Jack Reavis's three-part series on Rex Brinlee explores the life of one of Tahlequah's most notorious criminals.
The article is serialized from a seminar paper Reavis wrote in an American Studies Seminar while a graduate student at Northeastern. A longer version of the biographical sketch of Brinlee appeared in the summer 2013 issue of the Chronicles of Oklahoma.
Notorious Tahlequah citizen Rex Brinlee described as 'bad seed'
The first in a three-part series on Brinlee
By Jack Reavis/TDP Special Writer
Garland Rexford Brinlee Jr., reputed to be a most notorious citizen in Tahlequah's 175-year history, was a "bad seed, always getting into trouble," according to his mother.
Born in 1933, he dropped out of high school, worked as a plumber, and augmented his income in a variety of creative ways. He claimed that at one time he owned the third-largest plumbing contracting business in Tulsa and considered himself a business success.
In 1963, court testimony indicated he and two employees from his ranch near Chelsea used his Cessna to locate a silo unloader later found in his barn. Although he claimed he had no knowledge of how it came to be there, cattle seemed to have been acquired in a similar way. Never reticent, Brinlee wore a belt proclaiming himself "Mayes County Flying Bandit."
He was arrested for cattle rustling and stealing a truck and was convicted for the larceny of livestock in Mayes County. Although he was sentenced to three years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, in 1965, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the sentence on a technicality before he served a single day. Subsequent charges of cattle rustling and possession of stolen property in five counties were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.
"I got the idea of going to Tahlequah while the cattle thing was going on," he explained. "They needed housing for students at Northeastern State College, so I went there and put up a 38-room apartment house."
In Tahlequah, despite conflicts with established merchants, he claimed to have invested almost half a million dollars in the city, including a nightclub.
Listing investments there, in Mayes County, and in Tulsa, Brinlee claimed, "I've come a long way since I was 15."
The "Flying Bandit" could be charming, but he had a sinister side. He compared himself to a rattlesnake.
"I won't come looking to bother you, but if you bother me, you'll hear my rattles."
Perhaps Cherokee County Assistant District Attorney William "Bill" Bliss bothered Brinlee, for in June 1969, Bliss' truck blew up as he started it in his driveway. Bliss received lacerations to his face and stomach. his daughter, Angie, who was playing in the garage, was also injured and suffered temporary loss of hearing. Brinlee was questioned and released.
A Muskogee federal grand jury convened in August of 1969 to investigate the Bliss bombing and called Brinlee and another suspect, Vemon English, to testify. Although no one was ever convicted in the attempt of Bliss's life, his wife, Joyce, said, " I think he (Brinlee) was in on it with three or four other bad people in the area."
Mrs. Bliss mentioned Leo Lowry, who was found beaten to death at a rural nightclub east of Tahlequah, and Vemon English as possible accomplices.
Brinlee later admitted to Bill Bliss: "They messed up yours and all the others but when I do it, I have it done right."
Bliss said that Brinlee knew who had planted the bomb, but would not disclose that information.
Mrs. Bliss described Brinlee as "a snake! An awful man!" She surmised, "Bill was raiding and closing up the clubs they were running illegally and that made him a target."
She claimed, "Bill got him to tell the agents that he did it." bliss explained this admission was made during conversations between her husband and Brinlee.
On Saturday, Oct. 7, 1970, Don Bolding of Bristow, his wife, and his daughter were at the Swinson Chevrolet dealership in Tulsa, where he recognized Brinlee looking at a Chevrolet pickup with a camper attached. The vehicle vanished later that day, but two months later, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. Don Menzer pulled it over near Tahlequah because of information from the Oklahoma State Crime Bureau.
State law officers and the chief of the Tahlequah Police Department, Gene Bolding - Don's brother - verified that the vehicle had been stolen. Brinlee was charged, and a trail was set for Feb. 5, 1971, with Don Bolding subpoenaed to appear as a witness for the state.
