Moab, Utah -- Wesley Wayne Smith, recently escaped from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, was fatally wounded late last night in an armed confrontation after a routine traffic stop just south of La Sal Junction, Utah.
Grand County Sheriff's Deputy Earl Brown reported that he and Utah Highway Patrolman Nick Peterson made the stop together. Officer Peterson approached the vehicle and was confronted by Smith with a revolver. Smith demanded that he disarm himself and threatened to kill the officer if Deputy Brown did not disarm as well. At this time Deputy Brown, who had remained in his vehicle with the door open, fired on the suspect who died at the scene of gunshot wounds.
It was later ascertained that both the vehicle and the revolver in his possession had been stolen in West Los Angeles, CA on November 11th. The victim, Jonathan Todd Ingram was left bound and gagged for 12 hours before working himself free and calling police. His house was ransacked, his wallet and credit cards were stolen. These items were found in Smith's possession.
La Sal Junction, Utah, just south of Moab, is at the Four Corners. Only 50 more miles of desert, of red rock slashed with yellow streaming copper blue and then you are at the point where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet. The only place they meet. Of course the desert cares nothing for this.
Tourism is big in Moab. Canyon Lands National Park thrives. Edward Abbey put this place on the map for a whole generation of people. It is an Icon, all twisted and sharp with hot pain. La Sal Junction has no part in the tourist trade. Whatever was valuable was already bought. What La Sal Junction offered nobody wanted. Unless they forgot a bag of ice.
La Sal Junction is a tacky looking Union 76 with 2 pumps (one diesel), a 1950s vintage coffee shop with 12 torn red vinyl stools and a couple of tables stolen from the rent-a-table years ago. And a bar: a double trailer converted into a bar -- a bar that is dirty, patronized by scruffy men just off a shift change from the mine or in from working an oil rig out by Montezuma Canyon.
This is the kind of place where sleep has an edge. You know the desert is going to come back for this corner. Nobody lives here. Nobody can live here long. The desert wants you out. Someday the trailers will be hooked up and gone. The gas pumps will stand empty. The glass will be broken onto the sidewalk by the cafe, boards in the windows too late.
Ghost trucks will be standing at the diesel pumps. Trash will blow around and get caught in the walkway between the cafe and the bar, pieces of lives that are over and forgotten, signatures of dead men. Scrub grass and sagebrush will rush up and smash the asphalt. Nobody will live here or remember who did.
That's what came to be later on. But we knew it then. Our hold on the place was not a good one, not a strong grip and the desert is full of fierce power.
It wasn't like that on that Saturday morning. We still had a grip then. It was a sunny, hot day in August when I came up to the bar early. Oddly enough, Deputy Earl Brown was out in the parking lot. He was poking around there like he was looking for something. I thought of him as a sort earnest Boy Scout-type. But then again, he was a cop and I had learned long ago to be wary of cops. Even the most benign can have a mean streak.
Deputy Brown was an attractive man in his own way. He had a cleft palate and the normal facial configuration that goes with that malady -- a squashed nose, lots of scars around his mouth where you assume repairs had been made trying to rebuild the mouth. He had a speech defect.
Later I learned that he fought hard to be a cop. They didn't want him because he had a speech defect. "People might not respect you," he was told. Earl had great contempt for those guys. He hated them. And he had won. He had higher grades on his tests than anybody else. He was better, just plain better; they finally had to give him a badge. And he took it seriously. Anybody could see that.
I had been up early, down over the rim into Rattlesnake Canyon: that's how I happened to see him. I was looking for some petroglyphs I had spotted the day before. They were tucked under a ledge in a little side canyon. They were perfect as if no one had found them before me. No graffiti.
I wanted to read them. I was practicing. I wanted to hear the voices of the old ones in the canyons. I could, I thought, hear them in these signs. There is always a murmur in the canyons, a dry rustle of sound. It is the old ones talking. They say this is their land. No one can have it. They will come for it. Make war. Drive the invaders out of their trailers, send then flying home.
There is no place quieter than this. Tell me one? There is no other place where you can hear nothing. Nothing but the whispering of dead men. Silence. Punched up with sudden bursts of explosive sound. A deer leaps suddenly from cover.
A snake rattles your mind loud and deadly. A vulture with a six-foot wing span explodes into the air. My heart bursts with fear.
