2023 Oklahoma news
As expected, 2023 was a newsy year. (Angela Anne Jones)

As another newsy year comes to a close and 2024 approaches, several key stories covered by NonDoc in 2023 remain relevant today.

From the unreleased results of an internal Edmond Police Department investigation to the story of a “dream home” nightmare in Tulsa, the topics of public safety and housing received a lot of ink on our digital pages.

The past 12 months also brought us sports through the ballot box, as OKC voters grappled with the decision to fund a $900 million arena for the Thunder that would keep the team in town for the foreseeable future, or as long as a NYC hedge fund or Russian oligarch doesn’t own it.

In northeast Oklahoma and beyond, residents were abuzz at the announcement of a proposed theme park that some have said would rival Disney parks if it ever gets built near Vinita. Despite the fanfare, completion will take more than simply wishing upon a star.

Below, you can use the arrows to scroll between short synopses of 10 key feature stories we hope you read in 2023. The articles are generally presented in chronological order, and some of the blurbs below reference additional coverage related to the same topic.

If you haven’t read them all, there’s no time like the present to dive deeply into these important topics.

1Edmond leaders mostly mum on deputy police chief inquiry

The Edmond Police Department began its body-worn camera program in 2017 and completed implementation for all patrol officers in 2021. (Ben White)

Reporters often work long and hard hours to piece together stories, but sometimes, they fall into our laps.

In late 2022, an anonymous letter was mailed to the NonDoc News Dungeon containing printed email communications between Edmond Police Department leaders. Those emails showed then-EPD Maj. C.J. Wise lodging serious allegations of workplace misconduct, including racism and sexism, against EPD Deputy Chief Tim Dorsey.

When asked about the emails, Edmond City Attorney Steve Murdock said an attorney with the law firm Phillips Murrah was actively conducting an investigation into the matter at a rate of $295 per hour. The investigation was spurred by a complaint to Human Resources, which Wise filed.

For months, city leaders said the investigation was still ongoing. After informing city leadership on Jan. 31 that NonDoc was publishing a story the next morning, Murdock sent a statement at 10 p.m. announcing that Phillips Murrah had concluded its investigation.

Did Phillips Murrah happen to finish the investigation hours before we published the story? City leadership flatly refused to answer that question. Wise said he chose to leave the department after 25 years owing to how the city handled his complaint.

“More than anything, it was the city not doing anything about it,” Wise said. “I think the length of time shows that they are trying to sweep it under the rug and make it less emotional for people where, over time, they’re not as worked up about it. I’ve worked on homicide investigations that we wrap up within a month, so this thing (is) taking over a year?”

For those wondering what Phillips Murrah found in its investigation, the city has refused to release the results, claiming they are personnel files protected in Oklahoma under Title 51, Section 24A.7. Edmond officials did say that the city paid $213,334 in taxpayer funds for the investigation.

Asked about the next steps Edmond leaders are taking as a result of the investigation, City Manager Scot Rigby offered vague remarks about the city implementing new “training” to improve “customer service” and “situational awareness” among EPD members and city staff members.

If anyone would like to provide another anonymous tip about what training, if any, has been implemented in the city as a result of this investigation — NonDoc has since moved offices — but our P.O. Box is always open.

Click to read Joe Tomlinson’s initial Feb. 1 story. | His July 5 follow up.

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2Without shelter, resources limited for Edmond’s unhoused

Breakfast on Boulevard serves hot breakfasts and sack lunches from 6:30 a.m. to 7:15 a.m. on weekdays in the basement of First Christian Church located at 201 E. 2nd St. in Edmond. (Joe Tomlinson)

Across the state and nation, cities are grappling with growing homelessness issues as rent prices and inflation climb.

Unlike Oklahoma City and Norman, the city of Edmond does not have an overnight shelter serving homeless individuals. This means Edmond’s unhoused often roam the streets or hang out at public parks or libraries.

Some maintain that Edmond’s homeless population is too low to warrant the construction of a homeless shelter. According to the city’s annual point-in-time counts, only 11 unhoused persons were counted in 2022. Only 14 were documented in 2023.

However, EPD’s arrests of the unhoused tell a different story. In 2022, the Edmond Police Department made 288 arrests of 131 people who self-identified in booking reports as “homeless” or “unhoused.”

Largely, these arrests are for criminal charges such as trespassing, public intoxication or failing to appear for a court hearing related to a previous charge — infractions reflected by the reality of living on the streets.

Dan Straughan, the executive director of the Homeless Alliance in OKC, said a “Band-Aid solution” for Edmond’s homelessness-related arrests would be for the city to provide a shelter where those experiencing homelessness can legally find shelter.

Considering Edmond residents’ reaction to the city’s recent housing assessment, however, such a proposal would likely face some opposition.

Click to read Joe Tomlinson’s full story from Feb. 21.

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3Broadband Board chairman pushed Motorola project with college roommate

Oklahoma Broadband Governing Board Chairman Mike Fina presides over a board meeting on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Michael McNutt)

In his capacity as the appointed chairman of the Oklahoma Broadband Governing Board, Mike Fina worked closely with a Motorola lobbyist and the company’s territory vice president — Fina’s former employee and his former college roommate, respectively — to steer $20 million to the Department of Public Safety for upgrades to an antiquated Motorola radio system.

