The desperate pleas appeared online shortly after the four friends disappeared last week — a man asking if anyone had seen his cousins. A wife looking for her husband. A mother searching for the father of their four children.
Days later, their families got the devastating news. The dismembered remains of their loved ones had been found in a shallow section of a river at the edge of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, population roughly 11,300.
Now, the victims’ families and their community are struggling with a grim mystery: What happened in the hours before Alex Stevens, Mike Sparks and brothers Billy and Mark Chastain vanished — and and who is responsible for their horrific deaths?
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Dawn Carter, an Okmulgee city council member. “When you’re part of a close-knit community, when minor things take place it gets attention. Something this major? It affects everybody.”
“Tell the folks to pray for us,” she added.
Who were they?
The four men grew up together in Okmulgee, a city that Megan Gordon, Billy Chastain’s widow, described as a “very small town” — a place where “everyone’s parents knows everyone’s parents.”
“Everybody knows everybody here.”
Mark Chastain, 32, and Billy Chastain, 30, were the “definition of brothers and were always together,” their grandmother, Milissia Smith, said in a verified online fundraiser. Billy Chastain — who went by BJ — was a handyman with four children, two girls and two boys ages 2 to 12, Gordon said.
“He was funny, he was loving, he was spontaneous,” she said. “He was perfect.”
“Everything revolved around his kids,” she added.
Mark Chastain had two children and worked in an oil field as a rig hand, said friend Ron Pelham. Chastain “worked his butt off for everything he had” but would offer the shirt off his back, Pelham, 34, said.
“He was doing good to better the life of his family every which way possible,” Pelham said.
Alex Stevens worked as a nursing home cook aide, said his widow, Teresa Hall. He struggled with drug addiction, and the two met after he was released from jail in 2013, she said.
They married in 2014 and separated shortly after, said Hall, 35, though they never legally divorced and remained best friends. Stevens had bouts of depression, but “there was never a day he couldn’t put a smile on your face,” she said.
Efforts to reach relatives of Mike Sparks, 32, were unsuccessful.
The four friends set off on a bike ride Oct. 9, the Okmulgee Police Department said last week. Getting around on two wheels isn’t unusual in Okmulgee, Pelham said, especially if it’s the weekend and there’s been drinking.
The group is thought to have left a house where Billy Chastain lived part-time around 5:30 p.m., Okmulgee Police Chief Joe Prentice said in an interview this week. Investigators obtained GPS data from cellphones carried by two of the men that showed them traveling east, then south. No video has been found that captured their movements after they left, Prentice has said.
“I do not know what was on their minds when they left the house,” Prentice said. “I’m as in the dark as everyone else.”
At some point, two of the men invited someone described by authorities as a witness to “hit a lick big enough for all of them,” Prentice has said, using a slang term for committing a profitable criminal act.
In the interview, Prentice said the witness didn’t “feel right about it and his bicycle wasn’t working, so he told them to go on.”
The police chief didn’t know which of the men allegedly made the offer, and he declined to identify the witness. Investigators don’t have additional details about the alleged plot, Prentice said, nor have they gathered evidence to corroborate the witness’ statement.
“I can’t think of a reason he’d want to make it up,” Prentice added.
A review of court records for the four men shows that Alex Stevens pleaded guilty to felony drug charges in 2013 and 2015, and Billy Chastain pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge in 2014. None have been accused of violent crimes, robberies or burglaries, the records show.
Gordon said the last time she spoke to Billy Chastain was the day before he vanished. She had no idea what he’d been up to the night he disappeared but said that “hit a lick” wasn’t something her husband would have said.
“My kids’ dad didn’t talk like that,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Pelham cast doubt on Mark Chastain’s involvement in a criminal plan, saying he made good money at his job and “damn sure has never been a thief.”
Hall also didn’t believe that Stevens would have robbed anyone.
“Alex wasn’t that type of person,” she said. “If he didn’t have money, he was going to work to make money.”
The last time Hall spoke to Stevens was three days before he disappeared. They video chatted about how she was doing after her recent release from a drug treatment program, she said.
“I never knew that was the last time I’d see him,” she said.
‘We knew whatever happened to them, it wasn’t going to be good’
Gordon learned that her husband was missing when Mark Chastain’s wife called early Oct. 10 and asked if the brothers were at her house.
