McCurtain authorities eye possibility that at least 2 child sex crimes cases could be connected
“The majority don’t want to talk about it publicly. They just want it to go away, and it’s not going to go away”
McCURTAIN COUNTY, Okla. (KSLA) — It’s a case in the works for years.
A schoolteacher and self-proclaimed youth counselor and thousands of potential underage victims of child porn and sex crimes.
Almost a decade ago, one-time entertainer Thomas Bradley “Brad” Porton was convicted on three dozen charges, including forcible sodomy, rape, indecent exposure and lewd acts, all involving juveniles, and sentenced to what amounts to the rest of his life behind bars.
And earlier this month, KSLA News 12 told you about the arrest of one-time McCurtain County, Okla., schoolteacher Ian Cassidy Highful, a man whom investigators say had thousands of pictures of what’s believed to be underage children and possibly his own students on his personal cellphone.
Now investigators in rural McCurtain County are faced with a growing reality that they may be dealing with an unimaginable problem that has now drawn the attention of the FBI.
They’re taking a closer look at the possibility that at the very least these two separate cases of horrific crimes against children could be connected.
“And to hear we got the warrant signed was breathtaking,” Melody Minchew said.
She’s talking about charges finally being brought against former Broken Bow and Eagletown schoolteacher Ian Highful.
“I’m absolutely at peace for the first time since Tra’s been gone,” Minchew said.
Her son practically spent his entire life inside a rodeo arena.
“He woke up one day and decided he was going to be in muttonbusting, and he was in rodeo his entire life.”
Now Tra no longer is here with her to rejoice in the news they’d be waiting on for nearly six years.
“The more you talk, the more you heal,” Minchew said.
The 22-year-old took his life in June 2021, his mother said, after years of pain and anxiety after he and other students fell victim to their schoolteacher Ian Highful.
“From the eighth grade, it was nonstop something with that teacher,” Minchew recalled.
In the years before his death. Tra shared with his mother and investigators allegations of being coerced by Highful to send 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 drew the serious attention of law enforcement.
“Their initial call, an inappropriate message sent from Highful to a student and another teacher had possession of the phone when his message came through,” McCurtain County sheriff’s Capt. Alicia Manning said.
Highful was removed from campus. Charges eventually were brought only later to be dropped as prosecutors struggled to build a solid case and shore up victims willing to come forward.
“We encountered a lot of pushback on the case, people in the community,” Manning recalled.
A small community with a Main Street only three blocks long and most people there either unwilling or emotionally unable to come forward with 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.”
It’s why the case was reopened and the evidence re-examined.
“It’s very tasking emotionally and physically 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 a $1 million bond.
“I believe this is the beginning of something much larger, more people involved,” Manning said.
And possibly even connected.
The McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office confirmed for 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 whether it was coincidental that the two knew each other and were in a position of power, Manning replied: “That is correct. We have information that Ian Highful and Brad Porton were friends, and possibly other people in the community friends with them as well, in a position of power.”
Ten years ago, KSLA News 12 was there when Porton, a well-known performer who also claimed he was a youth counselor, was arrested twice.
In addition to charges of sodomy and lewd acts with juveniles, he was accused of giving drugs and alcohol to underage victims, many times after inviting them over to his Broken Bow home.
The McCurtain Daily Gazette characterized it as the biggest child molestation case this county had ever seen.
Perhaps until now.
Investigators tell KSLA News 12 that Highful has followed an almost identical pattern as Porton and that and they’ve even identified one-time juveniles who were alleged victims of both.
“And that’s our goal, to figure out what’s going on today and what went on back then, too,” Manning said.
It’s a case the Sheriff’s Office expects to grow far beyond the streets of Eagletown as more possible victims find the strength to come forward.
“He stood up for everybody. That was Tra,” said Minchew, his mother. “If they come forward now, it’s saving someone else.”
Investigators realize that many victims who’ve yet to come forward may now be married with kids just like Tra was.
And it may feel overwhelming to speak up.
But they need your help.
Right now, Highful faces one count of aggravated possession of child pornography for allegedly having thousands of inappropriate images of children on his phone. That launched this entire investigation six years ago.
He also faces five counts of child exploitation, with Tra Minchew being one of the 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’re confident the feds’ resources will be incredibly beneficial in identifying more possible victims and their involvement could lead to federal charges for Highful as well.
“Thank you for finding the courage to speak out,” Manning said. “These type of crimes take away from children something we can’t give back. So in the end, justice is all we can give them.”
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