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 visit to Odell Titsworth at his home, Titsworth’s mother told them he was at home with a broken arm.
Hospital records confirmed that Titsworth had been treated with a broken arm that very same day, caused by a scuffle with police officers. There’s no way he could have possibly been in any physical condition to carry out the acts that were detailed in Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot’s so-called “confessions.”
Titsworth was subsequently cleared as a suspect in this case, but Ward and Fontenot’s heads remained on the chopping block, so to speak.
Another major piece of misinformation in this case was the nature of the crime as described by the main suspects. When police spoke to the owner of the property where Ward and Fontenot claimed they’d taken Haraway’s body, he told them that he was the one who burned down the house, not them. On top of that, they weren’t able to recover her remains at that time.
The Denice Haraway Murder Trial
Regardless of the lack of evidence and the contradictions between what police found and what Ward and Fontenot stated in their recorded confessions, police pushed the charges through. The trial for the murder and abduction of Denice Haraway started in September 1985.
District Attorney Bill Peterson prosecuted the case and the first witness he called to the stand was Karen Wise, the store clerk who helped create the composite sketch. She identified Tommy Ward as one of the two men she saw in her store the night of Denice’s abduction.
Another witness, Terri Holland, who was in jail at the same time as Ward and Fontenot, claimed that she had overheard the latter telling another inmate that he’d abducted and murdered Haraway.
The recorded confessions were played in court. To the jury, it seemed clear that these two men were guilty because they came off as cold, emotionless, and remorseless in the videos.
On behalf of the prosecution, Assistant District Attorney Chris Ross argued that the reason the two men had claimed Titsworth was the one who orchestrated the entire crime was because they couldn’t come to terms with the fact that they were the ones who were responsible. He argued that they needed to psychologically dissociate from their own actions.
The defense argued that there were too many inconsistencies in the entire story for their clients to be the culprits. Knowing they were facing a treacherous uphill battle because of those confession tapes, they also argued that the entire story was made up.
At this point, Denice Haraway’s body still hadn’t been recovered. However, the recorded confessions were difficult for the jury to ignore and the two men were eventually found guilty. Ward and Fontenot were sentenced to life in prison.
The Retrieval of Vital Evidence
Following this verdict, it seemed as though the Ada police department and the community at large could finally breathe a huge sigh of relief, at least for a brief period.
On January 21, 1986, a man walking through a field in Gerty, Oklahoma found a skull and some bones buried under the brush. Dental records identified the remains as belonging to Denice Haraway.
A medical report revealed that the young woman had never been stabbed. Instead, she died from a single gunshot wound directly to the back of the head. The location where her remains were discovered is approximately 30 miles away from the house where Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot claimed they buried and burned Haraway’s body.
Another major inconsistency in the case was revealed at this time. Ward and Fontenot both definitively described what Haraway was wearing the night of her abduction. That white blouse with the blue flowers on it was nowhere to be found near her remains. Instead, police recovered a torn, red-striped T-shirt.
Despite the fact that this discovery pretty much discredited the recorded confessions, the courts initially refused to entertain the idea of a retrial, claiming that the only difference in the case was that in the beginning, they didn’t have a body and now they did.
Eventually, a retrial was held in 1989 in the adjacent county with a new jury, except now the two men were charged with shooting Haraway instead of stabbing her. The prosecution continued to argue that the two men were guilty of violent sexual assault and murder.
Once again, the recorded confessions were played in court and the jury was undoubtedly impacted by what they’d heard and seen on tape. What doesn’t make any sense is why Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot would confess to kidnapping, assaulting, and killing Denice Haraway but fabricate the manner in which they did these things.
The retrial resulted in both men being sentenced to life in prison.
Conspiracy Theories about Police Corruption in Ada, OK
As you can imagine, there are a lot of detailed layers and suspicious activity involved in this case. And we’re not just talking about the suspects’ behavior.
The Ada Police Department claimed that they knew nothing about the floral shirt that Haraway was allegedly wearing the night of her disappearance. But, apparently, when the young woman first went missing in 1984, her sister spoke to police about the blouse and told them she’d given it to Haraway as a gift. She suspected Haraway has been wearing it because it was the only article of clothing that her family couldn’t find while sorting through her things.
