An Angry Rebel's Paradise Lost

updated 09/22/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/22/1986 01:00AM

Claude Dallas. The surest way to get into a barroom argument in the small towns where Idaho, Oregon and Nevada meet is simply to mention the name. To some people in that spacious country, the stocky, self-reliant mountain man—and convicted killer of two Idaho game wardens—has come to symbolize the last stand of the Old West against the invasion of sissified environmentalists and their acronym-laden laws. His admirers see Dallas as the ultimate sagebrush rebel. To others, he is nothing more than a selfish, game-hogging romantic attempting to live out a John Wayne fantasy in a West that has moved beyond such things. In a larger sense, the Dallas killings were just another firefight in the ongoing civil war between antithetical value systems in the changing West—a war that seems to be growing hotter as the old frontier values go down fighting.

Unfortunately, Claude Lafayette Dallas Jr.—buckaroo, wild-horse hunter, trapper of coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions—isn't on hand to join the debate. Dallas, 36, is on the loose, hunted cautiously by lawmen throughout the Rocky Mountain West. Even as his odyssey continues, CBS is turning it into a movie starring J.D. Salinger's son, Matt (as Dallas), Rip Torn (as his pursuer, Sheriff Tim Nettleton) and Claude Akins (as one of the game wardens). All were keenly aware, while making the movie in Colorado, that Dallas could conceivably be looking over their shoulders. In fact, he could be anywhere from Canada to beyond the Mexican border. All his pursuers know is that, wherever he is, he is armed and dangerous.

Until last Easter Sunday, Dallas had been serving a 30-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. The game wardens had come 150 miles to a remote canyon in Idaho to arrest him for poaching deer and trapping bobcats out of season. Dallas, by his own account, had outdrawn one of the men when he went for his gun, shot both of them with his .357 Magnum pistol, then finished them off with bullets to the head from a .22 caliber rifle before vanishing into the wilderness for more than a year. "If he hadn't put in those finishing shots," said a member of the jury that convicted him, "we probably would have let him off on self-defense." Whatever the code that Claude Dallas lived by, he had obviously fired two bullets too many—an expression of rage and revenge that violated the limits the New West could tolerate.

Ironically, Dallas, the putative symbol of the Old Western ethic, was born and brought up in the East. A native of Winchester, Va., one of nine children, Dallas was the son of a hardworking chemical engineer and sometime dairy farmer who taught his sons everything he knew about land, tools and weapons. "From the time that boy was...5, 6 years old, he talked about the West," his father said. He killed his first deer at the age of 9, ran a trapline in winter and read incessantly—Jack London, Zane Grey, Owen Wister and Andy Adams' The Log of a Cowboy, along with how-to books on outdoor survival. A bright but indifferent student, he graduated 65th out of 80 in his class at Mount Gilead High in Ohio, then headed west to learn the ways of the buckaroo. He got his chance on the Alvord Ranch in remote southeastern Oregon and proved himself a hardworking, uncomplaining hand. Once, when a jeep he was using to string barbed wire high-centered on a rock in the trail, Dallas completed the job afoot, lugging 85-pound rolls of wire a thousand feet up a mountain and ripping his hands bloody in the process.

By local accounts, he was the model cowhand: polite, quiet, sober and steady. He avoided the honky-tonks and brothels of Nevada even after he moved there in 1970, saving his scanty pay for less transient investments—a Centennial-model Winchester rifle, hand-tooled Paul Bond boots, a silver spade bit for his horse, a high-crowned, round-brimmed Boss of the Plains Stetson. And a .357 Magnum Colt revolver whose checkered-wood grips he sanded smooth to facilitate the fast draw he'd been practicing and which he carried wherever he went. "He's the only man I know who wears his gun just to pick up his mail," said Fritz Buckingham, 92, the oldest resident of Paradise Valley.

Dallas' best friend in Paradise was George Nielsen, a crusty California transplant (or "prunie" in the local parlance) who ran a bar and gas stop on U.S. Highway 95 in a region known as Poverty Flats. Nielsen's dark, cozy saloon was a gathering place for all kinds of rebels, and the decor reflects Nielsen's old-time irreligion: A poster on one wall shows a nude beauty in a cowboy hat looking back over her shoulder at chalk markings on her skin that resemble a butchering chart—Prime, Choice, etc.—and illustrate the teasing slogan: "Break the Dull Steak Habit."

Nielsen had no use for government restrictions or urban Easterners, and he disliked game wardens especially. Dallas, who lived at times in a trailer behind Nielsen's bar and worked, when jobs were available, at nearby ranches, spent more and more of each winter trapping in the Santa Rosa Mountains around Paradise Valley. Nevada game regulations control the trapping of mountain lions, which may be taken only by a limited number of hunters who win the right in a lottery. When Dallas brought in two lion hides one winter, Nielsen displayed them defiantly on his pool table. Word got out, and a warden confiscated the skins and ticketed Nielsen.

Dallas' hatred of government authority was further inflamed when three Federal marshals arrested him in 1973 for draft evasion, handcuffed him, knocked the heels off his cowboy boots and sent him back to Ohio under arrest. The Vietnam War was winding down and the draft due to end soon, so the charges were ultimately dropped—but not before Dallas had spent some bitter time behind bars. When he returned to Paradise, he vowed he wouldn't submit to prison again.

