In late October of 1925, Tom White receives a tip out of the blue. While meeting with the governor of Oklahoma, he hears that a prisoner at the state penitentiary named Burt Lawson is claiming to know “a great deal” about the Osage murders. White and one of his agents, Frank Smith, desperate for a new lead, rush out to the prison to interview Lawson.
White and his agents have come up against wall after wall and are desperate for something that will help them undermine the corruption which is so rampant in Osage county.
Lawson tells White that in 1918 he worked as a ranch hand for Bill Smith, and also got to know William Hale and his nephews Ernest and Bryan. Lawson claims that in 1921, he discovered “an intimacy” between his wife and Bill Smith and left his employment. More than a year later, Ernest told Lawson he had a job for him—blowing up Bill and Rita. Lawson was hesitant, and even when Hale came to him and offered him $5,000, he refused the job. After an arrest, Hale visited Lawson in prison and convinced Lawson at last to take the job. Lawson then describes to White how Hale snuck him out of prison in the middle of the night in order to do the job, and White excitedly writes to Hoover with news of the confession. White and his men begin working to corroborate Lawson’s statement.
Lawson begins spinning a story about his long, complicated history as an acquaintance of both William Hale and the Burkharts. White and his agents know how much corruption pervades the area, and yet are so desperate for a lead that they agree to trust an outlaw to give them the dirt they need to nab Hale.
Meanwhile White continues worrying about Mollie—he has suspicions about her complications from “diabetes,” and worries that she will soon be killed so that her inheritance falls to Ernest—and, by proxy, to Hale. When one of White’s agents John Wren hears from Mollie’s priest that Mollie believes someone is trying to poison her—perhaps through her insulin injections, which the Shoun brothers are administering—White becomes even more desperate to get Hale off the streets.
The pressure White is facing continues to mount. Not only does he suspect that the murderers are running free, but he obtains direct confirmation that Mollie’s life is in danger—if he isn’t able to beat the system and act fast, yet another Osage life may soon be lost.
On January 4, 1926—despite not having finished confirming many details of Lawson’s statement—White issues arrest warrants for William Hale and Ernest Burkhart for the murders of Bill and Rita Smith and their servant Nettie. Burkhart is taken in easily, but Hale is nowhere to be found—until he strolls into the sheriff’s office one day and turns himself in, dressed in a dandy suit with a relaxed, even amused expression on his face. Noting how confident Hale seems, White and his agents decide that the nervous-seeming Burkhart is “the one to break.”
White acts hastily, so desperate is he to get Hale off the streets. When Hale turns himself in, his dandy clothing and spritely disposition symbolize his feelings of invincibility—Hale is so powerful that he believes that nothing and no one can touch him.
White and Smith begin questioning Burkhart, but the man denies any knowledge of Lawson. White and his agent Smith drill Ernest for hours in a hot, claustrophobic box of an interrogation room, but Burkhart refuses to budge. After midnight, White and Smith give up and return Burkhart to his cell. The next day presents even more trouble, as Hale announces that he can prove he was in Texas at the time of the explosion. White begins to realize that Lawson was lying all along—and White, in his desperation to get Hale, fell prey to the outlaw’s story.
Things begin to look bad for White. He let desperation and haste get the better of him, and now must deal with the folly of his own mistakes—and the repercussions they may have as the investigation moves forward.
Desperate, White hunts down and questions the dangerous outlaw Blackie Thompson about Hale and Burkhart’s role in the Osage murders. Blackie states that Ernest and Hale once approached him and an “old buddy” about killing Bill and Rita Smith, offering Blackie Ernest’s car as payment. Blackie stole Ernest’s car from his driveway one night but was soon arrested. White and his agent then bring Blackie to Burkhart—to show Ernest that they know “everything.” Much later that night, Ernest tells one of White’s agents that he is finally defeated, and ready to confess.
White’s desperation continues—as does his use of less-than-savory characters to aid in his investigation. White has had to resort to strange tactics in order to fight for justice for the Osage, since the atmosphere of corruption and racism in Osage County is so corrupt.
Burkhart tells White that though he didn’t kill Bill and Rita, he knows who did, and wants to tell his story. He reveals that Hale did indeed scheme to kill Rita and Bill; when Hale told Ernest of the plan, Ernest protested, but Hale reminded Ernest that he and Mollie stood to inherit all of the couple’s money. Burkhart, who had long idolized his uncle, went along with the plan, and Hale began recruiting outlaws who might want to take on the job. Burkhart reveals that Lawson had nothing to do with the job—and that Hale went to Fort Worth during the bombing specifically so that he would have an alibi while Asa Kirby, the “soup man,” carried out the job. Burkhart also reveals that Hale arranged the murder of Henry Roan for insurance money and identifies John Ramsey as the triggerman.
Burkhart’s conscience has gotten to him—or perhaps it’s just that circumstance has backed him into a corner. Either way, he reveals everything to White, and allows White to form charges against both Hale and Ramsey. At last, there is a break in the case that White can use—even if indicting Hale poses an enormous challenge.
With the case “broken wide open,” White has his agents arrest John Ramsey and bring him in. Ramsey, too, confesses to his role in the plot—as he delivers his statement, he repeatedly refers to Henry Roan as “the Indian”—and attempts to justify his crime by stating plainly that even now, “white people in Oklahoma [think] no more of killing an Indian than they did in 1724.”
Ramsey’s statement shows just how racist society is against Native people—their lives are not worth anything to white Americans, even after all these years.
White goes back to Burkhart to question him about Anna’s murder, and Burkhart reveals that Kelsie Morrison—the bootlegger and informant—was the one to put the bullet in Anna’s head. The authorities set out to arrest Morrison, and White sends a doctor to check on Mollie. She seems near-death, and authorities, judging her symptoms, believe she is being poisoned. Mollie is taken to a hospital, where she immediately begins feeling better, and the Shoun brothers are brought in for questioning—they are evasive and deny any wrongdoing, and White is unable to implicate them in the poisoning.
In spite of clear-cut circumstantial evidence, the systems of power and protection in Osage County prevent White from holding a white person accountable for crimes against a Native person unless there is hard, tangible proof. No one but White is sticking up for the Osage people, or willing to put a white person behind bars for crimes against the tribe unless absolutely forced.
When Mollie is feeling well enough, she, too, submits to questioning. When faced with the truth, she refuses to believe that Ernest could have been involved in the plot against her family. She insists that she loves her husband, and that he would never hurt anyone else—especially not her.
The horror of realizing that her husband has, all along, been conspiring to secure her family’s wreckage and her own demise is too much for Mollie to bear.
Armed with statements from Burkhart and Ramsey, White and Agent Smith confront Hale. White tells Hale, with no pretense, that he has enough evidence to convict Hale of the vast conspiracy. As White outlines the evidence, though, Hale remains “unperturbed.” White attempts to persuade Hale to confess and avoid a bitter legal battle, but Hale almost “gleeful[ly]” replies that he plans to fight the allegations against him.
Even when confronted with a direct threat of indictment and conviction, Hale is so confident in his ability to control every level of society in his county that he almost welcomes the challenge White presents.