The Killing of Karen Silkwood

 Silkwood – 42 years later, her death remains a mystery…

Karen Silkwood. Photo: Courtesy of Open Road Media and Delphinium Press.

On the evening of November 13, 1974, the body of chemical technician and labor union activist, Karen Silkwood, was found in her wrecked vehicle off the road in Crescent, Oklahoma. The car had struck a culvert, killing Silkwood on impact. To the police, it seemed like an open and shut case of falling asleep at the wheel.

But those close to Silkwood knew she had been fighting against a large nuclear facility for its unsafe practices. And she might have paid for it with her life.

Born in Longview, Texas on February 19, 1946, Silkwood’s early days were inconspicuous. In 1965, she married William Meadows, with whom she had three children. In 1972, she left Meadows and moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

She was hired at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant in Crescent, Oklahoma, where she made plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. Shortly after beginning her job, she met her boyfriend, Drew Stephens, a fellow worker at Kerr-McGee.

Stephens, who expressed concerns over safety issues at the plant, convinced Silkwood to join the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union. Three months into her employment, the union staged a strike for better wages and safer working conditions. And while the strike eventually subsided, it lit a fire inside Karen to push for greater accountability.

Then, in July of 1974, Karen discovered she had been contaminated with plutonium. As the only person in the lab who tested positive, she had suspicions that her contamination was no accident.

The chilling episode intensified Karen’s activism against Kerr-McGee’s safety standards. Soon, she was elected to her union’s bargaining committee, the first woman to do so. Part of Karen’s responsibilities entailed her investigating the health and safety regulations at the company.

What she uncovered shocked her.

Silkwood found numerous health violations, including faulty equipment, improper sample storage, and worker contamination. Karen’s aggressiveness alienated some of her co-workers, who feared her investigation jeopardized their job security. Soon, her peers and supervisors resented the whistleblower. To help ease her troubles, a doctor prescribed Karen Quaaludes, a sedative.

In September of 1974, Karen flew to the OCAWU headquarters in Washington D.C. to discuss health code violations she observed at the plant.

A Safety Sign Outside the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Plant. Photo: Courtesy of Delphinium Press.

At their meeting, they examined in detail the deadly effects of plutonium on humans – a risk Kerr-McGee never disclosed to its employees. In fact, according to Karen’s research, the nuclear facility had been tampering with quality control data to hide hairline cracks in the fuel rods.

Union officials enlisted Silkwood with finding conclusive proof of the tampering. Karen gladly took up the challenge, jotting down notes and smuggling out damning company documents.

Her investigation concluded that the Kerr-McGee plant had “manufactured faulty fuel rods, falsified product inspection records, and risked employee safety.” In addition, over forty pounds of its plutonium remained unaccounted for.

The union planned to go to New York Times journalist, David Burnham, with their information and finally expose Kerr-McGee. Karen, meanwhile, had her own disturbing discovery to make. After performing a routine self-check on November 5, 1974, she found that her body contained almost 400 times the legal limit of plutonium.

The plant demanded she perform a decontamination process and sent her home for further testing. Over the next two days, she continued to test positive for increasingly higher levels of plutonium.

Since she was restricted from working in the lab during her contamination, Kerr-McGee bizarrely accused Silkwood of poisoning herself. She agreed to have her home inspected. The home contained high levels of radiation and had to be decontaminated.

Believing the company was trying to kill her, Silkwood became frantic. Fearing for her safety, union officials set up a meeting with her and Burnham. Before Silkwood could tell her side of the story to the journalist, however, Kerr-McGee doctors and officials from the Atomic Energy Commission demanded that she, her boyfriend, and roommate be examined at the Center for Nuclear Research in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Despite the danger, she continued with her investigation. On November 13, following a union meeting at the Hub Cafe in Crescent, she drove to Oklahoma City to meet with Burnham and Steve Wodka, a national official from her union.

Witnesses testified that Silkwood possessed a binder filled with evidence at the cafe, which she later took with her on the way to her meeting. Many knew she planned to finally blow the whistle on Kerr-McGee the night of her fatal crash. None of the documents were found in the car after the accident.

Karen Silkwood’s Wrecked Car. Photo: Courtesy of A.O. Pipkin and Delphinium Press.

Police concluded Silkwood fell asleep at the wheel, while under the influence of Quaaludes. However, family and friends believed she was killed by Kerr-McGee and that they stole the evidence relating to the plant’s unsafe practices.

Private investigations concluded that Silkwood’s injuries suggested she was awake during the accident. Skid marks matching her car were on the road, showing that she may have tried to regain control of the car after being hit by another vehicle. The car’s rear bumper also had new dents.

Months after her death, government reports verified many of Silkwood’s findings at Kerr-McGee. They also noted that Silkwood could not have poisoned herself, as the plutonium came from a restricted area within the facility.

