25 Aug WAKING UP IN HELL: The Story of the Trials of Brenda Burdue Savage
Part One- “The State of Oklahoma vs…”
I couldn’t believe it; they were going to quit.
I learned at a very young age that quitting was just not something I was ever going to do much of. I was always being told, and up until at least 1st Grade actually believed that “can’t” wasn’t a real word. This is because my father would never hesitate to instruct me that ‘can’t ain’t a word, cause ‘can’t’ ain’t ever done nothing for nobody”, on the rare occasion that I would utter it. Here I was sitting in a courtroom in Pittsburg County Oklahoma on the 14th of January, 2020, far removed from my childhood years, and participating in a First-Degree Murder trial. I was watching, grown-ups, attorneys working for the Pittsburg County District Attorney’s Office, get all mad and want to quit. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief
***Author’s note*** This story is told through the recollection of the author. I have tired my best to recall all of these events with accuracy. I have used transcripts, notes, reports, videos, audio recordings, interviews, and my own personal memory to piece together the events as they occurred over the course of this case. -Brecken A. Wagner
January 2020 was not that long ago, but it sure feels that way as I write this today. There was so much we all didn’t know. So many things were lined up and ready to come right at all of us, our client, this firm (Wagner & Lynch), Oklahomans, Americans, and humanity. In just a few short months the world would be changed by the Covid-19 Pandemic, an election and an aftermath that still leaves our nation divided to this day, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that would change the entire criminal justice system in Eastern Oklahoma, and so much more. As a firm we had no idea that this case would become what it did, one of the greatest trials we all have ever had the opportunity to be a part of. This is the story of the trial of Brenda Burdue Savage, a woman from Texas who was accused of shooting and killing a well known and beloved local resident named Bart Jameson of McAlester Oklahoma.
Eventually Brenda Savage would face a jury in the United States Federal District Court of Eastern Oklahoma, but you can’t tell that story without telling about how she first faced trial in the State District Court in Pittsburg County Oklahoma. It all started early on the morning of Wednesday January 30th, 2019.
Blake Lynch took Anthony Savage’s frantic call that morning. By 8 AM that morning Anthony had already called a few times and left messages, when Blake called him back, he was worried about his wife. She was being held in the Pittsburg County jail and they were telling Anthony it was for murder. That made no sense to Anthony and he couldn’t understand. Blake helped him gain his composure and then started making calls to find out what there was, if anything, to Anthony’s concerns. Blake learned quickly that in fact Anthony was right and Brenda was at the County Jail, and she was being held for murder. Blake acted quickly and before long he had already met with Brenda at the jail and was negotiating a bond recommendation with the Adam Scharn, the First Assistant District Attorney.
Blake had a good argument for a lower bond, Brenda Savage was in her fifties, had been married for over thirty years, and had never been accused of anything more serious than a minor traffic violation. The state was still claiming that their story was coming together, but that they believed Brenda had gone to the home of a man named Patrick Dunlap in the early hours of January 30th, and while there shot and killed another man, Bart Jameson with a nine-millimeter pistol that belonged to her. It was suggested to Blake at the time that Mr. Dunlap and another man, Truman Kenieutubbe, (both friends of the deceased Mr. Jameson), were present and witnessed Ms. Savage shoot Bart Jameson.
THE GOVERNMENT’S VERSION OF EVENTS (SORT OF)
Brenda Savage was drinking a beer at a local bar called the Valley Inn. Brenda, a resident of Texas was here in McAlester with her husband of nearly thirty years, Anthony Savage. Anthony was the safety inspector for a company that was building wind farms in the area, and because his job was going to keep him away from their home in Texas for so long, the couple rented a home in the McAlester area for the time that Anthony’s job would keep him here. On the evening of January 29th, Brenda had first gone to the casino, and from there she found herself at the Valley Inn.
While at the Valley Inn she was drinking beer and talking to other patrons. She talked with one man about gun. She was an avid shooter and Anthony and her had gotten into shooting competitions, and when they traveled, they always brought their competition pistols with them. Brenda continued to mingle while at the Valley and eventually struck up a conversation with Patrick Dunlap and Bart Jameson.
At one point Branda got into a disagreement with another female patron causing the bartender, Darla, to step in. Brenda would later get into it with Darla herself when she questioned the receipt Darla gave her. Darla told her to pay and get out, to which Brenda advised the bartender in the most out-of-towner way possible, that she could buy the bar if she so desired, and that she had more money than anybody in there. Darla next threatened to call the police if she didn’t pay and leave, and that’s exactly what Brenda did.
