Vaught, Stiles, & Bates

Le Flore County, Oklahoma
Date of Alleged Crime:  August 18, 1907

In the fall of 1907, a human skeleton was found in a wooded area, about 3/4 of a mile from the nearest road.  The nearest human habitation was the Bates sawmill, about four miles away, near the town of Heavener.  Not long before, in August, an employee of the mill named Bud Terry had mysteriously disappeared.  Terry was in his early twenties.  His aunt, Mrs. Knotts, with whom he lived, had heard nothing from him since his disappearance.  Knotts had raised Terry since he was orphaned, and it was Terry's custom to keep her informed whenever he left home for any length of time.  There was suspicion that W. L. Bates, the owner of the sawmill, and his employees knew more about the Terry's disappearance than they were willing to admit.

Terry belonged to an Odd Fellows Lodge and had a $1,000 life insurance policy through it, payable to Mrs. Knotts.  The Lodge and Mrs. Knotts made a wide search for him, including extensive advertising.   However, the search proved fruitless and the Lodge, being satisfied of Terry's death, paid the insurance.

In Nov. 1909, Sam Swider, who had worked part-time at the sawmill, was convicted of larceny and sentenced to five years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.  In the fall of 1911, Swider met with the prison warden and told him that he saw a sawmill employee named Millard Vaught kill Terry. According to Swider, Bates and another employee named Will Stiles assisted Vaught.  After having talked with Swider, another former sawmill employee, Louis McKibben, backed up Swider's story.

According to Swider, Bates confronted Vaught for telling people that he, Vaught, had being going around with Bates's wife.  Vaught denied the accusation, but Bates stated that Terry had informed him of Vaught's tales.  Vaught then confronted Terry, who admitted what he had done.  The two got into an altercation.  Bates and Stiles actively took sides with Vaught.  Vaught then hit Terry repeatedly with a piece of lumber, crushing his skull, after which he died.  The three participants then moved Terry's body to the place where the skeleton was found, making the location look like a hobo camp so no one would think the victim was a local person.  The three also threatened to kill Swider and McKibben if they ever revealed what they saw.

Vaught, Stiles, and Bates were arrested.  Since Terry's killing allegedly occurred three months before Oklahoma became a state, they were indicted and tried under Arkansas law, which prevailed in the territory prior to Oklahoma statehood.  Because the statute of limitations for manslaughter had expired, the three were tried for premeditated killing (murder), as they could not be charged with unpremeditated killing (manslaughter).  At trial, the found skeleton was presented along with compelling testimony that the skeleton was that of Bud Terry.  Swider testified to witnessing the killing, and McKibben corroborated his testimony in every detail.  The defendants, however, presented strong alibis, particularly Vaught, whose alibi would normally be regarded as insurmountable.  The jurors became deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial.  The trial judge interviewed members of the jury and found that jury entertained no doubt that the defendants had killed Terry.  Their disagreement was due to jurors believing that the defendants were guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.

Stiles then successfully demanded that his case be severed from his co-defendants, and he was retried alone.  With virtually the same evidence, a jury acquitted him.  When interviewed, the jurors reported a unanimous opinion that Stiles, Vaught, and Bates had killed Terry.  However, by following the judge's instructions, they could only find him guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, and consequently they could not convict him.  Since there was no reasonable probability of convicting Vaught and Bates of murder, the charges against them were dismissed.

Despite the acquittal and dropped charges, the defendants, particularly Bates, were incensed and began an unremitting search for Terry.  The search never yielded a result, but fate would eventually intervene.  A man named R. E. McClelland of Los Angeles, California, had two brothers in Le Flore County, Oklahoma, who had informed him of the disappearance of Bud Terry and of the trials of Vaught, Stiles, and Bates for his murder.  Years later, in July 1917, McClelland became an inmate at Los Angeles County Hospital where he met Bud Terry, also an inmate.  McClelland told Terry of the events that transpired in Oklahoma.  Terry immediately wrote to McClelland's brothers and others in Oklahoma, giving an account of his wanderings after leaving Oklahoma.  Bates learned of these letters, located Terry, and arranged for his return to Le Flore County.

Because Swider and McKibben had been absent from Oklahoma for much of the time since giving their testimony, the statute of limitations for their perjury had not expired.  When both were confronted by Terry, the two confessed that all their testimony was fabricated.  Both pleaded guilty to perjury and each was sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment.  [12/07]

Reference:  Convicting the Innocent

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Oklahoma Cases, Victims Found Alive