DA District 22
Pontotoc, Seminole and Hughes County District Attorney Erik Johnson, right, speaks with Assistant Attorney General Jimmy Harmon at a meeting of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Tres Savage)

ADA / SEMINOLE / WETUMKA — The troubled Hughes County Jail has been closed, six arrests have been made related to a rash of gang violence in Wewoka, charges have been dismissed in a vacated 1987 conviction, and new information has been revealed in a host of cases involving alleged financial or sexual misconduct by former public sector employees.

Each of these matters is unfolding in District Attorney District 22, which covers Pontotoc, Seminole and Hughes counties within the Chickasaw, Seminole, Muscogee and Choctaw reservations.

The following roundup provides updates and overviews of several high-profile cases and situations being handled by Johnson’s office and associated law enforcement agencies.

After Seminole County agreement, Hughes County Jail closed

The Hughes County Jail is located in the basement of the Hughes County Courthouse. (Tres Savage)

Since District Attorney Erik Johnson took office in January, he has prioritized efforts to close the subterranean Hughes County Jail and receive voter approval for a replacement facility. After months of conversations, Hughes County’s Board of Commissioners (Oct. 10) and the Seminole County Building Trust Authority (Sept. 29) have each approved a new agreement to send Hughes County detainees to the Seminole County Jail until Hughes County’s facility is either upgraded or replaced.

The development, which comes after months of negative inspections from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, closed the problematic jail located in the basement of the Hughes County Courthouse.

“I applaud the county commissioners for their ability to make the right decision — even when it’s a hard decision,” Johnson said. “The issues with the jail did not arise overnight, nor are the issues with the jail going to be resolved overnight.”

Although the Seminole County Board of Commissioners had established $57.51 as its average daily cost for housing detainees, Johnson convinced the board to approve a $50 daily rate for entities — like Hughes County — that contractually agrees to pay for at least 300 detention days per month, or the equivalent of housing 10 detainees for 30 days.

Johnson said Hughes County leaders still prefer the idea of retaining a jail, either by addressing issues in the courthouse basement or building a new facility altogether, the latter of which Johnson said he considers more feasible. However, an architecture firm is preparing estimates for repairing the existing jail — which Johnson said was designed to hold only 18 detainees — or building a new one on county property for about $9 million.

Gaining public approval could be an uphill climb. In January 2020, Hughes County voters roundly rejected a proposed property tax increase to fund a new jail, with 78.7 percent of ballots cast against the measure. Johnson and other county leaders would like to try again.

“We are working towards a permanent solution and, while we may not be at the finish line, the transfer of inmates is a significant step towards that goal,” he said.

Wewoka gang violence disrupts community

At the Seminole County Courthouse in Wewoka, Oklahoma, a stone denotes the history of the “whipping tree,” which was originally used as part of the administration of justice in the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. (Tres Savage)

While Johnson is thankful Hughes County’s potential liability has been reduced with the closure of its troubled jail, another part of DA District 22 has made headlines across the state recently owing to gang violence in Wewoka.

As the 3,000-person seat of Seminole County, Wewoka is primarily known for its diverse population, historic train depot, nearby lake and the “whipping tree” memorialized outside the county courthouse. But beginning with a fatal September shooting at a Wewoka gas station, the community has recently endured other gang-related shootings allegedly involving members of the Hoover Crips and members of an off-shoot of the Indian Brotherhood known as The Savages.

Late last week, Johnson said six arrests were made and four guns were confiscated after coordination among local, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies. According to coverage from Bob Melton of The Seminole Producer, Johnson said at his press conference that the investigation extends beyond the Wewoka area and that additional arrests could occur.

“This is a saturated, joint law enforcement response from all levels of law enforcement — federal, state, local and tribal,” Johnson said. “I anticipate multiple arrests to be effected by these agencies over the next several weeks.”

On Monday, Johnson told NonDoc he is attempting to coordinate with local leaders in Wewoka and Seminole County for the purpose of improving safety and fostering conversations about long-term actions that could stem gang activity.

“I have a duty to do more than just prosecute these guys. That’s the easier part of it,” Johnson said. “But we’re going to carve out the cancer, prosecute them — state and federal — and what’s going to fill that hole that’s left in the community? I mean, am I going to have to do this again in 18 months with a new set of criminals? Or can I find a way to work with the community and community leaders and law enforcement to figure out how to make this not happen anymore?”