By 1979 buckarooing in the region had changed so radically that Dallas was thinking of moving on. Pickup trucks had taken the place of the horse on most ranches, and the national taste for beef had waned to such an extent that cattle ranching itself was endangered. Dallas had made a summer trip to Alaska and the Canadian Arctic and now decided to head up that way full-time. But first he had to pay off Nielsen, who had bankrolled him during his time in Paradise. He promised to trap enough bobcats to make a fur coat for Nielsen's wife, Liz, and set off in December 1980 for a remote canyon just over the Idaho line, a place known locally as Bull Camp.

Other trappers in the area resented him for horning in on their territory and called in William H. Pogue of the Idaho Fish and Game Department. A onetime police chief of Winnemucca, Nev., Pogue, 50, was known as a hard case, a lawman who felt every wild animal in the area was his personal responsibility. A tough man who was not beyond a little bullying in the line of duty, according to some outdoorsmen who knew him, Pogue had a soft side as well: He drew painstakingly detailed, sentimental pictures in his spare time—a grizzled buckaroo feeding a songbird perched on his finger, a bearded trapper pensively touching a strand of freshly strung barbed wire. When he and his backup, Deputy Warden W. Conley Elms, 34, showed up at Bull Camp on the morning of Jan. 5, 1981, the scene was set for tragedy.

Also on hand that morning was Jim Stevens, a potato farmer from Paradise Valley who had arrived with a load of supplies for his friend Dallas. When it became clear that Pogue wanted to run Dallas in, Stevens walked away, embarrassed by the fuss. Usually a game warden will merely write a citation for a violator, particularly one with traps out that might be sprung in his absence. Dallas also had mules grazing in the nearby sage flats. But Pogue was adamant: He told Dallas that he was coming in under arrest. "You can go easy," he allegedly said, "or you can go hard." Dallas said later that he took "hard" to mean dead.

Stevens claimed his back was turned when he heard Pogue shout: "Oh, no!" The warden had taken a .22 pistol from Dallas' shoulder holster, but somehow hadn't spotted the .357 under his coat. As Stevens turned, he heard shots and saw Pogue fall, smoke pouring from his chest. Then Dallas, in a gunfighter's crouch, shot Deputy Warden Elms. Dallas emptied the gun into the two men, then ran into the tent and came out with a .22 rifle. He shot them both in the head—what trappers call "finishing shots."

Dallas loaded Pogue's body on one of the mules and led it up the canyon to Stevens' truck. Elms, who was 6'6" and weighed 280 lbs., was harder to move. His body kept sliding off the pack saddle, finally knocking the mule over, so Dallas disposed of the corpse in the river, where it was found a few days later during a helicopter search.

Dallas and Stevens drove back to Paradise, five hours away, where Dallas buried Pogue's body in a shallow desert grave. Then, with only a backpack, his guns and $100 that George Nielsen gave him, he disappeared into the wilderness. Tipped by Stevens soon afterward, sheriffs and the FBI began a 15-month manhunt that came to an end only when an anonymous tipster turned Dallas in for a $20,500 reward. Holed up in a trailer on Poverty Flats, Dallas was flushed out on April 18, 1982, setting off a wild chase involving helicopters, trucks and a lot of gunfire. Wounded in one foot, Dallas abandoned his broken-down truck and was finally cornered by an FBI SWAT team.

At his trial in Idaho district court later that year, Dallas pleaded justifiable homicide—he said he had felt Pogue meant to shoot him for what Dallas considered minor game law infractions. Dallas was convicted on one count of using firearms in the commission of a felony and on two counts of voluntary manslaughter—"the unlawful killing of a human being without malice...upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion." He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, which meant he could be paroled in as few as seven or eight years. That was too long by half for Dallas. "I might get off with as little as three years," he had told Jim Stevens on that fateful morning after the killings, and apparently that was all he would tolerate.

The timing of his breakout was perfect: The snow line on the surrounding mountains had lifted enough to make travel possible in the high country. It was Easter Sunday, and Claude Dallas was risen.

Guards at the Idaho State Correctional Institution near Boise discovered he was missing at a 10 p.m. bed check. Two triangular holes in the heavy wire fences surrounding the prison marked his escape route. Police dogs later picked up his scent in the roadside bar he used to frequent near Paradise Valley, but lost it in the sagebrush desert of the Bloody Run Hills. Later still, a police raid on an apartment in San Francisco, where a tipster had said Dallas was hiding, produced nothing.

The trail is still cold, but the search is far from over. Already individuals and law enforcement agencies have kicked in $14,000 for Dallas' recapture, and copies of the "Wanted" poster will soon appear in outdoor magazines nationwide. Owyhee County Sheriff Tim Nettleton believes Dallas is still hiding in the austere region where the states converge. He is impatient with the notion that Dallas is some kind of hero who symbolizes the Old West in conflict with the New. "Claude came into this country from the outside just like all the other newcomers," he said. "He was an interloper too. But he didn't play by the local rules." Now Dallas plays by no rules but his own, and even his freedom gives him no chance of winning. Taken alive once, he may not be taken again.

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