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Local author pens book about bootlegger Cleo Epps

Epps was a bootlegger through 40s, 50s and 60s, and was found at the bottom of a water cistern in 1970. McCracken's new book explores her life and death as Queen of the bootleggers.

When local author Kirk McCracken was at a book signing last year for his first book, he had one request from multiple people: write a book about Cleo Epps.

“Actually, the first person to ask me to write a book about Cleo was Terry Holbrook,” McCracken said. “He was a big part of helping with my first book about the murder of Sapulpa coach Jerry Bailey, and he was the first to suggest Cleo Epps. At several book signings, numerous people asked me to write about Cleo and when I started to research her, I couldn’t stop.”

Epps was a bootlegger in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and used the money from illegal liquor to build houses and sell them. She used her illegitimate business to start a legitimate business. She would carry the note for those that bought a house from her. She didn’t need a bank, and she knew exactly what everyone owed her.

Despite being one of the biggest bootleggers in the Tulsa-Creek County area, Epps had a heart of gold and wanted to help people.

Cleo Epps leaving court in the 1960s.

“The more research I did, the more I found out what a great woman she was. She was always making sure people around her had what they needed to survive. I’ve even heard a rumor that she bankrolled Oral Roberts when he first started, but I couldn’t find any evidence to prove it. There are a lot of rumors involving Cleo, and most of them are about what a great woman she was,” McCracken said.

However, Epps had business associates that weren’t so great; in fact, they were ruthless killers. Some of the men were involved in the Dixie Mafia, a crime syndicate loosely-based out of Louisiana. It was her connection to those men that got her killed.

On November 12, 1970, Epps went to a meeting with business associates Albert McDonald and Thomas Lester Pugh. She was never seen alive again. Three months later, Epps was found at the bottom of a water cistern at an abandoned house in west Tulsa. She had a towel wrapped around her head, and she had been shot twice in the head.

The water cistern where Epps’ body was found.

“This is one of those stories where everyone that was alive back then had a version of what happened, who did it, and why it happened. I used court transcripts, family interviews, and old newspapers to tell the story. Epps lived an exceptional life, but she toed a line, and that got her killed,” McCracken said.

Epps was a bootlegger but also a police informant and testified in court numerous times. In 1970, Tulsa judge Fred Nelson was almost killed when a car bomb placed in his station wagon sent metal into his stomach, chest, and leg. The car bombers used some of Epps’ dynamite to make the bomb. She testified against them in a grand jury hearing and it led to her death.

Right now, the book is available in paperback and e-book on Amazon.com.

“I’ve also been asked to do some book signings and those should happen soon,” McCracken said.

McCracken is the former sportswriter for the Sapulpa Herald and the former Managing Editor of the Sand Springs Leader. He wrote “Because of the Hate: The Murder of Jerry Bailey” and released it in 2018.

About the Author

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