It will be a while before Kelli Weimer finds out if she was successful.
For more than a month she and a handful of friends and family members have canvassed Okemah and other rural towns in tiny Okfuskee County collecting signatures with the hope of seating a grand jury.
When Weimer goes to the Okfuskee County Courthouse on Friday afternoon, she’ll turn in about about 600 signatures — 100 or so more than the required number — in the hope of empaneling a grand jury to look into her boyfriend’s death.
While the fact that she collected more signatures than necessary fills her with hope, it’s no sure thing. Some percentage of those are bound to be invalid — either some of the signatures will be illegible, or they won’t actually belong to registered voters of Okfuskee County, a statutory requirement.
So for now, she waits. She said she’s not sure when she’ll find out if her efforts — hundreds of hours of time and hundreds of miles walked — were enough.
“We just have to cross our fingers,” she said.
If there eventually is a grand jury, it will be tasked with deciding whether the Okfuskee County deputy violated the law when he shot and killed James Coale.
Coale was driving his black pickup truck last November near his home in Okfuskee County when he encountered a deputy named Blake Frost. Frost, the Okfuskee County Sheriff’s Office said, was investigating a stabbing and just happened to be looking for a pickup that matched the description of the one Coale was driving.
According to the statement Frost gave OCSO investigators, Coale, who was not the suspect in the stabbing (a man named Joshua Williams was later arrested in that case), tried to hit the deputy with his vehicle. Frost opened fire, striking Coale in the arm and back of the head, according to an autopsy report.
Coale died from the headshot.
Although the autopsy showed that Coale was shot from behind, Okfuskee County District Attorney Max Cook declined to file charges against the deputy, announcing about three months later that the shooting was “regretful,” but that Frost was not guilty of any “cognizable criminal action.”
Frost, who resigned from the Sheriff’s Office shortly after the shooting, could not be reached for comment. Cook could not comment on the pending case.
An indictment against Frost would be an extreme rarity in a state that has seen few criminal charges levied against officers involved in fatal on-duty shootings. For instance, Tulsa police have killed 11 people in the last 12 months, but only one case has resulted in a criminal charge. That officer, Betty Shelby, was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter in May.
There has been only one successful recent case against an officer involved in an on-duty shooting. Reserve Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Robert Bates was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in 2016 after killing Eric Harris during a botched sting operation.
After Coale was killed, Weimer was determined to continue her boyfriend’s story.
“I wanted to get justice for him, or at least try,” Weimer said. “I wanted his death to mean something.”
She said she gets chills when she looks at the list of signatures she’s collected in the last six weeks. To empanel a grand jury, she needs to get a minimum of 500 valid signatures from people registered to vote in Okfuskee County. Considering the county only has 5,501 registered voters, that’s a tall order.
“I wanted to get 650 or 700 (signatures,)” Weimer said. “But I’m really proud of what we’ve done, considering for the most part it’s just been me and a couple other people walking around on foot out here every day. But the momentum has really started to pick up the last week or so, and we’ve had a lot more interest in what we’re doing.”
For the last few days, she has been posted up at the Okemah Car Wash, which she said graciously signed off with the city to allow her to collect signatures there.
“By now most everyone here knows what we’re doing, so it’s been really positive,” she said.
She added: “It’s been really difficult (since Coale was killed,) but it’s been encouraging seeing the support and the people who are behind us. I’ve had people contact me with similar stories and say I gave them the encouragement to go and try to do what we’re doing. I’ve had people who I consider to be braver than me tell me how brave I am and that I’ve inspired them. I wanted James’ death to mean something, and to help people, and I feel like it has.”