District Attorney Hopeful Challenges Small Town Politics in Altus

Nancy Drury, Donna Tocknell and Kristen Right at Tocknell’s transitional house for women in Altus, Okla. (Caroline Halter / KGOU)

Before it happened to her son, Donna Tocknell thought addiction was something that happened to other people.

“Growing up, you know, people who did heroin or meth were scum of the earth,” she said. “Until it hit me with my kid, and I’m thinking, ‘My kid’s not scum.’”

That was in 2011. Now Tocknell runs Agape Always Recovery Center, a transitional housing program for recovering addicts in Altus, a city of close to 20,000 near Oklahoma’s border with Texas.

That was in 2011. Now Tocknell runs a transitional housing program for recovering addicts in Altus, a city of close to 20,000 near Oklahoma’s border with Texas.

“Kristen here, she was just given an amazing opportunity to live in a sober program like this, and she’s far exceeded anything that we could even have imagined,” Tocknell said, nodding to 24-year-old Kristen Wright sitting beside her.

“I was in a hotel bust,” Wright said. “When you rent the hotel room that gets busted into, you get stuck with two trafficking charges, a gun in charge, a police scanner charge, a harboring a fugitive charge… So, I  would have went to prison for like 40 years.”

Her case isn’t settled, but Wright lives in Tocknell’s house for women, thanks to cooperation from the county sheriff, judges — and the district attorney’s office.

And, for the first time in 28 years, voters in Altus and the rest of District 3 will actually get to choose their next district attorney.

‘Next one up’

Ken Darby was appointed to the job in 2016 when his predecessor, John Wampler, retired. Wampler had no political challenger for 25 years. And now that Darby is set to retire, his first assistant, Republican David Thomas, hopes to succeed him.

“With Ken retiring then, I guess he [David Thomas] was the next one up, you know, to decide to run,” Tocknell said with a shrug.

Oklahoma’s 27 district attorneys play a significant role in criminal justice reform by deciding which cases to prosecute, what charges to bring and how cases are settled. But, even in a year with a record number of candidates filing for office and recent voter-approved sentencing reforms, only eight DA’s statewide face challengers in the 2018 election.

It was shaping up to be another uncompetitive year in District 3 until Democrat Rana Hill entered the race at the very last minute. She’s been a public defender in the area since 2007.

“The majority of crimes that I deal with are drug-related,” Hill said, sitting at a coffee shop just off Main Street in Altus. “Theft, the property crimes that I see… usually have a drug addiction problem behind it. The assault and batteries, they sometimes also have a drug component or a mental health issue.”

Hill said she’ll bring her understanding of addiction-related crimes to the DA’s office.

“I think I’d be a little bit more willing to listen on distribution charges,” Hill said. “The state isn’t usually willing to offer a rehab option if the person is charged with distribution or conspiracy to distribute, which is often what happens when you have a user that is trying to support their drug habit.

But Hill is campaigning on a different kind of reform, something she calls “equal justice.”

“As a public defender, I’ve seen that people get treated differently, depending on how much money you have, who your family is, social status, who your family’s friends with,” she said, “and I don’t agree with that.”

In fact, Hill sees her opponent as an example of unequal justice.

A sign for David Thomas placed  in Altus, Okla. (Caroline Halter / KGOU)

Arrest, equality

Thomas was arrested in 2002 during a crack-cocaine raid in Lawton. At the time he served as a substitute municipal judge, and the Lawton Constitution reported he was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance.

Court records related to the arrest are not publicly available. In candidacy filing documents, Thomas declined having any felony convictions. Thomas did not respond to requests for written statements, and said he would be unavailable for an interview until after the November election.

“I’ve had clients that were charged with less that went to prison,” Hill said. “And it doesn’t seem like equal justice to me.”

Many people in the community, however, see Thomas’ past as a positive, including current DA Ken Darby, who’s known Thomas since serving as a state trooper in the 1980s.

“I was aware of it going on at the time. It was very common knowledge,” Darby said. “He came back, you know, after getting some help he needed at the time. I think it helps him in some ways to understand what people are going through. And he’s just an example to people that you can overcome adversity.”

Thomas doesn’t have a website, but his Facebook page says he will, “Require all non-violent offenders with a substance abuse problem to be evaluated for inpatient treatment or drug court,” if he wins the District 3 DA race.

As November approaches, Hill is trying to convince voters that she’s the better choice for district attorney. But sometimes she finds herself answering questions about her decision to run in the first place.

“I remember going door to door, and there was this lady that I had represented her grandson. And I knocked on her door, told her I was running, and she hugged me,” Hill said, recalling another person who asked if she notified Thomas before she decided to run for office.

“Which isn’t my idea of Democracy,” she said. “I don’t think you have to ask for permission to run against somebody.”

Back at the transitional house, Donna Tocknell acknowledges Hill’s challenge.

“Some people don’t even know who Rana is,” Tocknell said. “And for her to come out of the woodwork and run against David, that is well known within the community…. I think her platform is, you know, to get away from the good ol’ boys’ system.”

Tocknell faces a choice between two candidates she knows and likes. But for many in District 3, it’s a choice between a well known community figure and a relative newcomer.