As NonDoc requested and received text messages among the parties this spring, Fina was removed from the board position.

Those records ultimately outlined how Fina acted as an intermediary between Motorola representatives and DPS for the sole-source agreement, and he ultimately caught legislators off guard by having the public board approve $20 million of Broadband Office funding for the project Nov. 29. Over the next three weeks, a Motorola vice president and a Motorola lobbyist sent numerous messages about finalizing the contract to Fina, who said Dec. 5 that he was “working to get this thing funded before the end of the month.”

Click here to read Michael McNutt and Tres Savage’s full story from July 6.

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4Houses, pastors and ‘toxic’ allegations for a nonprofit leader

Holding her grandfather’s funeral program and a series of letters from the Tulsa Housing Authority, Derricka Blue sits on the porch of 6327 N. Boulder Ave., a home that changed hands from the Tulsa Dream Center to Aaron “AJ” Johnson’s personal company and finally to SLG Properity during her time as a tenant. (Tres Savage)

When Derricka Blue and her paralyzed grandfather moved into a small house owned by the Tulsa Dream Center in 2020, she thought the pair of pastors leading the nonprofit considered her a “dream team” member who deserved the chance to become a homeowner.

For years, even as she experienced homelessness, Blue had volunteered, worshipped and received services at the Tulsa Dream Center, a prominent nonprofit supported by Victory Christian Church that had rehabilitated and given away “dream homes” to others in need. As she cared for her grandfather, Blue hoped the house at 6327 N. Boulder Ave. would become her dream.

Instead, thanks to busted HVAC systems, burst pipes and mold that Blue fears affected her grandfather’s health, the North Boulder home became her nightmare.

“I feel like I’ve been taken advantage of, and it’s fraud,” Blue told NonDoc in March, early in a series of interviews about the house, its ownership changes and public rental subsidies. “I thought I was part of the ‘dream team.’”

The allegations from Blue landed this year while a Tulsa nonprofit leader faced a series of questions regarding his pursuit of public funding.

Click here to read Tres Savage and Bennett Brinkman’s full story from Aug. 30.

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5Great-grandmother’s injuries highlight OHP lack of body cams

Nancy Kemp was stopped on Interstate 35 by an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. An altercation with the trooper resulted in facial fractures and misdemeanor charges. (Provided)

Most Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers are not equipped with body cameras, a fact that left much of one trooper’s violent arrest of Nancy Kemp unrecorded on video. The 68-year-old had been pulled over on Interstate 35 for a traffic violation in May 2022.

Kemp was left badly hurt with a broken nose, broken ribs and a broken foot, among other injuries. Some of what transpired that night was captured on the trooper’s dashboard camera. But the incident raised questions about why one of Oklahoma’s largest law enforcement agencies does not require troopers to wear body cameras, increasingly common technology that records critical incidents involving law enforcement officers and the public.

OHP troopers operate under a nearly decade-old directive from a police chief guiding troopers about the use of body cameras. Only about 40 of OHP’s 743 troopers are wearing body cameras, according to DPS spokespersons.

Click here to read Michael McNutt’s full story from Aug. 3.

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6State funds sought for huge theme park plan near Vinita

American Heartland Theme Park and Resort is a more than $2 billion entertainment destination development proposed for northeast Oklahoma, just west of Grand Lake off Route 66. (Provided)

Sometime in the future, Oklahoma residents could be able to pack up the fam and hit the road for Vinita and the American Heartland Theme Park and Resort, a $2 billion proposal billed as a somewhat Ned Flanders version of Disney World.

But it remains to be seen if the massive project gets built and welcomes guests in the Craig County area, particularly as local leaders and project developers approach the Oklahoma Legislature for tens of millions of dollars in support. Despite that uncertainty, ground was broken this year on an RV park for the entertainment complex, and organizers have said more construction will follow.

American Heartland is an affiliate of Mansion Entertainment Group, which bills itself as the leading performing arts, animation and studio brand in Branson, a popular destination for vacationers from Missouri and across the country known for its collection of entertainment theaters.

The July announcement sent shockwaves across northeastern Oklahoma.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for growth for all of this area, even over to Grove,” said Josh Lee, the mayor of Vinita. “I really fully believe it will happen.”

Although a man behind failed Texas and Alabama theme park ventures now works with American Heartland executives, the company’s spokeswoman says he is uninvolved with the Oklahoma theme park project, which would be developed on what is mostly farm land east of Vinita and west of Grand Lake.

Some remain more skeptical of the project, including theme park industry expert Robert Niles, who says the $2 billion price tag for the theme park and resort is roughly the same as the current market cap of the entire Six Flags theme park chain.

“Even a $100 million park would struggle to make back investment,” Niles wrote of the proposal.

Click here to read Michael McNutt’s story from Sept. 26.

