A part of the transcript from the 1986 murder trial for Joe Allison.

For many weeks after Joe Allison died, his ashes sat in Scott Blackburn’s office.

Allison, who served in the Vietnam War, had returned to Tulsa after a 30-year prison stint for murder and had been introduced to Blackburn, who runs a coffee shop dedicated to supporting homeless veterans.

He had trouble with technology, but the 69-year-old ex-convict was good at organization, and he stored important names, addresses and phone numbers in a ledger. He listed Blackburn as his emergency contact.

But when Allison died, the ledger went missing. His family blamed the Tulsa Police Department, which investigated Allison’s death (it was later determined to be of natural causes.) Whatever the reason for the ledger’s disappearance, the result was that no one knew how to reach Allison’s surviving family members.

By the time Blackburn found out, most of Allison’s personal effects had been donated to the Salvation Army. All that was left was the man’s ashes.

So they sat on Blackburn’s desk while he tried to figure out what to do with them. Finally he decided that if he couldn’t find Allison’s family, he’d raise money for an urn and have the man laid to rest in Fort Gibson, at a military cemetery surrounded by American flags.

Allison may have committed a terrible crime, but Blackburn figured he at least deserved a proper burial.

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The killing
It was just before midnight on Jan. 8, 1986, when Allison dialed 911. He was crying as he spoke to Cathy Tucker, a dispatcher working the graveyard shift for the Tulsa Police Department.

They talked for seven or eight minutes, but the important information came early in the phone call. In a tape prosecutors played for jurors, Allison told Tucker he had shot and killed someone.

In fact, Allison was still on the phone with Tucker when first responders arrived. The gun was sitting on a nearby sofa, and Rosann Hill’s body was in the hallway. She had been shot with a “large caliber” weapon in the mouth, EMSA paramedic Jesse Beaucage told jurors, and blood and brain matter covered the floor.
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Beaucage said Allison was “very upset,” but admitted that Hill was his girlfriend and that he’d shot her.

“I embraced him, to comfort him a little bit, calm him down,” Beaucage told jurors.

The jury needed only 33 minutes before sentencing Allison to life in prison.

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Release from prison
Life sentences in Oklahoma don’t necessarily work the way people might think. State statutes at the time dictated that his “life” sentence would amount to a maximum of 60 years behind bars. Since Allison was 39 years old when he entered Oklahoma Department of Corrections custody, that should have sufficed.

But there was no “85 percent” rule then like there is now. State law requires that individuals convicted of certain crimes — like murder — serve 85 percent of their sentences before even being considered for parole. Allison mostly stayed out of trouble over the years, outside of being charged and convicted of committing battery on a staff member in 2004, and eventually racked up enough credits to be paroled in 2016.

His newfound freedom was met with some pushback. Hill’s daughter, Valerie Hill, spoke with NewsOn6 reporter Lori Fullbright last October and said Allison’s release filled her with enough dread that she attempted suicide. Only 10 years old at the time of her mother’s death, Valerie Hill said she attempted to stay home from school the day of the killing. Her mother forced her to go to school, though, which she told Fullbright probably saved her life.

Nevertheless, Allison became a free man last March. He moved back to Tulsa, but his stay was short. About seven months after exiting prison, and on the same day the NewsOn6 story detailing his release was broadcast, Allison died alone in an east Tulsa apartment of cardiovascular disease.

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The Coffee Bunker
Intervening in Allison’s short post-prison existence was a Tulsa nonprofit called The Coffee Bunker. Founded to help homeless veterans, The Coffee Bunker began as a labor of love between two people who’d each lost ex-military family members to suicide. It had started in a small backroom of a south Tulsa Baptist church, but expanded to its own building near 41st Street and Yale Avenue.

From time to time, DOC will contact Coffee Bunker Executive Director Scott Blackburn to inform him of a soon-to-be released prisoner who plans on moving to Tulsa. Blackburn and his group then work to find that person shelter, pay some bills and sometimes find him a job.

That’s how he and Allison first met.

Allison traveled straight from prison to The Coffee Bunker, Blackburn said. And they were ready for him. The two began to fill out paperwork for things like housing, and disability and social security payments.

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It takes time to line up housing, but Blackburn didn’t want Allison to spend his first weeks of freedom in a homeless shelter, so he put the 68-year-old ex-con up in a motel for a couple of weeks.

They even hooked him up with a “life guide,” a man named Richard Boydston, who worked with Allison to help him get a driver’s license, and made sure he made required meetings.

“You’ve got to think: a lot had changed since Joe went in,” Blackburn said. “We just wanted to make sure he was back on his feet, that he had what he needed.”

Blackburn said Allison struggled with technology, and he spent months trying to learn how to use a cell phone and a computer. Ultimately, Allison decided he was more of a pen-and-paper kind of guy and kept a ledger with all the information he needed — things such as bus schedules and important phone numbers, like for his sister Jan Beal.

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Moving to Tulsa after prison
Beal, who lives in Marshall, Texas, was still in a Kansas high school when Allison joined the Navy. She married a military man, and they moved almost as a matter of routine, living in England and Germany for a time.

So she and Allison were rarely in the same place at the same time. She was living in Colorado Springs when her brother killed Rosann Hill, and, strangely enough, it wasn’t the only tragedy taking place at the time.

“My aunt in Wichita, Kansas, had died, and my dad was there for the funeral,” she said. “My dad was sick, he’d caught a virus while he was there, and they were afraid to tell him what had happened because he wasn’t feeling good.

