Tulsa, OK -- The sun was lifting over the wooded hillsides the morning of June 13, 1977, when a counselor stumbled across a scene that stunned the nation.
Three young girls on their first day at Girl Scout Camp, Camp Scott, had been dragged from their tent and bludgeoned to death.

For some, time has faded the memories. But for the families of those little girls, the experience is still all too real.

"I don't dwell on it, but I realize it every day."

And those thoughts haunt Tulsan Walter Milner, whose daughter Doris Denise was one of three young victims.

Doris was 10 years old when she went away to summer camp. She went to sleep in a tent that night, just like thousands of girls all over the country have done. But she and two other girls never saw daybreak.

At dawn, a camp counselor made the nightmarish discovery. Doris, Lori, and Michelle had been bludgeoned as they slept, repeatedly assaulted and carried 100 yards to a camp road where their bodies were found.

One question the families may always ponder is whether the killer is alive or dead. Gene Leroy Hart was arrested following the most massive manhunt in Oklahoma history.

The eyes of the nation focused on Pryor, OK as witness after witness recounted the gruesome details of the case during Hart's trial. The jury found him innocent.

Two months later Hart died of a heart attack while jogging in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester where he was serving 308 years on previous burglary, rape and escape convictions.

A police officer who worked the case said he doesn't know if Hart was the killer.

"Sometimes I feel the killer is still out there and other times I don't," he said. "By man he was found innocent, you can't argue with that.

"At times during the trial, I thought he did it. At times, I thought that was not necessarily so. I guess that's something nobody will ever know, this side of the vale. It would be easier to think he did."

How did he feel when Hart died in prison?

"It's hard to explain," he said. "It was just a gut feeling.

Somehow it made me feel better when he died like he was found innocent by man, but maybe somebody higher up found differently. I don't know."

There have been no other arrests and the camp never reopened.

June 9, 1997 -- Twenty years after three young Girl Scouts were raped and murdered at a rural camp, the case remains open.

The convicted rapist accused of killing Lori Lee Farmer, 8; Michele Guse, 9; and Doris Denise Milner, 10, on June 13, 1977, was acquitted in a 1979 trial.

Gene Leroy Hart returned to prison on other charges, and died there of a massive heart attack just three months after his acquittal.

''Maybe there was no justice anywhere,'' said Harvey Pratt, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent who helped track Hart before his April 1978 arrest.

''But, then again, some people feel that, after awhile, God did intervene and there was justice,'' Pratt said.

The girls' bodies were discovered under a tree about 150 yards from their tent at a Girl Scout camp two miles south of Locust Grove. All three were from the Tulsa area, but they didn't know each other before their two-week camp session began the day before.

Denise's body was naked from the waist down with her hands and mouth taped. Impressions on the ground indicated that a struggle had taken place. Lori and Michele had been beaten, and their bodies were found zipped inside their sleeping bags nearby. Michele also was bound.

When Hart was finally arrested and brought to trial, the parents of the murdered Girl Scouts found little relief or even support. The Mayes County town of Pryor, where the trial was held, seemed to favor the accused.

Bumper stickers on vehicles in Pryor during Hart's trial welcomed the Tulsans to ''the Hart of Gene Country.'' People cheered when Hart was acquitted.

''I think the schism was definitely there, because it was in Indian territory,'' Lori Farmer's mother, Sheri, said.

Later, the O.J. Simpson case would raise many of the same issues.

''You would be absolutely shocked at how many similarities there were in those two cases,'' Mrs. Farmer said.

''I felt like we were just reliving our case ... the (alleged) planting of evidence, the 'race card' -- all of that was played out in that case.''

Denise Milner's mother, Bettye Milner, said watching the O.J. Simpson trial ''was like it was happening to us all over again. It was very similar.

''I remembered what had happened to us -- how the people cheered. All they cared about was Hart going free; it was like they didn't care about what happened at Locust Grove,'' Mrs. Milner said.

The camp, run since 1927 by the Tulsa-based Magic Empire Council of the Girl Scouts and open to girls for some 50 years, closed permanently the day following the Girl Scout murders.

Had they lived, the girls would be women now, possibly with children of their own.

''It doesn't seem like it's been 20 years,'' said Mrs. Milner.

''The time has passed pretty fast. It hasn't been easy. But I've had to accept things that I still can't face,'' she said.

Loss of a loved one -- especially a murdered child -- ''does forever change you,'' Mrs. Farmer said. ''And there is nothing that anybody can say or do that will make the 20 years seem like it lessened anything.

''Because it does not.''

Nov. 30, 1998 -- Terry Tennant awoke in her tent. Although deep in sleep, she thought she had heard a scream. The 12-year-old awakened a friend, a pal girl scout on the first night of their planned two-week camping adventure. Both listened intently. They heard nothing like a scream. Both went back to sleep.

Elsewhere in the camp of 120 girls, another scout thought she heard screams. It had been a night of great excitement, as the girls chatted and giggled away the evening in the warm embrace of canvas.

This scout now listened with hushed breath, but heard nothing. She also went back to sleep. It was 3 a.m. June 13, 1977.

But screams there might well have been, for at 6 a.m. a counselor going to wash found that three young girls had been torn from their tent and slain.

Michele Guse, 9, and Lori Lee Farmer, 8, had been beaten to death. Doris Milner, 10, had been beaten and strangled. All three had been raped. Two bodies lay in zipped sleeping bags. The third was on the open ground.

