Two decades later, a woman sentenced to life for killing her abuser still fights for freedom

Published: 10/04/2021, 5:12 PM
Edited: 10/04/2021, 8:25 PM
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Written By: Brittany Harlow

Artwork By: autumnleafsss

(TULSA, Okla.) April Wilkens has been serving a life sentence at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McCloud, Oklahoma, for the last 23 years. Her crime? Killing her rapist and abuser, Terry Carlton. 

Rape and abuse he has acknowledged committing- on tape. 

For full video, including phone recordings between Wilkens and Carlton, click here.

In a series of phone interviews from prison, Wilkens told VNN he started out spending a lot of money on her.

“Taking me on trips and just absolutely treating me like a princess,” Wilkens said. “Like I was the most special person on the planet, I really had never had anyone treat me like that before.” 

If his name sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Carlton was the son of multi-millionaire car dealership owner Don Carlton. Wilkens killed him on April 28, 1998. She does not deny it. 

“My family actually started out... We were pretty poor,” Wilkens said. “This was very new to me. To have someone spend a lot of money on me and just take me all around the world.”  

Wilkens says Carlton started abusing her after they became engaged in 1995. The physical abuse started a month later. The two broke up by 1998 but the harassment and threats were far from over. 

She said it was like going from Heaven to Hell. 

“And I mean, literal Hell,” Wilkens said. “I thought I was going to die, I thought he was going to kill me. And there were times that I wanted to die.” 

During Wilkens’s trial, one of her neighbors testified that she saw Carlton stalking Wilkens and even witnessed him run her down, grab her by her hair, and drag her back behind the privacy fence behind her house. 

Wilkens said Carlton terrorized her; breaking into her house several times that year and ransacking it so badly a high school friend considered it destroyed. 

“I saw things smashed, glass broke,” Shannon Broyles testified. “I saw her bedroom door, it had been forced in somehow, like it had been knocked in or kicked in. From the back door to the front door to the bathroom, the laundry room, to her bedroom. The whole house was like that.” 

“No woman was going to leave him,” Wilkens said. “He was not going to allow that. He would rather see me dead and die himself, or so he said.” 

Wilkens filed two protective orders against Carlton, but said he told her she would be dead if they became permanent. And that the police didn’t both to enforce the temporary ones. She testified Carlton had also been blackmailing her with revenge porn. 

Wilkens told us Carlton broke in and tried to rape her the month before she killed him, and that she tried to shoot him then, but the gun wouldn’t fire. 

“It's hard to explain how… what it's like to live like that,” Wilkens said. “To wait for the next attack. And you never know when it's coming. He had cut my phone lines in my house. He had broken into my house and stolen my gun, my means to defend myself. Even my pepper spray. He had defeated all of the locks on my backdoor and beat them in.”  

A week or so later, Carlton was arrested for Transporting a Loaded Firearm while fleeing her house after yet another attempted break-in. Officers found him outside of her house with a loaded gun and a stun gun. Wilkens was wearing a panic button around her neck for protection. One of the officers called a judge and obtained another emergency protective order that would also go unenforced. 

“It was the next day that he had already violated it,” Wilkens said. “He was calling me from jail. This police officer looked at my caller ID, he looked at the protective order and he did nothing. In fact, he said, ‘we just keep expecting to find you dead.’”  

“You know, he's coming. You just don’t know when. And so, to live like that, its insanity. You're afraid to fall asleep, you don't know when they're coming.” 

The night she shot Carlton, Wilkens said she was desperate to survive- but she didn’t go to his house to kill him. 

She only longed for some kind of control over the situation, she says, hoping that if she caught him in a non-aggressive state, she could create some peace between them. 

“You know, just try to have a conversation and work this out,” Wilkens said. “Some way that we can both get on with our lives.”

Instead, Wilkens said Carlton forced her to do drugs with him, though she feigned injecting herself with a mixture of meth that was mostly water. Then he raped her at gunpoint. 

Some time after, she told Carlton she was going to call someone for better drugs. 

And that’s when she found his gun, which she hid in her vest with his keys, cash, and credit cards. 

Wilkens says when Carlton found out his gun was missing, he handcuffed her. 

“I remember thinking that I was going to die,” Wilkens said. “I really did not believe that I would be able to get the gun. And he wasn't just threatening to rape me again.” 

When he couldn’t find the gun in her pants, Wilkens told us, he threatened to sodomize her. She pulled the gun out of her vest as he dragged her to the couch. 

“I thought I was going to die a slow, painful, torturous death,” Wilkens said. “And so, it was horrifying. It was... I don't even know how to put it into words. It was that scary.” 

