Reno Francis was the bravest man I have ever known. He faced pain, loneliness, separation from family, loss of freedom, degradation and humiliation for something he did not do, yet he wasn’t bitter, nor did he seek revenge. He fought a terrible battle to adjust to the strange world he was released into, but he won that battle and he overcame all he had been subjected to. He viewed each day as a gift which he lived to its fullest. He always had a friendly smile and a hug or handshake for others. He lived his life in the most positive way possible while in prison and once he adjusted to the free world, he lived every day with joy! He was a brave over-comer and a courageous survivor. He was my hero! –Verna Francis
After 43 years, the prison gate finally swung open for Reno Francis! Without a trial in 1970, twenty-three year old Reno was sent to prison for life, just 17 days after his arrest for an unrelated misdemeanor, for which he was never convicted.
This travesty of justice took place in Holdenville, a small town in eastern Oklahoma. Reno and a 13-year-old Cathy Scott attended the same party on a hot August evening. Reno later left the party and was walking in a local parking lot where he had gone to find a pay phone. While in the parking lot he was arrested under the suspicion of being “high on an unknown substance.”
Cathy Scott, however, went missing from that party. Interestingly, Cathy’s family did not report her missing for two days! In a very short time her body was discovered in a storage shed near the site of the party. Reno, who was already in jail on the unrelated offense, was charged with her murder.
Reno originally pleaded innocent. He was cooperative, even agreeing to be in a police line-up. He was not guilty and had nothing to hide. The line-up turned out to consist of one person – Reno Francis. The assistant district attorney, John Turner, who handled his case threatened him repeatedly with the death penalty, which in 1970 Oklahoma meant the electric chair. He harassed and frightened Reno until, fearful of losing his life, he finally changed his plea. His court appointed oil and gas attorney, Stanley Huser, advised him to waive his right to trial, his right to appeal, and his right to remain in the county jail for ten days. For reasons Reno never understood, his family was not allowed inside the county jail or courtroom to visit or watch his hearing. He was told that his was a “closed” hearing. Reno faced the judge alone as his attorney was no comfort or help. Seventeen days after his arrest he arrived at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester, a convicted murderer.
In 2006 the US~Observer began its investigation into the sham of a process that was Reno Francis’ “conviction”. Soon thereafter the US~Observer began reporting on the obvious false incarceration of Reno Francis. On April 30, 2014 Reno was released.
Reno was picked up on the day of his release by his very excited fiancé, Verna Wood and daughter, Skye Custer. Early that morning they had left home to make the 3 hour drive to northern Oklahoma to get Reno and bring him home! Once in the parking lot Verna and Skye stopped Reno to take a few cell phone pictures to send to family and friends to assure them that Reno was indeed free! After a few minutes of taking pictures, Reno commented, “Are we still here? Let’s get out of here before they change their minds!”
On the way home they stopped and treated Reno to a Braum’s cheeseburger and French fries. He declared it was the best meal he had ever eaten and insisted that the air outside the prison smelled different than that behind fences and barbed wire.
He arrived home to trees full of yellow ribbons, a “welcome home” banner and pizza from 5 different pizzerias! Step-son, Thomas Wood had ordered and picked up the variety of pizzas to allow Reno to have choices for his first meal at home! That first evening he played chase with the grandkids and carried them around the yard. So many smiles on so many faces! That night he was so wound up he couldn’t go to sleep. Verna was afraid to go to sleep for fear this was only a dream and when she woke up he would be gone. They finally fell asleep around 2 a.m. on the couch leaning against each other. By 7 a.m. he was up and ready for breakfast!
A few nights later Reno was the guest of honor at a welcome home party and welcomed he was! Family and friends, both old and new came out to wish him well in his new life as a free man.