To that end, Johnson said the broader factors that enable gang activity and violence must be examined.

“I feel it’s the ultimate priority of my office that I am responsible for the safety of every child in District 22,” he said. “So the first thing I have to do is quell the violence. Then (…) I feel like there are good community leaders, and this is a critical time for them to come together, and I am asking to be involved in that process.”

Johnson said local leaders and institutions need to examine truancy rates, the availability of in-school and after-school activities, the foster care system and parenting resources.

“There needs to be more economic opportunity. These kids have to have more of a lighted path to get from 13 and 14 years old into young adulthood without getting slipped into a gang or slipped into criminal acts. So how do you avoid that? That’s a long-term discussion,” Johnson said. “I know that you can’t completely solve it, but you can definitely move the needle, I think.”

In responding to the Wewoka situation, Johnson has praised the work of new Seminole County Sheriff Anthony Louis, who was appointed in late August after Shannon Smith resigned as part of a plea agreement related to a state investigation into how funds were used in the Seminole County Sheriff Deputy Association Fund. Louis, a former Seminole Nation Lighthorse officer who is believed to be only the third Black sheriff in Oklahoma history, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Wetumka on edge as second former mayor investigated

Brent McGee
Flanked by community members, former Wetumka Mayor Brent McGee speaks from the audience during a contentious meeting of the Wetumka City Council on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. (Tres Savage)

Johnson confirmed Monday that state and federal law enforcement agents are still investigating former Wetumka Mayor Brent McGee for alleged sexual misconduct with teenage boys he encountered as a teacher, coach and mentor.

“I have staffed this issue with the Hughes County sheriff. I understand that there is a current investigation, with assets from the Hughes County Sheriff’s Department and OSBI,” Johnson said. “I am also aware that the FBI is on a parallel track with an investigation of an allegation that would have been much older.”

The FBI first approached McGee in the summer of 2022 about allegations made by a former student whom McGee taught when he coached soccer at Noble Public Schools in the 1990s. The former student, 49-year-old Casey Yochum, began posting on Facebook about McGee this fall and spoke during public comment at a recent State Board of Education meeting where McGee’s teaching certificate was suspended.

“I was molested by Brent McGee for years,” Yochum told board members, alleging that other victims exist. “He starts grooming these kids at 13, 14 years old.”

Monday night, the Wetumka Public Schools Board met and approved a motion to hire the Center for Education Law as the district’s new legal counsel at the recommendation of Superintendent Donna McGee, the wife of Brent McGee, who employed her husband as a teacher and WPS athletic director until August 2022.

“The day the FBI came in, he resigned on the spot, so he has not been back in the school district,” Donna McGee said Monday night.

Social media photos indicate that the McGees have mentored teenage boys for years, and Donna McGee confirmed that boys had lived with them in the past, but on Monday she said none were living with her and her husband currently.

During his remarks to the State Board of Education, Yochum alluded to a recording he made of Brent McGee seeming to apologize to Yochum. While Yochum appears to have removed it from Facebook, an anonymous Substack account titled V1SUT Vantage retained and published the recording, in which McGee said to Yochum, “Too far? Yes, too far. Am I sorry? Yes.”

A retired firefighter and Army combat medic, Yochum is a tribal citizen, and Johnson’s statement that both state and federal agents are involved in the McGee investigation appears to indicate the existence of allegations from additional people.

McGee is not the first former Wetumka mayor to be investigated by the FBI for alleged sexual misconduct. When McGee and two others left office, James and Rebecca Jackson won election to the Wetumka City Council and James became mayor. Both Jacksons ultimately went to prison for actions related to a sex crimes conspiracy involving a massive stash of child pornography and a girl who moved with them to Wetumka from Illinois while she was a minor.

In August 2022, McGee confirmed to NonDoc that he had resigned from WPS after the FBI had approached him.

“I had accusations,” McGee said. “I don’t know how much I can talk about this, but I have retired from education, and that’s about all I can say about it.”

McGee, whose family has owned the Dairy Queen in Wetumka for more than 60 years, said “someone” was attempting to set him up, alluding to James Jackson and his political supporters, some of whom have alleged historic financial mismanagement related to the town’s finances and, in particular, electric bills.

