verything changed the hot evening two girls padded out toward Bad Creek Bridge in Weleetka and never returned home. A year after 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker and 13-year-old Taylor Placker were gunned down in daylight near Taylor’s home, Skyla’s little sister can’t sleep alone in her own bedroom.
"You know, we always tell our kids that monsters aren't real," Skyla's father William Whitaker said. "But in reality, they are real. There are living, breathing monsters out there and they do horrible things."
Taylor and Skyla were best friends who attended slumber parties together, practiced cheerleading and watched scary movies. On June 8, 2008, one or more shooters pumped five bullets into Taylor and eight into Skyla when they went for an evening walk after a sleep-over at Taylor's house. Taylor's grandfather, Peter Placker, discovered the bodies in a shallow roadside ditch when he went to get the girls so Skyla's mother could take her home, officials said.
The good times
Skyla was tall and long-legged, and she could run like a gazelle, said teacher Beverly Mantooth.
“I know it was a horrible thing. I know they was scared when it happened. But I also know they was with their best friend." William Whitaker, father of Skyla Whitaker.
For occasions no more special than just another school day, Skyla polished her nails, pulled her brown hair into an up do and climbed into high heels – the higher, the better. The only boy in fourth grade then, Walker Taylor, made the mistake of teasing Skyla about her high heels and discovered that heels didn't slow her down. She chased and wrestled him to the ground.
“We are one big, happy family here. We all lost children. It's like they were our own."Beverly Mantooth, teacher of Taylor Placker and Skyla Whitaker.
“Sometimes when I look down the hall and the fifth and sixth graders are lined up, I think I still see them." Wanda Mankin, Graham Public School principal.
The bubbly basketball player was tomboy tough with a love of cats, dogs and her cigarette-eating goat. She wanted to be a veterinarian.
Taylor Placker was the shy one who took home stray dogs and marked her name on the shells of turtles she rescued.
Taylor was becoming an average teenager. When she held sleep-overs, friends admired her posters of Zac Efron from the movie "High School Musical." Her friends laughed as they recalled the day she saw singer Keith Urban at a local restaurant.
"Miss Mantooth, I fell over in a faint," she breathlessly told her teacher.
"What made you do that?"
"I don't know. I guess I was star struck," Taylor said.
Taylor had been home schooled. When Principal Wanda Mankin tested her for grade placement in the summer of 2006, she was surprised with Taylor's intelligence.
"Her mother told me she was very sharp," Mankin said. "All mothers think their children are very smart but she really was."
Taylor hoped to become a forensic scientist.
All year, students found the girls' book reports stuck here and there in the combined fifth and sixth grade classroom at Graham Public School.
Beverly Mantooth looks at the poster offering a $30,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the murder of her students, Taylor Placker and Skyla Whitaker. The reward is more than $30,000 but the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation won't specify the total amount for fear of encouraging “reward shoppers."
Students at the country school found books with the girls' names written in them. Taylor had pressed one of her papers between the pages of another book.
Students said, "This belongs to Taylor," or "This belongs to Skyla."
"Sometimes when I look down the hall and the fifth and sixth graders are lined up, I think I still see them," Mankin said, her voice cracking.
The murders became touchstones for the school's sad, new rituals. Every day while school was in session this year, students and administrators held a moment of silence for Taylor and Skyla.
In the school hallway, Mankin stopped at a classroom door.
"Oh, yes," she said as she tried to turn the door knob. "It's locked."
The former home of the Taylor Placker family. Taylor and Skyla Whitaker were returning from a walk to nearby Bad Creek bridge when they were shot to death, investigators say.
The school began locking classroom doors as the months passed and questions went unanswered: Why? Was it no longer safe to go for a walk several hundred feet away from home? Were other children at risk?
The fear compounded when a shot rang out near the playground, sending students running and screaming into the school. Mankin said apparently was just someone who began the deer season early. In another incident, a man with bloody hands was spotted walking near the school, she said. Police couldn't find the man.
"It's been a scary year," Mankin said. "Lockdown drills are a reality; they're not just practice."
Other new rituals are driven as much by logic as heart.
The school superintendent, Dusty Chancey, also drives a school bus. He has changed his route to avoid the Placker white-frame family home. Taylor is no longer there and this way other students won't be reminded of the tragedy.
For the Placker family, it seems living only a few hundred yards from where the two girls were killed was too much to bear. The white wood house is now a dark memorial with a wide-open door and a broken window. Litter outside, including a child's blue jacket still in good condition, suggest the family left suddenly.
Special Agent Ben Rosser of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation spoke about the girls' shooting deaths during a news conference in 2008 at the Okfuskee County Courthouse in Okemah.
Keeping children close
During a press briefing two days after the shootings, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation chief investigator at the time, Ben Rosser, stated questions that still go unanswered a year later: Was it a random "thrill" killing? Maybe an attempted abduction? A case of mistaken identity? Today, the answers remain unknown.
Shocked and frightened, people locked their doors and kept their children close to home after the murders. And they still do.
