Town changed, even with girls' killer behind bars

AP News
Posted: Aug 01, 2014 3:30 AM
Town changed, even with girls' killer behind bars

WELEETKA, Okla. (AP) — Folks once settled in this sleepy central Oklahoma town to get away from the crime and hubbub of big-city life. Many residents didn't bolt their doors or draw their shades at night. Most here never worried about people like Kevin Sweat.

But then, on a dusty road northeast of town, Sweat shot 13-year-old Taylor Paschal-Placker and 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker to death, believing they were demons out to do him harm. The 2008 slayings went unsolved for years until Sweat's fiancee was murdered, and police questioned him in her death and connected the cases. Sweat pleaded guilty to all three murders Thursday.

Prosecutors dropped plans to seek the death penalty after Sweat agreed to waive his right to a jury trial. Sweat, who had lived with his fiancee in a neighboring county, faces life in prison, either with or without parole. He'll be sentenced later.

But even with the guilty pleas secured, some residents in this working-class town of barely 1,000 people doubted things would ever return to the way they used to be six years ago.

"It changed the whole town," said Jim Graffman, owner of Big Jim and Hoktey's Saloon, where a sole customer sat at the bar at midday. "You're careful taking the back roads because you have no idea what's going to happen.

"It made everybody aware that this type of thing can happen here," he said.

The sentiment was the same for Janet and Tim Wise, who, until learning that Sweat had pleaded guilty to the crimes, said they kept watchful guard over their grandchildren, fearing that the girls' killer was somehow still on the loose, living among the residents.

"We had to keep an eye on them at all times," Janet Wise said as she dined with her family at Outlaws Grocery and Diner, a popular meet-up for locals. She added: "I think whatever he gets, he deserves," after hearing about Sweat's guilty plea.

Wanda Mankin, the principal at the school where Skyla and Taylor attended, was dreading the start of Sweat's trial. It had been set to start Monday.

"This trial has brought all these feelings back in the open," Mankin said in an interview a few hours before Sweat's plea hearing. "Nothing you learn in college can ever prepare you for dealing with this kind of thing."

The murders of the young girls were just the first of several more tragedies to come for the town in a span of several years: a house fire that killed six people; the death of a beloved youth minister in an oil tank explosion; and another fire that tore through several downtown buildings, wiping out a popular café and three other businesses.

Today, the main drag is barely alive — a stretch of boarded-up businesses and overgrown, empty lots. A pair of stray dogs roamed the street, unconcerned about oncoming traffic because there's hardly any of it these days. In the businesses that are open, it is difficult to find patrons inside.

Many took to wondering aloud whether the town was cursed, though the girls' killings left perhaps the strongest impact.

"He killed two girls before they even had a chance to get started in life," said resident Sandra Wallace. "I mean, they were two babies."

On an unpaved, backcountry road, the memorial marking the place where the girls were killed showed its age Thursday. Faded and mud-caked plastic flower bouquets and stuffed toys sat near several crosses erected to mark the spot.

Taylor and Skyla had been walking along the road after a weekend sleepover. Taylor's house was nearby, and they had made the same walk dozens of times— if not hundreds.

Summer vacation was just beginning, and the best friends thought they would be taking those walks for years to come.