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    Death Valley Robbery Spree

    Bandit search comes to an end

    Man On One Year Robbing Spree Ends His Life With A Bullet After Being Surrounded

    By Robin Flinchum

    Like most law enforcement officials who pursued the man at some point during his four-state crime spree, Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo was sorry to hear that the Warm Springs/Ballarat Bandit had eluded his captors by taking his own life last Sunday.

    "I would have just liked to have sat down with him for an hour and had a conversation," DeMeo said about the Bandit who led him and over 30 other officers on an exhaustive manhunt through northern Nye County last March. "I think a lot of other guys would have, too, just to ask him how he did it. How did he survive out there? And why?"

    But in the end, the Bandit who managed to stay at least one step ahead of law enforcement by hiding in remote areas of California, Nevada, Utah, and Oregon for the past year, denied his pursuers even that satisfaction. In an empty wash south of Death Valley, about 100 feet off California Highway 127 on the San Bernardino County side of Ibex Pass, the Bandit ended his career by putting a bullet in his brain. Surrounded in the air and on the ground by law enforcement officials from local, state and federal agencies, dehydrated, exhausted, and out of options, the man whose skills and physical endurance had won him grudging admiration from scores of veteran officers, finally gave up.

    The chase is over, but for the officers who pursued this man from the searing floor of Death Valley to the snow covered peaks of the mountains outside Tonopah, and through Utah and Oregon as well, the questions remain.

    So far, according to a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Coroner's office, no identification has been made of the Bandit.

    It all started in Death Valley last August, when someone called the Inyo County Sheriff's Department to report a lean, hungry looking man and a dog wandering in the desert near the Panamint Range. Deputies checked it out and found the dog, but not the man. Several months later, when a rash of thefts broke out in and around the ghost town of Ballarat, said Inyo County Sheriff's Detective Jeff Hollowell, they connected the two incidents.

    The suspect was dubbed the Ballarat Bandit because his first crimes of notoriety were committed there, where he stole a four-wheel ATV from the caretaker and pilfered other items, including food and guns, from other campers.

    In January, four off-duty police officers on vacation noticed him and photographed him riding into the distance on an ATV. It was the first official sighting of the Bandit. In the following months, Hollowell said, there were approximately 30 reports of robberies committed by the Bandit in remote Inyo County locations.

    In the Death Valley area many people saw and even spoke with the Bandit, Hollowell said. He was friendly, though his conversation was never personal, often evasive if questioned. "He'd stop and talk to people on the road and they wouldn't think anything about it until they got back to their camp and discovered all their stuff was gone," Hollowell said. Then, when they reported him to the police, the physical descriptions of him varied in many details but the one thing they all had in common was that the man, probably in his early 40's, had intense or even flaming’ blue eyes. He also had dark hair and was probably around 5 feet, 10 inches tall.

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    Law enforcement officers in Inyo County, including the county's SWAT team, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management began cooperating in an effort to capture the man, who kept to the desolate back country and knew how to stay hidden and cover ground.

    He stole vehicles, like a Subaru parked on Death Valley's West Side Road, and abandoned them when they no longer served his purpose. He traveled also on stolen ATVs, or on foot when the occasion called for it.

    The officers looked for him at night with night-vision equipment, they looked for him with air surveillance, but even when they found him or got close, he managed to slip away, leaving a trail of stolen weapons and vehicles, as well as a growing legend, behind him.

    In one instance, when officers got within 20 feet of him near Ballarat, Hollowell said, the Bandit "took off running straight uphill and covered a heck of a lot of distance." Some estimate he ran for as much as five miles up into the Panamint Mountains as descending darkness made pursuit almost impossible.

    "He was never confrontational," said Inyo County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Stell, who participated in the manhunt. "He'd pick flight over fight every time. He probably even had opportunities to ambush us while we were chasing him." Instead, the Bandit stayed out of sight.

    Death Valley enthusiasts, participating on Internet discussion boards such as DeathValley.com and Death-Valley.us, kept track of the Bandit's movements. Public speculation about his identity and his motives ran rampant. Some admired his survival skills, some said they wanted in on the efforts to track and capture him.

    But the inventory of weapons and ammunition the Bandit was known to have stolen was lengthy and he was considered armed and dangerous. When he left Death Valley, he moved into Sheriff DeMeo's territory and a whole new set of problems after he stole a truck near Nye County's Warm Springs. "I don't think he realized we could marshal that kind of support," DeMeo said about the intensive search efforts mounted in Nye County to find the Bandit.

    While some criticized his efforts, calling them an over-reaction, DeMeo pointed out that the Bandit had camped at a point overlooking the Tonopah Test Range and was armed with 11 rifles, night visions glasses, and a sniper's scope. "There are seven signs that fit a terrorist profile," DeMeo said, "and he met all the criteria. We had to protect our military assets."

    It was in northern Nye County that the Bandit earned DeMeo's respect by covering 60 miles of desert country on foot with no food or water and DeMeo's forces in hot pursuit. "That's a remarkable accomplishment," DeMeo said. And shortly thereafter, he stole a vehicle and left the county, possibly even driving past officers on the highway looking for him.