It was a clear, hot morning. I found a perfect piece of white stone.
I walked up to the bar thinking I could stock the cooler. Deputy Brown was in the parking lot dressed in his clean brown sheriff's shirt. He had no hat on. His curly brown hair was already sticking to his forehead. He had a notebook in his hand.
Twelve cases of Coors, 8 Budweiser, 4 Miller, 1 Schlitz & 1 Lucky Lager. Sometimes you didn't have to do the last two. Sometimes nobody ordered a Schlitz all day. Funny sort of beer with an oily taste to it. But still some people like it.
Deputy Brown was crouching down looking at something. It occurred to me that was just where that obviously stolen car had been sitting for the last two weeks. It wasn't there now but it was there last night. The Deputy looked very earnest. Like Peter Falk in Columbo. Of course he did not have a wrinkled rain coat. Not likely out here any time of the year. But he had the same look of studious innocence that Columbo had -- with none of the Hollywood cleverness -- I thought dryly at the time.
I found out later that he did, in fact, have that same kind of quiet intelligence, that inquiring mind. I suppose that is what drives some people to want to be cops. My experience with cops had been only with the type who wanted to hurt people and get paid for it.
Earl, in spite of his strange face, had a tough look to him. Tough the way some small men get to look. The ones who have those stringy muscles in their arms. He had hard bony hands that looked like if they got a hold of something they just won't let go real easy.
First thing I saw when I opened the bar was that the night shift forgot to put the gun away. I lifted up a towel laying by the sink and that heavy black thing rolled out. Makes your heart skip. Like almost stepping on a rattlesnake curled up on the porch in the morning. Sometimes you feel like you need a gun in the bar, late at night, just before closing, when it's slow you might get a lone night traveler moving through on their way to Cortez, Colorado or Gallup, New Mexico or anywhere, just somewhere besides where he was for one reason or another. Those nights you might feel you need to take the gun out of the drawer and just slip it under a towel, right handy. That's how my sister must have been feeling last night. I could tell. Those nights you hope somebody you know comes in, because you know where you are really, all alone in a spooky little, just-pretend bar in the middle of a vast, empty, bleak desert. Nobody there but you and this asshole who may or may not want to kill you for the $50 in the till. It's happened. It keeps on happening. Just depends on fate. Your fate and his. My sister got scared last night. I could see that clearly.
I didn't hear him come in. I had topped out the volume on the jukebox and me and Proud Mary were "working all night for the man" hauling those boxes of beer out of the stock room and into the coolers. Tina Turner... Or Credence Clearwater. We were singing our hearts out. When I did see him it was his reflection in the mirror behind the register. He was sitting at the bar writing in a red steno pad.
"Bar’s not open, Deputy."
"I know. I just want to ask you something when you get time."
That put a damper on Proud Mary. I cut off the jukebox and got him some coffee.
I saw he had my brother and his butthole buddy Stewart's name on that pad, plus some diagrams and notes. That car, I thought, that stolen car. Who stole it anyway? And where is it now. I knew it was something to do with that car. It was an almost new Ford Mustang. It had been sitting out in that parking lot for days with no plates on it. I had wondered if the local cops would ever notice. Now it was gone. This morning it was gone.
"Did you hear an explosion this morning?"
"Kind of, I guess. Why?"
"Well, it turns out that your brother blew up that car that was out here. That was a stolen car. Stolen down in Albuquerque a couple of weeks ago about the time your brother and his buddy Stewart were supposed to be in Colorado Springs."
"What makes you think they blew it up."
"Oh, we know they did, but the thing is we also know something else. Somebody saw that car with your brother in it, and Stewart, late last night behind Miller's Super Market."
He stopped. I waited. I already knew cops.
"And Miller's got robbed of 4 cases of beer and a bunch of chips and stuff. Over a hundred dollars worth; that's Grand Larceny. Plus Grand Theft Auto across a State line. Plus stealing dynamite; that's a Federal offense."
"What makes it stolen dynamite?"
"It was from the copper mine. That's where your brother's buddy worked till last week when he got fired."
"I don't see how you know my brother did all this, and he's still sleeping over there in his trailer. Seems like you'd have him in jail." It was clear to me that he was guessing. Of course no doubt he was right, though. But he was on a fishing trip.
