Garland, County, AR -- Dec. 14, 2001 -- Most police investigations make sense. They reassure communities, even if some cases aren't solved.
Then there are investigations that take a mystery and compound it. They leave no one reassured. Such was the investigation into last year's deaths of two teen-agers at Lake Catherine.
Technically, the matter's been settled. The Arkansas Medical Examiner's Office ruled that the boys accidentally drowned. The Garland County sheriff said he's seen nothing to suggest otherwise. The prosecutor told the dead boys' parents that he had no plans to charge anyone with murder.
Normally, that would mean a case is closed. But questions about the boys' deaths linger, and some of them focus on the behavior of police on the night in question. Now that more than a year has passed since the boys were buried, their parents want to see the sheriff's file on the investigation. But Garland County officials refuse to open it, claiming that the case is still under investigation.
Consider what is known:
On Oct. 30, 2000, the day before Halloween, four boys - Clayton Tyler "C.T." Dickson, 17; Nic Singleton, 16; Aaron Lee Looper, 18; and Justin Dewayne Fant, 17 - went camping on a sand bar in an area off Shady Grove Road. Dickson and Singleton, the two who later died, told their parents that the four planned to stay at the site, which was near where Looper lived, for two nights.
That first night, however, saw some strange occurrences. Richard Lott, who lives about a quarter-mile from where the boys were camped, says that at around 11 or 11:30 p.m., his dogs began barking outside his house. Lott stepped out onto his porch, hushed the blue heelers and listened. Hearing nothing, he had turned around to go inside, when he heard someone holler, "Help me!"
The voice seemed to be coming from the lake. Lott got a flashlight and scanned the nearby woods. All was still. He was about to go back in, when he again heard someone yell, "Help me!"
Lott recalls, "It was definitely coming from towards the lake." But then he heard nothing more.
Lott's teen-age daughter was asleep in the house. She knew the boys. She and Dickson were boyfriend and girlfriend. She knew that he and the other three were camping nearby on the lake. But she had not mentioned that to her father, and not knowing the boys were there, he returned to the house and went to bed.
At about 3 a.m., Lott says, he woke up to see two sheriff's cars in his driveway, which opens onto Shady Grove Road. He saw three people at the cars. He woke his wife and turned on a police scanner.
Over the scanner, Lott heard the deputies report that they had picked up 17-year-old Justin Fant. Lott heard them say Fant was wet and muddy. He says the deputies mentioned that they were going to drop him off at a Shell service station on Carpenter Dam Road.
Roughly four hours later, shortly before 7 a.m. Oct. 31, Lott left home for work. He says that when he drove past the service station, he was surprised to see that the boy was still there. Lott recalls, "He was kinda wandering around outside. I could see his shirt was on backwards."
Shortly after that, Lott's daughter, who's now 15, got onto the bus for school. She says she was surprised when she looked out the window and saw C.T.'s red Camaro go by, with another boy at the wheel. C.T. was not in the car. The girl recalls that when the bus came to a stop, the boy driving C.T.'s car - one of those who'd gone camping - shouted to her, asking if she had seen any of the other three boys. She told him she had not. "He said he was going to look for them." But she found the encounter disturbing. "C.T. was really protective over his car," she explains. "His car and his leather jacket were two things you didn't touch unless you were really close to him."
By the next day, C.T.'s mother, Susan Strider, was also getting concerned. Even though the camp-out was supposed to be for two nights, she expected that C.T. would have called just to check in on the second day. Having graduated from Lakeside High School the year before, he had a job and was living in a trailer parked near his mother's house. The trailer marked a transition between living at home and on his own.
When Strider got home from work on Wednesday, Nov. 1, she called Nic Singleton's father, Wade Singleton. He had not heard from his son, either, and he was worried too.
"Thirty minutes later," Strider says, "Aaron [Looper] called. He wanted to know if I had seen C.T. Ten minutes after that, Justin [Fant] called, asking, 'Have you heard from Nic or C.T.?'"
"I said, 'What's going on?'" Strider recalls. "Justin said, 'Things kinda went haywire.' Then he wanted to know if I'd heard from Aaron."
Strider hung up the phone and called the Garland County Sheriff's Office. She was told that a deputy would be sent to her house. She called Nic's father, Wade Singleton, and asked him to come. Then she called her son's friends, Aaron Looper and Justin Fant, and told them to come, as well.
