A Call To Arms in The Ozarks

Executive Order

81-20

escapees1WHEREAS, there are escaped prisoners threatening and engaging in public disorder which represents a present threat to the lives, safety and protection of the citizens of McDonald County, Missouri, and;

WHEREAS, such circumstances create a condition of distress and hazard to the public health and safety to the citizens of McDonald County recognized to be beyond the capabilities of local and State authorities;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, CHRISTOPHER S. BOND, GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF MISSOURI, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of this State and pursuant to Section 41.480 RSMo, 1978, do hereby declare that an emergency exists in McDonald County, Missouri, and I order and direct the Adjutant General of the State, or his designee, to forthwith call and order into active service such portions of the organized militia as he deems necessary to aid the local law enforcement officials to perform law enforcement functions, and it is further ordered and directed that the Adjutant General or his designee, and through him the Commanding Officer of any unit or other organization of such organized militia so called into active service to take such action and employ such equipment and weapons as may be deemed necessary in support of civilian authorities, and to provide such other assistance as may be authorized and directed by the Governor of this State.

In September of 1981 Governor Christopher, Kit, Bond was the highest ranking governmental figure in the state of Missouri, however, he obviously had little familiarity with his constituents residing in the rural southwest area of the state known as McDonald County.  Almost every resident there owned at least one firearm and needed no special invitation what-so-ever to display their rifle, shotgun or pistol.  The rearview mirrors found inside pick-up trucks were rendered relatively useless as the owners of the trucks covered the rear windows with gun racks which were home to several rifles and shotguns.

The issuance of Governor Bond’s executive order was prompted by the theft of a Lansing, Kansas State penitentiary guard’s uniform and found its conclusion alongside a set of railroad tracks in the small town of Goodman, Missouri.  Seven dangerous inmates escaped from the Kansas correctional facility on Sunday, September 7, 1981 and for seven anxious days and six sleepless nights the group, five of which were convicted murderers, avoided capture.

Shortly following the escape, three of the fugitives broke into a farmhouse located a mere fifteen miles from the prison.  The Bonner Springs, Kansas farm was owned by an elderly couple, Robert and Roseline Seymour.  Robert said that the trio could take whatsoever they wanted but he beseeched the intruders to show mercy and asked that no harm come to Roeseline.  Lengths of rope were used to restrain the Seymours and as one of the intruders fastened the knots around Roseline’s hands he said, “Don’t be scared lady, I’ve got a mother too.”

That group of wanted men, John Kitchell, Robert Bentley and Everett Cameron stole the couple’s car and drove to Springfield, Missouri where they absconded with yet another vehicle.  That car belonged to a college student who was also bound with lengths of rope.

Three of the fugitives, Terry McClain, Marvin Thornton and Larry Miller were spotted by a Bonner Springs police officer only hours after the escape.  After a car chase and the exchange of gunfire, the three were apprehended but not before four bullets fired from the guns of the outlaws penetrated the body of the officer.

escapees4The seventh escapee, James Murray was spotted near Aurora, Missouri the following Tuesday and following a brief, and relatively uneventful, foot chase he was taken into custody.  That left only Kitchell, Bentley and Cameron still out there and on the lamb.    Kitchell and Bentley were convicted murderers while Cameron had been found guilty of rape. These were desperate, dangerous men and nobody knew where they were headed, but that uncertainty quickly came to an end.

A car occupied by three unrecognized and rough looking men was stopped by a Noel, Missouri police officer.  Before the lawman could determine the identity of the men the trio leapt from the vehicle and fled into the woods and out of sight.  Accounts of the men’s sightings soon began to be reported by residents of McDonald County.  The news media provided the men’s descriptions and three strangers fitting those descriptions were seen walking in the wooded rolling hills and low lying pastures of the sparsely populated area of the Ozarks.

Men gathered up their weapons and groups of shotgun wielding volunteers dressed in blue-jeans or bib-overalls, some wearing their favorite John Deere caps, stopped cars on dusty and desolate dirt roads.  As cars and pick-up trucks were flagged down apologies were offered to friends and neighbors for the inconveniences but it didn’t seem as though the vehicle’s occupants minded the delays one bit; many found the whole experience somewhat exhilarating.

On the afternoon of Saturday, September 12th a keen-eyed man who resided just west of Ginger Blue, an area located between the towns of Noel and Lanagan, reported the sighting of three suspicious men near a secluded house.  The sighting prompted two law enforcement officers, State Troopers Walters and Ferguson, to drive to the house where they, with the benefit of the patrol car’s loudspeaker, ordered anyone inside to come out with hands raised above their heads.  Cameron and Kitchell later stated that they were not inside the home at the time but saw and overheard the proceedings.

Bentley came outside with his hands raised skyward and from the porch asked, “What do you want.”  The officers were certain that Bentley was indeed one of the fugitives and soon had him in handcuffs.  Bentley was allowed to use the loud speaker and asked the two remaining fugitives to give themselves up.  He attempted to entice the two when he said, “They have treated me kindly and have not threatened to shoot me.”  The officers later learned that Cameron and Kitchell had indeed been there but Bentley’s words had not convinced them to surrender.  Bentley had apparently discovered a bottle of wine while hiding in the house and was found to be inebriated when arrested.

In an attempt to leave McDonald County, Cameron and Kitchell climbed into the boxcar of a northbound Kansas City Southern train.  Kent Grigsby, a Lanagan resident saw the two and called the sheriff’s office.  He reported seeing the two fugitives inside the boxcar and gave the train’s direction of travel.

McDonald County Sheriff Lou Keeling arranged to have the getaway freight train stopped near the small town of Goodman, Missouri.  There Cameron and Kitchell, the last remnants of the elusive band of scoundrels, were taken into custody.  Following a brief foot pursuit, the short-lived freedom enjoyed by the last of the escapees came to an end.

Cameron and Bentley later told authorities that the week in the Southwest Missouri woods had been a terrible experience.  The men had eaten very little and fresh drinking water was hard to find.  Bentley, Cameron and Kitchell were covered head-to-toe with ticks and chiggers.  In many ways the three men of bad temperament were glad the ordeal was over.

While on the run the escaped convicts had stolen six cars, threatened six families, broken into two homes and taken three hostages.  It was estimated that the cost of the resources expended in their capture exceeded $65,000.00.

Sheriff Lou Keeling had only two full-time deputies at his disposal, however, law enforcement officers from Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, the U.S. Border Patrol and the F.B.I. as well as many Missouri National Guardsmen were involved in the search for the three runaways.  The fugitive’s short-lived freedom lasted only seven days ending on Sunday, September 13th.

Shortly following the capture of the last two inmates Betty Bray and Ralph Pogue used their cameras to capture the moment thus preserving the event for future newspaper perusers.  As Noel resident John Greer read subsequent newspaper accounts of the seven days in September he came to realize how near in proximity to his hilltop home the path taken by the bad men had come.

Greer hadn’t taken the potential threat posed by the convicts that seriously as he leisurely barbecued on one cool Ozark evening prior to their capture.  He did, however, rest his best locked and loaded shotgun against a nearby pecan tree while he turned the steaks on the charcoal-fueled fire; just in case.

For McDonald Countians the week in September of 1981, later touted as Missouri’s most extensive manhunt ever, was interesting but not earth shattering.  After all, these were the same people who twenty years prior gave nary the slightest thought to seceding, albeit for only a brief period of time, from the State of Missouri while adopting the name, McDonald Territory.

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