Longform

Living a Dream of Murder

Page 3 of 7

Denny Phillips was someone who noticed Tyner around the gyms. A wiry 5-9 and 165 pounds, the tattoos snaking up his neck guaranteeing he'd never work an office job, Phillips — also known as Phil DZ or simply D — struck up an easy conversation. Both were Cherokee, both into fighting, both from Mayes County. He knew Tyner was a good corner man, well-versed in mixed martial arts, and asked if he would help train him for a fight.

The sport, after all, had barely existed when Phillips had last been in town. He had just gotten out of prison after serving 11 years for stabbing a man with a knife he'd kept concealed in his belt buckle.


Interstate 35 runs to the Mexican border, a conveyor belt for contraband. Nearby Tulsa is the methamphetamine capital of the state, an honor that made Oklahoma one of the first to ban ephedrine — a key ingredient — from being sold over the counter without a signature. It's a twilight subculture, where drugs, prostitution and gangs collide, creating a marketplace to numb a numbing existence.

Denny Phillips was aware of all of this, having smuggled drugs into prison cells and gaining status in the process; he was high in the tribal hierarchy of the Indian Brotherhood, a volatile Native American prison gang that began making noise in the early 1990s. Violent and organized, they deal drugs and call shots from the inside with freed members spread across the Midwest. Opposing gangs and their families visit on alternating days to avoid any eruptions.

Phillips, a tattoo of an Indian headdress with feathers encasing his neck, was responsible for recruiting efforts. In the 240-pound Tyner, he saw a walking refrigerator, an enforcer. More important, Tyner was broke and rudderless, the kind of clay Phillips could mold.

"Byrd was nomadic," Cindy David says. "He never really put roots down, moving from his father's house to his mother's. They separated when he was young. He wanted a family."

Phillips' reputation was such that Nicholson warned Tyner about keeping company with him, that he was dangerous, and that he should never believe the conniving Phillips was truly his friend.

"You go into prison and you come out following the same rules," Nicholson says. "But I wasn't going to dictate who his friends were."

Phillips' seduction took time. But in April 2009, Tyner abruptly quit his job as a welder. Friends he had hung out with for years were back-burnered. His girlfriend came home one day and saw several Indians in her living room; buzz cuts were being given out. It was homework for barber school, Tyner's latest pursuit; he had even dyed a stripe in his hair.

That didn't pay the bills, though, so she insisted he get a job. He started work as a cook at Boomerang's. But every other waking moment was being spent with Phillips, whom he began to refer to as "brother."

In spring 2009, Phillips introduced Tyner to Casey "Diablo" Barrientos, 32, whom Phillips had met while both were incarcerated. Barrientos had just been paroled in April after doing time for drug offenses and a 2001 drive-by shooting. He was affiliated with the South Side Locos, a Mexican gang. In the event that his rap sheet was unavailable, anyone who met Barrientos got the hint from the devil's horns tattooed on his forehead.

Despite his newfound freedom, Barrientos had no intention of giving up illicit activities or supplying the twilight culture. From his home in Oklahoma City, he filtered drugs — weed, coke, meth — passed along by a Mexican cartel, dispatching Phillips and Tyner to traffic them a few hours away in Tulsa or Grand Lake.

Phillips explained to Tyner that Barrientos needed a bodyguard, that threats had been made against his life. His fantasies of being a gunslinger were coming true.

Tyner was paid for his bodyguard work and got a cut of the drug deals. He felt he was doing as much work as Phillips, but Phillips always seemed to have wads of cash too big for a money clip.

Barrientos didn't seem to be giving Tyner as many drugs to sell. Phillips, meanwhile, had made as many as 50 or 60 trips to Oklahoma City, where Barrientos had a suburban compound worthy of De Palma: stacks of money totaling $100,000 on the coffee table, men armed with guns, hundreds of pounds of weed and a stream of naked women.

One day in August 2009, Tyner pulled up next to Phillips in a Homeland grocery parking lot. Phillips' girlfriend, Karine Sanders, was sitting in the passenger seat. She would later testify that Tyner had complained of wanting more — more of what Phillips had. He had bills, a child to support. He was working just as hard as anyone. Barrientos was being greedy.

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Jake Rossen