Days after a Tulsa volunteer sheriff’s deputy fatally shot an unarmed black man, he knocked the local newspaper in his resignation letter, accusing reporters of targeting him with “yellow dog journalism.”
Robert Bates vowed to eventually “unload the truth” about the day he killed Eric Harris, who died while being handcuffed last year.
That chance may soon come, as the 74-year-old former reserve deputy heads to trial in April —one year after he allegedly mistook his personal handgun for a Taser and fatally shot the 44-year-old Harris during a gun-buy sting operation. Bates said it was an accident when he blasted Harris in the back at close range, as Harris was on the ground and being subdued by officers.
Now the elderly insurance executive-turned-police volunteer is facing second-degree manslaughter. The deadly encounter was one of several police-involved deaths in 2015 that attracted the ire of Black Lives Matter protesters, who accused law enforcement nationwide of using excessive and lethal force against minority suspects.
“The Tulsa World is obviously attempting to take me down,” Bates wrote in his resignation. “The paper is guilty of ‘yellow dog journalism’ at the least. As you are aware, none of their reporting has been the least bit factual.
“I have only been able to tell my story on a limited basis. Hopefully, at some point I can unload the truth,” he added.
At a hearing Monday, Bates’s attorneys discussed how to select jurors who haven’t already made up their minds about the high-profile case—where even the tiniest details have played out in the Oklahoma press on a near-weekly basis.
Bates was not present at the proceeding, and has been excused from appearing in court until his trial begins April 18, the Tulsa World reported.
Harris’s family is also waiting to attend the trial. Last month, his relatives filed a federal lawsuit against Bates and other sheriff’s officials seeking at least $75,000 in damages over his death.
Their lawsuit alleges then-Tulsa Sheriff Stanley Glanz knew Bates wasn’t trained for field operations “yet, in a shameful display of cronyism run amok … turned a blind eye to these dangers.”
On Monday, Harris’s brother, Andre, told The Daily Beast he follows every detail released on the case and wants a front-row seat at Bates’s trial.
After Harris died in April 2015, police released footage of the shocking episode that dominated cable news networks. Harris was heard on camera yelling, “He shot me! He shot me, man. Oh my god. I’m losing my breath.”
As Harris lay dying, officers could be heard mocking him. One officer responded, “Fuck your breath.”
“To see your brother shot and he says he didn’t do nothing, hearing my brother say, ‘Oh god’ and see that on TV every day is pretty heartbreaking,” Harris said. “I’m just trying to stay focused to bring justice for my brother.”
The controversial case has placed Glanz—who resigned in September following a grand jury indictment—and the sheriff’s office under national scrutiny.
Indeed, Glanz faces one misdemeanor charge of “refusal to perform an official duty” for denying requests to release a 2009 internal probe into Bates. He’s also facing a “willful violation of the law” charge for allegedly accepting a $600 travel stipend while using a county vehicle.
One of Bates’s attorneys, Clark Brewster, told The Daily Beast that the constant stream of media reports—many of which he considers slanted against the Tulsa sheriff—could unfairly sway jurors in Bates’s upcoming trial.
Brewster pointed to one report on Glanz’s entrance through a private courthouse doorway. He said the story made front-page news in the Tulsa World and that it incorrectly suggested Glanz was receiving special treatment in his criminal case.
The newspaper also revealed grand jury testimony alleging that Glanz drove his county-owned vehicle to a conference in Houston—rather than flying—so he could haul home about 20 bottles of wine from Texas.
In another story this week, the Tulsa World reported that sheriff’s officials pressured investigators to call Harris’s death a “justifiable homicide,” and that cops tried to discourage Harris’s brother from hiring a lawyer.
“In this time that we live in … where the media can be over the top, shrill and pointed and accusational … I’ve seen stories in the Tulsa World honestly that five to six years ago you wouldn’t see in the National Enquirer,” Brewster said.
Brewster said media coverage hasn’t been fair to Bates, accused of being a “pay to play” deputy for his donations to the sheriff’s department.
The Daily Beast previously revealed that Bates was close to Sheriff Glanz, treating him to fishing trips and exotic cruises, while also serving as his insurance agent and onetime election campaign chair.
In 2009, Bates was subject to an internal affairs probe by the sheriff’s office over allegations of preferential treatment and a lack of required training for the job.
Still, that report was buried in the sheriff office’s “dead files” and no action was taken, according to grand jury testimony published by the World this week.
The officer conducting the 2009 probe allegedly said, “Bob Bates would be the end of Stanley Glanz,” according to grand jury testimony revealed by the World.
“I’ve discovered for one reason or another, the press runs with a story that’s one-sided,” Brewster told The Daily Beast. “There’s a lot out there but very little about the incident with Mr. Bates.”
Brewster claimed Harris—who has six felony convictions, including armed robbery, court records show—was allegedly trying to sell a weapon and fled from deputies who had guns drawn the day he was killed.
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office also released video they say shows Harris peddling drugs the day before his death, KFOR reported.
Brewster said Bates isn’t guilty of manslaughter, but of making a tragic mistake similar to that of a surgeon.
“People make mistakes every day … like physicians who make a mistake during surgery,” Brewster told The Daily Beast. “Somebody makes a decision that causes someone to lose their life, but they’re not prosecuted for manslaughter. It’s a mistake.”
“So you’re 74 years old, doing this public service, an accident occurs and takes a life. Now the machinery of the state is trying to put you in prison,” Brewster added. “I don’t think I need to tell you how stressful that would be upon any person.”
Brewster said the Tulsa County district attorney’s office—which is now prosecuting Bates—was involved in the Harris gun bust before it even occurred. The sheriff’s task force met with the DA for days on the sting operation, Brewster said.
Brewster said an assistant district attorney advised the sheriff’s task force “on how violent [Harris] was or could be.”
“It was really improper for this district attorney to prosecute Mr. Bates when his office was intimately involved,” Brewster told The Daily Beast, adding that one assistant DA “was supposed to be on the trip, was to accompany the officers, going to do a search for evidence after they apprehended Mr. Harris.”
The district attorney’s office did not return messages left by The Daily Beast.
But Daniel Smolen, an attorney for the Harris family, said he’s filed many lawsuits against the Tulsa sheriff’s office and that its alleged corruption goes beyond Glanz and his embattled fishing buddy Bates.
“I’ve been litigating the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office since I’ve been in my late 20s,” Smolen told The Daily Beast. “Not because I wanted to but for whatever reason, I became involved with it in employment cases. It grew from disgruntled employees … to Eric Harris.”
“When Eric Harris was shot, we came out publicly and said we’re going to show you what happens when you try to cover up a bad shooting,” he said. “We weren’t just talking about that shooting … [or] Robert Bates or Stanley Glanz.
“We were talking about how, for a decade, this was a corrupt—and corrupt to the core—sheriff’s office.”