talk to him. We think David recognized him from that trial in Amarillo…”
Recording of Brake: “Here’s what’s interesting about the autopsy report that told me at the time how I think it transpired. Keep in mind that they had been at a fraternity party at the SAE house. Fraternity parties always being what they were, I suspect David had a few beers….”
Recording of Jacobson: “They tell us David was a hot head and David said you’re not the sheriff. I know who you are, you’re Frank Gilley”
Recording of Brake: “So what I think happened is they stopped there to make some whoopie, and I think maybe Sherry was already undressed when Gilley approached. Now he is not working at this time…. He probably has a .22 pistol. I think he started his lovers’ lane harassment and I think David recognized him. And said something like, “You son of a bitch, you’re not a real cop, I remember you from Amarillo, you got in trouble up there…”
Recording of Ken: “David had a pool cue, a cut-off pool cue by the driver’s door under his seat, and his friends tell us that’s the first thing he drug out if there was going to be trouble. And that pool cue was over on the passengers’ side, on the floor and it was completely wiped clean, didn’t have anybody’s fingerprints on it.”
Recording of Brake: “So I think Sloan grabbed that pool cue handle and said “I’ll kick your ass” and Gilley shot him with the handgun. When you read David’s autopsy report, you find massive right hemoral thorax. A lot of blood and congestion in the right lung from a wound in the lung. Now you don’t die right away from a wound in the lung unless there is a major artery hit. What happens is you have blood seepage into the lung.”
Recording of Ken: “I think he came out of that car and Frank had to shoot him a couple times, I don’t think he intended to shoot anybody, he just wanted, you know, to do his thing. You know and Frank and David were both described as hotheads and so you put two hotheads together I think Frank his only choice was to shoot him to protect himself and then Sherry probably just did whatever he wanted her to do.”
Recording of Brake: “ heek. I think while he was shoving her into the trunk he had to slug her a couple times. I don’t think she was shot at that point. I think he was but was not dying or dead, maybe not even dying. And they are locked in the trunk now, what are they going to do…. I think he locked them in the trunk after wounding David….”
Recording of Brake: “I think at this point he’s just got the little .22 pistol. He might have fired most of the ammunition from it already and he doesn’t have the firepower to kill them both. Maybe he’s just gone away and somebody will rescue them or find them. And then he comes back. He gets the rifle, which is a high capacity rifle,… a .22 rifle might have a magazine of 22 rounds or more. So got a lot of fire power….. And then he goes on duty… and comes back in the police car and finishes them off.”
Recording of Brake: “And you notice there were a couple bullet holes in the fenders of the car. I think when he came back he stood back and fired a couple rounds in the side of the car to see if they were still in there and alive and he probably heard them “oh please” you know and he popped the trunk and started killing…. So he opens the trunk and he stands there… with the rifle and just starts emptying the rifle into them. And they’re almost all headshots at that point. I think that’s what happened and the autopsy points to that as well. She looks like she died almost immediately. She did have a couple of chest wounds, but there was not a lot of bleeding internally in that…. There is no other perpetrator that makes any sense at all, none.”
Recording of Ken: “When you get in a situation like that, you never really think you’re going to die. You know, you think you’re going to get out of this, you’re going to go to class the next day or go to work or whatever you do. But Frank, from the time David got out and it was apparent that he did recognize him, they’re both from Amarillo, I mean, what are the chances of that happening?”
The jurors came back Monday, Nov. 11 with a verdict.
Splashed along the front pages of newspapers and TV station headlines were two words: not guilty.
Recording of Pearo: “So what we had done in retrospect was probably a mistake. We announced that we were going to go for the death penalty on those cases because of the circumstances. And we think that was sort of a mistake because of what the jurors said in some of their questionnaires. As I remember it, they thought he was guilty but after 20 years, you know he’s sitting there, Dave and Sheryl had been dead for 20 years. We’ve got pictures of them but that’s it. After 20 years, they couldn’t see putting a guy to death…. So I think that helped cloud their decision was the fact they thought he was guilty by a good percentage that he was guilty, probably enough to convict. They just couldn’t get past the death penalty portion.”
