The Oklahoma City Nation of Islam Murders
Black Muslim killings gain new attention
[Of related interest: “Lest We Forget: Remembering the Zebra Victims.”]
By Ken Raymond
Sunday, September 7, 2008
[N.S.: This reprint is a special, Martin Luther King Jr. Day presentation.]
For more than three decades, Alfred Brooks has marked time in prison. He's waiting to get out. Police are waiting for him to talk. Classic impasse. In the late 1960s or early '70s, Brooks joined a group of radical Black Muslims headquartered in Oklahoma City. The group has long been suspected in a series of black-on-white crimes, including at least six unsolved slayings, three shootings, two abductions and a dozen arson fires.
Police think Brooks, a convicted murderer who declined interview requests for this story, is the key to cracking the cases. They think he committed some of the crimes, or at least knows who did. They just can't prove it. Not after 34 years. The thing is, Brooks, 55, may not have anything of value to say. And even if he does, people may not believe him. They didn't in the past. The trail is growing colder and the "top suspect" older. Will these cases ever be closed?
About half past midnight Aug. 3, 1974, Judy Webb, 18, and her roommate, Karen Trantham, 23, left the Apartment Key Club at 2525 NW 10. The women, both white, were sitting inside their car when two black men approached. One had a gun. The men forced the roommates to strip naked and get in the trunk of the car. Near NE 65 and Coltrane, the women were released and told to walk down a dirt road.
Then the shooting started. "Webb was killed in the barrage of small-caliber bullets fired by their assailants," The Oklahoman reported. "Though wounded ... Trantham was able to run to a house about a block away and get help." What happened that night continued a chain of violence that began on June 17, 1973, police said. The Webb-Trantham shootings weren't the first, nor were they the last, but they were, perhaps, the most pivotal. Trantham lived. Later, she identified Brooks as one of her attackers. For the first time, there was a solid tie to the Nation of Islam.
June 17, 1973
Members of the Nation of Islam cause a disturbance at a Juneteenth celebration at Douglass High School. They order a disc jockey to shut down his mobile broadcast or air a tape called "Muhammad Speaks."
June 18, 1973
12:01 a.m. — Two men awaken another white family at 1130 NE 20. Resident Ryan Caldwell, 32, won't open up, so the men shoot him through the door, striking him several times. He lives.
March 17, 1974
1:15 a.m. — Sharon K. Workman leaves the Holiday Inn at NW 39 and Interstate 44 to go pick up a pizza. She is abducted by two black males, forced to strip and lie on the floorboards of her car, tied with her bra, choked with a scarf and hit with a gun. She awakens to see the men running away and hears a dog barking.
June 8, 1974
1:50 a.m. — Lynn Marie Nunn is abducted by a black male as she leaves Uncle Charlie's Club at 1600 Northwest Expressway. She is forced to disrobe and lie on the floorboards. She throws herself out of the car while it's moving and escapes.
July 15, 1974
Nancy Lynn Nuckels, 21, is abducted from a nightclub and shot six times. Her body is found nude in a wooded area in the 700 block of Northwest Expressway. Her clothing is found later inside her car, which had been abandoned at an apartment complex at NE 26 and Laird.
July 26, 1974
Brooks uses a stolen driver's license to buy a .357 Smith & Wesson pistol from a Del City pawn shop.
Aug. 3, 1974
12:30 a.m. — Judy Webb, 18, and her roommate, Karen Trantham, 23, are abducted from a nightclub. They are forced to strip and climb into the trunk of a car. Both are shot near NE 65 and Coltrane. Webb dies. Trantham survives. Their clothes are found later in the car, which was abandoned at an apartment complex.
Aug. 18, 1974
Sometime after 11:30 p.m. — Stephen Ray Wilburn, 20, is executed at the Gulf Service Station at 4400 SE 29 in Del City.
Aug. 26, 1974
12:40 a.m. — Carlton Fields, 24, and Jerry Hohne, 23, are fatally shot at Ken's Pizza, 1424 W Lindsey, Norman. Fields stays alive for about four hours and describes the killer as a black male wearing a green uniform and carrying a large pistol, likely a .357.
Sept. 2, 1974
Larry Cox, 19, is executed at the Malone Service Station in Lawton. He was shot with a .357 in the back of the head.
