BYLINE: RON JACKSON, Oklahoman
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Custer County, OK
Key piece of evidence surfaces after former Custer County sheriffs trial involving the rape of female inmates.
ARAPAHO — A flashlight allegedly used by former Custer County Sheriff Mike Burgess to rape a female inmate mysteriously surfaced recently and may have prompted a swifter response to the county’s $10 million lawsuit settlement offer last week, attorneys said.
Special prosecutor Mike Boring, who convicted Burgess of 13 felony counts last year, said he was informed the flashlight was found in a Custer County Sheriff’s Department evidence room during the discovery phase of the federal lawsuit.
The flashlight — missing during the criminal trial — was identified as the one issued to Burgess, Boring said.
Victim Brenda Brown testified during the January 2009 trial that Burgess raped her with the flashlight in a Clinton hotel room as she cried.
Brown described the flashlight as a "mid-sized” instrument engraved with the number "1,” earmarking the light as the one used by the sheriff.
"I was told the flashlight was sent to a laboratory in California for DNA testing, and that it tested positive for one male and two females,” Boring said. "But the civil attorneys were unable to force Burgess to submit to a DNA swab, and the female DNA profiles proved inconclusive. So we’ll probably never know for sure, but the circumstantial evidence is strong.”
Burgess, sentenced to 79 years in prison, was found not guilty by a Major County jury on the specific charge of rape against Brown. Instead, the jury found him guilty on a variety of charges related to female inmates and drug court participants, ranging from kidnapping and forcible oral sodomy to sexual battery and rape.
Steve Huddleston, Burgess’ defense attorney, questions whether that flashlight is indeed the one mentioned in the case.
"We requested any and every piece of evidence that had anything to do with the trial from the DA’s office,” Huddleston said. "That flashlight was never turned over to me. If it was in some evidence room somewhere, then why didn’t I get it?”
Greg Williams, a Tulsa attorney who helped represent 14 women in the federal lawsuit, said he is as puzzled about the appearance of the flashlight as he is cynical.
"Where was the flashlight when the criminal trial was going on?” Williams said.
"Funny how it suddenly appeared, right?”
Brown said she felt "vindicated” by the discovery of the flashlight and the presence of female DNA, and would celebrate her joy with her share of the settlement. Brown will receive nearly $2 million.
Custer County taxpayers won’t be so joyous in the coming years.
They will pay for the $10 million settlement through increased property taxes over the next three years — more than they paid for the new $9 million county jail that opened just last year.
"Mike Burgess?” said Darrel Dupree, chairman of the Custer County commissioners, when the settlement was announced last week. "I hope I never see him again. Ten million dollars is a lot of money, and it’s a shame the people of Custer County will have to pay.”
Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples said he wants to "move forward.”
"I’m asked all the time about Mike Burgess,” Peoples said. "They want to know how he’s doing. Or if we’ve heard from him. Or where he’s incarcerated. I just tell people, ‘We don’t have any contact with him and that administration is in our past.’
"I tell my people all the time, ‘We can’t control what has happened in the past, but we can sure show the people of Custer County that we have a sheriff’s department they can be proud of.’ And that’s what we focus on.
"We made some changes,” Peoples said. "All our patrol cars have video cameras mounted on the dashboards now. One of my duties every week is to transport inmates. So we can be watched at all times, and some false accusations have vanished quickly because of those cameras.”
Brenda Burgess remains loyal to her husband and a staunch advocate for his claims of innocence.
"I just find the whole thing to be a joke,” Brenda Burgess said last week. "We have appealed, and hopefully his case will be reviewed.”
The settlement announcement came on the eve of a $6.5 million bond election for the Arapaho-Butler Public School District. The bond issue, which failed in two prior elections, promised more classrooms and a new gym. Supporters feared the settlement would have a negative effect on voters.
Instead, the bond passed with 66 percent of the vote.
"I really couldn’t say if the settlement had an impact one way or the other,” said Bob Haggard, school superintendent. "I just know a lot of people did a lot of hard work campaigning for this bond issue. We’ve got a great county with great people and great leadership.”
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