As Brenda was leaving, she was invited by one of the three friends to come with them back to Patrick’s house for some more beer and conversation. Despite the late hour, and how little she knew the three men, she accepted. Bart and Truman left together in Bart’s truck, while Patrick got into Brenda’s car to drive her to his house.
Patrick and Brenda arrived first. Bart and Truman were tasked with stopping by a convenience store before it became too late to buy beer. Patrick excused himself briefly, changed clothing, then talked with Brenda in the kitchen as they waited on the others to arrive.
Bart and Truman did arrive, and as he was walking into the house, Truman dropped the 12-pack of Bud Light bottles and a couple broke when the box hit the concrete porch. The three cleaned up the beers and started up with some small talk in the kitchen.
From this point forward, the versions (they tend to change over the course of this case) of events as told by Patrick and Truman do start to change and confuse the narrative. According to Patrick, Brenda never left the kitchen, but at some point, her nine-millimeter pistol appeared in the room. Patrick (a convicted felon) claims that the pistol was unloaded by Bart and left on the table. It is after this that he goes into the living room to put some music on the television.
While he is in the living room putting music on the television, Bart is walking in front of the TV when Patrick claims that hears a loud pop, and Bart falls to the floor, bleeding. Patrick says that he turned to see Brenda standing in the door frame, holding the pistol in her hand. According to Patrick, he goes to give Bart aid, stopping only to call 911. Patrick never claims that an argument or ill words of any kind occurred. At one point Patrick also describes seeing the pistol he claims was used to kill Bart, on the same coffee table in the living room where he is sitting right before Bart is shot. Yet, he claims he did not bring the gun in there, or does he know how it got in there, or how it picked itself up off the table and got into Brenda’s hand on the other side of the room.
Officer Danny McHenry arrives on the scene while Patrick is still on the phone with 911. At first Officer McHenry finds nothing. He approaches the front door and knocks. What McHenry doesn’t know is that Bart Jameson is on the other side of that door, bleeding from a gunshot wound. McHenry starts to go around the house and as he rounds the corner, Truman throws his hands up in the air, and Patrick (who is on the phone with the 911 dispatcher) yells to McHenry that “She shot him!”. McHenry sees a very intoxicated woman leaning up against the wall near the door. The woman is Brenda Savage, and upon seeing McHenry she slurs the words that were recorded on his body camera and sealed her fate, “Yeah, I shot him.” As McHenry is getting his bearings and asking the dispatcher to send an ambulance, Ms. Savage speaks again and this time she slurs “Oh you don’t need an ambulance, he’s dead.”
Meanwhile, Patrick is wailing about his friend being shot, and that this “bitch” shot him in cold blood. Truman has since put his hands down, but he continues to tell Patrick to “chill out”. McHenry starts to make his way into the small home to look for Bart Jameson, but as he enters the house he is followed very closely by the strangely acting woman. She tells the officer that those guys out there are crazy and makes a gesture with her eyes toward their direction. She asks McHenry if she can stay with him. Officer McHenry does the right thing and takes Brenda back out on to the porch and tells her to stay their while he goes to render aid to Bart. Other officers began to arrive on the scene as Officer McHenry unsuccessfully keeps trying to revive Mr. Jameson, only stopping when relieved by paramedics.
Brenda is taken into custody by Eli Hass of the McAlester Police Department on suspicion of murder. Truman and Patrick remain there on scene until officers finish their evidence collection and investigation over the next couple of hours. Detective Don Hass arrived on scene and began to manage the investigation. Attempts were made to get a statement from Truman, but he was too drunk, and unable to write anything down, and Mr. Dunlap wasn’t much better, but they both claimed that Brenda Savage had just shot Bart Jameson for no reason and without any warning. Both Truman and Patrick were noted to be highly intoxicated, and the blood alcohol content in Bart’s blood would later show that he too was very intoxicated, more than twice the legal limit.
Brenda was taken to the jail and left in a holding cell. A few hours later she was brought to an interview room where Don Hass appeared and began to read her the “Miranda” warnings. As he began to read them to her, she started to slide down the wall, slowly at first and then faster until she collapsed on the floor. Detective Hass considered her too intoxicated to give a statement. Instead, he would rely on her words in his report, that she had said, “I shot him.” The case against Brenda Savage was essentially opened and shut in the early morning hours of January 30, 2019.
