IDABEL, Okla. (AP) — The widow of an Oklahoma man who died following a 2022 arrest filed a lawsuit Thursday against the rural sheriff who a newspaper says it caught on tape talking about killing journalists who were reporting on her husband’s death.
Last March, outside the rural area of McCurtain County, Bobby Barrick’s death drew scant attention. The 45-year-old had died in a hospital days after deputies shocked him with a stun gun.
But the wrongful death lawsuit that Barbara Barrick filed in federal court Thursday comes as national attention is drawn on the county, more than 230 miles (370 kilometers) southeast of Oklahoma City, by a recording of local officials discussing killing journalists and lynching Black people.
“It’s been a hard year not knowing what happened to my husband,” Barbara Barrick said during a Thursday news conference in front of the sheriff’s office. She praised the “persistent and brave” efforts of local newspaper reporters to find out more about her husband’s arrest and death.
Over the weekend, the McCurtain Gazette-News published recordings revealing County Commissioner Mark Jennings, Sheriff Kevin Clardy and deputies seeming to discuss killing reporters with the paper and hanging Black people.
The officials have not publicly addressed the content of the recordings, which prompted calls for their resignations, including from Gov. Kevin Stitt.
“Unfortunately, all of our attorneys are telling us we are supposed to stay quiet,” Undersheriff Mike Manning told The Associated Press Thursday, declining further comment. “I’d love for everybody to hear both sides of the story.”
The recorded comments from March 6 were captured after the paper’s publisher, Bruce Willingham, says he left a recorder inside the room after a county commissioner’s meeting because he suspected the group was continuing county business after the meeting ended, in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Act. They included discussion of “two or three hit men.”
Willingham said he believed the officials were upset by “stories we’ve run that cast the sheriff’s office in an unfavorable light,” including coverage of Bobby Barrick’s death.
McCurtain County is in far southeast Oklahoma, in the forested foothills of the Ouachita mountains, bordering Arkansas and Texas. The part of the state is often referred to as “Little Dixie,” because of the influence in the area from white Southerners who migrated there after the Civil War, and Barbara Barrett’s lawyer suggested Thursday that racial tension may have played a role in her husband’s death.
Barrett was a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and his wife alleged in her lawsuit that the sheriff’s staff have “stated their resentment for members of the Native American community in a racial manner.”
Barbara Barrick sued Clardy, three deputies and a state game warden, claiming they violated her husband’s constitutional right and used excessive force during his arrest. The suit says the deputies found her husband “hog tied” on the ground outside a convenience store, where he’d been beaten by a crowd.
The deputies then handcuffed, beat and shocked Bobby Barrick, according to the suit, and deactivated their body cameras
The Gazette-News, a small newspaper with limited online presence, sued the sheriff’s office last month, seeking body camera footage and other records of the arrest. On Thursday, the newspaper released the full recording of the meeting where officials threaten its reporters.
On Wednesday, Jennings resigned, according to Gov. Stitt’s office. The day before, the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association voted unanimously to suspend Clardy and two of his deputies.
In a post on the sheriff’s office Facebook page on Tuesday, officials did not address the recorded conversation but claimed the recording was illegally obtained. Willingham said he twice spoke with his attorneys to be sure he wasn’t doing anything illegal in making the recording.
None of the officials on the recording have responded to telephone calls or emails from the AP seeking comment.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas.