The gates of the Will Rogers Stampede Rodeo. SHANE BEVEL/The Frontier

The gates of the Will Rogers Stampede Rodeo. SHANE BEVEL/For The Frontier

Diana Thurman pulled her blouse down, tousled her bleached-blonde hair and strutted her boots inside the rodeo gates.

There he was, right at the entrance: Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton.

“Just the sonofabitch I was looking for,” she thought.

Diana went to the Will Rogers Stampede Rodeo in May 2014 to meet Walton, flirt and cause a scandal for the sheriff. She was also there as a 48-year-old mother desperate to help her son, who was jailed and facing serious prison time for repeated charges of drunken driving.

Diana believed she was there on marching orders, that if she followed through on plans to catch the sheriff’s eye, a certain Rogers County power couple might make her son’s mounting legal troubles go away.

Diana claims she was approached with an offer: “How far are you willing to go to help your son?”

Diana Thurman said she was offered a deal: Help us embarrass Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton and maybe someone can help your son avoid prison time. Just who made that offer and what it really involved is the subject of dispute. SHANE BEVEL/The Frontier

Diana Thurman said she was offered a deal: Help embarrass the sheriff and maybe your son can avoid prison time. Just who made that offer and what it really involved is one of many disputes concerning Rogers County politics. SHANE BEVEL/For The Frontier

A drinking problem
In October 2013, just five days after 26-year-old Justin Thurman signed a court document promising not to drink or break any laws as conditions of his eight-year probation for DUI, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol responded to a rollover accident in Mayes County.

Thurman was pinned in his red Chevy and first responders had to cut him out of the pickup. Witnesses told police he’d been driving erratically and passing everyone before his car flipped.

His breath smelled like booze. The patrolman noticed his speech was slurred.

Have you had anything to drink, the officer asked Thurman.

“If I said ‘nothing,’ would you believe me?” Thurman replied.

The officer found two empty half-gallon bottles of Barton’s gin, and another three-quarters full. A receipt in the vehicle showed one bottle was bought only a few hours earlier.

Thurman was so badly injured he was flown by helicopter to St. John Medical Center instead of being booked into jail.

His family and law enforcement officials agreed Thurman needed help.

In December 2013, he entered a treatment program at House of Hope, under the supervision of Rogers County drug court. But drug court officials pulled him out before the recommended six to nine months, his mother said. He moved into a home for sober living, and it wasn’t long before Justin Thurman resumed drinking.

In April 2014, he was arrested after police found him passed out drunk in the dressing room of a J.C. Penney in Claremore. They dragged him to Rogers County jail, where he would stay for the better part of a year.

How long it took to eventually get him into rehab may have been directly related to how far his mother was willing to go to help her son.

The story behind that story is essential to understanding just how much chaos and politics had consumed Rogers County.

Native sons
“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”

That quip is one of many brilliant bon mots by Rogers County’s famous native son, Will Rogers. Nearly everything here is a tribute to the beloved cowboy, entertainer and writer: statues, roads, rodeos.

His memorial museum sits high on a hill overlooking the town near his birthplace. This is where his father, Clement Van Rogers, served as a Cherokee senator and judge in the late 1800s.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the district was originally designated as Cooweescoowee County. The name was quickly changed to Rogers, in honor of Clement, and about 90,000 people now call the county home.

So much about the current wreckage in the county bearing Rogers’ name is like most relationships gone bad: It’s complicated.

In 2010, Janice Steidley was elected district attorney for Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties as a Democrat. She’d joined the District 12 prosecutor’s office in 1999, fresh out of law school, and worked her way up to serving as the drug court coordinator for several years.

Former Rogers County District Attorney Janice Steidley, who had contentious relations with law enforcement, was ousted after one term. Photo courtesy of NewsOn6

Former Rogers County District Attorney Janice Steidley, who had contentious relations with law enforcement, was ousted after one term. Photo courtesy of NewsOn6

In the meantime, she and her husband, Larry, formed the Steidley Law Firm in Claremore. Her cousin by marriage also remains the presiding district court judge in Rogers County.

Oklahoma has 27 judicial districts, but only three women currently serve as district attorneys.

