'Premature' To Call Tulsa Shootings Hate Crimes

Apr 9, 2012
Originally published on April 9, 2012 9:15 am

Police in Tulsa, Okla., say it is much too early in their investigation to describe the murder of three black residents and the wounding of two others as a hate crime. Two men were arrested early Sunday morning and are expected to face charges of first-degree murder and shooting with intent to kill.

Soon after Friday's shooting, authorities reached out to the public for help. Police Maj. Walter Evans, the head of a task force looking into the murders, says information started pouring in shortly after that.

"The Crime Stopper tips were the biggest help to us," Evans says. "From that, we were able to develop some really good suspect information on those two suspects and other associates that were involved with them."

The suspects are Alvin Watts, 33, who is white according to court records, and Jake England, 19, who is identified in some records as white and in others as Native American. The men, who share a home, were arrested in Turley, which is north of Tulsa, on Sunday.

"When we first heard about this horrible event, it knocked all of us for a loop," says Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett. "It was a terrible, tragic event. Nothing ever like this has happened in this city in modern history."

Not in modern history, perhaps, but Tulsa is no stranger to racial tension. One of the country's most infamous race riots occurred here in 1921, and a prosperous black neighborhood called Black Wall Street was destroyed.

"Our hate groups are very spotty," says Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan. "We have them over the decades occasionally. We don't have them here to monitor them on a regular basis, and we feel fortunate about that."

The shooting caused a sense of unease in the mostly black community of North Tulsa, with people afraid to walk the streets. But officials are reluctant to call the killings racially motivated.

"This is where the really tough work starts in an investigation," says FBI agent James Finch. "This is where we can't afford to make mistakes. It is very premature to talk about hate crimes. We have yet to analyze all the information to understand the motivations of the subjects in this case."

Part of the investigation has focused on Facebook postings that appear to have been written by the 19-year-old suspect, and suggest revenge may have been a factor. The Facebook update has since been taken down, but Jake England had used a racial slur and angrily blamed a black man for his father's death two years ago. The posting said, "It's hard not to go off," given the anniversary and the death of his fiancee earlier this year.

But while others aren't ready to call the killings hate crimes, Councilman Jack Henderson is.

"Somebody that committed these crimes were very upset with black people. That person happened to be a white person. The people that they happened to kill and shoot were black people — that fits the bill for me," he says.

At North Peoria Church of Christ, people filled the sanctuary for the last Easter service of the day. The Rev. Warren Blakney, president of the Tulsa NAACP chapter, says he didn't want the families of the people who were killed to be lost in the shuffle of talk about the investigation.

"We spend so much time talking about the shooter or the shooters or the people who are responsible for the crime. ... I didn't want to miss the real momentum of why we were doing this, and that is the families. Three people are dead," Blakney says.

There has been praise for how quickly arrests were made in this case, and Councilman Henderson says that may even improve relations between Tulsa police and the black community.

"With the citizens' help, we may even do a better job of solving [past] crimes ... that are now unsolved crimes because people didn't come forward," Henderson says.

Officials say Tulsa's fast action could even be a model for other cities. But police caution that the case is not over, and there is much more to be investigated and analyzed.

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Transcript

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Police in Tulsa, Oklahoma say it is still too early in their investigation to describe the murder of three black residents and the wounding of two others last Friday as a hate crime. Two men were arrested early Sunday morning and are expected to face charges of first degree murder and shooting with intent to kill.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Once Tulsa authorities knew the awful problem they had on their hands, they held a press conference calling for help. Tulsa Police Major Walter Evans, the head of a task force looking into the murders, says shortly afterwards information started pouring in.

WALTER EVANS: The Crimestopper tips were the biggest help to us. From that we were able to develop some really good suspect information on those two suspects and other associates that were involved with them.

CORLEY: The suspects are 33-year-old Alvin Watts, who is white, according to court records, and 19-year-old Jake England, he's identified in some records as white and in others as Native American. The men, who share a home, were arrested about 2:00 a.m. Sunday in Turley, Oklahoma, just north of Tulsa.

MAYOR DEWEY BARTLETT: When we first heard about this terrible event, it knocked all of us for a loop.

CORLEY: That's Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett

BARTLETT: It was a terrible, tragic event. Nothing ever like this has happened like this in our city in modern history

CORLEY: Not modern history perhaps, but Tulsa is no stranger to racial tension. One of the country's most infamous race riots occurred here in 1921, and a prosperous black neighborhood called Black Wall Street was completely destroyed.

Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan says times have changed here.

CHUCK JORDAN: Our hate groups are very spotty. We have them over the decades occasionally. They're not something we have to even - we don't have them here to monitor them on a regular basis, and we feel fortunate about that.

CORLEY: The shootings caused a sense of unease in the mostly black community of North Tulsa, with people afraid to walk the streets. But officials here are reluctant to call the killings racially motivated.

James Finch is an Oklahoma FBI agent.

JAMES FINCH: This is where the really tough work starts in an investigation. This is where we can't afford to make mistakes. It is very premature to talk about hate crimes. We have yet to analyze all the information to understand the motivations of the subjects in this case.

CORLEY: Part of the investigation has focused on Facebook postings that appear to have been written by the 19-year-old suspect, and suggest that revenge may have been a factor. The Facebook update has since been taken down. But Jake England used a racial slur and angrily blamed his father's death, which occurred two years ago, on a black man. The posting said, quote, "It's hard not to go off, given the anniversary and the death of his fiancee earlier this year."

But while others aren't ready to call the killings hate crimes, Tulsa city councilman Jack Henderson is.

JACK HENDERSON: Somebody that committed these crimes were very upset with black people. That person happened to be a white person. The people that they happened to kill and shoot were black people - that fits the bill for me.

REVEREND WARREN BLAKNEY: Good evening, church.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Good evening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORLEY: At North Peoria Church of Christ, people continued to fill the sanctuary for the last Easter service of the day. Reverend Warren Blakney, the president of the Tulsa NAACP chapter, says he didn't want the families of the people who were killed to be lost in the shuffle of talk about the investigation.

BLAKNEY: We spend so much time talking about the shooter or the shooters, the people who are responsible for the crime, until I didn't want to miss the real momentum of why we were doing this. And that is the families. Three people are dead.

CORLEY: There is praise here for how quickly arrests were made in this case. And Councilman Henderson says it may even improve relations between Tulsa police and the black community.

HENDERSON: And with the citizens' help we may even do a better job of solving some of these crimes that in the past that are now unsolved crimes because people didn't come forward.

CORLEY: Officials add that Tulsa's fast action could even be a model for other cities. But police caution this case is not over and there is much more to be investigated and analyzed.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.