The story of a man named the “Ballerat Bandit” has many parallels and contrasts to the Aaron Bassler story that captured the North Coast's attention in 2011. The Ballerat Bandit ran in the desert in and around Death Valley while Bassler roamed the tree covered wilderness of coastal Mendocino.
The Ballerat Bandit, identity unknown, broke into cabins, stole food and guns, and eluded law enforcement. He had numerous camps. His downfall was the illegal crop marijuana. But not where you might expect.
He did elude capture for 12 months. He covered far more territory than Bassler. However, except for a few narrow escapes, he rode stolen vehicles. Chased first by the County Sheriff in Inyo County, Death Valley Rangers and California BLM Rangers. He then moved on to Nye County, Nevada, where the Sheriff, US Military and Homeland Security became involved. He then fled north to the attention of the Washoe County Sheriff, and the FBI. Then back to Death Valley. Which is where he died.
He was not however a cold-blooded killer as Bassler was. In fact he is not known to have pointed his guns at anyone.
When finally cornered in the hostile environment, the bandit committed suicide and his identity remained unknown. To the authorities who struggled for 18 months after his death to identify him, he was John Doe #39-04.
The bandit's story begins west of Death Valley National Park in California at the base of the Panamint Mountains in a famous historical gold mining district.
In the summer of 2003, some burglaries brought the off the path tourist spot to the attention of local authorities. When he broke into the Ballerat store and sole a reported $4000 worth of merchandise, he earned the name “Ballerat Bandit". (The author was at the Ballerat store in 1998 and he could not vouch for such an inventory at that time. Perhaps better returns from the mines were occurring.)
He walked and drove on rocks to leave no tracks, parked away from his targets, watched and waited until they left and left no finger prints. When forced to he was sociable enough. On meeting one couple on their way back to their freshly robbed vehicle he “smiling and friendly". He left the alcohol but repeatedly took food and certain spices. Such an abnormal a pattern enabled law enforcement to link certain burglaries and ruled out the usual suspects.
Unlike Mendocino there are not many trees to hide behind and with motorized transport eventually you will be seen. This time four LA cops on vacation. The bandit upon being hailed said he was on a overnight trip. Except he was loaded for bear as they say. Lots of tarps, water and gas containers,and a 30-06 with a scope. As they walked away the suspicious cops snapped what was to be the only photo ever taken of the Bandit alive in the US.
Inyo County sheriff's department Dect. Jeff Hollowell, says “As soon as I saw the photo I knew it was the Bandit. The quad and rifle matched reported stolen items. Once we saw that he had a gun we decided to actively go after him.” “It's a tourist town and we didn't want the stories to chase away visitors. We did a few searches -- two really big ones. We had people on foot, numerous vehicles out there [and] helicopters to search the canyons.”
On January 21, a team of about 30, including now National Forest Service, The Highway Patrol and SWAT team in a Blackhawk helicopter sealed off Butte Valley, inside Death Valley National Park. and went after a camp that had been spotted. What They found was alarming. A meticulous orderly camp well hidden in a wash. Also were fallback camps stocked with guns and food. The bandit was not seen, perhaps the helicopter noise alerted him.
Two weeks later two BLM rangers found quad tracks in Goler canyon near the Manson hideout, the Barker Ranch. Suspecting the bandit, they followed the tracks off-road up a mountain where they disappeared. They had been brushed out. Ranger Terry Allen, a skilled tracker, realized the bandit might be very close. Shortly they spotted him at a camp by a spring. Creeping within 50 feet, guns drawn they spooked him into running.
Ranger Allen did not give chase knowing they could cut him off on another road. Returning to their vehicle the rangers picked up his tracks in the valley below. He was still running. Despite radioing for help including a plane with night vision equipment he disappeared
“In one camp, we found military maps,” said Hollowell. “Based on what this guy was doing, I thought he had some kind of paramilitary training. But we had no idea what he was up to. We figured he had to be wanted for something bad in order to act the way he did.”
A petty thief that covered his tracks like a professional burglar. He makes camps like an old west desperado with a bounty on his head.
Hollowell said the bandit was “lucky” he wasn't found. Shortly after the large searches, the burglaries stopped. “We spooked him out of here,” he said.
In February student geologist Seth Dee had parked on the side of a lonely road while he hiked into the Black Mountains to collect rocks for his thesis. When he returned, his Subaru was gone including his camping gear and credit cards.
