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History

A Brief History

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Early Oklahoma City field office

In the summer of 1908—even as the force of special agents that would become the FBI was being created—Justice Department examiners were conducting investigations in Oklahoma. The state had been established only a year earlier, and agents were needed to root out white-collar crime, especially land fraud, in the former territory. These investigations continued over the next several years.

By fiscal year 1914, the new Bureau’s work in Oklahoma had become so important that it opened a field office in Oklahoma City under the leadership of Special Agent in Charge James Findlay, who would serve for the next decade. This division has been in continuous operation ever since.

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William Hale (right) was responsible for the
murder of Anna Brown (left).

One of the division’s earliest responsibilities was helping to protect and respond to federal crimes on Indian reservations in the state. In one major case, the Osage Tribal Council in 1926 asked the federal government to help bring to justice the murderers of two members of the tribe. Over the next three years, agents worked undercover to ferret out a wide-ranging plot by W. K. “Bill” Hale, a local con man, cattle rancher, and politician. Through extortion, murder, and a variety of other crimes, Hale had become wealthy by acquiring the oil royalties, or “head rights,” of members of the Osage Tribe (each member of the tribe had a right to a share of the profits from oil drilling on Indian lands). In 1929, Hale was convicted and sent to prison.

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George “Machine-Gun”
Kelly

The division also had its hands full during the lawless gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1927, Oklahoma City agents investigated a serious case of arson at Fort Sill; the guilty were sentenced to a combined total of 226 years in jail. The next year, the division successfully pursued a gang of organized box-car thieves. In 1933, agents quickly responded to the kidnapping of oil magnate Charles Urschel. George “Machine-Gun” Kelly and others were soon identified as the culprits, and, thanks in large part to work of the Oklahoma City Division, he was tracked to a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Later that same year, division agents also located and engaged in a firefight with a notorious gangster named Wilbur Underhill, who had gained the nickname “The Tri-State Terror” for his crimes across Missouri , Oklahoma, and Kansas. Underhill was shot several times and died soon after, making him the first criminal to fall in a fight with Bureau agents.

During World War II, the division continued to handle a wide range of criminal investigations—from chasing down fugitives to responding to automobile thefts and bank robberies. National security, though, was soon the Bureau’s top priority, and with Oklahoma’s range of military bases and its key role in energy and food production, the office had a lot of work to do to protect these industries and assets from potential threats of sabotage and other security concerns.

In 1955, FBI Oklahoma City broke a major car theft ring that stole cars in St. Louis, Missouri and sold them in Tulsa, Oklahoma. More than 200 cars were recovered in the course of the investigation. In 1958, division agents located a 6-month-old girl who had been kidnapped from her San Francisco home. By the end of the decade, nearly 70 percent of the division’s work involved criminal investigations.

During the 1960s, the division had a number of investigative successes. It apprehended four of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives; arrested a dangerous killer named Thomas Hadder, who had escaped from a mental hospital; and located the body of John Dillon, who was sought on charges of operating a drug ring. In 1969, Oklahoma City agents arrested Richard Tingler, who was sought for six murders, and Ruth Eisemann-Schier, who had kidnapped a young woman in Florida. Eisemann-Schier was the first woman named to the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the division investigated everything from the theft of heavy farm and construction equipment to major political corruption. In 1974, it looked into allegations that former Governor David Hall had taken bribes—he later became the state’s first governor to be convicted of criminal acts. A few years later, the division partnered with the IRS on a major undercover investigation called CORCOM (for Corrupt Commissioners) that targeted political corruption across the state. When the undercover phase of investigation ended in 1981, more than a 100 politicians across the state had been indicted and convicted of taking bribes and kickbacks. Division agents and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation also successfully investigated the failure of the Penn Square Bank.

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Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown
Oklahoma City after the bomb exploded

The most significant case in Division history came in 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was bombed. A total of 168 people were killed and many more injured in the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. Working with a wide array of federal, state, and local partners, FBI Oklahoma City was central to the immediate response and ensuring investigation. Within hours of the bombing, Timothy McVeigh was arrested by Oklahoma law enforcement officers and identified as the bomber. Subsequent investigation also led to the arrest and conviction of Terry Nichols.

Since the events of 9/11, preventing terrorist attacks has become the top priority of the Oklahoma City Division and the FBI as whole. In response, the division has strengthened its Joint Terrorism Task Force and reformed and improved its intelligence capabilities across the board.

With a century of service under its belt, FBI Oklahoma City remains dedicated to protecting its citizens, communities, and tribal lands from a host of major national security and criminal threats.