One of those is Bobby Bullard. He and his son recently stopped their four-wheeler by the girls' memorial at the murder site. He said he grew up in the house where Taylor's family later lived.
He said area people still talk about the mystery on the seldom-traveled road, bordered on both sides by a verdant wall of brush, weeds and trees.
"For so many shots to have happened, it kind of bewilders everybody how nothing's been heard or seen or nothing. It just keeps on being a mystery," he said.
The dense woods and ponds where he fished appear unchanged, but things are different, he said.
"It's just not near as comfortable out here as it used to be. I mean I don't let my kids out like I used to unless we're together," he said.
His son, Caiden, pointed to the memorial of soggy stuffed animals.
"This is where those two little girls were killed," he said.
He asked his father: "Did the killer do it?"
"Yeah the killer did it," Bullard answered.
"How do they know it was the killer?" Caiden asked
"Because they got shot."
"If the killer gets in front of this four-wheeler, I'm gonna run him over, ‘cause I don't even want to die," Caiden said.
A gunpowder detecting dog, Shirley, trained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, searches for clues on June 25. The girls' memorial is in the background.
The roadside memorial for the two girls began to form the day after the shootings and has roughly doubled in size to about 14 feet by 3 feet of stuffed toys, ceramic statues and trinkets. People still visit regularly to pay their respects, some from other states, even from as far away as Canada.
Whitaker said the support locally and from thousands of miles away has been unbelievable but the memorial needs something more permanent.
"We've had a couple of people looking, but so far, we have not been successful," he said. "We want to put a large granite cross at the memorial site," he said. "So we're looking for a 6- to 8-foot granite cross. If somebody had one they wanted to donate, that would be fantastic. But if we have to buy it, that's fine too, because it's for the girls."
Graham Public School students and school staff do have good days, Mantooth said. But graduation day, May 14, was not a good one as Skyla and Taylor's friends, family and school staff tried to move forward while sharing memories of the girls.
Skyla never got into trouble at school, Mantooth said. Except maybe once.
"Her legs were kind of stretched out. She's long-legged and she might be sitting just any old way and I'd say, ‘You want to take that leg home with you?' She'd move it. She's a good kid. Good spirit," Mantooth said, stretching out the word "good."
One time, Taylor overhead Mantooth comment, "Thank God that blonde's gone," about a student who left the school. So every time Mantooth was about to correct her, Taylor would say, "I heard you say that."
Mantooth told her, "Taylor, you're a little kid. So I can say that's a lie and I didn't say that. They're going to believe me.
Jaycee Weeks, 11, Stormie Morgan, 11, and Destiny Smith, 12, wear memorial T-shirts sent to them by taylorandskyla.net a web site devoted to Taylor Placker and Skyla Whitaker
"So this was a little joke that we had going between us."
Mantooth said during the awards presentations in May 2008, she started to tell the story about Taylor fainting when she saw singer Keith Urban. Taylor was so afraid she'd tell about the long-standing "blackmail," she momentarily overcame her shyness so that when Mantooth took the stage, Taylor jumped up and said, "No! No! No!" leaving the students collapsing into laughter. Jaycee Weeks recalled visits with the girls to the local pizza restaurant, basketball games with the 5-foot, 3-inch Skyla reaching over players' heads, and the class hiding from Taylor while she was preoccupied with swinging the little kids during recess.
"It's real hard not being able to see them at school every day," Destiny Smith said. Thoughts of Taylor and Skyla seem as raw today as they did right after the shootings. The girls' friends struggled to keep their composure as they talked about the two. They often gave in to wrenching, shoulder-shaking sobs. Amy Moore cried so hard she was unable to describe her favorite memory of Skyla and Taylor.
“Every day, it hurts my daughter and there is nothing I can do to make it go away. It's a pain that no child should have to go through." Tabitha Morgan
On graduation day, Taylor's grandmother, Vicky Placker, brought the girls' friends snow globes she crafted using photographs of Taylor and Skyla.
Suzanna Bradley and Stormie Morgan cried as they described the globes and what the mementos mean to them.
"They meant a lot to me because now I don't have to just keep taking pictures out of my head," Stormie said. "I can actually look at one."
Tabitha Morgan hugged her daughter Stormie and said the pain of the murders is just as bad as the day it happened.
"It hurts to have your child hurt and not know how to fix the pain — to have her cry and have her beg you to fix it. Then you try everything in your power to and you don't know how to do it," she said.
"We don't know how to explain it to them and we don't know how to make it better. From my personal experience I do everything I can to help my baby get through it and it doesn't get any better."
On the anniversary of the girls' murders, some community residents say the killer or killers will be found.
"I am a very patient person," Graham superintendent Dusty Chancey said. "I think they will be caught. It just seems like they will catch them. Something this horrendous, they would have to."
Principal Mankin said she hopes no other school ever goes through a similar experience.
"I hope they find the killer," Mankin said. "We need justice for Taylor and Skyla. We need closure here at the school. We need to be able to feel safe again."
The mystery continues in the deaths of best friends Skyla Whitaker, 11, and Taylor Placker, 13.
