Sunday, June 28, 2015

In the Middle of a Manhunt

The hunt for two escaped murderers in upstate New York is over. It went on for weeks and reminded me of thirty-five years ago when, working as a newspaper reporter, I stumbled into a manhunt-turned-shootout in Southern California.

It was a Friday, the day banks made sure they have plenty of money to cash workers’ paychecks. I was a fearless, paid-stringer for the Los Angeles Times.

Chatter came over the scanner of a hot police pursuit of bank robbers, and they were heading my way. The 40-mile chase was a throwback to the Wild West, with the sheriff’s posse galloping after the Clantons. Followed by a phalanx of lawmen on Interstate 15, the robbers disabled patrol cars by knocking out engines with an “elephant gun,” and fired assault rifles and tossed homemade grenades at the cops.

I phoned the Metro Desk of the LA Times and was told to get to the scene and report for the paper’s early edition. The first reporter to arrive, my adrenalin sank when I saw a CHP blocking the road the robbers used to flee into the eastern foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. “Nobody’s getting up in there,” the officer said. “A command post is being set up, and you can go there when they open, but not now.”

A man in a Jeep overheard him and came up to me, asking if I was a reporter. “There’s another way in,” he confided. “It’s on the other side of the creek. I’ll take you.” I jumped at the chance to get nearer to the action.

As we jumbled in his Jeep through brush and over river rocks a tragedy was unfolding a couple of miles north of the CHP roadblock. The bandits stopped their truck and formed a skirmish line with their assault rifles. When a deputy sheriff drove around a bend they ambushed him. On foot, the deputy’s killers fled into a heavy canopy of forest where fog was settling in.

Over the next hour hundreds of police special weapons officers from all over Southern California streamed into the area for the manhunt. They borrowed a military helicopter with high-seeking gear for the manhunt, which was unusual for the time.
Meanwhile, the man stopped his jeep. “I live back this way,” he said, pointing westerly. He dropped me where I couldn’t see fifty feet because of fog and thick vegetation, and drove away.

I was alone. Or, so I thought.

I slogged for a half mile northerly, determined, in the direction of the robbers. I faintly heard water trickling in the creek, which I couldn’t see but knew it was east of me. Periodically I heard rotors of a helicopter, but never saw it.

Suddenly. “Pop! Pop!”

I froze. The sound stopped my heart, and my bodily senses surged. It was gunfire – and damn close. For the first time since getting into the man’s Jeep, I realized how stupid I’d been. Scores of lawmen with assault rifles hunted for cop-killers and I had heedlessly stumbled into the middle of what I now figured was a cops-and-robbers shootout. My next thought slapped me hard: the cops might think I’m a crook and the crooks might think I’m a cop.

In the forest and fog I was in no-man’s land.

Breathlessly I ran back the way I’d come, tripping on tangles of brush and falling, breaking tree branches, and making far, far too much noise. Such fear had never braced me, not even as a teen when I was chased by a bear at night.

I “hightailed” it all right. But, little did I know: augh, for this scared rabbit, the real ordeal had just begun . . . .

– Excerpt (©2015 Pilar Publishing) from the memoir, TRUE STORIES I Never Told My Kids by R.D. Byron-Smith, whose books are available at Amazon and other online booksellers.

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