McCurtain authorities consider possibility that at least 2 child sex crimes cases are linked
McCURTAIN COUNTY, Okla. (KSLA) – This has been an ongoing matter for years.
A self-proclaimed teacher and youth counselor and thousands of potential underage victims of child pornography and sex crimes.
Nearly a decade ago, former entertainer Thomas Bradley “Brad” Porton was convicted of three dozen charges, including forced sodomy, rape, indecency and lewd acts, all involving minors , and sentenced to what amounts to the rest of his life behind bars.
[RELATED: Former McCurtain Co. teacher arrested for several felonies, including child pornography]
And earlier this month, KSLA News 12 told you about the arrest of former McCurtain County, Okla., teacher Ian Cassidy Highful, a man who investigators say had thousands of photos of what are believed to be underage children and possibly his own students on his personal laptop.
Now investigators in rural McCurtain County are facing a growing reality that they may be facing an unimaginable problem that has now caught the attention of the FBI.
They take a closer look at the possibility that at the very least these two separate cases of horrific crimes against children may be linked.
“And hearing that we got the warrant signed was breathtaking,” Melody Minchew said.
She talks about charges eventually brought against former Broken Bow and Eagletown teacher Ian Highful.
“I am absolutely at peace for the first time since Tra left,” Minchew said.
His son has spent most of his life in a rodeo arena.
“He woke up one day and decided he was going to muttonbusting, and he’s been rodeoing his whole life.”
Now Tra is no longer there with her to rejoice in the news they have been waiting for for nearly six years.
“The more you talk, the more you heal,” Minchew said.
The 22-year-old took his own life in June 2021, his mother said, after years of pain and anxiety after he and other students were victimized by their teacher Ian Highful.
“From eighth grade, it was something non-stop with this teacher,” Minchew recalls.
In the years before his death. Tra shared with his mother and investigators allegations of being coerced by Highful into sending him nude photographs to receive passing grades and being baited with alcohol and drugs.
“But they didn’t believe me,” Minchew said.
She added that it wasn’t until months later, when Highful was accused of sending an inappropriate message to another Eagletown student, that he then came to the attention of law enforcement.
“Their first call, an inappropriate message sent by Highful to a student and another teacher were in possession of the phone when his message arrived,” McCurtain County Sheriff’s Captain Alicia Manning said.
Highful was removed from campus. The charges were ultimately only brought later to be dropped as prosecutors struggled to build a strong case and shore up victims willing to come forward.
“We encountered a lot of pushback on the case, from people in the community,” Manning recalled.
A small community with a main street only three blocks long and most people there unwilling or emotionally unable to say what they knew.
“The majority don’t want to talk about it publicly,” Manning said. “They just want it to go away, and it’s not going to go away.”
This is why the case was reopened and the evidence re-examined.
“It’s very emotionally and physically draining to go through images of children, to hear their stories of abuse, and to feel like they were never heard,” Manning said.
Then, two weeks ago, Highful was arrested in Texas and extradited to McCurtain County on $1 million bond.
[RELATED: Former McCurtain County teacher arraigned; bond set at $1 million]
“I believe this is the start of something much bigger, more people involved,” Manning said.
And maybe even connected.
The McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to KSLA News 12 that Highful and previously convicted Brad Porton grew up attending the same high school at the same time.
[RELATED: Lewd acts trial of OK entertainer begins]
When asked if it was a coincidence that the two knew each other and were in a position of power, Manning replied, “That’s right. We have information that Ian Highful and Brad Porton were friends, and possibly other people in the community were also friends with them, in positions of power.
Ten years ago, KSLA News 12 was there when Porton, a well-known entertainer who also claimed to be a youth counselor, was twice arrested.
In addition to charges of buggery and lewd acts with minors, he was charged with giving drugs and alcohol to underage victims, multiple times after inviting them to his home in Broken Bow.
[RELATED: OK entertainer facing sodomy charges out on bond]
The McCurtain Daily Gazette called it the biggest case of child molestation this county has ever seen.
Maybe until now.
Investigators tell KSLA News 12 that Highful followed an almost identical pattern to Porton and even identified minors who were alleged victims of both.
“And that’s our goal, to figure out what’s happening today and what happened back then as well,” Manning said.
It’s a case the sheriff’s office expects to grow far beyond the streets of Eagletown as more potential victims find the strength to come forward.
“He defended everyone. It was Tra,” said Minchew, his mother. “If they show up now, it saves someone else.”
Investigators realize that many victims who have not yet come forward may now be married off with children, just like Tra was.
And it can feel overwhelming to talk.
But they need your help.
Highful is currently facing one count of aggravated possession of child pornography for allegedly having thousands of inappropriate images of children on his phone. That started this whole investigation six years ago.
He also faces five counts of child exploitation, with Tra Minchew being one of five alleged victims, and one count of indecent exhibition.
The sheriff also told KSLA News 12 that the FBI is assisting while conducting its own parallel investigation.
They are convinced that the resources of the federal government will be extremely beneficial in identifying more possible victims and that their involvement could also lead to federal charges for Highful.
“Thank you for finding the courage to speak up,” Manning said. “These types of crimes take away something from children that we cannot give back to them. So in the end, justice is all we can give them.
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