On April 28, 1984, just two years after the horrific rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter, the small town of Ada, Oklahoma was rocked to its core once again by another mysterious case involving a young woman. This time, it was the disappearance, kidnapping, and alleged sexual assault of 24-year-old Donna Denice Haraway. Most people simply referred to her by her middle name, Denice.
Over the years, both of these cases have sparked massive nationwide controversy thanks in large part to the alleged wrongful convictions of four local men (Ron Williamson, Dennis Fritz, Tommy Ward, and Karl Fontenot, respectively).
Author and journalist Rob Mayer chronicled the case of Denice Haraway and the events of the ensuing trial in his 1987 book, The Dreams of Ada.
In 2006, former lawyer and famed crime writer John Grisham forayed into slightly unfamiliar territory when he wrote his first work of nonfiction entitled, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. The book focused mainly on the Debbie Sue Carter case.
Since the two cases are very closely related in more ways than one (aside from taking place in the same small town, many of the key players coincide in both cases), Netflix released an intriguing six-part docuseries that delves relentlessly deeper into what seems like two fairly cut-and-dry murder cases on the surface.
The docuseries is already available on Netflix. Check out the trailer below:
Who Was Denice Haraway?
Denice Haraway was born on August 19, 1959 and was last seen alive on the night of her abduction, which took place on April 28, 1984. She was just 24 years old and working the nightshift as a part-time store clerk at a local convenience store called McAnally’s in Ada, Oklahoma.
Just eight months before her disappearance, Denice married the love of her life, Steve Haraway. The couple had big plans for the future together. At the time, Denice was a senior at East Central University and, in addition to her job at McAnally’s, she was working as a work-study student.
After the newlyweds both completed their education, their plan was to move out of Ada and make their way either to Oklahoma City or Tulsa, depending on where they could find jobs and affordable housing.
Not much else is known about Steve and he doesn’t appear in the docuseries—nor does anyone else from Denice’s family.
The Events of April 28, 1984
That night started off just like any other. Denice Haraway showed up for work and it was fairly quiet. At approximately 8:30 p.m., a man named Gene Whelchel arrived at the gas station with his two nephews to grab some change and purchase cigarettes. Whelchel waited in his truck and one of his nephews waited in his car while the other nephew, Lenny, went inside to purchase the items.
On his way in, Lenny walked past a man and a woman headed toward a gray pickup truck. The man had his arm around the woman’s waist. He said both of them got into the vehicle and drove away.
Naturally, he didn’t think anything of it in that moment and assumed that they were a couple. He walked into the store and noticed that no one was behind the counter. Upon noticing that the register was left open and some cash was missing, he went back outside to the car to alert his uncle and brother that something was wrong.
The three men went back inside the convenience store and they also noticed that the clerk’s brown purse and a book were left next to the open cash register along with a cigarette butt in an ashtray and an open can of beer.
Immediately, the three men called the police from the payphone outside of the convenience store.
Sergeant Harvey Phillips was one of the first to arrive on the scene and he quickly canvassed the entire area. Noticing the purse behind the counter, he took out the wallet to find the owner’s identification, confirming that it was Denice Haraway’s.
While talking to police, Whelchel realized that the young woman he saw being escorted out of the store was the clerk…and that he’d witnessed an abduction.
Whelchel provided a description of the pickup truck, saying that it was “faded light blue” with “spots on it” where the paint was peeling.
Sergeant Phillips reported this statement to the local police department and put out a BOLO (be on the lookout) in case anyone had seen it.
The store manager was called to the scene…and this is where the investigation was botched from the very beginning.
He looked around the store to see if anything was stolen. The safe in the back was left untouched and the cash in the drawer under the register was still there. All that was missing was $167.00 cash from the register. After checking the last transaction on the register, he determined that it was 75 cents, the cost of the beer.
Shoddy Police Work or Willful Negligence?