Initially, Gordon believed they were at Mark Chastain’s home. As the hours rolled by, she figured they were running late or had a flat tire. But, 1 p.m. passed, then 5 p.m., she said. So they alerted police and reported them missing, she said.
“I was hoping and praying they’d find them safe,” Hall said.
The Okmulgee Police Department circulated the first missing person alerts Oct. 11. Initially, the agency said that there was no evidence to indicate violence or foul play and that Mark Chastain’s phone was found without power in an area south of town.
As the hours passed, relatives posted their pleas to Facebook and witnesses reported seeing the missing men as close as the local YMCA and as far as Monroe, Louisiana, authorities said.
Pelham, who lives roughly an hour northwest of Okmulgee, said he traveled to the city with his younger brother to knock on doors and help with a search.
“Them boys weren’t small. They could hold their own. We knew whatever happened to them, it wasn’t going to be good.”
Ron Pelham, Friend of Mark Chastain
“For four grown men to come up missing, that blew our minds,” he said. “Them boys weren’t small. They could hold their own. We knew whatever happened to them, it wasn’t going to be good.”
Five days after the men were last seen, Prentice told reporters that a passerby notified authorities of something suspicious in a shallow stretch of the Deep Fork River southwest of Okmulgee. Near a bridge, authorities found “multiple” human remains and “body parts protruding from the water.”
By Monday, the remains had been identified as the Chastain brothers, Sparks and Stevens. They had been shot before their dismembered bodies were dumped in the river, Prentice said.
None of their bikes have been found, he said.
Also Monday, Prentice named a person of interest in the case: Joseph Kennedy, owner of a local scrap yard where investigators uncovered evidence of a “violent event” on an adjoining property, the chief said. He declined to provide additional details about what evidence was recovered.
Kennedy had been missing since Saturday, Prentice said, and he was thought to have been driving a blue Chrysler PT Cruiser.
At 8:29 a.m. Tuesday, more than 1,200 miles away in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, a police officer’s license plate reader identified a passing Toyota Tundra as stolen, the city’s police department said. Kennedy, 67, was the pickup’s driver.
Officers pulled him over and determined he was a person of interest in the quadruple homicide. He was booked without incident on suspicion of grand theft of a motor vehicle and being a fugitive from justice, the department said.
Kennedy has not been identified as a suspect in the Okmulgee killings. The fugitive allegation is linked to two unrelated charges from 2012, also in Okmulgee, authorities said — felony assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and misdemeanor obstruction of a police officer.
Court records show that in 2013, Kennedy pleaded no contest to the charges, which were related to a shooting at one of his businesses, his lawyer in that case said earlier this week.
The lawyer, Luke Gaither, said a “number of people” had broken into the property and Kennedy fired in self-protection at someone he believed had a gun.
“The state clearly had a different side of that,” Gaither said.
To avoid prison time, Kennedy was to remain on probation until next year. But in court papers filed Tuesday, prosecutors in Oklahoma argued that he had breached those terms and should be sentenced for the 2012 crimes.
Gaither said Friday that he was not representing Kennedy in the alleged probation violation, and it wasn’t clear if he had a lawyer to speak on his behalf. A woman who answered the phone at a number identified in public records as Kennedy’s declined to comment.
A public defender assigned to Kennedy’s case in Florida did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An affidavit filed for the grand theft charge states that Kennedy told the arresting officer that the truck’s owner told him he could borrow the vehicle whenever he wanted.
Kennedy told the officer he took the truck last week and drove to Florida for a weekend vacation, the document says. He allegedly told the officer he was suicidal, the document says.
Corrections records in Volusia County show that Kennedy remained in custody Friday and was being held without bond on the fugitive charge.
In the interview, Prentice declined to say if investigators from Oklahoma had interviewed Kennedy since his arrest and Prentice did not know when he might be extradited.
Prentice declined to provide additional information about Kennedy’s link to the slayings, citing the ongoing homicide investigation.
For Gordon, getting to the truth of what happened to her husband and the three other men can’t come soon enough.
“I really thought they were coming home,” she said. To find out they were “cut up — it’s just horrible knowing my kids won’t ever see their dad again.”
“I feel like I’m breaking,” Gordon said through tears. “I feel like I’m already broken.”