What does it mean to be a free man after 43 years of imprisonment? It means a comfortable home, clothes without the word, “inmate” stamped on the back, all the good food he could eat, time with family and friends, freedom to make his own decisions and to come and go as he pleased. It also means more responsibility than he has ever had in his life, the need to find a job, learning to drive all over again and getting a driver’s license, adapting to living in a 3 bedroom house that feels wide open as opposed to a tiny cell where he could stretch out his arms and touch both sides at the same time, learning how to live with his family as opposed to visiting with them on weekends, figuring out how to judge a person’s character in today’s world, always sitting with his back to the wall in a restaurant in order to feel safe, trying to discover who he was now that he had the option of truly being himself for the first time in 4 decades, and always, always dealing with the horrible Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome left behind by all the years of being treated in a less than humane manner by the department of corrections. The sixteen months in solitary confinement he had been subjected to was enough to scar a person besides all the other mistreatment.
Nothing much in 2014 remotely resembled the world Reno left behind in 1970! Simple things we take for granted were a challenge for him; things like pumping his own gas, scanning his debit card to buy the gas or pay for purchases in a store, signing for that debit card electronically rather than on a paper receipt, fixing his own fountain drink in a gas station, figuring out how to use a cell phone, and learning how to deal with regular maintenance on his home, vehicle, lawn mower, etc. He had taken classes in prison on Life Skills, Anger Management, and other useful subjects, however he had taken all those courses back in the 80’s so they were not of much help in 2014! Our prisons are so overloaded with inmates that there are no longer funds for helpful programs that could make the transition back into the free world easier and more successful. Governor Brad Henry had implemented a step-down program toward the end of his time in office which greatly benefited long time inmates in gradually adjusting to the world before their release. As soon as the new governor, Mary Fallin, took over however, the program was done away with and any person who had successfully completed part of the step-down process was immediately sent back to their original status in higher security prisons.
Reno’s first month at home was stressful for him but still fun exploring the world. At last he had his first real home in 43 years, complete with 3 dogs and flowers in the yard! He loved spending time with his family, playing and roughhousing with the grandkids, and spending time with his fiancé and kids. He was not the average Papaw (Grandpa). He was the Papaw who played chase with the grandkids, picked them up and carried them around, played softball with them, took them to softball, baseball, and soccer practice, jumped on the trampoline with them, and spoiled them every time he got a chance! Whatever was needed he was always willing to give or do. If it meant running into town at 10 p.m. to get a gallon of milk or making a run to the doctor’s office he was ready to go and he never complained.
It was amazing to watch him eat that first Braum’s cheeseburger, to see him explore his new home, to watch his facial expressions change as he was able to ride around in the pickup and see new places at his own will. He loved shopping in Walmart and other stores. Just seeing the sheer volume of products available was amazing to him and put a smile on his face. Many times Verna followed him around late at night shopping even though she was tired from work because he took so much pleasure in it. He said his first trip to Walmart was like going to Disneyland for him, however he almost went into attack mode when the voice over the speaker declared a red-light special on aisle 7! The closest he ever came to a heart attack was the first time he opened a birthday card in the store and it started playing music!
On June 13, 2014, Reno and Verna finally realized their dream of becoming husband and wife! After waiting almost 14 years their day at last arrived! It was truly a family affair with older son, Thomas, performing the sweet ceremony, younger son, Dusty, standing up with his dad as best man, and daughter, Skye, serving as matron of honor for her mom. Granddaughter, Holly, scattered yellow rose petals down the aisle and grandson Dawson was the ring bearer. Grandson Jimmy carried a wooden sign bearing the words “Here comes the bride”, and Caleb carried a sign with only the word, “Finally”! Thomas joked about all the miles Verna had put on her truck going to visit Reno every Saturday and every holiday all those years. He also shared the fact that the family had been missing something but now it was complete with Reno home!
By the time he had been home a few weeks the stress was catching up with him. Little things set him off and his words became harsh and unkind. This was not the Reno who was able to handle whatever difficulties had come his way in prison; the Reno who was kind and supportive to Verna, Dusty and Skye no matter the circumstances for over 13 years. Thus began a cycle of anger and frustration, then sadness and disappointment with himself for hurting the woman and family who had stood beside him all those years. They all knew he would have a period of adjustment after so many years in prison but none of them had any idea how difficult that adjustment would be.
