OKLAHOMA CITY — Aubrey McClendon, a natural gas industry titan, was killed when police say he drove his sport utility vehicle "straight into a wall" in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, a day after he was indicted on a charge of conspiring to rig bids to buy oil and natural gas leases in northwest Oklahoma.
Police Capt. Paco Balderrama said McClendon, co-founder of Chesapeake Energy and a part-owner of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, was the only occupant in the vehicle when it slammed into a concrete bridge embankment shortly after 9 a.m.
"He pretty much drove straight into the wall," Balderrama said. "The information out there at the scene is that he went left of centre, went through a grassy area right before colliding into the embankment. There was plenty of opportunity for him to correct and get back on the roadway and that didn’t occur."
McClendon’s death follows an announcement Tuesday that he had been indicted by a federal grand jury.
Balderrama says it’s too early to say whether the collision was intentional. He said McClendon was not wearing a seat belt and that he was driving faster than the 50 mph speed limit.
The Department of Justice said in a statement Tuesday that McClendon, 56, was suspected of orchestrating a scheme between two large energy companies, which are not named in the indictment, from December 2007 to March 2012. The companies would decide ahead of time who would win bids, with the winner then allocating an interest in the leases to the other company, according to the statement.
In a statement released Tuesday after his indictment, McClendon denied violating antitrust laws.
"The charge that has been filed against me today is wrong and unprecedented," McClendon said. "Anyone who knows me, my business record and the industry in which I have worked for 35 years, knows that I could not be guilty of violating any antitrust laws. All my life I have worked to create jobs in Oklahoma, grow its economy, and to provide abundant and affordable energy to all Americans. I am proud of my track record in this industry, and I will fight to prove my innocence and to clear my name."
Department of Justice spokesman Mark Abueg declined to comment on the impact McClendon’s death would have on the case.
McClendon could frequently be spotted in his courtside seats near the Thunder bench in the arena named after the company he founded in 1989 with his friend, Tom Ward, with an initial $50,000 investment. They eventually grew the company into one of the largest independent producers of natural gas in the United States. He left the company in January 2013 amid philosophical differences with a new board of directors, and founded American Energy Partners, where he was chairman and CEO.
"Aubrey’s tremendous leadership, vision, and passion for the energy industry had an impact on the community, the country, and the world," AEP said in a statement. "We are tremendously proud of his legacy and will continue to work hard to live up to the unmatched standards he set for excellence and integrity."
McClendon was renowned for his aggression and skill in acquiring oil and gas drilling rights. As drillers learned to unlock natural gas from shale formations over the last decade, McClendon pushed the company to acquire enormous tracts of land in several states. The strategy landed the company promising assets, boosted the company’s own production and helped fuel the national boom in natural gas production. But it saddled Chesapeake with enormous debt.
Chesapeake eventually became victim of its own success. Natural gas prices plummeted along with all the new drilling by Chesapeake and its peers, reducing revenues for the company and making the debt harder to repay.
Chesapeake’s 20-acre campus sprawls through an exclusive area of Oklahoma City, its Georgian-style brick buildings surrounded by manicured lawns and sycamore and elm trees.
McClendon’s death is the second fatal crash this year connected to the Thunder organization. Assistant coach Monty Williams’ wife, Ingrid, died Feb. 10 after she was involved in a head-on crash in Oklahoma City.
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said he addressed the team after learning of McClendon’s death.
"He always treated me very, very well," Donovan said. "He was a very generous guy, and I’m just really saddened by what happened today."