Recording of Brake: “I think there were people on that jury who said ‘I believe he did it but I can not send him to the electric chair…’” When NPD first contacted me back then and said they were going to try and revitalize the case and they started running through all the material again, I remember sitting down there in the homicide office down in Norman with the file sitting on the desk between us saying “It’s great what you guys are doing but I don’t think you can nail him. I just don’t think it’s there.” Turns out I was right. I don’t fault them for trying…. The verdict was inevitable… in my opinion. Because there was not a hard piece of evidence to put him on the trigger. There was every bit of circumstantial case you could have wanted to the point of you have to ask, who else in the world could have done it? But there was not one piece of evidence the jury would go in and say “Evidence A says Frank Gilley killed those kids on that night.” It just wasn’t there, I can’t quarrel with the jury even though I hated to see it turn out the way it did.”
K: There was plenty of evidence in the case right after the murders happened that today would have most likely garnered a conviction through DNA testing, said Jordan Solorzano, the public information officer at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. DNA testing began right around the time this case was reopened for trial, but when it was discovered that almost all of the evidence had disappeared, it didn’t matter.
K: Solorzano said protocols for handling evidence have become much more strict in the last 50 years, every step being documented in a complex computer program.
Recording of Solorzano: “There’s definitely more rules in place… documented. It’s seized, it’s packaged. It’s every single step we take in our evidence transfer or testing or anything and is logged in a computer system. So you can get on our little system and see where something is so if something goes missing and then you would have the person transferring the evidence or the criminal list that has the evidence so something goes missing, it would be pretty easy to go in there and pinpoint. You know “You had this last so where is it?”
K: The Norman Police Department also changed its evidence protocols, said Sarah Jensen, the public information officer for NPD.
Recording of Sarah: “And I think even evidence management is like a totally different ball game in the sense of how we now use a locker system. Not anyone can walk into property custody… Everything is labeled and stored and organized at such a different ballgame and so a lot of those concerns about obstruction, evidence, we as an agency have put a lot of safeguards into place to ensure these things are not happening and that there is a trail. They take that very seriously because they testify to that in court as to who exactly has touched that piece of property, analyzed it, when it left to go to OSBI, when it returned. Those types of safeguards are in place. So I think in this case, at least from what I’ve been able to read about it, there were a lot of questions about things disappearing or not being there. Maybe altered and those things would be extremely difficult to occur today based on the procedures that are in place.”
K: NPD responded to public criticism of its officers over the years, said Major Kevin Foster. Not only does the department interact with the Norman community on a more regular basis, but the hiring protocols for officers have completely changed.
Recording of Foster: “One, we have basic requirements of age…. Certain convictions you can’t have to get hired at a police department. Plus the chief added some automatic disqualifiers to that on drug usage, domestic issues that you may have that will automatically disqualify you from our process. I think when you ask around about other places or just other people that are in this profession when they talk about getting hired at Norman you’ll learn that our process is a lot harder and a lot more scrutinizing than a lot of places… We still do psychological testing. We still do polygraph examinations…. We still do a complete background on these people talking to everybody looking at everything. Every issue they’ve had including internal affairs investigations at the current agencies they’re with, talking to officers that they work with those agencies also and friends neighbors and things to see if anything else comes up. So if you come across something at a department where something may have been…tried to be swept under the rug because the department didn’t want to look bad, the current chief or sheriff didn’t want to look bad for whatever reason you might think that happens. We talked to more than just that agency to try to uncover those things and those issues such as in this case an issue we had in Amarillo.”
Recording of Kayla: “You mentioned that that was kind of a change. you’ve got this policy that’s a lot stronger than some other places. Why? Why that change?”