Dusty and Reno had dreamed since Dusty was a small child of having Reno home and all the fun things they would do from playing baseball to building a tree house and many other things dads and sons enjoy doing together. They were so close that some people thought he was Reno’s son and Verna was just bringing him to visit Reno at the prison. In May 2014 just a few weeks after Reno came home Dusty finished his 2 years at Connors State College and moved back home. Their excitement of finally getting to be together was brief as Reno’s PTSD made his patience short and his expectations high. It hurt Reno to realize that the little boy he loved so much had grown into a 20 year-old young man and it was too late for many of their dreams to come true. Their very close relationship began to weaken.
In November 2014 Reno began working at Chickasha Manufacturing. He did mowing, weed eating, and janitorial work. He was a hard worker and he did well at his first job in the free world in over 43 years. He began making friends at work and life started to feel a little more comfortable. That job lasted 15 months until a time when contracts and work slowed down and several people had to be laid off through no fault of their own.
Through a friend of Verna’s Reno was brought into contact with a man who owned several rental properties in Chickasha. He was hired to do yard work on the properties and also to clean and update homes that had been vacated in order to get them ready for the next renter. Reno worked at this job from July 2016 through August 2018. He enjoyed the variety of the work and flexibility of the schedule and the people he met along the way. In the summer of 2018, unfortunately the work slowed down to the point that he and Verna were having trouble making ends meet so they began searching for a new job for him. Due to the fact of his “violent” prison record and the fact that he was now 71 years old it was difficult to find someone who would hire him. He was very healthy and extremely active and still worked out with heavy weights that most younger men could not lift but on paper he was still 71.
In late summer 2018 a friend suggested that Reno might enjoy working at Oklahoma Folding Carton, a box factory in Minco, Oklahoma, a small town about 30 minutes from home. Reno filled out an application, the friend spoke to the boss about Reno, explaining that he was a hard worker and not in any way your typical 71 year old, and Reno was hired. From the beginning he loved his job, he fit in with the other workers and he, at last had found his niche.
During his first three years of freedom Reno’s struggles were overwhelming at times. A few times he actually became so stressed that he left. He usually went to his brother’s house three hours away in Eufaula. Sometimes he stayed overnight and other times he stayed two or three days. Finally he would call Verna and talk things out or just head on home and they would talk after he got there. He often talked for at least 2 hours before he finally got everything out and began to relax. Most of the time Verna just listened so he could de-stress. He could have benefited greatly from PTSD counseling but he refused to be involved in anything like that because he said “nobody can understand where I’ve been”. He was absolutely correct in that but Verna tried to encourage him to see an older gentleman who had counseled other former inmates and worked out of his home. When he refused to do so Verna sought out a counselor for herself, to get some advice and tools that would help her understand Reno better and know more about how to help him through the nightmare with which he was struggling.
No matter how difficult things could be Reno and Verna kept holding on to each other and eventually the hard times came less often. After one disagreement they both agreed that they were thankful they had worked things out because neither of them felt they could breathe without the other. There were wonderful times in between the bad times but neither of them ever knew what the new day would bring. Some days he would sit in his chair in the bedroom watching tv with a dark look on his face. He was very stressed and struggling mightily against demons from his past, the treatment and circumstances he had had to deal with, and his confusion as to where he fit into this new world. Eventually the darkness would pass, his smile would return and 15 years would fall off his countenance.
After 43 years of bad food compliments of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections Reno loved to eat out. Verna did too so they enjoyed that at least three or four times a week. At his suggestion they started spending Saturdays together just as they had all those 13 ½ years she had visited him in prison. Only now they were free to go wherever they wanted. They visited the Windmill Farm at Shattuck, a powwow in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma City Dodgers baseball games, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Musuem in Oklahoma City, The Red Earth Festival, several concerts including the Oak Ridge Boys, Ronnie Milsap, The Temptations, Clay Walker, Travis Ledoyt, and the Platters, and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton where they drove to the top of Mt. Scott, one of the tallest points in the Wichitas. They also checked out quite a few new restaurants! They vacationed in several cabins in remote areas starting with the Treehouse Cabins in Dora, Missouri on their honeymoon and ending with River’s Edge Cottages in southeastern Oklahoma for their 4th anniversary. Even though he struggled mightily to adjust, Reno had the heart and soul of a child which allowed him to see the joy and beauty in almost any situation. He could also find the humor in most things and kept Verna laughing at his antics and silly faces. He would go to any lengths to make her smile if she was tired or having a hard day. As he adjusted to his new world he and Dusty became close again and once again were son and dad as they had been for all of Dusty’s growing up years.