Three days before Bolding was to testify, his wife Fern, a Bristow kindergarten teacher, went to warm up the truck her husband usually drove. When she turned the key in the ignition, a bomb detonated and forced her over the house and into the yard of the next-door neighbor, as her 5 year-old daughter, Kim, watched television inside. The Tahlequah nightclub owner was later quoted as saying Mrs. Bolding's death was a case of "the wrong horse in the stall."
Just weeks after burying his wife, Don Bolding testified at Brinlee's trail, placing him at the Chevrolet dealership. On April 22, 1971, after three hours of deliberation, a jury found Brinlee guilty of the October pickup theft. As the jury reported the verdict, Brinlee showed no emotion. Associate District Judge Robert F. Martin set bail at $7,500 and formal sentencing for April 30, when Brinlee received 4-12 years in prison.
Before the bolding bombing, a Tulsa county grand jury had convinced to investigate crime in the area particularly, the activity of Alber McDonald, of Glenpool, and Tom Lester Pugh, of Collinsville, part of the so-called "Little Dixie Mafia," a loosely organized group of criminals in several southern states including northeastern Oklahoma.
While the investigation was underway, the grand jury expanded its scope to include the Bolding bombing. Waiting in the hall of the courthouse to be called before the grand jury, Brinlee talked openly about encounters with the law to Daily Oklahoman staff writer James Johnson. On Feb. 15, 1971, Brinlee emphatically denied any role in the bombing of Bolding.
Shortly after the Bristow bombing, threats were made against Associate District Judge Bill Bliss, Cherokee County Sheriff August Martin, and Tahlequah Chief of Police Gene Bolding. Given other bombings and deaths of witnesses called by the Tulsa grand jury, law enforcement officials took the threats seriously.
Tahlequah businessman Jim McSpadden owned a propane gas company that supplied Brinlee's Hereford Steak House, a bar called "The Keg," and a dance hall known as "The Library." McSpadden recounted a conversation with Brinlee, who had fallen behind in his payments.
"One day I was driving by his steak house and I saw a competitor's gas truck putting propane in our tank. I went to the office and I called Rex and said 'Rex, you can't be doing that.' He asked me if I was 'aware of all the bombings in the area,' in which I replied, 'Yes,' and then said, 'I've always wondered what a kind of explosion a couple sticks of dynamite would make under a large propane tank.' I told him, 'Rex, you take all the time you need to pay me my money and if you get low on propane let me know.' I hung up the phone."
Tahlequah Daily Press, February 1, 2015
The life and crimes of Rex Brinlee: Part 2
Editor's note: This is the second of a three articles on Tahlequah's infamous criminal, Garland Rexford Brinlee Jr. It is based on this authors' research into Brinlee's notorious background. The series concludes next Sunday as part of the Tahlequah Daily Press' weekly look back at the historic highlights of Tahlequah since its establishment in 1839.
By Jack Reavis/ TDP Special Writer
On June 4, 1971, Rex Brinlee was driving on State Highway 82 south of Tahlequah, free on bond, awaking appeal on his truck theft conviction. He was pulled over by state police officers and arrested for the murder of the Bristow woman who died when a bomb exploded as she started her husband's truck more than a year earlier.
Brinlee did not resist, although officers found a .38 caliber handgun under the driver's seat. The Tahlequah nightclub owner told the officers, "I don't see how you can charge me with murder when I wasn't there." Although he claimed he had been set up by political enemies, business rivals, and law enforcement officials, he was bound over for trial and remained in jail without bond.
Because Brinlee claimed he could not get a fair hearing in Creek County, his trail began on Monday, Nov 15, 1971, in Okmulgee with District Judge Jess I. Miracle presiding. During its course, drama unfolded within and beyond the courtroom.
On the first day of testimony, a bench warrant was issued for Ralph Hinkle, a former employee of Brinlee, for failing to answer a subpoena. Hinkle was to appear as a key witness for the prosecution. the trial continued as officials searched for the missing witness. State prosecutors were "highly disturbed" over his disappearance because several witnesses in other cases involving members of the "Little Dixie Mafia" - a loosely knit criminal group - had died violently before they could testify.
