Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on prominent Oklahoma County legal figures. Former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy was profiled last week.
For more than three decades, Oklahoma native Garvin Isaacs has spun epic story lines throughout Oklahoma and the West — stories that shockingly cast alleged murderers as convenient fall guys or sometimes even heroic figures. He portrayed an alleged prison riot ringleader as an innocent man and a deadly, barroom brawler as a victim of self-defense.
Many of his characters are shady figures whose life choices have placed them in a realm somewhere between this world and the next. Trouble shadowed their lives and ultimately put them at odds with proper society. Yet each has shared one common thread: Isaacs’ unyielding belief in their innocence.
He tells his tales in the courtroom, where the defense trial lawyer is a master storyteller. He crafts accounts from the facts and evidence he meticulously gathers, and presents them, warts and all, for the jury to consider.
“I’ve seen video clips of some of his trials, and have studied some of his trial transcripts and techniques,” said Charlie Abourezk, a civil lawyer in Rapid City, S.D. “I’m fully aware of his defense of Gene Leroy Hart (in Mayes County) and his work in the Santa Fe prison riot case. Without a doubt, he’s probably the toughest counsel lawyer in the U.S. He’s a legend.”
Abourezk once studied under Isaacs at Wyoming’s Trial Lawyers College — an institution founded in 1993 by noted defense attorney Gerry Spence. Since then, Abourezk and Isaacs have become more than friends, or as Abourezk described, “brothers below the skin.”
A few years ago, Isaacs received the honor of being asked to attend the Lakota’s sacred Hunka ceremony (the making of a relative) for Abourezk’s then-15-year-old son, Jamil. Isaacs humbly accepted the invitation.
“Garvin is a man of high integrity,” Abourezk said. “With somebody like Garvin, you have to look at the long arc of his career and the ethical manner in which he has always handled his cases. You will find no one more ethical.”
Isaacs, 65, is currently representing Bobbi Parker, who has been charged with helping convicted murderer Randolph Franklin Dial escape from the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite in the nowinfamous Aug. 30, 1994, breakout. A public debate swirled around whether Parker — the wife of the prison’s then-deputy warden, Randy Parker — was a willing participant.
The controversy resurfaced in April 2005, when federal lawmen found Dial and Parker living together on an East Texas chicken farm. Parker claimed she had been kidnapped, and held against her will for more than a decade — a claim prosecutors found dubious at best.
Parker will now get her day in court in January, and she will do so with Isaacs by her side. He accepted her case in late 2008 after she had already been ordered to stand trial.
“Why did I take Bobbi Parker’s case?” Isaacs said. “Because she’s an innocent women who has been falsely accused.”
As for the gritty details, he will save those for a Greer County jury. He promised a heart-wrenching story unlike any he’s ever encountered.
“Garvin feels like that’s what he’s been put here to do: Defend lives … help the little guys,” said Nancy Zerr, Isaacs’ law partner. “That’s in his DNA.”
In March 1979, Isaacs successfully defended Gene Leroy Hart in the 1977 murder of three Girl Scouts at Camp Scout near Locust Grove.
The three girls from the Tulsa area — Lori Lee Farmer, 8; Michelle Guse, 9; and Doris Denise Milner, 10 — were each bound, raped and strangled in the middle of the night. The next morning, a counselor found two of the dead girls in their sleeping bags, and the third nearby, sprawled across her bag.
Camp Scott closed that day among the shock and mayhem, and never reopened. Today, it remains a ghostly monument to the youths. The woods have reclaimed most of the camp’s buildings.
Hart, meanwhile, has never been forgotten.
THE RIGHT TO BE DEFENDED
A full-blooded Cherokee, Hart was 34 at the time of the Girl Scout murders and had been described in a 1978 article in The Oklahoman as a “physical specimen” with “about 18-inch biceps.” He reportedly had been sighted in the Cookson Hills after his 1973 escape from the Mayes County jail, where he had been awaiting trial related to other convictions.
Acquaintances described him as an experienced woodsman, who despite being a convicted rapist, kidnapper and burglar, was warmly regarded as a high school football hero among many in Locust Grove. According to a separate 1978 article in The Oklahoman, 400 people attended a fundraiser to support Hart, who had become the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s prime suspect from the outset of the 1977 murders.
Statewide, few believed in his innocence. Isaacs was one of those few. He believed his client was unjustly on trial, fighting for his life.
Isaacs won the case, but Hart then was returned to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester to finish sentences for burglary, rape and kidnapping convictions. Less than three months after his acquittal, Hart dropped dead of an apparent heart attack — a death some called “Cherokee justice.”
Still, Isaacs defends Hart’s right to be defended, even if it cast him in an unpopular light.