He kept his poker face. I kept mine. "Did you see your brother last night?"
"Yes, I did. He was in and out all night. He was sleeping in his trailer at 2 when I went home. I know that because he had the air conditioner still on full blast and I went in and turned it down on low."
This went on for a while, back and forth. I saw that he gained a little respect for me. He knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew. And I knew that he had nothing. No case. Just the fact that he knew.
My brother was never charged but I think Earl put the fear in him because his life of crime seemed to end right there. It seems to me they could have built a case. These boys were naive, on drugs and out of control. There had to be evidence but it was not pursued; maybe because the result would have been a seriously long prison sentence and a whole lot of pain for the family. Maybe Earl decided it wasn't worth it.
The one thing that came of all this was that Earl and I started to talk. We became friends in a way, an unlikely sort of friends. At any rate we had a running dialogue. We both liked arguing. We did it with gusto. He was a serious John Bircher. I was a mixed blood Indian. I got my College education from black pimps and junkies on the streets of San Francisco. I got beat, raped and robbed, but I figured that was an inter-racial thing. Just something men did.
Junkies shot drugs. Male junkies black, white, Latino, they all beat on women. Earl was basically a country boy, born and raised in Colorado. He got his racial education from the Birch Society. He was a true believer. He claimed to have a movie where they showed what those blacks were actually doing. A documentary. This was real.
I told him that I'd already lived at the bottom of the black ghetto. I know how mean and ugly it gets. But that would be the same for any people if you push them down hard enough into a useless, hopeless, marginal existence. He was sure it was genetic. After all, his family was poor blue-collar and they never acted like that. His family had jobs of course. Just not as good of jobs as he would have liked, but jobs, nonetheless.
Earl is for the Death Penalty. On that we could agree.
I have met people in my life who won't do any good to anybody. Killing is their game. They won't stop it. They won't change. I want them dead. It's self preservation. It's vengeance. I can admit that. It won't deter any crime. Of course not. Nobody thinks, "Gee, I want to stick a gun up that broad's cunt and blow her pussy out through her mouth, but I won't because, good golly, I might get the death penalty for that!" Uh-huh. That guy is past that. Way past that. Rehabilitate him? For what? Just off the motherfucker. Stick a gun in his butt and blow his asshole through his mouth. That's my vote. Still, Earl and I could argue even that one because he was sure it was the only sure way to deter people from committing crimes. He was into crime prevention.
Cops were always good for an hour of rowdy dialogue. Earl thought cops were mistreated and sued for even looking sideways at somebody. They were accused of brutality and suspended because some Welfare bum claimed they hit him. He thought the courts believed the bad guys over the honest cops. I thought many cops are corrupt and unfair and use the power they have to abuse people. I thought cops use excessive force routinely and the victims rarely report it. He said those kind of cops get found out and fired. I had not found that to be true in my experience.
We didn't change each other, but we talked. The desert makes you do that. You can't hide out in your trailer out there the way you can in your cabin here. You can't stay out in the hills. The desert doesn't want you there and you know it. So people cling together. They go to the coffee shop 4 or 5 times a day. They argue. They go to the bar to have a cool beer. They sit around and argue about this and that. Politics. Gossip. Who got a DUI. Who got their leg cut off at the mine. All that was routine.
Hard rock Uranium mining a mile down in that sandstone. That is dangerous. It takes guts to do that kind of work. Men with guts often have strong opinions. They are better than the rest of us. They know that. The have the balls to go down there. Lots of men don't. They know it.
Earl was damn good at arguing. He had stacks of material. He had movies, books and pamphlets from the Birch Society. He had all the Communist conspiracy stuff. He knew it all. He knew how the Jewish bankers were taking control of the USA from its true owners, the White Men, and how they were using the poor brutish blacks to disrupt society right today. He could prove it.
How could I not see these things, he wondered.
We were a good three months into this series of arguments when the cowboy showed up. It was cold then. Damn cold. That happens some years on the Colorado Plateau. Not every year but enough to make you fear it. Snow is not the problem. It is the wind. Turns your bones to ice in a flash. That's how it was that night.
That kind of cold drives men to drink; the bar was full. The pool table was backed up with quarters. The place was warm and human against the inhumane freezing desert wind outside.