The bandit's crime spree moved east of Death Valley to Nye County, Nevada where ranchers reported stolen food, weapons and vehicles.
First victim two weeks later was a rancher who reported someone had stolen a battery, gas cans, food and his daughter's red wagon. The next day with another man the rancher followed the tracks of the wagon. They went on for miles towards the west. When the tracks crossed Nevada's Hwy 6 his heading turned south then the tracks stopped. The bandit had carried the wagon back to the highway and continued west. The bandit had created a false trail. The rancher realizing he might be in danger called the sheriff.
Deputies followed the wagon tracks to a camp with the Subaru. When they ran the plates they learned it was stolen and the bandit was armed and considered dangerous. Guns found it the car seemed to confirm this. The bandit used the student's credit card to pay for gas and filled the vehicle with more than a dozen guns, ammunition and spy equipment such as night-vision goggles, pots and pans, leftover food in containers and a meat grinder.
A Nye County detective; Guthredge, thought he saw an chance to catch the bandit if he didn't know his latest camp had been found. Guthredge assembled a five man SWAT team with a K-9 unit and moved in the next morning. They had thought the 8700 foot mountain behind the camp would block his exit. Instead they found fresh footprints in camp that led straight up the mountain. The bandit again had fled cross-country on foot and the heavily laden SWAT could not keep up.
The trackers picked up and then lost his trail in the valley behind the mountain. Three days later a call came in that oil company pickup truck had been stolen 60 miles away in just a little over just 48 hours!
Evidence at the campsite was piling up. The rifles with scopes, night vision goggles, no finger prints and the Subaru's windows and mirrors covered with plastic to prevent reflections that give away the position of a vehicle for miles in the desert glare. The escape route up the mountain wasn't random. He had previously marked it out with rock piles and tree limbs. Perhaps he was on the mountain doing this when the deputies were at his camp the day before and he may have spotted them. They found more secret camps near the Tonopah Test Range, an inaccessible military facility. His repeated pattern of setting up campsites near military installation raised his threat level and Homeland Security and allot more resources were brought to bear.
Sheriff Tony DeMeo collected 50 men from every agency and a helicopter. They dragged roads to keep up with fresh tracks. Wanted posters went out. Apparently the bandit drove through this search back south.
In Nye County law enforcement officers doubled and tripled their forces, spending 16 hours a day in the field. The mission drained Sheriff DeMeo's overtime budget. They spoke of the frustration created by the elusive Bandit and quietly marveled at his seemingly superhuman endurance. Sheriff DeMeo was quoted: “Pretty soon we realized we weren't going to catch him...The idea was to push him into a different jurisdiction.”
A few hours before dawn on March 12, the bandit struck a 50-acre cattle ranch owned by Las Vegas lawyer Steve Morris, where he kept an old Ford truck and an ATV. The bandit loaded the ATV on to the truck bed, then drove up to the house.
Morris said: “He filled up the truck with food, a gun, lights, radios, everything except liquor that is.” He was later observed in the truck going north.
A rancher in the next county north, Eureka, found him camped in a field. Bonding with him over his anti-government rhetoric, the rancher helped him fix a flat. Anti-government statements break the ice between strangers, especially in the west where everyone recreates, gathers wood, grows pot, runs their cattle, guide operations and dumps their trash on public government land.
The Ford was found by police months later, stuck in a swamp near the northern Nevada border.
This brings us to Washoe county, Nevada.
In June 2004, an FBI tip and the recovery of a stolen vehicle led Washoe County officials to begin quietly tracking the bandit.
“We didn't want to scare him away,” said Sgt. Russ Pedersen
In Late March the officer joined a local rancher and two park rangers on horseback and set off into the rugged hills. “We were about three or four days behind him,” he said. “We came across a butchered cow and some ATV tracks we thought might be his. By that time, I think he could have been back in Inyo County, back to where he started.”
Sgt. Russ Pedersen is the search and rescue co-coordinator for the Washoe County sheriff's office does admit the bandit was smart and incredibly fit. “He would run into the mountains to get away. Searchers would actually watch him with binoculars as he ran for miles and miles. He liked to travel in darkness. To get into our county, he would have had to cross some tough terrain, go up steep mountainsides,” he said.