Why police never mentioned this in court or denied knowing anything about the blouse is a mystery. This has led some people to believe that the police were feeding information to both Ward and Fontenot during their lengthy interrogations in an attempt to make them seem and feel guilty while also coercing a confession.
Furthermore, there were initially three other men who were considered suspects in this case aside from Tommy , Karl, and even Odell. Billy Charley, Jim Bob Howard, and Floyd DeGraw were all known violent criminals and drug dealers in the town and would go on to commit other heinous crimes.
Billy and Jim were even friends and were often seen hanging out together around town. Jim Bob, who eventually left Ada, allegedly told one of his friends that he wanted to return to take care of his sick mother. He also said that the reason he couldn’t come back was because he had committed a robbery that went wrong, in which he ended up shooting the store clerk.
As a result, some people believe that the two men Karen Wise actually saw the night of Denice’s disappearance were Billy Charley and Jim Bob Howard, not Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot. It’s been theorized that the reason these men were never investigated is because they were at the center of a major drug operation in Ada that the police not only knew about, but also participated in.
Many believe that this entire case is a longstanding police cover-up and Tommy and Karl are actually innocent.
Was Terri Holland’s Testimony Also Coerced?
Let’s not forget about the jailhouse informant who testified that she heard Karl admitting to another inmate that he’d sexually assaulted and killed Denice. She also testified as an informant in the Debbie Sue Carter trial.
The question that’s on everyone’s mind is just how did Terri come to overhear this alleged conversation between Karl and another inmate if she was locked up herself?
Apparently, she didn’t. In later years, Terri signed an affidavit to the effect that she feared the Ada Police Department because she was being sexually abused by several law enforcement officers, along with many other female inmates. A lot of these sexual acts were reported and the district attorney was allegedly well aware of them.
Terri claimed that she testified on behalf of the state out of fear, intimidation, and threats that were made against her by law enforcement officials.
Where Does this Case Currently Stand?
Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot attempted to recant their “confessions” during the retrial and have even requested appeal hearings. Tommy’s appeal was denied, but Karl is still going through the process.
Both men have been serving hard time in prison for a crime that they may not have committed for over three decades.
Why Did Tommy and Karl Give False Confessions?
This is a valid question indeed, one that’s had people scratching their heads for many years. Initially, both men vehemently denied that they had anything to do with Denice’s kidnapping.
Although her remains weren’t discovered until two years after the fact, investigators treated the case as a corpus delicti. In legal terms, this basically means investigators were working on collecting a large “body” of evidence that would prove not only that a crime was committed, but also that Denice was murdered without actually having a body as proof.
Normally, in order to charge someone with murder of any degree, a physical body is required to prove malice or malicious intent. In cases where there is no body but murder or foul play is suspected, corpus delicti is often employed presumably until evidence presents a clear contradiction.
Prosecutors used Tommy and Karl’s thinly veiled false confessions as the main guiding light for their arguments, claiming that Tommy had psychologically constructed the story that Odell was their ringleader because he couldn’t face the fact that he was the one performing these awful acts.
Karl had a very troubled childhood that reportedly consisted of his father killing animals and then proceeding to perform sexual acts with their carcasses right in front of him. He also had a learning disability and was considered a little slow.
Combined with their stoic, ice-cold confession videos, Tommy and Karl were the perfect scapegoats for the police.
As it turned out, Tommy, who has served nearly 34 years in prison for this crime, stated in the Netflix series that he didn’t actually do it. Admittedly, he made a mistake. After being subjected to a grueling and emotionally exhausting eight-hour police investigation, Tommy fabricated the story of how he, Karl, and Odell had allegedly raped and murdered Denice Haraway.
His reasoning seemed somewhat simple at the time, if not downright naive. More than three decades after being twice convicted of this heinous crime, Tommy told the documentary crew that the reason he came up with such an elaborate lie was because he was hoping that, upon investigating his story, police would conclude it was false, and let him and Karl go.
Eventually, that did happen, but unfortunately for Tommy and Karl, it was two years too late. The damage had already been done and investigators needed two prime suspects to pin this horrendous crime on, or else risk losing all credibility and respectability in their small town.
Judging by Tommy and Karl’s past history with local law enforcement, it also seems highly likely that were chosen as prime suspects because they were the easiest targets.
If all of this is true, then it would mean this case is technically unsolved, and Denice Haraway’s real murderer is still at large.