Hinkle was arrested in California in March 1972 on armed robbery charges and returned to Oklahoma, where he pleaded guilty to possessing the explosives used in the truck bombing, identified as the only eyewitness, Hinkle was closely guarded by federal officials who feared for his safety.
As the Brinlee murder trial got underway, a jury member's wife received a phoned death threat. The all-male jury was sequestered in an Okmulgee hotel and guarded by court bailiffs. Law officers who testified at the trial said the bomb was meant for the brother of the Tahlequah police chief, who Brinlee claimed had persuaded his brother to give false testimony.
Early testimony in the trial focused on how Brinlee bragged about calling "up north" to have the bombing done. Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Paul Ferguson called witness after witness to support the assertion that Brinlee meant to blow up a witness to prevent him from testifying in the truck theft case.
Bill Bliss, by this time an associate district judge, testified that Brinlee had told him he "had not done mine. They messed up yours and all the others, but when I do it, I have it done right." Mrs. Judith Brazinsky, a newswomen for a Tulsa television station, told the court that during a phone conversation, Brinlee stated he had called the "main man" with ties to the Mafia to provide a "hit man."
The state's final witness, James Johnson, a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman, swore that Brinlee had told him he had the bomb placed in the truck. the Oklahoma City newsman added that Brinlee said, "I tell you, if you put this in the newspaper, I'll do everything I can to kill you."
the reporter also testified that Brinlee believed he was being harassed by law enforcement and stated, "10 others are going to fly over the roof," which Johnson said included one person in Muskogee, two in Tulsa and seven in Tahlequah. After four days of testimony by 39 witnesses, mostly federal and state law officers, Assistant Attorney General Ferguson rested the stat's case.
Mike Miller, the first witness for the defense, testified that Brinlee had denied any knowledge about the bombing death. Under cross-examination, however, Miller disclosed that Birnlee had admitted to a role in it.
In lengthy testimony, Brinlee took the stand in his own defense. Asked about the statements he had made to the various witnesses who testified that he was responsible for the murder, Brinlee insisted that his comments had been twisted. In the climactic moment in his testimony, Brinlee acknowledged he claimed he had caused the bombing to happen: asked why, the witness snapped, "to get that bunch of idiots off me so I can get on about my business."
On Friday, afternoon, Nov. 19, 1971, the jury retired to begin deliberations after a week of testimony. In less than three hours, it returned, and Brinlee was found guilty of murder. In instructing the jury concerning sentencing, Judge Miracle authorized it to consider the death penalty, but the 12 men opted for a life sentence. On Nov. 29, the judge sentenced Brinlee to life imprisonment.
As an inmate at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Brinlee was described as a likeable, intelligent guy who bragged a lot. he was "a hard worker and at times could be a model prisoner." The convicted murder was considered by some prison officials and inmates to be part of the "Little Dixie Mafia."
One prison employee recalled, "When Brinlee first entered the prison, he established himself as someone who had to be dealt with; someone you had to respect." The connections he claimed to have on the outside initially bought him some power and influence.
In the early years of his incarceration, Brinlee was disciplined for threatening a member of the medical staff, possessing a knife and a .25 caliber handgun, and fighting with an inmate in the yard. he was also written up for unauthorized entry into an industrial area of the prison, cutting the bars off four doors in the area of the electric chair with a torch, and concealing homemade handcuff keys in a deodorant can.
Frustrated in his attempts to secure a reversal of the decisions against him, Brinlee sent the warden a letter threatening to burn down the prison's law library. Although his attempts to secure freedom through the courts were not productive, conditions at the prison offered another avenue to freedom in the summer of 1973.
