By Dennis Myers
In January 1981, a man named Claude Dallas killed a couple of game wardens who were investigating him for poaching at a campsite near the conjunction of Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho. In the days afterward, law enforcement officers searching for Dallas created an image of him that reporters ate up.
Humboldt County Sheriff Frank Weston said, “The individual being a mountain man, he can travel 20 miles a day on foot. There’s no telling where he’s at. … He can definitely survive. He’s living off the land and I’m sure he can survive quite well here, the same way he did up in Canada.”
The Associated Press reported, “Authorities searched the canyons, mine shafts and caves along the rugged Owyhee Mountains yesterday for a 30-year-old mountain man suspected of killing two game wardens who were trying to arrest him for poaching deer. … Owyhee County deputy sheriff Mike Moysard described Dallas as an experienced outdoorsman who might be hard to find in the remote area. Another deputy called Dallas ‘a self-professed mountain man’ and ‘pretty much of a loner.’ Maysard said Dallas could be difficult to find because ‘he knows the area like a mountain man should.’ He has trapped that area off and on for at least the last four years,” Moysard added.
The news coverage captured the imagination of some folks and created a fan base for Dallas over the 15 months that he eluded capture. He became a romantic “folk hero, defying the government by defending his right to live off the land,” as Wikipedia phrases it today.
It was all nonsense. There was a witness to the murders named Jim Stevens and the reason Stevens was present at the camp was that he was bringing supplies to Dallas, who could not “live off the land.” During Dallas’s period as a fugitive, and during a later period when he was a prison escapee, every reliable sighting of Dallas had him in civilization — a small northern Nevada town, a factory in South Dakota, and so on. His second capture occurred at that icon of isolation and self-reliance, a southern California convenience store.
There were those who wanted badly not to know the truth. Dallas’s women fans in the courthouse during trial became known by the condescending name of Dallas Cheerleaders. A gullible writer named Jeff Long turned out a fiction version of Dallas’s tale in a 1984 book that relied on limited sources. A sales pitch for his book still reads in a melodramatic online pitch that equates Dallas with his victims: “Joined together by the land, diametrically opposed in faith, they were bound to clash in battle.” It would remain for a more reliable writer, Jack Olsen, to write a more reliable and better sourced book on Dallas, “Give a Boy a Gun,” published in 1985.
There were those who disliked the mythmaking. On a trip into Nevada’s small counties, I remember talking to people who disliked how they had been described as a constituency for Dallas, who they considered a cop killer.
I recalled all this during the past week as the search for former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner went on. Dormer is accused of killing three people he supposedly blamed for his forced departure from law enforcement after he filed an allegedly false complaint of excessive force against his training officer.
News coverage read like this: “SWAT teams in camouflage scoured the mountains and went door-to-door examining vacant cabins, aware to the reality they could be walking into a trap set by the well-trained former Navy reservist who knows their tactics and strategies as well as they do. ‘He can be behind every tree,’ said T. Gregory Hall, a retired tactical supervisor for a special emergency response team for the Pennsylvania State Police. ‘He can try to draw them into an ambush area where he backtracks.’ As authorities weathered heavy snow and freezing temperatures in the mountains, thousands of heavily armed police remained on the lookout throughout California, Nevada, Arizona and northern Mexico for a suspect bent on revenge and willing to die.”
The story needs to be sorted out and nuanced the way Dallas’s story was not. Is Dorner “the renegade ex-cop accused of killing three people in a vendetta against his old department,” as CNN reported as though it were established fact? A few reporters are very aware of the LAPD’s reputation as a rogue department, and if they didn’t, there were those willing to remind them: “But I know many black officers who received nothing but vicious retaliation for trying to report the same kind of abuse,” wrote civil rights attorney Rice.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.