Before Wade Singleton left his house, he says, he called Gerald Sligh, whom he knew lived near where the boys had camped. Singleton asked if he knew of anything that might have happened.
As Singleton recalls, Sligh reported that he'd found a young man in his yard between 1 and 2 a.m. "He said he'd gotten up to go to the bathroom, and when he got back in bed, he heard voices," Singleton says. "He got up, went and fumbled around in his closet, got his gun, went out on the front porch, and discovered a young man. He told him to sit down and told his wife to call the sheriff's department, and he held the young man - who was Justin - at gunpoint, until the patrol car came down to his house. That was followed by another patrol car, and they took the young man away."
Armed with that information, Singleton drove to the meeting at Strider's house. Justin Fant was there with his stepfather. Aaron Looper had arrived alone. A deputy filled out missing-person reports on C.T. and Nic. But as the teen-agers offered their accounts of what had transpired at the campsite, the deputy called for a detective. Sheriff's Investigator Shelby Terry was dispatched to the house and joined the group.
Terry started at the beginning, asking Looper and Fant what happened. The two parents recall that Looper spoke first, offering a convoluted account. Here's how Strider recalls what he said:
On the boys' first night on the lake - now nearly 48 hours ago - "Aaron was asleep in the car. Nic and C.T. were sitting on a picnic table looking at the water. At about 10 or 10:30 p.m., they heard a person yelling for help. The voice was coming from the woods, and Nic and C.T. took off to investigate it. Justin woke Aaron up and asked him where Nic and C.T. were. Aaron told him that they'd gone off to check out something in the woods. Justin said, 'I'm going to go after them and try to find them.' Aaron said he fell back asleep."
Justin reported that he too had been asleep, but that he had for some reason awakened, and noticed that Nic and C.T. were gone. Here's his account, as Strider recalls it:
"So he went to the car and woke up Aaron and Aaron told him they'd gone to the woods. So he took off and caught up with Nic and C.T. They went ten to twenty feet further, when they saw a guy standing out on his front porch, drinking with two other men. The guy held a shotgun on them from the front porch and told all three of them to get down on their knees because they were trespassing.
"Justin said that when the man went inside the door to tell his wife to call the sheriff's department, Nic and C.T. were whispering. They said, 'He's going to kill us. Let's run.'
'That's when Justin said he wasn't going to stick around. He took off, leaving Nic and C.T. there, and hauled ass. He said he got wet when he fell into the little bay between the house and where they were camping, but that before he fell in, he heard gunshots. At that point, he said he started walking toward the road. He was sitting by the side of the road, when the deputies picked him up. They dropped him off at the Vicki Shell station."
Strider recalls that when Fant finished, Investigator Terry leaned back in his chair and asked, "Now son, do you want to start telling me the truth?" She says Fant started to cry and insisted, "I am telling the truth."
But the now deeply worried parents also had doubts about what they'd been told. Some of their questions focused on the boys' accounts. Others concerned the deputies' actions:
What had awakened Justin? And, if Aaron had been asleep too, how did he know where the boys had gone?
Had deputies gone to the house where Justin said he and the other two boys had been held at gunpoint?
Did anyone search for the other two boys? Or investigate the call for help?
And why had deputies left a soaked 16-year-old at a service station in the middle of the night, especially after he'd told them that he'd just been held at gunpoint?
Singleton says, "From that night on, I've smelled a rat."
The next morning, Nov. 2, the parents and sheriff's officers went to the site where the boys had camped. The tents were down. Detectives told the parents that Aaron said he and his mother had cleaned up the site. Strider says that when she went to Aaron's house, she saw C.T.'s car parked in the yard. She says Aaron told her he'd been driving it because, on the night before he disappeared, C.T. had thrown him the keys and given him permission.
Strider says Aaron handed her C.T.'s wallet, which he said had been left in the car. She recalls him telling her, " 'Here, I knew you'd want this.' like he was doing me some big favor." But, she adds, "I didn't understand why he had it anyway."
The missing boys' shoes were in the trunk of the car, and the inside of the trunk was wet. Strider said she saw C.T.'s sleeping bag, which was "soaking wet," draped over a tree stump nearby. Nic's sleeping bag was not found, and has never been recovered.
While questions about the car and the wallets disturbed Strider and Singleton, they were more alarmed by the shoes and sleeping bags.
If the boys had taken off, running into the woods in the dark, as Justin claimed, would they have gone in their stocking feet?