“They called me and said, ‘We haven’t told daddy yet,’ and I got on a plane and flew there. By the time I landed, I guess they had already told him what happened.”

Beal said that although she was in Tulsa for her brother’s preliminary hearing and eventual trial and stayed in touch with him during his nearly 30 years in prison, she never found out why he killed Rosann Hill.

“As far as I know, he never talked about what he had done, or why,” she said. “I never asked him and he never talked about it. I always figured he would talk if he wanted to.”

She doesn’t know why Allison moved to Tulsa after being paroled. Beal said that although it held some dark memories for her brother, it also gave him a sense of familiarity he didn’t have anywhere else in the world.

Beal and her husband traveled to Tulsa after Allison got settled in his apartment, spending a week with her brother. He showed them places in Tulsa he’d lived or worked prior to going to prison; they showed him how to use a microwave, and bought him pots and pans, a rocking chair and a television.

“He really tickled us one day,” she said. “He got in my husband’s car, and it has navigation and all that kind of stuff in it. He looked at the console and said, ‘Are all cars like this now?’

“We kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, Joe, they’re all like this.’ He said, ‘I don’t want a car like this, I want one with seats that go all the way across.’ He was thinking of the cars he’d been in so long ago. We were just kind of like, ‘Good luck with that.’”

After about a week, Beal said, they felt like Allison was on good enough footing to survive. They headed back home to Texas, but not without giving their contact information to the apartment manager.

“Joe just wasn’t good with phones, so we told the manager that Joe probably couldn’t call us,” she said. “We told (the manager) to call us if Joe needed anything.”

They’d also met with Blackburn at The Coffee Bunker. Allison spent almost every day there, and was excited to introduce his biological family to his metaphorical one.

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Allison’s past
Allison was the oldest of five children — four boys and one girl — and was stubborn like his mother, Beal said.

He liked to fish and he played football. When Allison joined the Navy, Beal and her three younger brothers were all still in school.

“He always just kind of did his own thing,” Beal said.

Beal said she doesn’t know a lot about Allison’s time in the military. He did two tours, and she saw him once in San Diego. She eventually got married to a military man, and lived in Germany while he did two tours there.

She has a newspaper clip that shows a young, blonde-headed Allison wearing sunglasses, helping Vietnamese unload a ship in Da Nang, a port town in central Vietnam.

The sunglasses and haircut give Allison a much more striking appearance than his stock Navy photo, where his shaved head makes his protruding ears look much more prominent.

After leaving the military, Allison returned to Kansas, then moved to Arizona to help his ailing parents. Eventually he left and came to Tulsa for, as Beal suspects, a job opportunity.

He didn’t stop moving, even after being put in prison. Department of Corrections records show that once Allison went through his intake at the Lexington Correctional Center, he spent time at five other prisons (Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Dick Conner Correctional Center, Davis Correctional Facility, Mack Alford Correctional Center and the John Lilley Correctional Center.)

His prison time appears to have been mostly quiet, records show, outside of a 2004 felony charge for striking a female prison counselor at the Dick Conner Correctional Center, a medium security prison in Hominy. Records show Allison asked the counselor for the return of a laundry bag that was taken during a cell search, and was told to submit a formal written request.

He then punched the counselor three times. He pleaded guilty to the charge and received a two-year suspended sentence.

But his other misdeeds were minor. Once, in 1993, he was reprimanded for interfering with the daily inmate count. Three times he was reprimanded for a failure to follow orders. He got in trouble in 1992 for saying he needed to go see a medical office, but going to the canteen instead.

Allison also served as a reading tutor for other prisoners, DOC records show.

Beal said that Allison liked to run when he was young. That’s why he was such a good football player, she said.

Once he was behind bars, running wasn’t an option. But once paroled, he ran as often as he could.

“He was always so worried about his diabetes,” Beal said. “I think that’s why he kept running. He was afraid if he stopped, he’d one day lose feeling in his feet and then it would be too late and he couldn’t run anymore.”

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‘Now he’s with us’
Beal doesn’t remember the exact date of the last time she heard from her brother. She knows she asked if he could go to Colorado with her for Christmas to see her daughter last December.

After that conversation, she didn’t hear back from him. She called a few times, but he either didn’t answer, or the phone went to voicemail.

That, in and of itself, wasn’t unusual. Allison hadn’t mastered cell phone use and sometimes his battery lay dead for days. And maybe, Beal figured, he’d just gotten annoyed with it and turned it off.

“I kept trying and couldn’t get a hold of him,” she said. “But the phone was still active and it was still his voicemail on there, so I wasn’t really worried.”

Anyway, the two had spent the majority of their lives separated from each other, so long breaks in between contact weren’t a rarity.

But the lack of response started to nag at Beal, who finally sent her brother a Christmas card with a note that said “Call me.”

Eventually, the card was returned to her. Now she knew something was wrong.

“I called the apartment and they said Joe had died a couple months back,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

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But the apartment also gave her Blackburn’s number. Suddenly she remembered the trip they had taken to The Coffee Bunker with her brother when they visited Tulsa. She gave Blackburn a call, and sure enough, Allison’s ashes were still on his desk.

“Bless his heart, Scott went down to the Salvation Army and claimed his ashes,” Beal said. “So we came down and got them. I guess eventually we’re going to take his ashes to Fort Scott, where we were born, and bury him there.”

Joe Allison had a complicated story. He was a kid who turned into a military veteran who turned into a murderer who turned into a prisoner who turned into a bewildered ex-convict.

“But he had a family who cared about him,” Beal said. “And now he’s with us.”