TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma – A fascination with dangerous criminals like John Dillinger, Al Capone, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow grew in America in the early 1900s, when the lawbreakers dominated the air waves and headlines, setting a precedent for future criminals to receive similar attention.
A similar attitude seems to prevail for a Northeastern Oklahoma killer whose crimes have had a long-lasting impact on his victims and their families. Garland Rexford Brinlee Jr., also known as Rex, had been cleared of an assassination attempt against then-Cherokee County Assistant District Attorney Bill Bliss, since no charges were ever filed against him. That was two years before he would plan another attack that took the life of Dorotha Day Fern Bolding.
More than a year after Bliss was nearly killed when his truck blew up in his driveway in Tahlequah, a pickup at the Swinson Chevrolet dealership went missing in 1970. Don Bolding, brother of then-Tahlequah Police Department Chief Gene Bolding, had witnessed Brinlee looking at the Chevrolet truck. Two months later, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer pulled the vehicle over, and Brinlee was charged for theft after it was confirmed that the truck was stolen.
In early February 1971, three days before Bolding was to testify against Brinlee, Bolding's wife went to warm up the truck her husband usually drove. Similar to Bliss' experience, a homemade bomb detonated as she turned the key in the ignition. But unlike Bliss, Mrs. Bolding did not survive the explosion.
In the home at the time was 5-year-old Kimberly Bolding McCully, who has had to piece together the events of that day as she has grown up.
"Some events I remember, some events I read about, and some events I was told about when I grew older," said McCully.
A jury would eventually find Brinlee guilty of stealing the pickup in April 1971, and he was out on bail until his formal sentencing, set for April 30 of that year. At the time, a grand jury out of Tulsa County had already been investigating crime in the area, including a loosely organized group of criminals known as the "Little Dixie Mafia." This group was believed to have played a role in area bombings.
There had reportedly been a string of bombings besides the one that killed Fern Bolding and the blast that nearly took Bliss' life. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the weekly Tahlequah newspaper, the Pictorial Press - now the Tahlequah Daily Press - was bombed after it was reorganized by former U.S. Rep. Ted Risenhoover in the 1960s. Risenhoover, as publisher, had asserted that organized crimes had infiltrated northeastern Oklahoma.
The grand jury's probe would go on to include the Bolding bombing, and Brinlee was called to stand before the grand jury in mid-February of 1971, when he denied any role in the attack. The grand jury was notified of threats leveled after the attack against Bliss, Cherokee County Sheriff August Martin, and Chief Gene Bolding.
In June that summer of 1971, Brinlee was out on bail when he was pulled over and arrested by state police officers for the murder of Fern Bolding. Four days of testimony from 39 witnesses was enough to seal his fate, as a jury returned with a guilty verdict within three hours of deliberations. On Nov. 29, 1971, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Brinlee received no sympathy for the position he put himself, and he receives none today. During an interview over a decade ago, a retired police officer expressed confident that Brinlee is "burning in hell."
"He was an evil man who did horrible things to innocent people," said McCully. "There was nothing good about him or his associates. He took my mother's life for no reason."
The final in a three-part series describes the lingering affects of Brinlee's crimes on his victims.