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7Thunder arena approved, community benefits agreement looms

More than 70 percent of Oklahoma City voters supported a new arena proposal for the OKC Thunder on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. (Angela Anne Jones)

In what proved to be an election fought mostly over the vitriolic digital hellscape now known as X, Oklahoma City residents chose to fund a new $900 million arena for the Thunder on Dec. 12. The election wasn’t close, with the Yes vote easily coasting to a victory. The arena is scheduled to be opened in 2029. The election did create some public discussion on issues like corporate welfare and public-private partnerships.

Some believed the team and its billionaire owners should pick up more than 5 percent of the cost for the new arena, while the majority favored footing 95 percent of the bill for a publicly owned facility.

“We certainly brought many ideas that originated from the council or originated from the public or originated from us to those conversations, but ultimately what you see today are the terms in which the Thunder are willing to sign a long-term agreement in Oklahoma City,” Mayor David Holt said in September. “The only leverage we as a city have is our willingness to not move forward in this relationship.”

In the end, Holt made his case to voters. While some didn’t like the deal, thinking it too friendly to ownership, most of the roughly 56,000 people who voted saw it his way. Now, questions remain about how a proposed community benefits agreement may shake out.

Click here to read Matt Patterson’s coverage of the OKC arena vote.

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8Unknown to victim, former Wetumka councilwoman out of prison

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

Former Wetumka City Councilwoman Rebecca Jackson was released from prison after serving just 258 days of a four-year sentence for her role in a child pornography and sexual abuse conspiracy inovlving her husband, former Mayor James Jackson.

Amid questions about District Judge Timothy Olsen’s decision, it was revealed that the Jacksons’ publicly known victim was not notified that Rebecca Jackson had requested a hearing for sentence modification.

In approving the modification — which even he called unusual — Olsen disregarded the recommendation of Hughes County’s district attorney and the Department of Corrections’ judicial review accountability plan, which questioned the validity of claims in Rebecca Jackson’s application for relief.

“Jackson reported that she has completed several religious-based programs. She has not completed any DOC-sanctioned programs nor (is she) on the waiting list for any,” DOC administrative programs officer Linn Jones wrote April 20. “Due to the extreme seriousness of these crimes, it is respectfully recommended that Rebecca Jackson be denied a sentence modification.”

After dividing the town over financial matters, suspicious behavior and the termination of multiple police chiefs, the Jacksons’ one-term political tenures ended with a January 2020 resignation. In March, James Jackson was arrested after sex crime charges were filed in Illinois. In April, then-District Attorney Paul Smith filed child pornography conspiracy charges against both Jacksons in Hughes County, Oklahoma. Plea agreements were struck in 2022.

“It makes me wonder what else there could be,” the woman who led FBI agents to a massive stash of child pornography said. “How, with this (negative) recommendation from the Department of Corrections, how with this history, how with her (adult substance abuse survey) scoring being like that, how with just sitting down and having a conversation with her, or listening to anything James has written or said and just comparing the tone — I don’t get it. It’s really upsetting. Really disappointing.”

Click here to read Tres Savage’s full story from Oct. 5.

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9In wake of low scores, ‘science of reading’ thrust into spotlight

A critical component of a child’s education involves the shift from learning to read to reading to learn. (Angela Anne Jones)

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters wants to improve test scores and reading ability through the science of reading, a concept that gained some steam several decades ago but later fell out of favor among educators.

Walters has tried to bring it back, but his culture war battles in and out of the classroom, and his rocky relationship with some legislators have hampered those efforts. At the same time, some educators believe the concept is too simple.

According to the 2022 Nation’s Report Card, 45 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders tested below the basic reading level. Just 24 percent are at or above proficient. Nationally, 37 percent of fourth graders are below the “basic” benchmark in reading.

For years, these numbers have been dismal at the state and national levels, and Oklahoma’s scores have dropped over the past 25 years. In 1998, 34 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders were below the basic reading level. Nationally, 40 percent of fourth graders fell below that standard.

Click here to read Bennett Brinkman’s full story from Oct. 10.

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10As Oklahoma executions ramp up, some push death penalty moratorium

With Oklahoma executions set to ramp up into 2024, advocates seeking another death penalty moratorium are making their case. (Angela Jones)

Oklahoma’s use of the death penalty in recent years has been plagued by problems, including difficulties acquiring lethal drugs to carry out executions. Combined with claims of innocence and various Pardon and Parole Board recommendations, Oklahoma has seen renewed debate as to whether the state should be responsible for ending lives.

In November, the case of Philip Hancock made headlines after he was executed despite a recommendation from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board that he be granted clemency. The issue is increasingly prevalent at the State Capitol, where some legislators have called for reform.

Death penalty conversations have also drawn attention from conservatives, who have typically favored the death penalty. Some are taking another look at what happens after an inmate is sentenced.

Rep. Kevin McDugle (R-Broken Arrow) has been among the most vocal in favor of clemency for Hancock, who was executed in November, and Richard Glossip, whose fate remains unknown.

“When you take a life, you had better make sure the standard is met for the most heinous crime, in my book,” he told fellow legislators. “I have only been involved in one case, particularly close — the Richard Glossip case. I believe it’s important that every one of them we take seriously when we’re going to take a life in the state of Oklahoma.”

Click here to read Matt Patterson’s full story from Nov. 14.

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