Sept. 8, 1974
Brooks is arrested in San Diego in connection with armed robberies there. He has the .357 he purchased in Del City.
Sept. 10, 1974
Bullets test-fired from Brooks' gun are flown to Oklahoma City. Ballistics evidence previously showed that Webb, Trantham, Wilburn, Hohne and Fields all had been shot with the same gun. Further testing shows Brooks' gun was not used in those shootings.
Jan. 21, 1976
Brooks is convicted of first-degree murder in Webb's death and given the death penalty. His sentence is commuted in 1977. He is serving two consecutive life sentences.
There had been suspicions about the Black Muslims before. Brooks was involved in those, too. On June 17, 1973, Brooks and another man were arrested near Douglass High School. A group of Black Muslims in military-style uniforms stormed a Juneteenth celebration there, shoving through the crowd and forcing a KJFL-FM remote broadcast to shut down.
Responding to the disturbance, police pulled over a mini-bus near 2200 N Harding and arrested Brooks, then 20, after a brief altercation. Soon after, local Nation of Islam leader Theodore G. X. and about 20 of his men occupied Oklahoma City police headquarters. They blocked elevators and stairways, and Theodore demanded the release of Brooks and the other man. Police didn't comply, and Theodore left, warning "no policeman would be safe east of Walnut Street."
That night, a series of black-on-white crimes occurred, most on the east side. A man was fatally shot. Three people were shot and wounded. A dozen fires, several ignited by fire bombs, damaged businesses and a school. Authorities suspected the Black Muslims were responsible, but Theodore insisted they were innocent. Another group had taken advantage of the situation to make the Nation of Islam look bad, he said.
Police and the FBI could prove nothing. On June 27, though, Brooks and Theodore were charged with armed robbery. About a month earlier, two black men, one armed with a sawed-off shotgun and the other with a pistol, robbed a jewelry store. Theodore, calling himself a political prisoner, said police "concocted" the case against him and predicted he would be freed. He was right. Charges against both men were dropped.
Things were quiet for the rest of 1973. The same couldn't be said for 1974. In March, two black males abducted a woman from an Oklahoma City nightclub, forced her to disrobe and choked or knocked her unconscious. She awoke to a dog barking and saw her attackers running away. "The thinking is that they were planning to kill her but got scared off by the dog," said police cold case Inspector Kyle Eastridge. "She was a lucky woman."
In June, a woman was kidnapped under similar circumstances. Fearing for her life, she fought back, then threw herself out of a moving car as a gun went off. She survived. The next month brought another attack. Nancy Lynn Nuckels, 21, was shot to death in a grassy area in the 700 block of Northwest Expressway. She was nude, her left arm draped over her neck, and she'd last been seen at an Oklahoma City nightclub.
August brought the Webb-Trantham attack, the execution of a male service station attendant in Del City and the slayings of two young workers at a Norman pizza shop. In September, another service station worker was executed, this one in Lawton. Some of the crimes were so similar it seemed likely they were connected. In each of the abductions, the female victims were kidnapped outside of nightclubs, stripped and taken to isolated areas. Both gas station workers were shot in the back of the head with a large caliber weapon. But there was more. In 1974, ballistics examiners linked bullets from the Webb-Trantham shootings to those used in the Norman pizza shop and Del City slayings. The same gun had been used in each case.
On Sept. 8, 1974, Brooks was arrested in San Diego in connection with two armed robberies. The police investigation ultimately led Oklahoma authorities back to Brooks, and on Christmas Eve 1974, Trantham identified him as one of the men who shot her and killed Webb.
At trial, Brooks claimed that Theodore G. X. shot the women. "He (Brooks) told me matter of factly that he was there," said Joe Long, 56, who has known Brooks for more than 20 years. "He was there with Theodore X. And he was wild and crazy and arrogant, but he had no idea whatsoever that Theodore was going to kill the girls. ... "I've seen his face, and I am absolutely convinced that he did not know that murder was going to happen."
The jury didn't buy Brooks' story. Neither did police. Trantham's description of the shooter didn't match Theodore, and he was never charged. Brooks was convicted in 1976 and received the death penalty, but his sentence was commuted in 1977. He is serving two consecutive life sentences in a Lawton prison.