    Finally, after even more intensive search efforts than those of Inyo County, with many of his officers on duty 16 hours a day, on March 28, DeMeo was able to call an end to the search. At that point evidence located the suspect much farther north, outside of DeMeo's jurisdiction. "But we created a profile on him and passed it along," DeMeo said. "He had very specific habits. He was very neat and methodical."

    Once, DeMeo said, when the Bandit broke into a home for supplies, he ransacked the kitchen and "went from cupboard to cupboard to get only the pots and pans and lids that matched, and utensils, too. They were the best items. And he stole spices, particular spices."

    Through the FBI, the various agencies involved or interested in the search kept tabs on the Bandit, Inyo County's Hollowell said. Reports of thefts of vehicles, quads, food and weapons that could be reasonably connected with the Bandit reached Inyo County from as far away as Utah and Oregon. He was tracked through the stolen vehicles, or the stolen credit cards he used once or twice and then discarded. Then, just when it seemed he was far enough away for local officials to breathe a little easier, he resurfaced in Inyo County.

    On July 22, an off-duty BLM ranger spotted an unusual-looking camp near Death Valley's Johnson Canyon and examined it for clues. What turned out to be a stolen truck at the site contained a wallet belonging to the driver of the Subaru stolen by the Bandit several months ago in Death Valley. "That’s when we knew he was back," Hollowell said.

    The Bandit, presumably realizing his camp had been found, fled the park on a four-wheel ATV, according to Hollowell. It was 122 degrees at the time. Last Thursday night he traveled through the Shoshone area and an area known as Dodge City near Tecopa before heading south on Friday near or along the route of California Highway 127 toward Baker. One officer who participated in the search said the suspect was carrying no water with him and was probably becoming dehydrated in the heat.

    The next time the Bandit was spotted by law enforcement officials was Sunday morning around 10 a.m. He was sitting on the side of the road on Highway 127, leaning against a call box sign and holding a gas can. "He just looked like he was waiting for someone to come pick him up," Hollowell said. But the BLM ranger who had seen him soon noticed there were no broken down vehicles on the road nearby and realized the man was probably their suspect. He radioed for backup, which came by air and on the ground from several different agencies.

    By about 1 p.m., officers from the federal Bureau of Land Management, rangers from Death Valley National Park, an Inyo County Sheriff's deputy, and an air unit from the California Highway Patrol were on the scene and had tracked the Bandit to a wash about halfway to the bottom of Ibex summit on the San Bernardino County side, about 100 feet off the road. He was lying on the ground under a tarp or tent next to his four-wheeler.

    Four officers approached the Bandit from different directions while the aircraft circled overhead. The officers called out for him to come forward, Hollowell, said, but their only response was the sound of a gunshot. Upon investigation they found the subject had shot himself in the head with a .22 rifle.

    Although the Bandit was considered dangerous because he consistently carried firearms and had stolen ammunition, there was no known incidence of violence between him and pursuing officers. As observed by Stell, the Bandit always preferred to run. But this time, Stell said, "He just had no place to go." Hollowell and others in Inyo County said that no water containers were found anywhere near the Bandit's body, leading them to surmise that he may have gone without water for some time and was too exhausted to run as he had done before.

    DeMeo says now it's too soon to say whether Nye County's concerns about the man as a possible terrorist threat were founded, but says he made the right choice. "Better than sitting here explaining why the people of Nye County weren't protected," he said. Too many to be ignored, Bandit's habits and patterns indicated he had received paramilitary training. DeMeo added, "We learned a lot from all of this. Now we're just waiting to see what else comes to light."

    As yet, the San Bernardino County Coroner says they have no information about the suspect's true identity or what drove him to his outlaw career in the first place. San Bernardino County Coroner Spokesman John Kroeker says that typically, in a case like this, identification is made through a fingerprint search, but this is no typical case. Sheriff DeMeo said that his team attempted to find fingerprints left by the Bandit in a variety of ways, using cutting edge forensic equipment, "but he wiped everything meticulously clean," DeMeo said.

    Of course the coroner has obtained the fingerprints from the body, but whether the Bandit, while he was alive, ever left a set in any official record for comparison remains to be seen. Kroeker said he could not estimate how long the identification process might take.

    The official autopsy report has not been released and there is no confirmation of whether the Bandit might have been too dehydrated or otherwise ill to flee as he had done in the past.

    "He drove us crazy for nearly a month," DeMeo said of his team's part in the chase. "Sometimes it was like he felt invincible or immune. Sometimes I think it was about the thrill of the hunt - this was a very successful game for him. Maybe he just loved the outdoors. If he was caught he was looking at doing a lot of time. Maybe he wouldn't have wanted to be caged."

    While his pursuers continue to wait and wonder, the body of the Ballarat Bandit is being held by the San Bernardino County Coroner's office until identification is made.

    Copyright © 2004 Pahrump Valley Times



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