Still, more than a year after word of the FBI’s investigation spread through Wetumka, Brent McGee has faced no charges. On Monday night, Wetumka Public Schools Board members Donnie Williamson and John Curtis directed questions about the district’s response to the allegations to Donna McGee.

“My attorneys say no comments, OK?” she said.

In his Oct. 26 remarks to the State Board of Education, Yochum said he took the recording of his conversation with Brent McGee to the FBI. Yochum did not respond to emails seeking comment prior to this story, but he occasionally posts about his experience on his Facebook page.

DOC, Johnson discuss sex offender registration for Rebecca Jackson

Rebecca Jackson, Wetumka
Former Wetumka City Councilwoman Rebecca Jackson finishes a beverage before walking to a concert in Oklahoma City on Sunday, June 12, 2023. (Tres Savage)

Speaking of former Wetumka councilpersons, the community learned in October that an unusual set of circumstances had led to Rebecca Jackson’s release from prison in May.

Now, Johnson’s office is looking into why Rebecca Jackson has not registered as a sex offender in Oklahoma despite the terms of her signed sentencing agreements stating she “will comply with the Sex Offenders Registration Act.”

Johnson said his office’s discussions with the Department of Corrections have revealed that DOC believes the crimes included in her June 2022 blind plea and May 2023 unusual resentencing do not require it.

In response to a records request, Johnson provided NonDoc correspondence between his office and DOC officials in the wake of an article published Oct. 5 that examined the circumstances by which Rebecca Jackson was released from prison without a publicly known victim being notified, an oversight that violates the state constitutional enshrinement of victims rights known as Marsy’s Law.

“According to the charges she was convicted of, she was not required to register as a sex offender,” DOC probation and parole officer Quinn Wendt wrote Oct. 5, noting that Rebecca Jackson’s 2022 guilty plea did not include the aggravated possession of child pornography charge she faced.

But in both the original sentencing agreement issued by Judge Timothy Olsen and the revised sentence Olsen provided less than one year later, Rebecca Jackson signed her name to terms that specified compliance with “special supervision conditions for sex offenders.”

The scenario may have highlighted a loophole in Oklahoma state law, where the terms of the Sex Offenders Registration Act under Title 57, Section 582 “shall apply” only to people convicted of various sex-related crimes specified in Title 21 statutes.

However, Rebecca Jackson’s signed sentencing order for her plea agreement — which did not include the aggravated child pornography charge originally facing her — lists a victim of sexual misconduct and specifically states she will comply with the Sex Offenders Registration Act.

Former ECU bursar Brian Hampton waives preliminary hearing

Former East Central University bursar Brian Hampton, right, speaks with his attorney, Rob Neal, outside the Pontotoc County Courthouse on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. (Tres Savage)

On Monday morning, former East Central University bursar Brian Hampton waived his right to a preliminary hearing on the criminal charges he is facing for allegedly embezzling more than $320,000 from the regional higher education institution.

After being confronted about and admitting to stealing the money, Hampton was originally charged with embezzlement and computer fraud in March 2020, but he somehow managed to escape arrest until November 2022 when U.S. marshals found him living in his mother’s residence. When his actions were discovered, Hampton returned more than $222,000 to ECU, but $98,765 remained missing, according to an audit paid for by the university.

Assistant district attorney Nicholas Thurman said after Monday’s brief hearing that no plea agreement had been reached with Hampton, who appeared in court with attorney Rob Neal.

“He’s waived preliminary hearing, and so I think what he’s still contesting is the restitution amount, so we’ll be sitting for a restitution hearing on [Dec. 21],” Thurman said. “But there is no agreed deal at this time.”

Hampton declined to discuss the charges facing him after Monday’s hearing. Asked if he had anything to say regarding allegations of ECU financial issues and a “cover up” he referenced in correspondence reviewed by NonDoc and law enforcement, Hampton responded, “No, sir.”

Thurman said it was his understanding that Hampton’s allegations about former ECU officials and financial concerns had been investigated.

“I haven’t heard anything other than what he’s already stated prior to getting picked up,” Thurman said, noting that he had read an email sent by Hampton on the topic. “There was a letter making some allegations, but we haven’t been able to verify any of those.”