IT STARTS HITTING THE FAN EARLY
The bond negotiations started nearly the moment Anthony hired our office to represent his wife. First, Blake went out to meet with Brenda. She was not just scared, but really confused. She explained to Blake that she had no idea how she had gotten there. She described waking up and hurting all over. Brenda, in her fifties, had also suffered from many back problems and had and recently recovered from back surgery. The first feeling that came to her when she realized she was in a jail cell was shame. She reasoned that after she left the bar, she must have been pulled over and arrested for DUI. She didn’t feel like she had drunk too much, she remembered being careful, but she also had zero memory of leaving the bar. Had she stayed and drank to the point she must have blacked out and tried to drive home? Anthony was going to be so disappointed.
She saw what appeared to be a shiny steel speaker box on the wall in front of her. There on the box was a little button. She pressed it and after a few seconds a voice screeched out from the noise of feedback, “Yeah? What?”, the box asked. Brenda leaned in and asked the box why she was here.
“You’re being charged with First Degree Murder,” the box said flatly. Brenda recalls being to stunned to the point of being unable to cry. What was this nightmare?
Brenda was not much help to Blake. She had no memory of leaving the bar that night, yet we knew that she did leave with those three men. We had a woman leaving a bar late at night with three men, being intoxicated to the point of losing her memory in a very short period of time. All signs pointed to her being drugged, and assuming that law enforcement followed the most basic of investigative procedures when a firearm has been discharged, and someone is shot, and alcohol is present, that a blood draw or screening of some kind must have taken place. That test might be able to determine not only her blood alcohol content from the evening before, but also whether there was anything else in her system.
Blake left the jail with all kinds of questions, but he also knew he needed to get her out of the jail as soon as possible, and she was currently being held on a bond of one million dollars. Blake reached out to Adam Scharn, the First Assistant District Attorney and began to ask about lowering the bond by agreement. Bond is not meant to be a punishment, but instead an incentive that a person will appear in court. Our criminal justice system recognizes that those accused are innocent until and only until they enter a plea of guilt or after their guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and punitive bonds are actually forbidden under the law, specifically by the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Blake and Adam discussed how Brenda had never been accused, let alone convicted, of any crime more serious than a traffic ticket. That, and given the fact that Brenda had already hired an attorney, and was invested in fighting the charges against her rather than running away, led the pair to agree that a bond of $100,000.00 was reasonable.
Brenda’s family was able to post her bond and get out the following day. While she left Oklahoma to return home in Texas, we got to work. Blake started filing motions for discovery and trying to get his hands on every bit of information that he could. We were looking for not only things that we expected to see in the investigation, like fingerprint analysis, ballistics reports, scene reconstruction, toxicology, Medical Examiner report, the lead detective’s report, body camera footage, and so many other things that are standard in any homicide investigation. The lead detective in this case was Don Hass, who had decades of experience as a law enforcement officer and at the time headed up the detective division for the McAlester police department.
One thing that came up early on in this case, and would later prove to be very significant to our theory was the state of Brenda’s car that morning. Blake accompanied the Savages as they went to recover Brenda’s vehicle from impound. The vehicle had been processed (according to the detective division) and was available to be released back to Brenda and Anthony. Blake noticed immediately that something was not right about the state of the car. He expected to see things out of place, and as if it had been searched, but this seemed different. These officers really threw things around in the car and went through items in what looked like a hurry. Also, there were so many handprints on the exterior of the car, all around the passenger door. With all of that seeming so odd, Blake documented it just in case it might be of importance later, and it would be.
Things did start to trickle in, but it was the lack of things we expected to see that began to concern us. We weren’t seeing those reports and evidence collection that we were expecting. One of the things we did receive somewhat unexpectedly from the jail was the clothing that Brenda had been wearing the night she was arrested. After confirming with the jail that these clothes had been preserved and untouched since that night, Blake saw an opportunity for us to examine some of the evidence ourselves. He had a staff member place the clothing into a sealed cardboard box to protect the integrity of the evidence. Next, one of our paralegals kept the box locked in her office until we could secure the services of an expert in gun powder residue. Gun Powder Residue or more commonly referred to as “GSR” is the tiny metallic fragments that are expelled from a firearm when it is fired. These tiny fragments, invisible to the naked eye, would be expected to be found on Brenda’s clothing if in fact she had fired the weapon. This would have also been one of those standard investigative tools for law enforcement to get to the truth of a matter if they are actually interested in doing so. However, based on the lack of any investigation we were seeing early in the process, it was assumed that Det. Hass had likely not requested such a test on Brenda or the other two potential shooters, and we should at least perform one on our client to see if she could be ruled out as the one that pulled the trigger.
