DUNCAN, Okla. — Prosecutors said they were bored teenagers who had been in trouble before but not for violent crime. One of them even calmly reported in to his juvenile probation office a half-hour after police said they randomly shot and killed a jogger “for the fun of it.”
No one ever suspected they would disrupt this small southern Oklahoma town of 24,000 known as the “buckle on the oil belt” and cause an unimagined international story of senseless death.
But they did. And now James Edwards Jr., 15, Chancey Allen Luna, 16, and Michael Dewayne Jones, 17, sit in the Stephens County Jail, awaiting their fate for what prosecutors said was the heartless drive-by slaying of Christopher Lane, 22, a college baseball player from Melbourne, Australia, out for his daily run.
Edwards and Luna were charged in court Tuesday with first-degree murder and face possible life sentences without parole. District Attorney Jason Hicks said Luna fired the fatal bullet from a .22-caliber pistol into the back of the unsuspecting Lane, who stumbled into a ditch and collapsed along the tree-lined road. Two motorists who drove by later phoned in 911 calls.
Jones, who police said drove the ambush car -- with Luna in the back seat and Edwards in the front passenger seat -- was only charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact and use of a vehicle in the discharge of a weapon. Prosecutors said he was the only one to cooperate with investigators. But they said he could still face many years in prison.
All three teens are considered juveniles under Oklahoma law and thus cannot be put to death. Their cases, however, will be tried in adult court. They pleaded not guilty at their initial court appearance.
Local authorities could not explain the thrill killing nature of the Lane murder. Research by criminologists into similar acts of violence has attributed motivation to perpetrators' need to feel empowered, to make a statement through a dramatic criminal act.
Police investigators said the teenagers were not part of an organized gang, but that they saw themselves as “gangsters” such as those portrayed on TV and in the movies.
District Attorney Jason Hicks characterized the trio as “thugs” who besmirched the reputation of the town, birthplace of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Ron Howard, the Hollywood producer and actor.
“This is not something that is supposed to happen here,” said Hicks. “And to our friends in Australia, I would say to you this is not Duncan, Oklahoma, this is not Stephens County, Oklahoma.”
Hicks said police investigators determined the teens randomly selected Lane as a victim when he jogged past them on the north side of town. He said the youths were bored and looking to “kill somebody for fun.” He said Luna pulled the trigger on the .22-caliber pistol from his backseat passenger’s position at about 3 p.m. Friday.
The teenagers were arrested four hours later in a church parking lot and processed for arrest on a first-degree murder complaint. Hicks said police have a video showing Edwards, the youngest at 15, “dancing, laughing and carrying on” during his booking.
“It was a great big joke to him,” said Hicks, adding that Edwards signed court documents related to his juvenile probation on other issues a half-hour after the murder of Lane as though nothing had happened.
Edwards’ father, James Edwards Sr., said his son “really doesn’t understand it all. He really doesn’t understand how serious it was.”
Rachael Padilla, Edwards’ sister, noted that only the two defendants of color were charged with first-degree murder, and that lesser charges were filed against Jones, a white youth.
“I don’t feel it is fair,” she said.
Lane was killed a week after he returned from a summer break vacation to his native Australia with his girlfriend, Sarah Harper of Duncan. He was staying with Harper’s family for a few days before returning to East Central University in Ada, Okla., for his senior year and resumption of his college baseball career.
A fund was established at gofundme.com to pay for his parents to travel to Duncan and accompany his body back to Australia for burial. The goal was $15,000 but Australian news reports said that amount had already been surpassed.
The nature of Lane’s murder – a random killing to break up the boredom of an Oklahoma summer – caused severe criticism of American gun laws in Australia.
Tim Fischer, the country’s former deputy prime minister, told the Melbourne Herald Sun that Australian tourists should avoid traveling to the United States until Congress passes stricter gun control laws.
“Tourists thinking of going to the USA should think twice,” said Fischer.
He added: “This is the bitter harvest and legacy of the policies of the NRA (National Rifle Association) that even blocked background checks for people buying guns at gun shows. I am deeply angry about this because of the callous attitude of the three teenagers.
“It’s a sign of the proliferation of guns on the ground in the USA. There is a gun for almost every American.”
In a response to Fischer, the State Department said the United States was deeply saddened “to hear the tragic news of the death of an Australian citizen in Oklahoma.”
“This is clearly a tragic death, and we extend our condolences to the family and the loved ones. We understand that local authorities are focused on bringing those responsible to justice. Clearly, we would support that,” said a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf.
Details for this story were reported by the Duncan, Okla., Banner.