In 1976, Silkwood’s father and her children filed a civil lawsuit against Kerr-McGee for negligence, due to the amount of plutonium in her system at the time of her death. The jury found Kerr-McGee guilty and awarded Silkwood’s estate $10.5 million in punitive damages. Kerr-McGee appealed, eventually settling out of court for $1.38 million.

Silkwood continues to be a symbol for whistleblowers. In Richard Rashke’s book, The Killing of Karen Silkwood, he further investigates the conspiracy. In addition to unearthing new evidence that points to Kerr-McGee as the perpetrators in her death, Rashke touchingly illustrates how Karen Silkwood’s life remains relevant 40 years later.




Cover of “The Killing of Karen Silkwood”. Photo: Courtesy of Open Road Media and Delphinium Press.

Tow-truck driver George Martin just happened to be at the Guthrie Police Station when Sullivan’s call came in. He was dispatched immediately to the wreck. For Martin, it was just another routine assignment. Over the past four years he and his wrecker had chased police cars to more than 1200 accidents.

When Martin was about five miles from the accident scene, the Guthrie police radioed him to head for home. He turned back. “It just didn’t make sense to turn me around … when there was a report that someone was pinned in a car, particularly when I was running right with the ambulance,” Martin later told a writer for New Times magazine. “You just don’t pull someone off a Code Two alert.”

About 8:30, just as the drivers were lifting the stretcher into the ambulance, Ted Sebring pulled up with his wrecker. Sebring owned the Ted Sebring Ford dealership in Crescent, up the street from the Hub Cafe on Highway 74, and ran a part-time wrecking service, as well. After closing the office and garage at five that evening, he had gone to Kenneth Vallequette’s house for a drink. Vallequette had just bought a new car from Sebring. Kenneth Hart was there, too.

At 8:15, Vallequette’s phone rang. It was the OHP District One dispatcher. There was a wreck on 74 just 7.3 miles south of Crescent on the left, or east, side of the highway, the dispatcher said. Could Ted Sebring haul the car from the ditch? Sebring asked Vallequette to drive him back to the garage for the wrecker. Hart came along.

Sebring climbed into coveralls, jumped into the wrecker, and took off from town, over the Cimarron, past Kerr-McGee, and across Highway 33 to the accident. Hart and Vallequette went back to Vallequette’s house for some flashlights.

Before Sebring arrived at the accident, Rick Fagen had looked inside Silkwood’s car. He was a rookie, on the job only five months. He had investigated fewer than fifty accidents. He noted a hat, raincoat, spare tire, jack, and wrenches in the rear of the Honda. In the back seat, a plastic bag filled with used sanitary napkins, two half-inch-high stacks of K-M–OCAW bargaining papers, and a plastic flask. In the glove compartment, he found the Honda’s title and an estimate for car damages. Fagen picked up the purse near the car and handed the wallet to Guthrie police officer William Clay. Clay, who had once worked for K-M, said he knew Silkwood, and told Fagen to call K-M personnel director Roy King for the name of her next of kin.

Fagen also noted, inside the purse, two cigarettes that appeared to be marijuana, a pill, and half of a tablet. He would later send them to the Oklahoma State Criminal Laboratory for tests.

Fagen picked up the papers lying around the car and tossed them into the front seat. He did not recall exactly how many papers there were or anything that was written on them.

Sebring pulled up on the west side of the highway, walked across the road to the ditch, and waited for Trooper Fagen to give orders. When the ambulance and six or seven bystanders had left, Fagen authorized Sebring to haul out the Honda. Sebring asked Fagen to patch a call through to Harold Smith, his sales manager. Smith usually helped his boss on tow jobs, and it wouldn’t be easy to get the Honda out without damaging it.

When Smith arrived, he hooked the wrecker’s log and chain to a ring welded to the Honda’s frame. Sebring watched as Smith made the tow taut. The car’s rear end swung around, and the driver’s side hit the concrete wingwall. As Smith pulled, the rear end scraped against the soft dirt. Sebring was certain no damage was done to the left rear bumper or the left fender. This turned out to be an important observation. Harold Smith would contradict Sebring, but from where he operated the wrecker, Smith could only hear the grind and rasp of metal on cement and stone and dirt. Fagen would also contradict Sebring.

Sebring got back to his garage in Crescent about 9:30. Leaving the smashed car on the wrecker hook, he went home.

Rick Fagen stayed at the accident site. He followed the Honda’s tracks back through the grass for 155 feet, to the point where it had left the road. He walked up the highway for another 100 feet and didn’t see any glass or debris indicating a hit-and-run. To Fagen, it looked as if Karen Silkwood had just fallen asleep at the wheel. But it was too dark to see much, and Fagen had other things to do. He would come back the next day and have a closer look. He and Officer Clay went to the Guthrie Police Station and called Roy King at Kerr-McGee for the name of Silkwood’s next of kin.