During 2018 he finally at last felt at home in this world that had been so strange to him. Verna loved to watch him walking around the house just smiling, not at anything in particular but just because he was truly happy. He was relaxed and enjoying his life as a free man. He always woke up in a good mood once the hard times had passed and never complained no matter how early he had to get up for work. He and Verna loved to play Yahtzee and watch movies sitting together in the same big comfy chair in their living room. Many Saturdays he woke up smiling and asked Verna, “what do you want to do today? Where do you want to go?” Life was, at last, beautiful and full of joy for him.
On the morning of January 3, 2019 Reno got up and got ready to go to work. It had been snowing that morning. He and Verna had discussed the night before whether the roads would be dangerous the next morning and it seemed he might decide to stay home. The weather lady said the roads were slushy and bridges would be frozen. There were a lot of school closings. Verna tried to get him to let her drive him to work because she had more experience driving in snow plus her truck was bigger and heavier than his. He wouldn’t let her take him because he didn’t want her to have to drive home by herself. He said he had driven in snow and would be ok. Both were afraid he would lose his job if he didn’t go, so he did.
He left early at 6:15 in order to be at work by 7. At 6:59 he called her and said he had slid off the road and hit a tree and bumped his head but he thought he was okay. She asked if she should call an ambulance and he said no that he was fine, he just had a headache. So she told him she would come pick him up.
When she left home she tried to call him to tell him she was on her way but he didn’t answer his phone. That worried her so she called their daughter, Skye, who said she would keep trying to call him. Finally a lady at a little store in Pocasset answered his phone. She said he was sitting in a booth there and he kept going to sleep and couldn’t answer his phone.
After driving for miles in road construction behind 18 wheelers Verna finally arrived at the little store. Reno’s head was down on the table. She took his hand and told him she was there. She asked if he hurt and he said his head hurt but nowhere else hurt. Skye had called an ambulance after the store clerk had explained his condition so Verna told him it should be there in just a few minutes. He was unconscious by the time the ambulance got there about 15 minutes later. They worked with him in the ambulance for 20-30 minutes before heading for the emergency room in Chickasha.
Reno’s heart kept stopping in the ambulance and in the ER. Nine times they did CPR and it would start again but they couldn’t keep it going. Verna tried to get them to fly him by helicopter to Oklahoma City but it was snowing so they said it wasn’t safe. She asked them to transport him by ambulance to a bigger hospital but again they said it wasn’t safe on the road. Finally they said they had to stop the CPR because he would have brain damage if he survived, due to lack of oxygen. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the chest. Verna was so scared when he left for work that morning but never dreamed it would end like that. She was worried that he might have a wreck but never thought of losing him…
On January 8, 2019, Reno Francis was laid to rest at Fairlawn Cemetery just a few miles from the scene of his accident. He lies close to his infant granddaughter, Savanna Wood, and his dear friend, Skip Wood, Verna’s first husband. A beautiful service, a true celebration of the life of this brave, loving man who had overcome so much, was conducted by his step-son, Thomas, the same person who had married Reno and Verna 4 ½ years earlier.
After 43 years of living in a violent, dangerous atmosphere in the prisons of Oklahoma, how sad that a small patch of ice and a tree took the life of this great man with the kind heart. Life for his family will never be the same. He was so amazing, loving, strong and always willing to help and to go the second mile, especially for his family to whom he was completely loyal.
As Reno’s son, Dusty, wrote, “I love you, Daddy and this world doesn’t seem the same knowing you aren’t in it anymore. But believe me the stories will be told, the memories shared and your love will live on. Rest in Peace, Wind Warrior, and as you told me many times, ‘this isn’t good-bye, simply a see you later.’”