After a sleepover, the girls struck out about 5 p.m. June 8, 2008, for a walk to a bridge in rural Weleetka. Taylor's grandfather found their bodies about 5:20 p.m. in a shallow roadside ditch several hundred yards from the Placker family home.
Autopsy and ballistics indicate the girls were shot 13 times with two guns: a .40-caliber Glock handgun and a smaller caliber weapon, perhaps a .22.
"I think you can draw from that ... the person who was shooting was making sure these girls could never report what happened," Brown said.
““It's a very active case. We have a case agent assigned but he gets a lot of help from other agents ...We're going to run down every lead. My agents are very secure in their thinking that yes, this is going to be solved." Jessica Brown, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman. In this photo, she holds a sketch in 2008 of a person of interest in the murders of Taylor Placker and Skyla Whitaker. That person has never been found and agents are not certain he ever existed.
Details and dead ends
Brown said investigators won't release information on the second gun because they want to keep secret some details known only by the killer. No weapons have been discovered, but bullets were found in the bodies and shell casings were found at the scene.
One agent is assigned to the case full time, and up to six agents sometimes are pulled in to work together on the case, Brown said. A criminal analyst organizes the massive amount of information as agents run down every lead, she said.
Leads have declined from the hundreds dug up shortly after the killings, but officials say the case has not grown cold.
"You would hope it never goes cold, but there's always that possibility," Brown said.
Resolve stays high
Maxey Reilly, Okfuskee County assistant district attorney, said she's optimistic about the case.
"We have had some things come up the last year, the last months that are very promising," Reilly said.
The case has hit some dead ends despite the thousands of hours OSBI agents spent last fall investigating it. For example, no weapons have been found. A call for registered Glock owners turned up nothing significant and apparently neither did the search of Peter Placker's computer that was used by his granddaughter Taylor, Brown said.
Five days after the crime, police released a sketch of a suspicious man with a black ponytail who was driving a white Ford or Chevy pickup, possibly spotted near the scene. Brown said it's unknown whether he exists. Also, a multicounty grand jury that wrapped up in September returned no indictments after questioning at least three men who had fallen under suspicion in the homicides.
Law officers still are working on two possible theories about the case, said Okfuskee County Sheriff Jack Choate.
"Perhaps it was someone who knew them or they walked up on something they shouldn't have," the sheriff said.
Officers combed the dense, overgrown area. They discovered a number of methamphetamine labs within a seven- or eight-mile radius of the crime scene, Choate said.
"Here's the problem: To our knowledge, other than the shooter or shooters, no one saw it," Brown said. "This is about as remote as you can get."
“We knew from the start it was going to take a while to do this one ... OSBI is working it, we're working it and we're getting a lot of cooperation from other agencies, too. It's going to be solved." Okfuskee County Sheriff Jack Choate
The isolated road is little more than a dirt path closed in by thick trees and underbrush. The former Placker home is the only residence in sight for roughly a mile or more.
The next closest building is about a mile away — the Arbeka Baptist Church. The pastor, Marvin James Lowe, 57, was charged in January with lewd acts against young church members. The case was never tied to Taylor and Skyla.
Choate and Brown agreed with Reilly that the case will be solved.
Skyla's father, William Whitaker, said he intends to be patient.
"I don't want them to just arrest anyone off the street so they can close the case," Whitaker said. "I want them to get the right person who committed this crime. There's no need in losing hope, because they're gonna find who did it. There's not a doubt in my mind."
Remembering a daughter
Whitaker never got to see the joy on Skyla's face. He knows his little half-tomboy, half-girly girl would have loved taking a lap around the swimming pool he'd just bought as a surprise for his family of seven. He had planned to put up the pool that summer weekend.
"Before it happened."
Whitaker's face crumpled with those words and he put his hands to his eyes. The loving father tried to say she never got to see it.
“I think it will be solved soon enough." William Whitaker, father of Skyla, says he hasn't given up hope. He and his family visit the girls' memorial virtually every week so they can clean it and reminisce about the girls.
"This should never have happened. Never," he said when he could speak again.
Whitaker put up the swimming pool a few weeks after the memorial service. Instead of breaking up rough-housing among Skyla and her four siblings at the pool, Whitaker visits the roadside memorial.
"But we didn't bury Skyla," he said. "We brought her home with us.
"She always joked that she was gonna live with us and stay with us forever, so I wanted her to be here with us forever," he said. "There are times when I go to the cemetery and I start thinking, ‘maybe we should have buried her," but then there are other times, when we just say, no. We're real glad we did it the way we did it."
Whitaker has tried to figure out why anyone would shoot his daughter eight times, and her best friend five times. But each time, he arrived at the same answer.
"There's no reason on this earth," he said. "There's absolutely no reason for any of that to have happened, except that the person who did it is pure evil."
Anyone who has information about the June 8 shooting death of Taylor Placker and Skyla Whitaker is asked to contact the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation hot line at (800)522-8017 or the Crime Stoppers tip line at (800)635-8477.
For more information please visit the Ongoing Coverage: Weleetka Murders page