After Five Months on the Run in the Wilderness, Accused Kidnappers Are Brought in from the Cold

updated 01/07/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/07/1985 01:00AM

It was just too good to resist...

Sheriff Johnny France gunned the Arctic Cat Panther past scrub pine and boulders as he followed the tracks up the draw. Time was critical. To the east, a pale, lopsided moon already loomed over the snow-shrouded mountains, and the cold in the long, blue shadows promised a bitter nightfall. Under cover of darkness, the fugitives would surely slip away. When barbed wire blocked the snowmobile's path, France dismounted and ran ahead on foot, his .223 caliber Ruger Mini-14 rifle ready for action. From the tracks he could see that the two men he hunted were watching their back-trail, one waiting in ambush while the other leapfrogged ahead. At any moment a bullet might finish him.

But France knew exactly where he was. Ironically, the chase was taking place on the very ranch where the Madison County, Mont, sheriff had grown up. Breathing hard as he jogged uphill through ankle-deep snow, he radioed directions to the Cessna 172 search plane that circled overhead; the helicopter was overdue. As he ran, browsing deer lifted their heads to watch him. The human tracks were getting fresher.

France stepped around a juniper tree. Ahead of him stood two men, bearded and bulky in layers of filthy cotton clothing, the light glinting from their grease-encrusted cowboy hats. Under a giant Douglas fir a campfire blazed, nearly smokeless beneath a tarpaulin lean-to. Venison steaks sizzled in a skillet. The older man reached for his rifle, but France's weapon was already at his shoulder.

"Don't do anything foolish," France said. He'd rehearsed the moment a thousand times in the past five months. The last person to point a gun at this lean, bushy-bearded "mountain man" had hesitated for just an instant, reluctant to take a human life. In the next moment he lost his own. France's finger tightened on the trigger. "Please," he said quite reasonably, "don't make me kill you."

Wisely the older man took his hand off the rifle.

Thus ended the long manhunt for Don and Dan Nichols, the father-and-son fugitives who, last July, allegedly kidnapped biathlon star Kari Swenson, 23, and killed Alan Goldstein, 36, when he came to her rescue (PEOPLE, Aug. 6). According to authorities, the Nicholses—Don, 53, and Danny, 20—had captured Swenson to be the son's bride, chained her to a tree, then fled after the shoot-out, leaving her bleeding and in shock from a .22 caliber bullet wound.

In the months that followed, France and Gallatin County Sheriff John Onstad—aided by the U.S. Forest Service and Butte, Mont. FBI agent Gary Lincoln—tried every trick in the book. SWAT teams in helicopters scoured southwestern Montana's Spanish Peaks wilderness. Other aircraft crisscrossed the area at odd hours, looking vainly for telltale wisps of campfire smoke. Down below, horse and foot patrols with tracking dogs pounded the canyons and forested slopes. The lawmen even set a space-age mantrap. At a high-country cattle camp in an area known as "Cowboy Heaven," they baited a tent with some canned goods, and then they planted sophisticated sensors tuned to detect metal and body heat. None of this worked.

In the end it was raw luck coupled with France's spur-of-the-moment boldness that brought the Nicholses to justice. On the morning of the capture Roland Moore, 37, was riding out to break ice from his Cold Springs Ranch stock tanks so his cattle and horses could drink. Returning home he spotted smoke rising from a draw. "I figured maybe it was a deer poacher, or some kids just messing around," he said, "so I drove up the highway to look up the draw. I was leaning across the hood of the pickup with my binoculars and I saw two men up there. One of them was looking back at me with binoculars. They ran uphill fast."

To Moore, the men's headlong escape—and the absence of footprints leading into the draw from the highway—spelled only one thing: Nichols. He quickly phoned the office of his foster brother-in-law, Sheriff Johnny France. The sheriff, 44, had been raised on the Cold Springs Ranch as a foster child after his mother died and his father, an itinerant cowboy, could no longer care for the boy and his three sisters. He'd hunted, fished and punched cattle all over the 3,000-acre spread, growing up to become a Montana amateur saddle-bronc champion and an ambitious lawman.

By midafternoon, France and his deputies were ready to move—but the assault helicopters hadn't shown. "I'll just take the snow machine up the draw and look for sign," he said. When he returned he had the Nicholses in custody.

The capture brought relief to the region but also a letdown. "It's a dark cloud off our shoulders," said Bob Schaap, co-owner of the Lone Mountain Ranch, where Kari Swenson had worked. "But there's a lot of people who would like to have seen them come out feet first. The Nicholses are still being romanticized for living out there in the boonies as real mountain men. Bull. These guys are creeps, jerks. They had to steal their food."

Indeed, Sheriff Onstad speculates that they may have come down close to the highway to break into a store for supplies. "Sure, a lot of people wanted them caught and out of the mountains," he says. "But, also—and I've heard the phrase often—they didn't want 'em 'shot down like dogs.' Most folks thought of them as tough, hardbitten, desperate men. They didn't turn out to be as hard as I'd pictured them."

Among the first things the prisoners did on arrival at the Gallatin County lockup was shower and shave off their beards, then demand second and third helpings at meals. Later they asked for papers and magazines from the jail library, reading them from cover to cover. Young Dan prefers Omni, while the widely feared Don amuses himself with, of all things, the New Yorker.

As for Kari Swenson, she is far from recovered from her bullet wound. "Kari still has a lot of pain," says her mother, Jan. "She has bone and metal fragments in her chest wall. When she breathes deeply she gets shooting pains in her neck and face." But Kari is working out as often as possible, trying to regain the form in skiing and marksmanship that made her America's best female biathlete in 1983-84. Two weeks ago she raced for the first time since her injury, skiing the anchor leg in a seven-kilometer biathlon relay at Big Sky. " It was just a low-key fun race," she said later. "A little painful, but it was good to be back."

Johnny France, meanwhile, headed "down country" for a Kansas vacation—a Montanan's idea of the Sunny South—where he planned to hunt quail instead of desperadoes.

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