Recording of Foster: “It’s just due to the public pressures on things and us relooking at things and listening to the public go Oh yeah yeah, that does make sense, that would be a lot better. Yeah we should do that. It’s not that we know everything and that the other side of that is us hearing it but it’s that the public is coming to us and telling us because in the past, a lot of people didn’t, it didn’t affect them they didn’t care or if it was affecting them they was too afraid to come to the police because theys like I’ll just be in more trouble if I try to tell them we’re doing some wrong. It’s just that willingness to listen and to take action on those things.”
K: The lost evidence and the hiring of Gilley in the first place played major roles in the Benham-Sloan case, but so did the alleged obstruction by the various law enforcement agencies.
Recording of Foster: “Back then a lot more of that stuff what went on. who’s who and what do I need to do to keep a job or to get that promotion. So there’s checks and balances to make sure the stuff isn’t happening. Particularly a lot more nowadays than there was back in the 1970s.”
K: Many of the individuals named in our investigation died within 10 or 15 years of the case going to trial. Henslee never did get his promotion to be the director of the OSBI. He moved to Edmond as an administrator for the Edmond Police Department and died in May 1999.
Pearo retired in 2004 and moved to Florida where he spends time scuba diving. He told me that he still keeps an eye out for talk of the murders, mentioning in particular a message board where he saw people talking about the case.
Recording of Pearo: “You could see some of the resentment from people who are now adults still going back to their college days and being really critical on the police. And then he said something about “Well you couldn’t even convict him again” or something like that. Some guy said that to me and I kinda went off on him a little bit.”
Brake lives in Oklahoma City, working part time as a public information officer for the OKC county commissioners office.
Recording of Brake: “Wish we could have put the son of a bitch in the electric chair.”
K: Linda lives in Oklahoma City and has multiple children of her own. She’s a grandmother too, visiting her grandchildren as they graduate from college and get driver’s licenses, close to the same age Sheryl was when she died. And after almost 50 years, she said the pain is more manageable.
Recording of Linda: “I know justice was not served… It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, cause every day I would drive from Oklahoma City clear to Norman, to the courthouse and you know Kayla, what I heard in that… was just even, even proof to me more and more that he did do this.”
K: Sheryl’s mom died in 1995 and her dad in 2001.
Recording of Pearo: “It’s always a let down. Because you know her parents were there. I got to know her parents very well. It was really hard for them when we told them we were reopening the case again because it had been so long and sort of accepted the fact as much as they could. You know they were sort of at least at peace, at least a little bit. Then here we can and were visiting it again, making the news again…. It was another disappointing end again.”
K: Frank Gilley lived in Texas working odd jobs until he died in March 2002, according to the Amarillo Globe-News. We were told he had been living in a nursing home.
Recording of Linda: “I thought whoopie, OK good, fine, you know? They said he had no family, no visitors, I hope he didn’t. I hope he died alone and a very painful death. That’s what I wish.”
Recording of Linda: “Oh hey, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, it was so hard for me…. I would just bawl. I don’t anymore. I can talk about it now, I can.”
Recording of Kayla: “Why do you think that is? What do you think was the change there?”
Recording of Linda: “I don’t know how to explain that. I think before when it was brought up, I still hurt so bad and my emotions. And now I can talk about it without breaking down and crying. Now I’m almost like, not mad, I don’t wanna use that word but damn, I wish they had had DNA back then.”
K: After Ken Jacobson left the OSBI, he eventually started working as security for a company in Dallas. He still lives in the area. But Jacobson, never did let go of the case.
Recording of Ken: “It’s amazing to me the interest that’s continued in this case. The calls got further apart, but somebody would always call and would say what do you think about this thing, did you look at this, and all that…. This one kind of absorbs you. And the further you get into it, the further you want to get into it. I had an awful time letting go of it. Way past that 1991 trial. Everytime I just about get it out of my head, somebody calls and says we’ve got a guy that thinks he’s got the gun…”
K: In fact, for 20 years, he, the initial investigator and pursuer of justice, kept a single shell casing in an envelope, one he picked up while walking the fields after finding the bodies of Sheryl and Dave. Because of his mistrust in the intentions of other officers as the case unfolded through the years, Jacobson held onto it until he presented it in 1990 as the lone remaining piece of evidence.