How had C.T.'s sleeping bag gotten soaked? And what had become of Nic's?
Why had Sligh reported that he'd only seen one boy at his house, while Justin claimed that three were there?
Why had neither Aaron nor Justin reported the disappearance of their two friends?
Why had Aaron been driving C.T.'s car for the better part of two days, if the boys had been missing since the first night?
The sheriff's office began its search for the boys on the afternoon of Nov. 2. By now, three and a half days had passed since Nic and C.T. were last seen alive.
Members of the sheriff's Tactical Response Team and the Search and Rescue Mounted Patrol converged on the site where they'd been camping. The next day, a boat searched the lake with sonar. But, because Lake Catherine was continually being raised and lowered for hydroelectric generation, searchers said they feared that if the boys had drowned, their bodies would have been moved by the current.
Richard Lott had begun searching for the boys with his dogs as soon as he learned they were missing. "I figured, if they were in the woods," Lott says, "my dogs would let me know." But the dogs didn't let him know, leaving Lott to assume that his daughter's friends would be found dead in the lake.
On Sunday, Nov. 5, Lott was walking the shoreline when he spotted C.T.'s body. It was floating in the water about a half mile below where the boys had been camping. Nic's body was found a couple of hours later, barely 300 feet from the campsite. The bodies were sent to the state medical examiner's office in Little Rock.
Dr. Charles P. Kokes, an associate medical examiner, signed the death certificates the next day, Monday, Nov. 6. The certificate reported that an autopsy had been performed. The document listed the cause of death as drowning and the manner as accidental.
But when the parents later received copies of Kokes' autopsy reports, they noticed another anomaly. The report said the autopsy had been performed on Nov. 7, the day after the death certificates were signed. Strider and Singleton complain that this, on top of a growing list of questions surrounding their sons' deaths, compounded their grief, which both found to be almost disabling.
Kokes' autopsy report indicated that the bodies showed no signs of trauma, beyond the unnatural levels of fluid in their lungs. Laboratory results, however, revealed trace amounts of alcohol and cannabinoids, the residue of marijuana, in the boys' systems, as well as of the compound diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Dramamine, an over-the-counter medicine to combat motion sickness.
Sheriff's investigators told the parents that the two surviving boys had admitted purchasing Dramamine in the belief that it produced a "high." In fact, it acts more as a sedative. The investigators also reported that the deputies who'd picked up Justin Fant on the first night of the camp-out had acknowledged that the boy was severely disoriented at the time.
When the parents demanded to know why - especially in that case - deputies had left Fant at the gas station, they were not given an answer. They say that Sheriff's Lt. Ray Shoptaw told them only that leaving Fant at the station had been a mistake and that it would be dealt with internally.
Based on the autopsy findings and information supplied by the sheriff's office, Kokes determined that the boys had drowned accidentally. But the idea that they had fallen into the water in a state of confusion so profound that both of them had drowned did not fit with Justin and Aaron's story that they were last seen running into the woods. Nor did the fact that the boys' shoes were found at the campsite fit with the autopsy finding that the boys' ankles and feet "were without evidence of injury."
At C.T.'s memorial service, held on Nov. 8, a girl whom Strider did not know handed her a note tied with a yellow ribbon. It read: "The devil did not take your son. He gave his life for his brother."
Strider knew that C.T. and Nic had been best friends for nearly two years. But in the weeks and months that followed, she and Singleton learned that more than sentiment was implied by the note's reference to "brother."
Their sons had become part of a group that calls itself "the Brotherhood," also reportedly known as the Aryan Brotherhood. Aaron and Justin allegedly were members, and when C.T. and Nic began hanging out with them, they had apparently joined too. She said one of the marks of the club was that the boys were always supposed to keep a folded, kerchief-sized "rebel" flag in a back pocket of their jeans.
Strider says that C.T. was not raised with racist attitudes, but that, "looking back," she should have "picked up on the rebel flag thing." She recalls, "They called each other brother, but I took that to mean buddies, like a brother, not that they were part of a group or organization. I was naive."
As Strider tried to learn more about the Brotherhood, more questions arose about the deaths. She and Singleton wondered if Nic and C.T. might have wanted to withdraw, or if they had learned of illegal activities being engaged in by some of their "brothers." The parents wondered what the police knew about the "brotherhood."