Fear raced through Camp Scott, about a mile outside sleepy Locust Grove in the northeast corner of Oklahoma. Mayes County Sheriff Glen Weaver was among the first of many investigators to reach the scene. He decided that the slayer had picked that particular tent because it was 50 feet from the others and near thick brush, which would have given the killer cover.

Also and probers wondered if the killer might have known it the fatal tent was among very few that did not have an adult counselor sleeping in it.

With the murder of the three girls, all from the Tulsa area 30 miles west, investigators descended on Locust Grove, a town of 1,019 people.

"I just don't think we have that many nuts in the area," the sheriff said. "It makes me pretty mad."

Hot on a Trail

Two days later, two tracking dogs were brought in from Pennsylvania to find the killer's path. Within a week, one died of heat prostration and the other was hit by a car. Others were brought in and led searchers to a small cave a mile from the murder scene.

Empty food cans indicated someone had lived there, if briefly. Also found: two tattered photographs of three women. The pictures, when spread across area newspapers, brought results in a day. The women were guests at the 1969 wedding of a prison worker's daughter.

Among those attending that wedding was a prison trusty named Gene Leroy Hart, who worked as a darkroom assistant at the prison.

"He's got to be our man," Weaver said.

At the time of the wedding Hart, 33, a Cherokee Indian, was serving a 10-year sentence for kidnapping two young women in Tulsa in 1966 and raping one of them.

He was paroled later in 1969 but was arrested within months on four counts of burglary. Convicted of the robberies, Hart was given 305 years the second-largest term ever meted out in Tulsa. In 1973, during a transfer, Hart broke out of Weaver's jail in Pryor, Okla., and was still loose at the time of the three slayings.

Weaver figured Hart dropped in on his mom, Ella Mae Buckskin, for food. She lived a mile from Camp Scott. But mostly, the lawman believed, the fugitive lived in the woods, as any authentic Cherokee could.

Also eager to nail Hart was Sidney Wise, district attorney of Mayes County. Three counts of murder were lodged against Hart, with an implicit death penalty.

Within days of the triple slaying, authorities announced they had found the weapon that had bludgeoned two of the victims. Also, they said, a bloody tennis-shoe print had been found on the tent floor. And a single, perfect fingerprint was on one of the bodies.

On July 30, 1977, tracking dogs stumbled on another small cave within a mile of the murder scene. On a wall of the cave, in black ink, was a taunting message: "The killer was here. Bye bye, fools. 6-17-77."

But there developed in town considerable support for Hart. He had been a high school football hero and was related to quite a few in Locust Valley. In fact, many began to wonder if Hart's biggest crime was being born Cherokee.

"I don't think anyone is afraid of Gene Hart," said Granvil Bates. "They're just afraid that the killer is loose around here."

The thought that woods-wise Gene Hart would sally into the underbrush with a multiplicity of copperheads and rattlers wearing just tennis shoes brought laughter and giggles from many. Noting that investigators had labeled Hart an "anti-social loner," supporters pointed out that prison officials had called him "outgoing and pro-social."

A Suspect's Capture

When a farmer reported seeing a man answering Hart's description hiding in a cave, a posse of 400 rushed into the woods, but found no one.

It was not until April 6, 1978, some 10 months after the murders, that Hart was run to ground. He was found living in a cabin in Cherokee County, in the foothills of the Ozarks.

As trial for Hart neared, however, the state's case seemed far from airtight. Despite early reports that the murder weapon had been found, authorities now said they did not have one. The "perfect" fingerprint "found on the body" turned out to be a cop's print, inadvertently put on a photographic plate.

Hart protested his innocence and even insisted that he take the stand to prove it. His counsel argued this would open him up to prosecution questions about his criminal background.

Hart went on trial in March 1979 in Pryor, Okla. The evidence against him was purely circumstantial and, according to the defense, some of it questionable. Defense lawyer Garvin Isaacs stunned the courtroom by introducing testimony trying to link the three slayings to a convict then in a Kansas prison for rape.

A waitress in Choteau, Okla., 12 miles from Camp Scott, testified that this man visited her cafe the day of the slayings. Another woman testified that a flashlight found near one slain girl was a light she had given this man.

The state countered that hairs found in the death tent and on tape binding Doris Milner did not match samples from the convict. On the other hand, witnesses testified the hairs "could have been" Hart's.

The structure patterns of sperm taken from this con were not similar to the sperm from inside the bodies, the state said. On the other hand, a witness testified, "it would not be unreasonable" to infer that the sperm in the victims had come from Hart. There were no DNA tests at that time.

On March 30, 1979, the jury found Hart innocent of the sex slayings of the three scouts. Hart covered his eyes and sobbed. He was transferred to McAlester state prison to continue serving his long previous sentence.

'A Sham'?

Rejecting many requests for press interviews, Hart did write one reporter for The Tulsa Tribune on that June 2:

"The record has been set right when jurors voted 'not guilty,' and my family and supporters knew the entire process was a sham from the start."

On the evening of June 4, 1979, Hart went through a rigorous routine of exercise, jogging and lifting weights in the prison and then died. Dr. A.J. Chapman, Oklahoma chief medical examiner, said Hart's death was caused by acute coronary disease.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation said recently that the case of the three girl scout murders is still open but is inactive.