Station Wagon Bombs

According to Sid, I almost got blown up by a car bomb when I was three or four years old.

At that time, Sid was the district attorney for three counties in northeastern Oklahoma. He had campaigned in 1974 on an anti-corruption platform. He took on the so-called “Dixie Mafia,” a loosely-organized, interstate community of criminals. It was a dangerous time to take a public stance against organized crime.

In 1969, young Angie Bliss and her cousin, Becca, were playing with Suzie Homemaker ovens in the Blisses’ garage. Angie’s father, Bill, started his pickup truck and detonated a bomb. The three were injured but survived. Bill was an assistant district attorney in Cherokee County, next to Sid’s future district.

A year later, Judge Fred Nelson of the Tulsa County District Court started his station wagon and set off another bomb. It was primary election day, and he was on his way to vote for himself. Like the others, he was injured but survived. As far as anyone knows, the motive for the bombing was to help his primary opponent get elected.

A grand jury convened to consider two suspects, Albert McDonald and Tom Pugh, in Judge Nelson’s bombing. One of the witnesses was Cleo Epps, commonly known as the Bootleg Queen, who had once almost married McDonald. She testified in secret while wearing a wig. She said McDonald and Pugh had come to her ranch to ask for dynamite, which she used for blowing up stumps, and she had given it to them. The Bootleg Queen and another witness, Arles Delbert Self, were soon dead. McDonald and Pugh were never tried for bombing the judge, but they were convicted for murdering the witnesses.

A year after that, another pickup truck exploded, killing 28-year-old kindergarten teacher Fern Bolding and sending her remains into a neighbor’s yard. The bomb was meant for Fern’s husband, Don, who was scheduled to testify in a car theft case.

The suspect in the car theft case was Rex Brinlee, who had also been a suspect in the Bliss bombing. Brinlee had a career of diverse criminal enterprises. In the ’60s, he was suspected of using a small plane to case out farms and plan thefts in Mayes County. He was convicted of cattle rustling but got off on a technicality. At that time, he wore a belt buckle that read “Mayes County Flying Bandit.” He had since moved to Cherokee County, where he owned several businesses and threatened people.

Don Bolding, undeterred by his wife’s murder, testified against Brinlee, who was convicted of the car theft.

Brinlee was also charged in Fern Bolding’s death. Soon after that, there were death threats all around. Reporters, the sheriff, the wife of a juror, and Bill Bliss, who was now a judge, received them. Brinlee had a dispute with a propane dealer and hinted that one of the dealer’s tanks might explode.

Brinlee was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. While he was still in the courthouse, he swung at reporter Mike Miller, who ducked, and hit cameraman Richard Wilson.

In prison, Brinlee made it clear that he had connections to the Dixie Mafia on the outside. He somehow acquired a gun. He escaped twice, but he got caught both times.

It was in this environment that Sid, who had arrived in Mayes County shortly after the Flying Bandit left, decided to take on organized crime.

According to Sid, he was giving a lecture in Tulsa when an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) agent interrupted and took him aside. The agent explained that they had picked up someone who was transporting a bomb. The bomb was intended for Sid’s car. They had reason to believe that the suspect had made two bombs, and the other bomb was already in Carol’s (my mother’s) station wagon. The OSBI agent told Sid not to call Carol, but instead to go home and make sure she didn’t start the car.

I’m not clear on the details or the rationale. Maybe they wanted to warn Carol but just hadn’t gotten in touch with her yet. In any case, Sid put a magnetic cop light on his car and drove home at eighty miles per hour. He says he arrived at the same time as the sheriff’s deputies, and he told Carol just to stay inside and not worry about what they were doing in the driveway.

I was too young to remember any of this, but my oldest sister says Sid had a new ritual after the bomb scare. Before the family got in the car, we would stand in the front yard while he checked for bombs. If he had ever inadvertently set off a bomb during his inspection, we would have all been there to see it happen.