Janice Steidley ran for district attorney, she told the Tulsa World in 2011, because she felt like there were issues, and she was “tired of it.”

“I’m a put-up-or-shut-up type of person,” Steidley said.

She was vocal about wanting to change the business-as-usual environment when she took office in District 12, and her strategy seemed to antagonize local law enforcement.

The clashes escalated quickly.

Claremore police were angry about a 2011 drug roundup where 70 people were initially arrested, but only 13 went to prison. Officers in Steidley’s district said they were solving crimes, but her office was frequently declining to file charges.

Steidley argued publicly the cops were simply bristling at her tougher legal standards: “We have other issues with law enforcement agencies where I have to hold them accountable for actions, and I don’t know if that’s something new that they’ve had to deal with since I’ve taken office, but that is something they’re gonna have to deal with while I’m in office.”

By 2013, it was obvious Steidley had irreconcilable differences with several key officials in her district: the sheriffs of Rogers and Craig counties, police in Catoosa, Inola, Claremore, Talala, Oologah, Pryor and Vinita, and the city manager and mayor of Claremore.

It became like a bad marriage where the couple has broken up, but can’t afford to divorce.

She’d started out the year by recusing herself from an investigation into perjury allegations against a Claremore police detective, John Singer. The attorney general assigned Rex Duncan, the district attorney of Osage and Pawnee counties, to look into the allegations.

12/11/15 12:49:55 PM -- Rogers County Shuffle. Photo by Shane Bevel

This statue of Will Rogers looks over the town of Claremore and the courthouse of the county bearing his family name. SHANE BEVEL/For The Frontier

By August 2013, pissed-off police in her district called a news conference, demanding an OSBI investigation of Steidley. Many helped circulate a petition for a grand jury investigation of the district attorney, her assistants and two county commissioners.

Scott Walton’s name was the second listed on the petition.

Walton is a veteran Tulsa police officer who was elected Rogers County Sheriff in 2008. He grew up in Claremore and his personal website touts his heritage as the great-grandson of a U.S. Marshal who patrolled the territory prior to statehood.

Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton was elected in 2008. Photo courtesy NewsOn6

Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton was elected in 2008.
Photo courtesy NewsOn6

His time serving as a Tulsa Police spokesman made him quite comfortable in the spotlight, and he even shilled for a local cash-for-gold company in TV ads for a time.

Walton took heat in 2010 for appearing in his sheriff’s uniform in those ads. Tulsa police commented in a newspaper story that the pawnshop had a track record of buying stolen jewelry and not entering the items in a police database.

With regard to the grand jury investigation, he told reporters: “We’re ready to shut up, sit down and get back to work if they’re not valid complaints.”

Steidley told local media she felt she was under attack by local law enforcement for trying to raise professional standards: “You have all these men, and then you have me.”

A few months later, a Tulsa County judge threw out the grand jury petition on a technicality.

The grand jury quest didn’t die with that judge’s decision, however.

Attorney General Scott Pruitt agreed in October 2014 to direct the state’s multicounty grand jury to examine claims of wrongdoing outlined in the petition, which was signed by nearly 7,000 voters.

The hunt
In Rogers County, even a deer hunting trip can end with allegations of witness tampering.

In late 2012, a game warden received an anonymous tip that two deer hunters killed a pair of whitetail bucks in Rogers County and had failed to check them into a game station as required by Oklahoma law.

The antlers were at Shrum’s Taxidermy in Claremore, and they didn’t have proper Oklahoma Department of Wildlife tags. The invoices traced back to two hunters, one of whom was married to District Attorney Janice Steidley. The other was her brother.

Witnesses said Janice Steidley instructed the game warden to investigate as he would “any other case,” and the District 12 office planned to recuse itself from prosecuting.

Due to the conflict, Pruitt appointed Eddie Wyant, the DA of some neighboring counties, to handle the case.

Wyant eventually worked out a deferred prosecution deal where the two hunters would each pay nearly $4,000 in fees.

But a few weeks before that happened, a friend of Larry Steidley’s reportedly showed up to talk to the owner of Shrum’s taxidermy and another witness. Steidley’s friend reportedly questioned witnesses: Are you sure it happened as the game warden’s report claims?

The rejected petition signed by voters in 2013 alleged this amounted to witness tampering by the Steidleys.