Fagen went home at midnight. About fifteen minutes later, Irene Henning, the Crescent Police Department dispatcher, called him to say the AEC wanted to check Silkwood’s car and needed his authorization. Fagen got dressed and went to Sebring’s garage, where he found Crescent police officer Joseph McDonald and three or four men in moon suits waiting. Fagen later said under oath that they had identified themselves as AEC inspectors, claiming they had to check the car for radiation.

Sebring had let them into the garage. He, too, had got a call from Irene Henning, saying that Kerr-McGee (not the AEC) wanted to see the Honda. When he said he wouldn’t let them in without the okay of the highway patrol, she told him a trooper was on his way.

Wayne Norwood appeared to be in charge. According to Fagen’s sworn testimony, the “inspectors” ran the alpha counter over the Honda and read Silkwood’s papers. Norwood found some red liquid inside a white plastic flask in the back seat. Thinking it might have alcohol in it, he took a sample.

Fagen opened Silkwood’s purse for Norwood. The two rolled cigarettes and the medication fell from the coin side to the floor, and Norwood waved the alpha counter past the purse. Everything was clean, Norwood told Fagen. Sebring locked the garage, and they all left.

Steve Wodka had landed at Will Rogers World Airport at seven that evening, before David Burnham. The OCAW official had been doing some trouble-shooting in Texas and had flown in from Dallas. He and Drew Stephens waited at the airport about forty-five minutes for the Times reporter.

Wodka was secretive. All he would tell Drew was that Burnham was interested in hearing what Karen had to say about health and safety conditions at the plant. Wodka said nothing about quality-control documents, and Stephens had no idea what Karen was going to bring or say. They chatted about the Los Alamos trip.

Stephens, Wodka, and Burnham couldn’t fit into Drew’s sports car, so Burnham rented a car. At 8:30, they got to the Northwest Holiday Inn, where they were to meet Karen. Wodka recognized two AEC inspectors in the lobby.

When he checked at the desk, Wodka found that someone had canceled his reservation. He thought that was strange; he had been traveling thousands of miles a year and staying mostly at Holiday Inns and had never lost a reservation before. There was a vacancy, though, so he registered.

The three men had dinner in Wodka’s room and waited for Karen to ring from the lobby or rap at the door. They hadn’t really expected her to be there at eight, but it was getting close to ten o’clock and they were getting nervous. Wodka tried to dial the Hub Cafe to see if the union meeting was over. His room phone was dead.

Wodka rushed to the front desk. The clerk made a quick check. There’s no problem from down here, he said. The phone should be working. When Wodka returned to the room, it was. He reached Jack Tice at home. Where was Karen? Had Tice heard anything?

Indeed Tice had. Denny Smith, a Kerr-McGee worker, had told him there had been a car accident on Highway 74 near the plant and that it looked like Karen’s car. “They towed it over to Ted’s,” Smith said.

Tice had gone to Sebring’s. It was Karen’s car. He called the Crescent police. “How is she?” he asked. “What hospital is she in?” Tice was worried not only about Karen. He knew she had been contaminated badly, and he was concerned she might have contaminated the whole hospital. But dispatcher Irene Henning said it was against the rules to talk about the accident, and hung up. She called Tice back a few minutes later, saying she had got to thinking about contaminating a whole hospital. She told him Karen had been taken to Logan County—dead on arrival.

Tice told Wodka what he knew. He said that the Oklahoma Highway Patrol had found her car off the left side of the road south of Crescent. Wodka hung up.

“She’s dead,” he said. Drew, who was sitting next to him on the bed, began to cry. He got up and went into the bathroom. Wodka just looked at Burnham.

Drew’s first reaction was that someone had murdered Karen. She was a good driver. She couldn’t just have crashed. Stephens, Wodka, and Burnham were stunned. They decided the best thing they could do—the only useful thing—was to go to the accident site and look for clues, for something that could explain what had happened. Broken glass, skid marks, tire treads … anything. Before they left, Wodka went to the AEC inspectors’ room, but Jerry Phillip and Bill Fisher had left for Crescent.

By the time Stephens, Wodka, and Burnham reached the concrete wingwall, the Honda had been towed away. It was about eleven o’clock, and no one was there. They pointed Burnham’s headlight into the ditch and poked around. Like Trooper Fagen, they followed the Honda tracks along the grass parallel with Highway 74. They tried to figure out where she had left the road, what her trajectory might have been. They looked for skid marks on the asphalt, documents in the weeds. All they found were a piece of tire, a paperback novel, and Karen’s paycheck stomped into the mud.

Suspecting she had been forced off the road, they drove into Crescent to see if the Honda could tell them anything. The lights were on in Sebring’s garage, and they peered through the small windows on the huge automatic lift doors. The white Honda still hung on the back of the wrecker. Its left front side was squashed in, and the license plate read OKLAHOMA IS OK.


By: Grace Srinivasiah (THE LINEUP)
This story was originally featured on The Lineup is the premier digital destination for fans of true crime, horror, the mysterious, and the paranormal.


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