The bandit then stole a yellow flatbed truck in Winnemucca, Nevada but strangely headed back to Death Valley.
On July 23, Ranger Dave Brennan, then with BLM now DVNP, was driving through Johnson Valley inside the park. He spotted the yellow flatbed with ramps indicating someone had unloaded an ATV. A veteran of the original searches he had not forgotten the bandit.
Closer inspection revealed marijuana seedlings in buckets under the truck and Seth Dee's (the geologist) credit card. Brenner disabled the truck but had leave the area the radio for help.
Upon returning ATV tracks showed the bandit has returned but this time took off on the ATV. He ran through the Valley floor over 70 miles in the 120 degree heat of that day. Being on the run in February in the mountains around Death Valley is vastly different that the valley itself in July. Exposed to dry wind at those temperatures at 30 or 40 miles per hour for a day would suck the water out of a camel. Dehydration weakens the mind and spirit.
According to a National Parks news release, on July 25, 2004, a Death Valley park ranger, Shields saw a man fitting the bandit's description at a call box on Highway 127. He was lying down next to a gas can.
Dane Brenner was sure it was the bandit and a posse was assembled with airplane.
They tracked him to a campsite not far away. He hunkered down beneath a camouflage tarp. As the officers approached he stripped naked and pulled a .22 rifle.
Then he shot himself in the head.
“It was done in such a way that there was no question it was self-inflicted,” said San Bernardino coroner Dave Van Norman. He has died just across they county line making his body Van Norman's and San Bernardino County's problem.
Usually such a fit specimen with good teeth is a quick ID. The bandit never left fingerprints indicating he was wanted which would make match likely. Van Norman takes his job to notify relatives seriously for closure is important. After the fingerprints came back without matches he tried dental and other tools.
In July, a year after the still unidentified Bandit's suicide, Van Norman buried him in San Bernardino County's potter's field. That October, a colleague of Van Norman's received an e-mail tip from a visitor to Death Valley who had heard the Bandit story and given the matter some thought. The colleague considered the message “bizarre,” but passed it on to Van Norman.
“Who talks like an American, looks like an American, acts like an American, but isn't American?” the anonymous tipper wrote. “A Canadian. Maybe the Bandit was a Canadian ... Maybe the (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) — might be able to provide some help.”
Van Norman then spent another four months going from one Canadian agency to another, and back again, for a fingerprint search before finally receiving positive confirmation of the man's identify from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
George Robert Johnston, age 50, of Prince Edward Island, Canada was wanted for parole violation in 2000. After completing two years of a four-year sentence he failed repeatedly to keep his appointments with probation officers.
Johnston had been arrested in 1997 in connection with one of the largest marijuana grows on Prince Edward Island, with an estimated street value of between $5 and $6 million. According to SSgt. Larry Kavanagh of the Island's Royal Canadian Mounted Police, that was Johnston's first criminal offense. He surrendered peacefully to the two officers waiting for him when he arrived to tend his crops on Oct. 1. He served the minimum time required of his two concurrent four year sentences without incident, and was paroled to a halfway house nearly a year later. He was arrested after a neighbor's pig wandered through a hole in the fence and the neighbor followed the pig into his marijuana garden. 3784 plants may still be the largest garden ever taken on the island (for geographically challenged US citizens; it is north of Maine on the east coast ).
Van Norman contacted Johnston's parents and told them of their son's death. What they said is confidential and they have never spoken to the press. Because of a long standing rift between them and their son and his family, they also did not tell Johnson's wife and the mother of his four daughters.
Tommi Johnston learned about her husband when Katherin, 16, looked up her mom's name on the Internet and found stories about her dad instead.
The rest of the story comes from Tommi Johnson's statements. Despite his abandoning them for years without contact, stealing food and vehicles, amassing several arsenals and running from the authorities, who never shot at him, she claims he was mistreated and harassed. Recently as 2011 she posted on the internet the using of a .22 was not his style and therefore could have not committed suicide with one.
Though the story has not been officially confirmed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, writings by Tommi Johnston indicate that her husband George first began cultivating marijuana for her terminal leukemia. While 4,000 plants was certainly far more than one ailing woman could use, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assumed it was grown to sell, Tommi Johnston spoke out about what she considered the injustice of her husband's arrest and the treatment her family received.