But the grand jury’s interim report later declared there wasn’t enough evidence to support that claim. Larry Steidley testified that he had discussed the case with Janice on a few occasions, despite her recusal.

According to the grand jury’s report, Janice Steidley had alleged in conversations with others that the game warden had lied about the tip that led to the discovery of the untagged antlers. She implied the anonymous tip came from one of her political enemies.

Likewise, the game warden indicated that he’d heard rumors — from a sitting judge, even — that the district attorney was out to “get him.”

“This is consistent with a continual theme of allegations that (DA Steidley) used undue influence and threatening tactics against others,” the interim grand jury report stated.

The same day the grand jury’s interim report was released in May 2014, the district attorney’s home mailbox exploded.

She held a press conference at the grandiose new Rogers County Courthouse, announcing the attack and declaring the grand jury’s interim report as proof that the allegations were merely a “smear campaign” by her detractors.

She strongly hinted that the explosion may have been some kind of payback: “I don’t take that as a random act. I do take it as a threat to myself and to my family.”

She had her investigators look into it, as well as the U.S. Postal Service, she said. She did not call the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office to report the crime, she told reporters.

To date, no one has been arrested or charged in connection with the mailbox explosion.

Steidley also declared the grand jury interim report as proof that she had been cleared of all criminal wrongdoing, and intended to fight on to the primary election in June: “I believe character and integrity are what this position needs. Character, to me, is not what you do in front of people, it’s what you do behind closed doors.”

But her statements about being “cleared” by the grand jury’s interim report were far from accurate, then-First Assistant Attorney General Tom Bates warned in interviews at the time.

“Any reasonable reading of the (grand jury) report makes abundantly clear that is not the case,” Bates said.

Because the grand jury investigation wasn’t complete at that time, such statements by Steidley could be viewed as an attempt to influence the jury’s deliberations, he said.

While the interim report did not find probable cause to indict Steidley or remove her from office, “a review of the testimony and other evidence gathered during the course of this investigation has revealed an alarming lack of respect, civility, and overall professionalism” between Steidley and the law enforcement agencies within Rogers County.

“Although both the district attorney and law enforcement officers bear responsibility for the current state of this relationship, (Steidley) has elevated tensions by choosing, at certain times, to aggressively and personally confront members of law enforcement critical of (her).”

An important date
On the day in October 2013 Justin Thurman signed his papers for community sentencing, he showed up drunk to court, said his mother, Diana Thurman.

He crashed his car days later and was given a chance at rehab through drug court. But his mother maintains that he was pulled out of treatment too early by an ineffective system.

In April 2014, Thurman was supposed to report for a three-month sanction stay in jail, a tool that Oklahoma courts use to deal with minor violations of drug court rules. Prosecutors can opt to jail violators instead of sending them back to prison for the remainder of their suspended sentence.

Justin Thurman did not show up at the courthouse.

The next day, police found him passed out in the dressing room at the Claremore J.C. Penney with booze on his breath and empty bottles of gin and Everclear in reach.

The arresting officers said he wouldn’t move his arms as they asked, so they shocked him with a Taser. He reportedly tried to bite an officer’s hand as he was handcuffed.

Justin Thurman’s struggle with alcoholism now had him facing serious prison time; prosecutors were threatening 20 years. They’d added a charge of assault and battery against an officer.

Diana Thurman didn’t see how spending the next half of his life in prison would help her son. She was concerned about reports that a Rogers County assistant drug court coordinator was caught that same month having an inappropriate sexual relationship with one of the drug court participants.

She argued that if her son had been given six to nine months of treatment initially recommended back in December 2013, none of this would have happened.

But the assistant prosecutor handling her son’s case seemed resolute. Justin had broken the rules and needed to go to prison. He had a criminal record of drunken driving charges dating back to 2007.

A few days later, Diana Thurman’s phone rang. She said it was a woman named Misty Douglas, who worked as an officer manager and financial coordinator for District Attorney Janice Steidley.

Thurman said she was told the district attorney had concerns about her son’s case and whether he was being treated fairly or whether he was being “railroaded.”

Let’s meet and talk, Douglas offered. But not at the courthouse.

Not in Rogers County.