August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

BOUNCING DOWN THE rutted, brush-choked drive came a red-and-white pickup, its four ashen-faced young passengers huddled together in the eat). The slight blond boy behind the wheel was crying. When the children’s cousin Wayne Munn—coming to lake them fishing—slopped them and asked what had happened, the 15-year-old driver, Herman Dutton, sobbed, “I think my dad is dead.”

Instantly, Munn, 25, a former policeman, made for the ramshackle trailer where the youngsters—Herman, his brothers Druie. 12, Jake, 8, and sister Alicia, 10—lived with their divorced father. To get to the door, he had to run a gauntlet of old engine parts, empty beer cans, squawking chickens and geese. Inside, Lonnie Dutton, 39, lay on the couch, a bullet hole in his head. “I wasn’t surprised,” Munn says of his gruesome discovery on July 12. “I expected something would happen sooner or later. Hither he would kill all I he kids—or one of them would kill him.”

Munn had ample reason to fear. Around the farming community of Rush Springs, Okla., 60 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, Dutton, an unemployed roofer. was known as a hard-drinking bully who didn’t hesitate to threaten people with the 9mm pistol he always carried in his overalls. The man whom relatives knew was even scarier—a wife beater and child abuser who had attacked his own lather when he tried to get help for the kids. In the end, it seems the desperate children, with nowhere to turn, decided to defend themselves. Herman and Druie reportedly told the sheriff they’d killed their father because they could no longer bear his beatings or watch him sexually molest their little sister. As Lonnie napped, one boy allegedly aimed Dutton’s deer-hunting rifle while the other pulled the trigger.

“The adult community failed,” said Bill Chambers, principal of the middle school where Herman Dutton had recently completed eighth grade, at a town meeting three days after the killing. More than 200 of Rush Springs’ 1,500 residents packed the; high school auditorium to explore how the system could have let down the Duttons—and to give moral and financial support to the boys, who have been charged as juveniles with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. “We do not condone violence,” Chambers hold the sympathetic crowd. “But we understand they thought that was the only way out.”

Dutton had been abusive even before the children were born, says his ex-wife, Marie, 35, a casino security guard in Las Vegas. Although Lonnie seemed “happy-go-lucky…real nice” when they married in 1975, by the time Herman arrived three years later, Marie says, her beefy, 200-lb. husband had stopped working, started “drinking and drugging” and was beating her. “If you wore a skirt, you were in big trouble [with Lonnie],” says his father, Luther, 61, a retired carpenter, of the youngest of his three children. “All women were whores to him, except his mama.”

Over time, says Marie, Lonnie’s violence grew startlingly depraved, driving her to several aborted escape attempts. He beat her with hoses and pistols; later, he forced the children to throw darts at their mother and once ordered the older kids to beat her with logs. Jake was too small at the time, says Marie, so Lonnie told him to bite his mother instead. “He’d say, ‘Bite harder! Bite harder!’ ” says Marie. Later the children would come to her and apologize, but she knew they faced beatings themselves if they didn’t do what their father wanted.

From Lonnie’s parents’ home next door, “you could hear her begging him to stop, and you could hear him hitting her,” says his sister Linda Munn, 43. But when relatives tried to intervene, Lonnie would threaten them at gunpoint—or worse. “I carry scars—knife scars, bullet scars,” says Luther. “He said he’d kill us all if I reported him.” After seeing the TV drama The Burning Bed, about an abused wife who fights back, Marie considered violence herself. “But I was afraid I’d go to jail, and then what would happen to my kids?”

Instead, Marie finally fled with the children to her mother’s home in Palacios, Tex., in 1989. But Lonnie’s teary phone calls persuaded the two older boys to return. When the younger ones later went for a court-ordered visit, Lonnie sued for custody, claiming that Marie was an unfit and abusive mother. He won the case; Marie will concede only that “I had some problems for a while.” The court records are sealed. Since the murder she has returned to Rush Springs and wants custody.

It is hard to imagine that anything could have been worse than living with Lonnie. “He treated them like slaves,” says Wayne Munn. The children were forced to toil at all hours—in the vegetable garden, doing housework, standing guard against imaginary intruders their father always feared were after him—while Lonnie guzzled their welfare check. Visitors, even their grandparents, were strictly forbidden. The kids’ duties also included shoplifting, with a beating for the one who stole the least. To protect his younger siblings, Herman always made sure he came up short.

The children’s only respite was school. Though their clothes were shabby and classmates snickered that they smelled, the Duttons were regarded as well-behaved, average students. Herman was a proud member of the junior high basketball team. Many remarked on the Dutton kids’ unusual closeness—they’d even share a seat on the school bus, four scrunched into a space made for two. Principal Chambers theorizes, “I think Herman liked team sports so much because he was already on a team—only that team, the Dutton kids, was fighting for their lives.”

When teachers would ask Herman about a black eye or bruise, “He always told people he had run into a tree or fallen on a rock,” Chambers says. “I think he was scared silent.” It was the same on the few occasions when authorities investigated calls from relatives, including Linda Munn and her son Wayne and others, that the children were being abused: The kids denied everything. “They knew better than to say anything,” explains Linda. “No one understands how frightening it can be when you’re looking down the barrel of a gun, and he’s telling you he’ll kill you if you tell.” (Munn and her husband, Gary, intend to press state officials for an investigation of social service agencies’ role in the case.)

Now the community, stunned that such abuse could take place under its nose, is trying to make it up to the kids. Almost every lamppost and mailbox sports the shiny royal blue ribbons of Friends of Herman and Druie Dutton. the group formed to help the boys. Donations will go toward such expenses as expert witnesses or future counseling. And two groups, Cherish and Mothers Against Sexual Abuse, have offered to help pay for the prominent Oklahoma City lawyer, Irven Box, whom family members want to replace the boys’ court-appointed counsel.

While the younger Duttons stay with an aunt, Herman and Druie are undergoing psychological tests at the Norman, Okla., juvenile detention center where they are being held on $25,000 bond each. If found guilty, they could be put on probation, ordered to get counseling or held in a juvenile facility where they might be kept until age 18.

Meanwhile, Rush Springs continues to wonder how Lonnie Dutton’s reign of terror was allowed to go on for so long. Says his father: “Everyone asks me, ‘Why couldn’t I have done something? Well. I like to live, don’t you? I wanted my grandkids to live, and I wanted my wife to live. I guess I thought that someday maybe this would be different—that he would wake up and change.

PAM LAMBERT

ANNE MAIER in Rush Springs

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