But Wilkens did get a hold of the gun. 

“I just kept firing until I couldn't fire anymore,” Wilkens said. “Until it was empty, and it was quick. It was very quick.” 

She said she later managed to get the handcuffs off with hand sanitizer. 

The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) nurse who treated Wilkens after she was arrested found two vaginal tears, bruises on her hands, wrists, arms and head, and redness on her hands and neck. The nurse also testified that the evidence supported Wilkens’s statement that Carlton had punched her in the face. 

Wilkens’s rape exam urinalysis from the morning of the shooting was negative for all drugs. 

Meanwhile, a medical expert at Wilkens’s trial testified that Carlton had chronic injection sites in various stages on his arm and legs that were probably due to long-term drug use. His toxicology report indicated the presence of meth and heroin in his system at the time of his death. 

Wilkens said she was a victim of Battered Woman Syndrome and that she was in fear for her life when she shot Carlton eight times. 

Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris and his co-prosecutor Rebecca Brett Nightingale argued it was murder because Carlton was unarmed when Wilkens shot him, and that she went there wanting to kill him. 

They said Wilkens was “crying rape” and was no victim at all. 

“It was like an Alice in Wonderland event,” Wilkens said. “A deer in the headlights. I felt like I was raped all over again. You’re just desperately wanting people to believe you, and to understand what happened, and you're telling the truth about what happened.”

“For the district attorney, the elected public official, that people look upon with trust. For them to get up and to make assertions about things that didn't happen. And the evidence doesn't even back that up, but people hear these things, and they think, oh, he's the district attorney. Right? He must know something.” 

Harris and his team painted Wilkens as the drug addict, but court records show she testified that she didn’t start using drugs until after the first time Carlton raped her. 

After a three-week trial, the jury sided with the state. 

Wilkens tells us her court appointed lawyer blew her chance at justice by leaving key evidence out of her defense. The tapes in which Carlton acknowledged abusing her and raping her, for instance. 

And more. Like the fact that Carlton had an active warrant at the time he was killed for the charge he caught at Wilkens’s house. 

But the justice system’s failures didn’t stop there. 

Wilkens’s attorney didn’t bother to bring in an expert on Battered Woman Syndrome to testify on Wilkens’ behalf, despite that being the whole basis of her case. 

Neither the judge nor Wilkens’ attorney brought up the option of a manslaughter conviction instead of murder, which would have resulted in a lesser sentence. 

“It shakes your faith and confidence in everything that you're taught,” Wilkens said. “You know I, originally, I had an apple pie in one hand and an American flag and the other. And I had no idea that things like this happened in our justice system.”  

Wilkens immediately filed an appeal for her murder conviction in 1999. It was denied in 2001. 

She filed an application for Post-Conviction Relief in 2003 and 2009, stating her attorney failed to present key evidence on her behalf and that Harris should have been disqualified from prosecuting her case due to this personal relationship with Don Carlton, who afterward contributed to his political campaigns and even held a public reception for him.

Both applications were denied by the Tulsa County District Court. Wilkens was then mandated by the Court of Criminal Appeals to never bring those issues to them again. 

Wilkens has now been denied parole three times, despite different state parole investigators recommending she be released each time. She has been denied commutation twice.

When your state fails to protect you, who do you have left?

Both Wilkens’ mother and father died while she has been in prison. But she still has a relationship with her son, who was just 8 years old when she was sentenced. 

For a while, her only advocate was her niece, Amanda Ross, who has kept Wilkens’s fight for freedom alive through a blog she has published for the last six years. 

But this year, Wilkens received a new ally: Glen Blake, a lawyer who runs the Public Defender Clinic at the University of Tulsa. He will be representing Wilkens at her next parole hearing in March of 2022. 

At the risk of sounding cliché, Wilkens said, her greatest supporter has been God. 

“Not that prison is a good experience,” Wilkens said. “Because it’s really a hellacious experience. But it is a testimony that even in times like that, that God is there for you. And so, that is what gives me that joy, and that's what gives me that hope because I have faith. And when the time is right, nothing will be able to stop me from getting out of prison. Nothing. 

If you are interested writing to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board about April Wilkens’s case, here’s the address: 

Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board

P.O. Box 53448

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73152 

Or you can leave a voicemail message at 405-522-9227

Keep an eye out for more VNN coverage on this case leading up to that date. 

Do you want to make sure April Wilkens is not forgotten? During the month of October 2021, every donation made to VNN will go toward promoting this story. 

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