According to her writings from the late 1990s, the couple's four children were taken into protective custody, their property seized, and Johnston herself was remanded into a rehab program when she admitted to using marijuana for her illness. ##
They met in a biker bar where she was a dancer. She was only 19 years old.
The desert connection and his love for the guns started when a few months after they met, Johnston said he was going to Arizona. Tommi decided to follow him.
They crossed the border in 1983 and for the next six years kept moving, living in a camper. Clara was born in Arizona, Meghan in Florida.
“Those were crazy times,” recalled Tommi. “We used to race through the desert together. We used to get out there and we'd do like in the western movies. I had a Colt Blackhawk, a great big gun. The two of us were running around out there, shooting the cactuses.”
Tommi said her husband was drawn to the desert, where he searched for gold and aliens. She also says he took a survival course the “sharpen is lifelong outdoor skills” in Arizona.
When Tommi was pregnant with Katherin, she persuaded Johnston to return to Canada. They moved into a log cabin on Anarchist Mountain near Osoyoos.
There she started feeling weak, unable to get up. The marijuana Johnston was cultivating made her feel better.
In an attempt to patch up things with his family he moved closer to them, bought a farm but also began serious marijuana cultivation. Tommi said he and another man developed a mold-free strain with a 24% THC content (NO, the author does not have seeds. Do not call).
Tommi claims she wasn't thrilled by him using her illness to justify what he was doing. A ring and his promise of “One more harvest and then its back to Arizona” mollified her for the last crop. She says it was then he came up with the idea of using solar panels to grow marijuana in an abandoned mine in Death Valley.
The family moved to Sooke when Johnston gained parole.
“After that, I'd find him in the closet, pulling his beard,” she said. “He'd know a hug was supposed to feel good, but he couldn't feel anything. He was lost.” Tommi says he was given anti-depressants in jail instead of the sleeping pills he asked for.
Johnston also drew back from his children. “He was our provider and supporter, and when he couldn't do that any more, he couldn't live with himself,” said Tommi.
In late 2002, he disappeared. He left a message saying maybe a faithhealer would help him and he was going to the states.
Perhaps linked to he bandit Johnston, a blue and white 1980 Ford Bronco was recovered from the Butte Valley region in 2006, according to Detective Hallowell. The vehicle was stolen in Mancos, Colo., in 2003, and had apparently been collecting dust in Death Valley. Hallowell said authorities suspect the vehicle was another of the Bandit's casualties.
To date no report of where he was from late 2000 to Aug 2003 except for the possible connection above.
I spoke to Ranger Allen on Feb 4, and he revealed that he was interviewed a few years later about possible connections to the Hells Angels. Perhaps him taking her from the biker bar was why they went to Arizona and who did he sell all that pot to in Canada? Perhaps that caught up with him when he was imprisoned and that's why he fled without ever calling her again.
Obviously delusional, the Canadian Johnston's main thrill seems to have been amassing large numbers of guns. The western U.S. may be the most liberal place on the planet to get guns. Then there all those guns in unprotected cabins for the taking. He obtained 14 guns plus other assault grade goodies in 12 days presumably with a stolen credit card in Nevada. The bandit skillfully hid next to large classified military installations with large amounts of weapons. Equally conspicuous, he used ATV's to set up camps inside a national park where such use is illegal. Such survival skills and intelligence would be more effective if you truly hate the government that offers free land to roam on if you did it away from sensitive military installations or not inside national parks. As for the seriousness of his cultivation idea, he stole guns instead of solar panels.
In Steve Sparks and Sheriff Allan's book “Out There in the Woods,” Appendix A, is the DA's report on the Bassler shooting. Outlined on p. 300 are the terms under which an officer may fire at a suspect. Johnston in all his encounters with law enforcement did not meet those requirements and was not shot at although observed sometimes for hours. When Ranger Brenner cornered Johnston under the tarp he thought it would be another chase or a firefight, but held his fire until Johnston decided which it would be just as Bassler decided his fate by his actions.
From articles in the Vancouver Province, Pahrump Valley Times and the Men's Journal. The latter goes on extensively with Tommi's story. The author has backpacked and camped extensively in Death Valley and married the lovely Robyn Taft in Nye County in 2006. Had the bandit stolen one of our cars or water and food stashes on a 113 mile trek from Trona to Baker through Goler Canyon in 2002 the author might have missed the wedding and would not consider it petty theft.