Apr 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Wrongful-death suit filed against Oklahoma sheriff's office

A composite photo of the front page of the McCurtain Gazette-News with a headline reading "Full Audio covers wide range of bombshell threats, plans"

The front page of Thursday's McCurtain Gazette. Photo: Courtesy of Erin Christy, reporter for KJRH-TV

The widow of a man who died following a 2022 arrest filed a wrongful-death lawsuit Thursday against the sheriff of McCurtain County in Oklahoma and others. The lawman was at a meeting where a newspaper recorded officials talking about killing journalists who covered the death.

The big picture: Bobby Dale Barrick, 45, died days after allegedly being stunned with Taser-like weapons by sheriff's deputies, Mitchell Garrett, a lawyer for the widow, told Axios.

  • Sheriff Kevin Clardy, one of the four people identified by the McCurtain Gazette in recording excerpts it released last week, is named in the suit, along with three deputies, a game warden and the board of county commissioners.

Catch up quick: Garrett told Axios that Barrick was likely having a mental health crisis on March 13, 2022, when he broke the glass door of a convenience store. It's unclear if Barrick was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

  • He was subdued by citizens and "hogtied" until sheriff's deputies arrived, the complaint notes. Three deputies and a game warden responded.
  • The suit claims eyewitnesses saw deputies administer a chokehold, use a baton and apply at least four shocks from Tasers.
  • Barrick stopped breathing and then "experienced seizure-like activity," the suit states.
  • He was sent to McCurtain Memorial Hospital and then airlifted to Paris Regional Medical Center in Paris, Texas, where he died five days later.
  • The suit alleges Barrick died as a result of excessive force deputies used during the arrest.

State of play: The McCurtain Gazette, which has no online presence, had requested documents and video related to Barrick's death from the sheriff's office since last year, but only obtained them recently, after the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a lawsuit on its behalf, the newspaper reports.

  • The newspaper released the video from the arrest and the entire 3.5-hour audio recording, which was made March 6, via QR codes printed on its front page Thursday.
  • The video shows Barrick handcuffed in the backseat of a patrol vehicle, pleading for help and shouting, "They are going to kill me!"
  • The lawsuit claims the deputies' body cameras were either already turned off or deactivated when the interaction with Barrick became physical.
  • In addition to talk of "hit men," pre-dug holes for bodies and lynchings, the full audio recording caught discussions ranging from sexism to future county commissioner candidates to how Tyson Foods trucks are impacting county roads.

Between the lines: Bruce Willingham, McCurtain Gazette publisher, told AP he left a voice-activated recorder in a room after a commissioners meeting officially ended because he suspected officials were continuing to discuss business, which would violate Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act.

Of note: The Oklahoma Sheriff's Association suspended Clardy, investigator Alicia Manning and jail administrator Larry Hendrix on Tuesday.

  • Mark Jennings, a county commissioner whose voice is also heard, according to the Gazette, resigned by handwritten note Tuesday.

What we're watching: It's yet to be seen if Clardy, Manning and Hendrix will resign, as Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt suggested.

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