After some searching and with the help of lawyer friends around the country, our office was able to settle on Richard Ernest. Mr. Ernest is the owner and founder of Alliance Forensics Laboratory Inc., in Keller Texas and one of the foremost experts on firearms in the world. He has worked on many high-profile cases and is very well known in the forensics community. When he agreed to work on our case, we knew we had something special. When he told us that his analysis revealed that Brenda Savage did not likely discharge any firearm, while wearing the clothes she was wearing that night, we knew we had something even more special, an innocent person accused of murder.
THERE’S ALWAYS TWO SIDES
Bart Jameson was well liked, and he came from a large family that was shocked to their core with grief when he died. Bart’s brothers, one of which is a twin, took the news of his death especially hard, and it wasn’t long before the stage of grief they mostly settled on was anger. We would later come to know that the anger was exacerbated by the McAlester Police Department and District Attorney Chuck Sullivan. According to a family member, when one of the brothers met with Detective Don Hass and Chuck Sullivan the morning, his brother was killed, he was told that Brenda Savage made a complete confession and that she claimed she had shot Bart just to watch him die.
Naturally the brother reported this false and extremely volatile bit of news to the rest of the family which reacted in a surge of terrible grief and anger that anyone could have seen coming. Their beloved son, brother, cousin, uncle, and friend was taken from them and just because some stranger, some sick person wanted to watch him die? As a result of this unconscionable and terrible decision to mislead this family by Sullivan and Hass, the family and their supporters took to social media with innuendos that eventually just morphed into outright threats. The family was so angry that Brenda had even been given a bond amount, let alone one that she could post. They took their displeasure to the street and protested in front of the courthouse about the low bond that was allowed for a stone-cold killer like Brenda Savage.
It became so bad that our office began collecting internet postings, threats, and discussions in the event that we would need to file a motion for change of venue (which we eventually would). With each hearing and each appearance, the rhetoric and vitriol would increase and get scarier and scarier, eventually leading to a court showdown with Blake subpoenaing the social media accounts of one of the brothers in particular.
PROCEEDING TO TRIAL
The preliminary hearing would fist be scheduled for early June of 2019, but would have to be continued at the request of the state because of some witness issues. The hearing would take place in Mid-July, and only Patrick Dunlap and Officer McHenry would provide testimony of what happened that night.
Patrick would end up helping the defense before it was over. Blake, cross-examined Patrick and had him give as much detail as possible from what he recalled that night. Through Patrick, Blake was able to establish that Brenda was supposed to have shot Bart while standing slightly behind the couch, and in the door frame that separates the kitchen and living room where it is claimed Bart was shot. This is significant because it created yet another physical issue for the state’s story to be true.
The gun that was used to shoot Bart was a nine-millimeter handgun, and the casing is thrown from the gun to the right and behind the person shooting. This is because this is a right-handed firearm and it is designed that way. If Brenda was standing where Patrick claims she was when Bart was shot, then the shell casing should have ejected from the gun and landed either somewhere on the couch or behind it (there was a gap between it and the wall). Instead, the casing was found in the corner of the room to the left. This means the metal casing would have to have traveled back and to the right, stopped in the air and then flew the opposite direction, behind and to the left of the shooter. This created even more doubt that Brenda was the shooter; and given that the police were never able to find the bullet that killed Bart (it went through and through), or a defect in the wall or the tv he was supposedly standing in front of when he was shot, the story that Brenda had just walked into the living room raised the pistol and shot Bart to watch him die was getting more and more less likely as even a possibility of what happened. This was just one of the things that came up at the preliminary hearing, but for those that were really listening and paying attention, Blake was conducting a master class on how to get a bad story out of a bad storyteller.
The more Patrick kept talking the more inconsistencies kept coming. Truman had told officers that Brenda and Patrick were standing outside when he and Bart pulled up, Patrick testifies at the preliminary hearing that he and Brenda went inside where he first changed clothes and then they visited in the kitchen until Truman and Bart arrived. Truman told officers the gun appeared as soon as he and Bart arrived, but Patrick testifies at the hearing that Brenda and the three other men were all visiting inside in the tiny kitchen, when Brenda suddenly disappeared then reappeared minutes later with a gun.
On one of the body cameras worn by Officer Eli Hass on the night of the shooting, Patrick tells Officer Hass that Brenda unloaded the gun in the kitchen. Later that same night both Truman and Patrick claim to have unloaded the gun in the kitchen, and still later that same night Patrick tells Detective Don Hass (Eli’s father) that Bart unloaded the gun in the kitchen. This is later repeated by Truman in a written statement that is attributed to him and prepared by Detective Hass. Then, at the preliminary hearing Patrick testifies under oath that Brenda dropped the magazine and Bart unchambered the round that was in the gun.