January 31, 2018 10:00 AM

The unspeakable tragedy dominated Oklahoma headlines for years.

In the darkness of June 13, 1977, on the edge of a wooded campground filled with Girl Scouts anticipating two weeks of fun, three young campers were raped and murdered, their strangled and mutilated bodies left under a tree about 100 yards from their tent.

A 10-month manhunt led authorities to arrest and charge a convicted rapist with ties to the area who had escaped from jail four years earlier.

Although police retrieved no weapon or fingerprints, they did uncover a single hair that analysis said could belong to a Native American — such as suspect Gene Leroy Hart — along with items possibly stolen from the camp that authorities linked to him.

But the jurors in rural Mayes County were unconvinced and found Hart, 33, not guilty. “They tried to frame him,” Hart’s attorney, Garvin Isaacs, tells PEOPLE.

Sent back to prison after the acquittal to complete his prior sentence, Hart died two months later, in 1979, leaving the mystery of who murdered 8-year-old Lori Farmer, 9-year-old Michele Guse and 10-year-old Denise Milner officially unsolved for more than 40 years.

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The Oklahoma campsite at Camp Scott near Locust Grove, where three young Girl Scouts were killed in June 1977.
Gene Leroy Hart
AP/REX/Shutterstock

Says Sheryl Stokes, Lori’s childhood friend: “People just want to know what happened and who did this?”

Now they may finally find out.

With $30,000 raised locally last year by Mayes County Sheriff Mike Reed, surviving evidence from the crime scene is undergoing DNA testing that Reed thinks may reveal a forensic profile of the killer that was unavailable four decades ago.

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From left: 9-year-old Michele Guse, 8-year-old Lori Farmer and 10-year old Denise Milner

Whether Reed hopes to confirm a link to the formerly accused Hart or make another match, he won’t say. But he hopes he can at last provide answers to the victims’ survivors, who have kept the girls’ story alive.

“If I can bring some kind of peace to the family members, the moms, the dads, the children,” Sheriff Reed says, “that is my goal.”

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