The other cases remain unsolved. Police think Brooks has information about the crimes, and at his parole hearings through the years, Norman officers have implied that Brooks is involved in the other shootings. If he shot Webb and Trantham, the reasoning goes, then he also shot the pizza shop workers and the Del City service station attendant. Those crimes are very similar to the other abductions and slayings, so he probably did those, too — or at least knows who did, they say.
But there's a problem with that. When Brooks was arrested in California, he was carrying a .357 Smith & Wesson that he'd purchased in Del City less than a week before the Webb-Trantham shootings. He said the women were shot with that gun. Only they weren't.
Test bullets fired from Brooks' gun did not match bullets from the other shootings. The only gun police can place in Brooks' hand wasn't used in those crimes. Did he use a different weapon? Did someone else pull the trigger? Was he telling the truth about Theodore G. X.? Brooks is the only one who knows for sure. He isn't talking.
Alfred Brooks almost got out of prison in 1988. Then 35, he was the lead writer and actor for The OK D.O.C. Players, a drama troupe that performed for Oklahoma schools. His work there so impressed the state parole board chairman that he brought Brooks up for parole two years earlier than expected.
That's when Norman police unveiled previously secret evidence. Ballistics examiners had linked the double-shooting for which Brooks was convicted to three other fatal shootings. Parole hasn't really been a possibility since then, said Joe Long, 56, who befriended Brooks as a volunteer prison chaplain more than 20 years ago.
Long and his wife, Doobie Potter, think Brooks has been something of a scapegoat. They do not believe he shot anyone, although they acknowledge he committed other crimes and was present during the 1974 shootings of two women. One died. "It was black-on-white crime, and it was the 70s," said Potter, 62, a state artist-in-residence who directed the prison drama troupe. "Alfred didn't have money for a good lawyer, and they had to prosecute someone."
Brooks declined two interview requests. "You really would be amazed," Long said of Brooks. "He is very soft-spoken. He is intelligent. ... He uses the wrong words at times because he's self-taught. He's a good-looking guy, like a black Elvis in a way." Long said Brooks has not joined any prison gangs and long ago turned his back on the Nation of Islam. "Every time I talk to him, he's got hope," Long said. "He's not giving up."
Neither are police. "I think Brooks is probably our top suspect," said Norman police Detective Jim Parks. If he was involved in the other slayings, he needs to face justice, police said. "It's important for the families," said Norman police Lt. Gary Shelton. "And just for the victims themselves. They deserve it."
Similarities between the Oklahoma crimes and California's infamous Zebra killings are unmistakable. In 1973-74, a radical sect of Black Muslims killed at least 15 — some claim as many as 71 — whites in San Francisco. The killers were trying to earn a place in paradise by acquiring "Death Angel wings," a measure of status within the sect. "Points ... were given based upon the murder victim," said Oklahoma City police cold case Inspector Kyle Eastridge. "Children were worth more than women, and women were worth more than men. "At that same time frame, the local chapter of the Nation of Islam, under the direction of Minister Theodore G. X., was involved in many crimes that bear a striking resemblance to those in San Francisco."
A direct connection between the local and California crimes has never been established, although Alfred Brooks, the only man convicted in any of the Oklahoma crimes, was arrested in San Diego. In the 1960s and early 1970s, when it was at the peak of its power, the Nation of Islam was liberating to its adherents and frightening to much of white America.
Even now, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Nation, which differs from traditional Islam in a number of ways, as an active black separatist hate group. The Nation was formed by W. D. Fard Muhammad in 1930, but was led from 1935 until 1975 by his student, Elijah Muhammad. Its current leader is Louis Farrakhan.
At heart, the group seeks equality in all aspects of American society and encourages discipline, pride and community. "The Nation taught black people to love and respect themselves," said Ibriahimah Faal, a local Muslim who is not a member of the group. "They helped black people pick themselves up by their bootstraps."
At the same time, though, Elijah Muhammad claimed that "all white men are devils," Faal said, and before he split with the group, Malcolm X called blacks genetically superior to whites. Fear and distrust on both sides led to tension between Black Muslims and police, even here in Oklahoma City. "The white officer was not trusted, but the black officer was not trusted very much, either. ... We were seen as sellouts and referred to as Uncle Toms," said M.T. Berry, assistant city manager and former police chief.