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Does God Go on Manhunts?

More specifically, was he involved with the one I wrote about in my new book, Desert Reckoning?

Before I answer those questions, let me tell you about my own personal pantheon.

First of all, you need to know that I talk to Joshua trees. Or rather they talk to me. Kind of like the Burning Bush but more funyou need to know that I talk to Joshua trees. Or rather they talk to me. Kind of like the Burning Bush but more fun because, mostly, they live in Joshua Tree National Park, which is one of my favorite places in the world. Sometimes they dish out commentary on the news of the day. Once in a while they make predictions, especially during baseball play-off season. Most of the time they tell me to get quiet and have a nice day; after all, that's what they're doing and when all is said and done, what other choice is there, really? Over the years, other spiritual advisors have included Jimi Hendrix, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Black Elk, Crazy Horse, the Three Stooges but mostly Curly, my dear departed ancestors, and, why soitenly, Moses, Jesus Christ, and, yes, God His/Her Own Self. Occasionally, I even turn to the late Yankee manager, Billy Martin, for exactly what I'm not sure, but I always liked it when he ran out of the dug-out and kicked funny dust in the umpire's face and then vanished back behind the sidelines until he had to do it all over again to set things right.

Of course, sooner or later, I'm left to my own devices, especially when writing. A question I often ask myself is, Where is the sacred in this story? If I can't find it, I don't write it, and have turned down various assignments over the years because the only elements of a story — at least the ones that I can discern — are profane. But like anyone on a religious quest, I sometimes lose faith or get discouraged; my books take years to write and from time to time I come across information or acquire knowledge about a certain story that is so discouraging and unsettling that I step back and reconsider the calling. Perhaps the entire story was profane after all, I think. What's the point of serving as a vessel here?

Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History began as an article for Rolling Stone, but not before I gave it plenty of thought. Actually, let me correct that: for me, it began as a siren call — literally. It was the summer of 2003 and I was visiting my partner at the time, photographer Mark Lamonica. We were in his home in the Antelope Valley, which is the Mojave side of Los Angeles County, its strange cousin who lives upstairs, the part that receives little attention in the media mainly because it doesn't have beaches or Hollywood or Beverly Hills. It was a hot August afternoon and suddenly there were sirens — not just the usual scream that you hear when a patrol car is racing somewhere, but one, then two, then dozens of sirens heading east, deeper into the nether reaches of the desert. We turned on the TV, and there was the announcement: beloved deputy sheriff Stephen Sorensen had been found dead in the odd little berg called Llano. There was either an ambush or a shoot-out, and his killer was now at large, possibly hiding in the desert or on his way out of the area. Law enforcement was in hot pursuit, and the media ethers crackled with questions. Did he have hostages? Would he strike again? Was he heavily armed? Soon locals picked up the beat in chat rooms across the region, offering to join the posse or cheering the outlaw on. After all, this is a land where many post no trespassing signs — and they mean it. If a desperate fugitive were looking for refuge, they'd be ready. On the other hand, some might help him. The Mojave is one of the most heavily armed regions in the country, a place where citizens are more than willing to step up on behalf of personal rights, in whatever way they see those rights shaking out at a given time. As the afternoon unfolded, news choppers headed to the area. The questions became more heated and squad car after squad car continued screeching towards Llano.

"Maybe this is a story for you," Mark suggested. I wasn't interested. I don't do "where's the fire" kind of reporting, and, when it comes to what I write, the kind of sirens on top of police vehicles are not what I respond to. But over the next few days, it became clear that the man suspected of killing the sheriff had managed to elude a dragnet that was increasing hourly, amped up by sophisticated search technology that had been developed for the Gulf War and was now being deployed by the Air Force and FBI. This "person of interest" had been identified as Donald Kueck, a long-time resident of the Antelope Valley, a dedicated hermit who knew the desert better than most. That immediately appealed to me; I'm a long-time desert wanderer myself, and whoever or whatever lives there — I get it, and I get themI'm a long-time desert wanderer myself, and whoever or whatever lives there — I get it, and I get them, and often enough I'm down with the program, especially if I can listen to George Thorogood or the Allman Brothers in some tavern along the way. But there was more, and my interest only heightened. I soon learned that this hermit loved animals, and in fact his best friends were bobcats and ravens. A Dr. Doolittle with an assault rifle? I thought. What was going on? The more I looked into this story, the stranger and richer it got... the downed sheriff also loved animals and rescued them on his remote calls, often coming across abused creatures on his rounds, and, for instance, once picking up an abused pit bull at a meth lab and taking him home to his ark. Frequently called to distant locations on his solitary beat, he was placing himself in harm's way perhaps more often than other cops (it might take half an hour at least for back-up to arrive), and in town he was deeply involved with citizens on a mission to help the helpless and clean up the desert, restoring it to a primeval state that was long-gone. Was this guy a modern Wyatt Earp? I wondered. Who were the frontier sheriffs of the 21st Century? And what was going on in the badlands an hour away from the Warner Brothers lot?