The store manager took the remainder of the money out of the register and stored it in the safe in the backroom before proceeding to dispose of the beer can and cigarette, both of which should have been taken into evidence but weren’t. For some reason, Sergeant Phillips didn’t stop the store manager from throwing these items into the trash, and inadvertently disposing of very valuable evidence that could have helped solve this case and prevent a world of heartache and confusion for all involved.
However, since it was the early 1980s, DNA testing wasn’t exactly prevalent or common protocol back then.
Next, police paid a visit to another local convenience store that wasn’t too far from McAnally’s. There, they spoke with a store clerk named Karen Wise. She told them that earlier that night, two rowdy men came into the store and were behaving erratically. She said they scared her. Wise agreed to provide composite sketches of the two men she saw.
This is a still from the documentary showing the composite police drawings that were printed in the local newspapers and posted all over town at the time.
After these images were released to the public, the police received countless tips and several names were repeated. Police believed that because of the close proximity of the two stores, it was possible that these were the same men who kidnapped Denice Haraway.
Many Ada residents seemed to recognize the men in the sketches as Tommy Ward and Billy Charley.
Investigators spoke to Charley first and he told them that he was with his parents the night of Haraway’s disappearance. His parents corroborated that story.
Authorities then turned their attention to Tommy Ward. In addition to having a minor police record for petty crimes, Ward was already known to police for having a drinking and drug problem. However, he’d never been arrested for violent acts, nor was he known for behaving in such a way.
Police first brought him in for questioning on October 12, 1984. At that point, he unwaveringly maintained his innocence.
A few days later, on October 18, police brought Ward back in for more questioning under the guise that he was going to help them identify other potential suspects. Not realizing he was the one they were after, Ward agreed to take a polygraph test, which he failed.
When asked why he thought he failed the test, Tommy Ward claimed that after the first time he’d been questioned by police, he’d had a very bizarre dream involving the disappearance and potential murder of Denice Haraway.
Recalling the dream in flashback moments, Ward told police that he’d witnessed money exchanging two sets of hands, a man kissing a woman in a car, and then hearing the woman tell the man to leave her alone. He then recalled a flashback moment of himself standing in front of a bathroom sink and mirror, washing a black substance off of his hands.
After divulging the confusing and sporadic details of his dream, Ward was interrogated relentlessly for more than eight hours straight. Although he was given food and water and was allowed the occasional smoke break, interrogation for that long has been proven to be counterproductive. And some people, including Ward’s sister, speculate the police used this tactic to feed Tommy Ward information and coerce a confession out of him.
Ward appeared stoic, remorseless, and emotionally detached as he provided graphic details of what he claimed happened that night.
As the story goes, Ward claimed he was at a keg party on April 28, 1984 (which was corroborated by other sources) where he ran into Karl Fontenot and Odell Titsworth. Fontenot and Titsworth wanted to leave the party to drink some more and get high, to which Ward agreed.
For the record, Fontenot gave an identical account of what happened on the night of Haraway’s abduction during his police interrogation the following night.
Both men claimed that Titsworth was the mastermind behind the entire ordeal. They said that they drove up to McAnally’s in Titsworth’s pickup truck, Titsworth went inside the store, stole the money from the register, and took Haraway.
Then they claimed that they took Denice Haraway to a local power plant where all three of the men took turns viciously stabbing and sexually assaulting her in the bed of the pickup truck, until she died.
Every last detail was described specifically right down to the exact wounds Haraway sustained during the attack. Ward said that he’d stabbed Haraway in the neck and on the left side of her torso and that she cried out for help repeatedly.
After the three men killed Haraway, they allegedly took her body to an abandoned, worn-down house where they buried her under the floorboards. They then burned the property to the ground. He told police that Titsworth was the one who carried Haraway’s body over the fence surrounding the property.
When asked what Haraway was wearing that night, both Ward and Fontenot said that she was wearing a light-colored, button-down top with blue flowers and ruffles on the short sleeves.
Even though Haraway’s body wouldn’t be recovered for another two years, Ward and Fontenot were charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and burglary.
Were They Coerced into Making False Confessions?
While it seemed like police had their murderers, there was just one major problem. The story didn’t quite add up.
When investigators paid a visi