Blind plea possible for former Byng IT specialist who stole nudes

Zachary Milliren, left, signs a document with his attorney, Alex Courtney, at the Pontotoc County Courthouse on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. (Tres Savage)

Johnson’s office is also handling the prosecution of Zachary Milliren, a former information technology specialist at Byng Public Schools who was caught with personal or sexual photos and videos of more than 200 Byng students, teachers and staff members, or roughly one in nine people in the school-centric community just north of Ada.

Milliren is facing 15 criminal counts, including four related to possession or distribution of child pornography. According to court fillings, Milliren was able to use the school district’s network and other means to hack into iCloud drives and social media accounts to steal copies of users’ nude photos. He then engaged in swapping the nude photos with others, including students at Byng Public Schools. It is unclear whether the district proactively alerted community members to the investigation and privacy violations.

On Monday, Assistant District Attorney Tara Portillo said she expects Milliren to accept a plea agreement.

“It is my understanding that on Thursday we anticipate he is going to waive his preliminary hearing,” Portillo said. “We’ve been told by his attorney that he intends to enter a blind plea.”

Former Murray County EMT pleads guilty to child porn charges

In June, Portillo and Johnson filed three charges related to possession of child pornography against Ada resident Coda Stout, an emergency medical technician in Murray County.

According to coverage from Randy Mitchell in The Ada News, Stout pleaded guilty and is awaiting a January sentencing hearing. Local law enforcement received a tip about Stout downloading and soliciting child pornography from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

According to the affidavit filed in Stout’s case, investigators received a warrant to review his Snapchat account before serving a warrant on Stout’s home in Ada.

“The content of the chat indicated that Stout worked in emergency medical services and intended to purchase child sexual abuse material from another user as far back as 2019. He utilized a pre-paid Visa card to make the purchases,” DA District 22 agent Christopher Perteet wrote. “On [Jan. 13] he sent user paige.nm that he wanted, ‘Mmm the younger the better.’ He sent that user child pornography he had in his possession.”

The Snapchat account held 21 photographs and videos of pornography, with at least 19 depicting females below the age of 18 and some of the females “estimated to be as young as 9 years old.”

Investigators found more child pornography on Stout’s phone, and during an interview he said he “could not control his impulses” and that he “attempted to justify it by telling himself it was a victimless crime.”

The affidavit concludes by noting that Stout did not want it known that he possessed nude photos of a co-worker and his wife, and it also stated that Stout admitted he “searched, viewed and masturbated to underage children’s videos at work while on duty (as an EMT) and at home.”

Case dismissed against Perry Lott

While Johnson is prosecuting numerous cases of note, he also recently dismissed one that has drawn national attention and criticism of Pontotoc County’s justice system owing to concerns about a series of highly questioned convictions in the 1980s.

In October, 30 years after he was imprisoned for a rape he said he did not commit, Perry Lott’s conviction was vacated and charges were dropped by Johnson, who took office in January. Johnson’s predecessor, former District Attorney Paul Smith, had not dismissed the case despite Lott being released from prison in 2018, four years after his accuser allegedly told an investigator that she had been scared to pick the wrong man in a lineup and that nothing in particular led her to identify Lott.

From CBS News:

Lott’s case occurred around the same time and in the same county as the convictions of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, whose cases have come under intense scrutiny and have been the subject of numerous books, including John Grisham’s “The Innocent Man,” which he produced into a six-part documentary on Netflix. A federal judge ordered Fontenot released, but Ward remains in prison.

Johnson said Monday he anticipates Lott’s legal team from the Innocence Project will ultimately move to seek a “declaration of actual innocence.”

“Going back to how the case was handled in 1987, they didn’t have the benefit of DNA technology back then, and Chris Ross tried the case with the evidence they had and slam-dunked him,” Johnson said. “I did an evaluation of the case with my investigators, and you could see that with the DNA that excluded him as a contributor, I felt I didn’t have any choice but to move to vacate the conviction and dismiss the charges.”

In many ways, the Perry Lott case touches on deep and historical questions Johnson has inherited about the criminal justice system in DA District 22.

“There had been a lot of issues that I’d had with the Perry Lott case,” he said, “primarily that the principle investigating officer — who was set to testify at this hearing in July 2018 — committed suicide two days prior, and that fact was not disclosed to defense counsel.”

(Clarification: This article was updated at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, to clarify reference to gang factions in the Wewoka area.)