By then, I knew that I had already begun to tell this story, at least to myself; it had elements that appealed, including people whose voices were generally not heard and, of course, the desert itself, the terrain that shaped these latter-day pilgrims. Often, the desert has starred in my work (as it does in my life); this story would continue my long-time beat, I realized, and also take me into literary geography that I hadn't yet explored — the world of cops.

So I headed down the trail, knowing that I would once again be exploring the Old Testament territory from which I have derived so much comfort and solace. Also, there were these two misfits, the hermit and the sheriff, both of whom had left cities for the wide open space of the Mojave — something else that drew me to this tale. And then there was this, a kind of punctuation on the story that propelled it forward before it reached its Wagnerian conclusion — a Ring Cycle firestorm in the desert under a full moon. Years before their deadly collision in 2003, they had had another strange encounter, on a far-flung patch of highway, again at high noon in the summer. Their final clash seemed fated, perhaps a reckoning of some sort, conjuring up Wild West tales of good versus evil, outlaws, and men with badges, and that too was an element I wanted to explore. Does life really get down to good guys and bad guys? Can evil exist externally? Do angels and demons hover in the ethers, jockeying for position inside physical beings?

I don't know the answer to those questions, and I didn't find them during the eight years that I explored them by way of this story. But along the way, there were the most amazing signs and wonders. For instance, there was this: In a desiccated land, the hermit Donald Kueck had been trying to grow a pear tree, rigging a primitive irrigation system outside his trailer. Months after he had died, and well into a period of prolonged drought, the little fruit-bearer remained, devoid of treasure but waiting for someone to come along and give it a drink. Nearby was a pair of size 10 Nikes — ready for the next hermit with a dream. And then there was this: During the final assault on the complex of sheds where Donald Kueck was making his last stand, a fire broke out, quickly grew into a massive conflagration, consumed him, and almost devoured the adjacent home of friends of the felled deputy. But a mesquite tree next to the house caught fire and absorbed the heat, burning only half-way until the fire consumed itself, protecting the home of Steve's friends, where their birds and cats had remained after the family was evacuated for the final siege. Upon their return, the animals were just fine.

And finally, there was this: The Los Angeles County SWAT team was staging from, of all places, a convent. It was close to the search area and, more importantly, its grounds made for a good landing pad for helicopters. During the week-long manhunt, the sisters cooked for and looked after the cops and then, in the end, watched and prayed throughout the final siege as news choppers hovered over the giant flames like latter-day moths. At some point during their encampment, cops gave the nuns a ride on a chopper, and it occurred to me that here were two cloistered orders whose members were generally shunned by society coming together, sharing an unexpected moment of communion, on top of the world, if only for a moment or two, answering society's call.

Once upon a time, a hermit had fled the constraints of the big city, his family, and a job in order to start over in a dry-land paradise. Adam without Eve, he kept a snake as a guardian at his front door. At one point, he tried to repair a relationship with an estranged son. It didn't work out and one day the son died of a heroin overdose in an abandoned theatre in downtown Los Angeles. From then on, the hermit's friends told me, it was only a matter of time until he went off the rails.

As I was wrapping up the story, I sat down with Sheriff Lee Baca, commander in chief of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world and one whose history is borne of the most violent of all frontier towns — LA -- not Deadwood or Tombstone -- the last outpost before the continent ran out and you headed into the sea. I asked him about the deputy who had died in action. What would make someone sink roots in the desert and want to guard it, alone? "Whatever it was," the sheriff told me, "it was his mission to protect God's creation."

÷ ÷ ÷

Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her books include the award-winning Mustang, and Twentynine Palms, a cult classic that Hunter S. Thompson called "A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer." Her latest book is Desert Reckoning.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse... Used Mass Market $5.95
  2. Twentynine Palms: A True Story of... Used Trade Paper $11.00
  3. Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a... Sale Hardcover $7.98
  4. Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse... Used Hardcover $9.95

Deanne Stillman is the author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

One Response to "Does God Go on Manhunts?"

    Chip Berlet July 19th, 2012 at 5:58 am

    Great essay. Great questions. Great book. A long way from New York City, but you clearly have found home.

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