Blood on the Range

updated 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MARIAN STEVENSON HAD BEEN TRYING repeatedly to reach her husband, Wayne, on the two-way radio. She'd had no luck, though, which really didn't surprise her. It was the evening of March 27, the height of calving season, and ranchers all across Montana were working around the clock. Wayne Stevenson, 51, had gone out earlier that night to check on his herd of 1,200 cows, which was producing some 12 calves a day, near the town of Hobson (pop. 235). When the phone rang around 11:40 p.m., Marian, 50, figured it was Wayne calling to say he was finally on his way home. Instead, she heard an agitated voice on the line: "I've got your husband and his red pickup, and I want $1 million in 24 hours," the man said.

Two days later, Wayne's body was found in a manure pile near the calving barn, shot six times with a .22-cal. rifle. It was a horrific crime under any circumstances, but especially so in Montana's Judith Basin County, where there hadn't been a murder in nearly 50 years, and where Wayne—the country's largest breeder of purebred Black Angus cattle—was just about the most prominent person around. Adding to the shock was the identity of the man who police believe pulled the trigger.

The rancher's tragic end came in a place that he had loved all his life. Nearly 50 years ago, Wayne's late father, Jamie, had started breeding Angus on a ranch south of Hobson. By the time Stevenson was a junior in high school he was already a partner in his dad's operation, and though he graduated as valedictorian of his high school class, Wayne decided lo pursue ranching instead of going to college. "Wayne was really focused," says Marian, who was his high school sweetheart. "Even then his dream was to raise the best Angus cattle in the world."

In that, he succeeded admirably. Starting with his father's cattle, he painstakingly built up a magnificent herd of his own, which he tended with his son Doug, 30. (His daughter Valerie, 33, is a registered nurse in the area, and youngest son, Clint, 25, has his own ranch nearby.) At the time of Wayne's death, the Stevensons had 1,200 registered Black Angus on 25,000 prime acres on the Basin Angus Ranch. Last December the Stevenson family ranches had auctioned a total of 950 Angus bulls, cows and heifers for a record $2.7 million.

Yet prosperity hadn't come at the expense of basic values. Among folks in Hobson, and especially his seven ranch hands, Wayne was not only widely respected but well-liked. "He took care of the irrigators, the cattle, the farming," says Richard Hockhalter, who has worked on the Basin Angus Ranch for 26 years. "He never asked anyone to do any thing he wouldn't do himself."

So who on earth would want to do him harm? No sooner had Marian hung up after hearing the ransom demand than she called David Llamas Blake, 33, a ranch hand who lived with his wife, Alisha, and four daughters in a five-bedroom house across the road from the calving bam. Blake had started working for the Stevensons last September and had quickly become one of Wayne's most trusted hands, wrorking more closely with him than anyone else. Now Marian asked Blake to go to the calving barn to find her husband. A few minutes later Blake phoned back to say that he had spotted the red pickup, but there was no sign of Wayne.

Marian alerted the local sheriff, who in turn got in touch with the FBI. As the family made arrangements to get the ransom money, authorities launched a full-scale search and investigation. Within hours a reverse trace on the Stevenson's phone showed that the ransom call had come from Blake's house. The Stevensons couldn't believe it. "It's incomprehensible that someone who worked for us could do this," says Marian. Basin Angus employees were equally astonished. Ranch hand Dean Burgett and his wife, Karen, had struck up a friendship with Blake and his wife, getting together for lortilla-and-bean dinners. "He adored his daughters," says Karen, 36. "It boggles the mind."

Under questioning, Blake insisted that he knew nothing about Wayne's disappearance. But it swiftly emerged that he was not the man he seemed to be. According to the police, while living in California in the 1980s, Blake had moonlighted as a "coyote" (the nickname given to those who smuggle undocumented immigrants across the Mexico-U.S. border), and the FBI discovered that he was wanted for the 1986 shooting death of one such immigrant in Irvine, Calif. The victim, according to Irvine police, had refused to pay Blake the $100 he owed him for getting him into the U.S. Before police could arrest Blake, however, he had fled. For the next eight years he, Alisha and their daughters apparently drifted around the West, lighting down here and there but taking care not to leave many bureaucratic footprints.

Searchers finally located Stevenson's body buried near the Blake house. As authorities reconstruct the crime—which they believe was a bungled kidnapping—Stevenson was probably shot as he opened the bam door but managed to stagger 20 yards before being hit again. Now charged with first-degree murder, Blake has pleaded not guilty and is likely to go on trial later this year. No matter what the outcome, nothing can change the sense of devastation that has hit the Stevensons. Yet they are determined to try. "We now have eight men doing the job of 10," says Wayne's son Doug, who has been left to carry on his father's ranching legacy. "It'll be difficult for us to continue, but truthfully, I don't know what else to do."

BILL HEWITT
LORENZO BENET in Hobson

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