But questions led to more questions, not answers. A couple of weeks after the deaths, Strider called the medical examiner's office and spoke to Kokes, and asked about the boys' personal effects. Though the autopsy report noted that C.T. was found wearing blue denim pants and a black short-sleeved T-shirt, as well as three necklaces, there was no mention of a flag in the pocket. She says Kokes told her that the clothes were sent back to the Garland County Sheriff's Office.
Strider called Lt. Shoptaw at the sheriff's office. "He told me he had never received anything from the state crime lab," she says. "To this day, we have never received anything my son was wearing."
Months passed. In February 2001, Strider wrote to Steven Oliver, who'd recently taken office as Garland County's prosecuting attorney. She outlined her frustrations with the case.
Oliver arranged a meeting in his office between Strider, Investigator Shoptaw, and himself. The upshot of the meeting, according to both Strider and Shoptaw, was that Oliver said he would not file charges in the case due to a lack of evidence.
Five days later, the frustrated parents announced a reward of $5,000. That same day, Garland County Sheriff Larry Selig told the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record that nothing in the investigation so far had led investigators "to believe it was a homicide." Shoptaw added that he had "exhausted all leads." And Capt. Larry Sanders, the head of the sheriff's criminal investigation division, echoed the general conclusion. "There was no evidence of any foul play."
Ordinarily, such undisputed conclusions by the investigating agency, the medical examiner's office, and the county prosecutor signal that a case has been closed. The fact that this one has not been is another anomaly - and another frustration for the parents, who want to see for themselves how the investigation was conducted.
Their interest is piqued by the knowledge that Justin Fant and Aaron Looper have each been arrested at least four times by sheriff's officials this year. The charges included drug possession, disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, and failures to appear in court.
In preparation of this article, the Arkansas Times filed a request under the state's Freedom of Information Act for records from the sheriff's investigation. Like the parents, the Times was refused.
Sheriff Selig said that the case was being kept open "at the parents' request," and that interviews were still being conducted. Strider and Singleton consider the response disingenuous. Singleton says, "They're calling it whatever they want to call it, whatever suits their purposes."
Lt. Shoptaw said that Prosecutor Oliver decided that the FOIA request should be denied. But Shoptaw did agree to answer some questions. He acknowledged:
That "the Brotherhood" was "a new type of gang" in Garland County that was "into drugs, all kinds of drugs, probably mostly methamphetamine."
That, "As I know it right now, it's a bunch of people who walk around with Confederate flags in their back pockets, and if they take it out, they have to kiss it."
That members were "into everything under the sun," in terms of illegal activities, but that he added that he was not aware of their involvement in any hate crimes.
That he would "frequently grab one out of jail" and question him about the drownings, but that, "We don't have any information whatsoever. All we have is the boys telling us a bunch of lies."
That on the night of the deaths, Sligh had in fact reported a prowler, but said he had only seen one.
That "Justin Fant was so messed up that he didn't even know the police held him at that location [the gas station]. I've got a statement from him saying how many pills he took."
That, "Why the officer let the boy off at the store that night, I do not know."
That he did not know if the officer had been reprimanded, or if any other internal action had been taken.
That, "We [sheriff's officials] were reported to the state police as being part of it [the deaths]. We were reported to the FBI. We've had to answer these questions."
But that, as long as the case remained open, the file would be kept closed.
That decision places this case among a growing body of unexplained or mysterious deaths whose records the families and the public may never see. Open police investigations are exempt from Freedom of Information laws. A spokesman for the state attorney general's office says that since there is no statute of limitations on murder, in cases where even the possibility of murder exists, law enforcement agencies may, at their discretion, keep a case file open - and thus closed to public inspection.
That situation rankles relatives like Singleton and Strider who would like to have the opportunity to scrutinize troubling cases, and who believe that police and prosecutors should not be able to hold files open indefinitely. Critics point out that nothing prevents investigators from re-examining suspicious deaths, even if the cases have been closed, and that investigations can always be reopened.
Under the circumstances, Strider and Singleton find little comfort in Shoptaw's assurance that, "We'll be able to release this one of these days." But, while the police are offering no explanations, at least someone who was contacted about this article offered an excuse.
Dr. Kokes of the medical examiner's office said, "The death certificate is correct regarding the times. The examinations were done on the sixth; that is the day I signed."
As for the statement on the autopsy reports, which he also signed, that the bodies were examined on the seventh, Kokes said, "That is an error." He blamed it on the secretary who transcribed the report.