The penitentiary had been designed for approximately 1,100 inmates, but in the summer of 1973, it housed some 2,200 prisoners. Oklahoma Gov. David Hall's refusal to sign parole recommendations for drug offenders contributed to its overcrowding, and poorly paid, inadequately trained employees and correction officers made the situation within the prison even worse, Conditions in Oklahoma's prison system were called "shameful and disgraceful" by a federal judge.
On Friday, July 27, 1973, prison officials believed about 15 prisoners with knives moved into the prison yard, trying to recruit others to join in an uprising. the precise sequence of events is murky, but the outcome was one of the worst prison riots in the nation's history. In the confusion, Rex Brinlee, who had been identified as on of the instigators, escaped. The news caused concern throughout Northeastern Oklahoma, particularly in Tahlequah, where many of those Brinlee blamed for his problems began to take seriously threats made against them.
Jack Reavis, a local freelance writer, authored the above story. It was edited for historical accuracy by Dr. Brad Agnew, a history professor at Northeastern State University.
Tahlequah Daily Press, February 8, 2015
The life and crimes of Rex Brinlee: Part 3
By Jack Reavis/TDP Special Writer
Editor's note: this is the third of three articles on Tahlequah's infamous criminal, Garland Rexford Brinlee Jr. It is based on the authors' research into Brinlee's notorious background.
Rex Brinlee had promised to settle old scores. Intent on fleeing the state, the fugitive could not resist taunting those he blamed. He called his defense attorney in his murder trial, Thomas Dee Frasier, the day after his escape was made public.
Fraiser's secretary answered the phone and was told, " Tell him that Rex Brinlee called."
About six months before his escape, Brinlee had threatened to kill Fraiser and others on a "get even list." His grievance against his former attorney concerned a $50,000 mortgage on the Tahlequah apartments Brinlee used as security for fees incurred in his defense. Fraiser sold the buildings when his client defaulted on the note.
During the escape, several people in the Tahlequah area made themselves scarce because of Brinlee's threats. Jim McSpadden said there were roadblocks on the highways, were officers were stopping and checking everyone's cars and looking in trunks.
Robert "Bob" Medearis, an Oklahoma state senator and Tahlequah businessman, was also on Brinless's get-even list. he had arranged the loan fro Brinlee to build his apartments just north of Northeastern State College. After Brinlee's escape, the Highway Patrol provided Medearis 24-hour protection. Many less prominent members of the community would have liked similar protection.
Brinlee and Patrick A. Fleming, an OSP inmate who also escaped during the riot, had stolen a car in Marshall, Texas. Stopped by police in Shreveport La., Fleming identified himself as "James Arthur" and told police that his companion, "Burrell Johnson," was just along for the ride. When Marshall authorities said they only had business with Fleming, the Shreveport police released "Johnson." A few hours later, they realized the man they had freed was Brinlee.
The manhunt shifted toward the Gulf Coast, particularly Port Arthur, Texas. An official from the Orange County, Texas, sheriff's office reported that Brinlee was stopped Wednesday on a motorbike. He gave the officer a false name, received a ticket for not having a driver's license, and was sent on his way.
After evading arrest in Orange Country, Brinlee made his way to Biloxi, Miss. There Mrs. Norman Bleuler provided room and board for the Oklahoma fugitive.
Later, his landlady told reporters, "He said he didn't have any papers because his station wagon had been stolen in Houston and that he had lost ... everything he had. He showed me the bill of sale from Port Arthur, Texas, on his Honda to impress me that he hadn't stolen it."
Brinlee assumed the name Robert Foreman. At first, he did small maintenance jobs around the Bleuler property in exchange for room and board. He found work at Lank Patterson Plumbing and Heating Contracting Co. near the rooming house, and quickly established himself as a dependable worker.
Brinlee told Mrs. Bleuler he was hiding from his wife, who was trying to take all his property in a divorce; later, he discussed plans for getting even.
"One time he was talking about his lawyer and he said he was going to have a different trial. He knows I'll get him," Bleuter recounted.