Deputy Brown was there with his Highway Patrolman buddy and we were having a good go 'round about how I thought cops were beating people for the color of their skin or the age of their vehicle and he was denying it and his Patrolman friend was looking on kind of astounded. He wasn't used to that kind of honest dialogue. His name was Peterson and he just came back from a six-month leave. He had to recover from a gut shot. He had stopped a suspicious vehicle a few miles south of here. Turned out to be a couple of fugitives who just killed an old couple and hijacked their camper in Phoenix. They just flat shot that Patrolman and left him by the road thinking he was dead. He wasn't. Just lucky, he guessed. You could look at it that way.
He and the Deputy weren't working that night. They were just out messing around. They were planning to drive over to Earl's house so he could change into his civies and then they planned to go to town. I was kidding Earl about that. I figured he slept in his Sheriff shirts.
The sun was going down about the time the cowboy turned up. He was wearing black denim jeans and a black antique cowboy shirt with black pearl buttons. His pants were tight for around there. He was carrying a hand carved wood case. I never saw one before. I didn't know what it was. Seemed too small for a gun.
He wanted a hamburger and a Millers. This man had a way about him. You could tell. He was good looking in a ugly sort of way. His skin was too white. His waist must have been about a 27. Skinny as Jerry Lee Lewis. His hands were clean. He was not a working man. At least he had not worked at any of the jobs men did around here. You can't work in a mine and have clean hands. You can't live around here and be that white. He was pale like people who live in the Bronx or in prison.
He took a pool stick out of that box after he got done with his dinner. Everybody was watching him of course, although no one was looking at him. He put a quarter on the polished walnut edge of the pool table.
Couple of hours later he had lots of buddies. That was his downfall. Talked too much. I've seen lots of people go down that way. They got something to hide: less said the better. But dummies think they ought to act normal. Give a lot of false details. He did that. Said he was from Las Vegas. Been working Casinos. Moving on.
Deputy Brown and Officer Peterson left before he did. Brown saw the California tags on the car. The perpetual Columbo wanted to see why. Something was wrong. It didn't fit. The car should have had Nevada plates. "Let’s just wait and stop him," Earl pleaded. "It won't take long."
I didn't notice when the Deputy and the Patrolman left. But I saw the cowboy leave. It was hours later in the cafe after the bar closed that I saw Earl. I already knew what had happened. I knew somebody shot that cowboy. I figured it was Earl. That Patrolman didn't have the guts for it. I also knew the guy was an escaped con. I knew he had $2 in his pocket. He had been unlucky at pool in spite of that fancy cue stick. He was dead broke. And now just dead. He had stolen credit cards that were canceled by now. He had a stolen car. He had a stolen gun with one unfired bullet in the chamber -- this was a good-looking guy. He had a nice way of carrying himself. His clothes looked good on him. He was that guy that the ladies like. Men like him practice that in jail all the time -- turning on the charm with the ladies. Get yourself a meal ticket for a while. Turn your lady out on the corner. That's the type of guy he was. Just a cheap punk. A dead one now. I didn't have any tears for him.
But somehow when I saw Earl I knew that he did. He was not himself any more. I think he lost himself with that cowboy. He lost his conviction that he was John Wayne. Always right, always just. He came straight to me. He was shaking hard now but reining it in hard, too. He said, "You heard about it?"
"Yes Earl, I'm sorry..." I didn't really know what to say.
When a man dies it's hard enough to know what to say to the survivors. I can never figure it out. But what do you say to the killer of the dead man? I tried to look sympathetic because he looked so fucked up, so totally destroyed.
He said, "You must hate me now." A haunted look swept over his face.
"No. I don't hate you. You did what you had to do. I would have done the same thing. You thought he was going to kill your buddy and kill you."
"He had one bullet in that gun. He was bluffing. I could have talked him out of it." Earl waited. He held his breath like he was waiting for the judge. I wasn't the judge. But it didn't matter. He was the judge. I reassured him. But that didn't matter. He knew.
Earl Brown doesn't work for the Sheriff's department anymore. Last I heard he was a river rat, running rafting tours down the Colorado.
You can go on his raft. I can assure you that if the shit is down and that river tries to take you like it often does, looking for a sacrifice or two as is its nature, then that man Earl Brown will fight it. You can not be safe on the deep and mighty Colorado but riding with that man is as safe as you will get.