“My heart will always go out to the families of those three little girls,” Isaacs said. “But Gene Leroy Hart did not commit those murders. We presented evidence that showed Hart was at his uncle’s home at 13th Street in Tulsa at the time of the murders. He was a scapegoat for the OSBI.”
Where others saw a ruthless killer, Isaacs saw a man in the sawmill of injustice.
“Garvin can’t stand injustice,” said Robert R. Rose III, a civil attorney and friend from Cheyenne, Wyo. “He has no tolerance for bullies, and will fight to the end for those who are powerless to fight their own battles.
He is a world-class trial lawyer, and one of my heroes.”
Isaacs is a product of a childhood in Apache, a small, Caddo County town where ethnic diversity existed long before federal laws forced the issue. A worn, yellowed photograph of his 1963 high school football team tells the story: Max Silverhorn, Gary Henson, Sylvester Williams, Doug Weryakwe … blacks, whites and American Indians mingled as one.
Down at Mutt’s Club, Isaacs could be found in those days shooting pool with Geronimo’s cousin, the elderly Jason Betzinez. Or he might be seen at The Dairy Mill, inhaling a cheeseburger and fries with his pals — a rainbow coalition of youngsters who didn’t know the meaning of class distinction.
“None of us had any money back then so we didn’t think in those terms,” Isaacs said. “I really didn’t even know what prejudice was until I went away to college.”
He earned a basketball scholarship to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. While traveling there, he was first exposed to the ugliness of discrimination. The experience had a profound effect on him as he delved deeper into the study of law and the meaning of “justice for all.”
Nowadays he often harkens back to sleepy, summer days at his grandfather C.W. Holman’s house in Gotebo, now a forgotten town in Kiowa County. Holman served as the town’s justice of the peace, and routinely preached the importance of the law to his impressionable grandson. Once, he took Isaacs to the county courthouse in Hobart for a jury selection. A black man was on trial for the rape of a white woman.
“I was just a kid then, but I can still remember that man’s eyes,” Isaacs said. “Pure fear.”
‘MAN OF CONVICTION’
Isaacs intentionally surrounds himself with stories of such fear to bolster his knowledge of the world around him. He does so with a vast collection of nonfiction books, most of which are historical works about legendary legal cases, philosophy and biographies of courageous men and women. The volumes fill the numerous bookcases at his hacienda-style Oklahoma City home, as well as his mind.
Recently, Isaacs plucked “Old Man Eloquent,” the 1932 biography of John Quincy Adams, from one of those cases. He thumbed to the back of the book, to the climactic scene where Adams delivers his triumphant closing argument to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1841 defense of the La Amistad Africans who revolted against their Spanish captors. Isaacs passionately began to recite Adams’ words, only he wasn’t looking at the text.
Garvin feels like that’s what he’s been put here to do: Defend lives, help the little guys.
He seemed to be reading from his heart.
“Garvin is an epic reader,” Zerr said. “He is relentless in the pursuit of details, and he won’t stop until he feels he knows all the information. That’s part of what makes him a great storyteller. He can relate that story to the jury like no one I’ve ever seen.”
Abourezk added one important point: “You can’t fake that kind of passion. That’s what makes Garvin great. It’s real.”
Harold Gene Weatherly has a firsthand understanding of that sincerity. He served more than 15 years in prison for the near-fatal stabbing of an Oklahoma City woman, and since has received a pardon from Gov. Brad Henry. The FBI released a report that showed former Oklahoma City Police chemist Joyce Gilchrist incorrectly matched fibers on tennis shoes from his home with a rug in the victim’s home. Despite the report, former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy never publicly acknowledged Gilchrist’s tragic error.
Through it all, Isaacs championed Weatherly’s innocence, hailing him as “a man of conviction” when few would speak in his defense.
“I think Garvin is different from most attorneys,” Weatherly said. “For a lot of attorneys, it’s about the dollar. With Garvin, it’s about justice.
He doesn’t pull any punches when justice is at stake. He’s a good man.”
Ultimately, Rose hopes that’s how his friend is remembered.
“My father and Garvin were great friends,” Rose said. “Once, my father was taking pictures outside Casper, Wyo., on the Platte River. He was out in the middle of nowhere when he stumbled over a rock the size of a basketball. But it was no ordinary rock. My father noticed there was an inscription chiseled onto the stone: ‘Boaz — A Good Horse.’ “My father took a picture and sent it to Garvin. Here was a cowboy who left this profound epitaph to his trusty horse. My father and Garvin often sat around and talked about that epitaph, and they could think of no greater honor. I think that’s how Garvin should be remembered: simply as a good man.”