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Town changed, even with girls' killer behind bars

FILE - In this April 23, 2012, file photo, Kevin Sweat leaves court in Okemah, Okla. Sweat, accused of killing two girls along a rural Oklahoma road in 2008 but who was not arrested until after being questioned in his fiancee's death three years later, has pleaded guilty in both cases Thursday, July 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
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WELEETKA, Okla. (AP) -- Folks once settled in this sleepy central Oklahoma town to get away from the crime and hubbub of big-city life. Many residents didn't bolt their doors or draw their shades at night. Most here never worried about people like Kevin Sweat.

But then, on a dusty road northeast of town, Sweat shot 13-year-old Taylor Paschal-Placker and 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker to death, believing they were demons out to do him harm. The 2008 slayings went unsolved for years until Sweat's fiancee was murdered, and police questioned him in her death and connected the cases. Sweat pleaded guilty to all three murders Thursday.

Prosecutors dropped plans to seek the death penalty after Sweat agreed to waive his right to a jury trial. Sweat, who had lived with his fiancee in a neighboring county, faces life in prison, either with or without parole. He'll be sentenced later.

But even with the guilty pleas secured, some residents in this working-class town of barely 1,000 people doubted things would ever return to the way they used to be six years ago.

"It changed the whole town," said Jim Graffman, owner of Big Jim and Hoktey's Saloon, where a sole customer sat at the bar at midday. "You're careful taking the back roads because you have no idea what's going to happen.

"It made everybody aware that this type of thing can happen here," he said.

The sentiment was the same for Janet and Tim Wise, who, until learning that Sweat had pleaded guilty to the crimes, said they kept watchful guard over their grandchildren, fearing that the girls' killer was somehow still on the loose, living among the residents.

"We had to keep an eye on them at all times," Janet Wise said as she dined with her family at Outlaws Grocery and Diner, a popular meet-up for locals. She added: "I think whatever he gets, he deserves," after hearing about Sweat's guilty plea.

Wanda Mankin, the principal at the school where Skyla and Taylor attended, was dreading the start of Sweat's trial. It had been set to start Monday.

"This trial has brought all these feelings back in the open," Mankin said in an interview a few hours before Sweat's plea hearing. "Nothing you learn in college can ever prepare you for dealing with this kind of thing."

The murders of the young girls were just the first of several more tragedies to come for the town in a span of several years: a house fire that killed six people; the death of a beloved youth minister in an oil tank explosion; and another fire that tore through several downtown buildings, wiping out a popular caf

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