T-shirts around town blast homeless people with a four-letter word, and some people are warning of vigilante justice. Downtown bar owners have stapled wanted posters to telephone poles with a picture of Terry Badgewell, the man who used a length of pipe to kill Deadtown Tavern owner Shawn Howard.
A prosecutor said the killing was self-defense and refused to file charges, but the victim's family is gathering thousands of signatures on a petition to force a grand jury investigation.
"We're very committed," said Howard's mother, Kay. "Shawn deserves this."
Meanwhile, Tulsa's homeless are feeling the heat. Michael Cypert, 31, who usually stays at a Salvation Army shelter near downtown, said patrons of the Deadtown Tavern chased him away from the area during a memorial for Howard a few days after his June 25 death.
Police have warned homeless people to stay away from the bar, and Cypert said has seen people downtown wearing "F--- the homeless" T-shirts handed out by bar owners.
"I think it's crazy to say 'F--- the homeless.' I don't think it's right," he said. "Most of the people I see around here are either mentally ill or have family problems. We don't panhandle over there or anything."
Badgewell left Tulsa after the wanted signs and T-shirts surfaced, said his attorney, Steve Hjelm. He won't say where Badgewell has gone for fear of retribution.
"We took it as a kind of vigilante effort," Hjelm said.
It started in the wee hours of June 24, when Howard and bar manager Josh Martin left the Deadtown Tavern wearing brass knuckles, as usual, for protection against the many vagabonds and drug dealers who inhabit the dimly lit neighborhood.
A fight began with Badgewell, who was resting in a warehouse stairwell across the street. Howard struck Badgewell in the jaw, and the homeless man grabbed a pipe and began swinging.
How it started is unclear. Martin said he and Howard encountered Badgewell while chasing two crack dealers away. District Attorney Tim Harris said the pair told Badgewell to leave the spot where he was preparing to sleep, starting an exchange of words that escalated into violence.
Police called to the scene about 4:30 that morning found Howard unconscious in the parking lot. He died of head injuries the next day.
Badgewell, 38, was arrested on two complaints of assault with a deadly weapon, but he was released June 30 after Harris declined to file charges.
"It is a tragic, tragic deal," Harris said. "But under Oklahoma's law, he has a right to defend himself with as much force as he thinks is necessary."
The Howard family and fellow bar owners were outraged, saying Howard was chased down and bashed repeatedly in the back of the head.
"It just really makes me sick to my stomach that Harris could even consider this self defense, that this man is released into the community," Kay Howard said.
Martin said the decision would spur Tulsans to take vigilante justice against the city's many homeless, who comprise the vast majority of downtown residents after dark. Estimates on the number of homeless in Tulsa at any given time range from 700 to 1,500 in a city of nearly 400,000.
"It's actions like the sort of inaction that's being taken that leads people to chase bums around the back of buildings in downtown Tulsa," Martin said.
Sandra Holden, executive director for the Day Center for the Homeless, said she has warned those who stay at her shelter five blocks from the tavern against sleeping outside while tensions are high.
"Those kinds of things (posters and the T-shirts) concern me greatly," Holden said. "Backlash is a very serious problem. We have seen some of that happening as a result of this incident."
Hjelm maintains that Badgewell, whom he describes as a "cordial" and "soft-spoken man," was merely acting to defend himself.
"Who can say with any degree of certainty what you would do if you were in a deserted warehouse at 4:30 in the morning and two armed men with brass knuckles attack you?" Hjelm said.
However, he thinks Howard's family will have no trouble getting the 5,000 signatures they need from registered voters to force the state attorney general to convene a grand jury, "given the media attention this case has gotten and the fact that Shawn Howard was a very well-liked man."
Hjelm warned that any indictments coming from a grand jury investigation would likely come against Martin, as the sole survivor, for assaulting Badgewell with a deadly weapon.
"It's going to force the hands of the district attorney and the grand jury to go back and look at all the offenses that were committed that night. Terry Badgewell will be exonerated."