In a few weeks, Brinlee mentioned plans about going home. "He asked my husband to buy him a rifle to carry on his motorcycle," Bleuler said, and added, "I told my husband when he leaves at the end of the month, I don't want him back."
She did not have to wait long for her lodger's departure.
Tuesday morning, Sept. 18, 1973, shortly after 21-year-old Ronald Herbert picked up Foreman (Brinlee) in on his way to work, agents of the FBI, using a taxicab, and Biloxi police officers surrounded Hebert's truck.
In describing the capture, Herbert reported, "Then those two FBI agents in the taxicab go in front of us and the truck was surrounded all at once. Bob said, 'That's OK. they want me.'" The Biloxi chief of police, who knew Herbert, instructed him to turn off the engine and "slide out of the truck." Brinlee was taken into custody without incident after 45 days of freedom.
After confirming that Robert Foreman was Rex Brinlee, extradition was arranged, and he was returned to Big Mac and confined to "The Rock," the maximum-security lockup. Punishment did not deter Brinlee's desire to escape.
In July 1974, he was 1/16th of an inch from freedom. Brinlee had managed to cut a 14-inch square hole almost completely through the steel plate in the back of his cell. The cut marks were smeared with soap and touched up to match the wall.
A guard searching Brinlee's cell noticed a hacksaw blade concealed in the crevice of the cut-out. If Brinlee had finished sawing the remaining segment of steel, he could have made his way to the roof and escaped.
In January 1975, an inmate threatened with death by Brinlee and his cronies disclosed an escape plan involving the Tahlequah prisoner and five others. Warden Richard A. Crisp had used Brinlee's plumbing skills to remodel the execution chamber, where the electric chair was housed. When guards searched the area, the found bars in a window cut with a torch and foiled the escape plan.
The hopes and speculation were wrong. Brinlee was not only still in the state, he was not far from the penitentiary. Stopping at the Jones Crocery in Canadian, Okla., a small rural Lake Eufaula community, C.A. Pearce was on his day off from his job in the OSP infirmary.
Brinlee was in the store drinking a pop and eating some chips. The men recognized each other, and Brinlee agreed to give himself up. His willingness to surrender to an unnamed prison employee was explained by Warden Crisp, who said, "The chiggers and ticks have got him pretty bad. He was admitted to the prison hospital later for treatment of the insect bites and, upon release, will be placed in maximum custody."
In 1979, Brinlee still had connections on the outside and still harbored grudges. The lawyer for his ex-wife, Patrick Williams, was driving on a Tulsa street when a blasting cap attached to the car's fuel tank detonated. The tank did not explode because it was full. Williams, who had been threatened by Brinlee before, said he had a "few ideas" who might be responsible, but said nothing further.
In May 1984, the prison received a tip that Brinlee and another inmate had weapons and intended to escape "and kill some people." The day of the planned breakout prison officials searched Brinlee's cell where they found a knife, a .25-caliber handgun and 12 rounds of ammunition. Brinlee and his accomplices, assisted by a disgruntled prison guard, had planned to hijack a truck and pass through the prison gates disguised as food-service personnel. With his plan revealed, the only gate Brinlee went through was on his way back to maximum security.
As he grew older, Brinlee's power waned, according to a prison official, but in 1992, he was disciplined for fighting, perhaps to maintain his reputation as a prisoner to be respected. He appeared before the parole board on more than a dozen cases without success, and remained in the maximum-security prison 38 years.
As his health failed, Brinlee was moved from McAlester to St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa. Although he was dying of congestive heart failure, a guard remained in the hospital room with him, and another was stationed in the hallway outside his door. Rex Brinlee died on Dec. 18, 2009, at age 76, maintaining to the end his innocence in the bombing.
Upon learning of Brinlee's death, the wife of the police chief told Joyce Bliss, "I don't think any of us will shed a whole lot of tears."
Jack Reavis, a local freelance writer, authored the above story. It was edited for historical accuracy by Dr. Brad Agnew, a history professor at Northeastern State University.
Tahlequah Daily Press, February 15, 2015