July 17, 2012 10:11:19 AM
The Joshua tree, a type of yucca, lives only around the Mohave Desert. The blasted sands and triple-digit temperatures enable this peculiar plant to thrive where almost nothing else will. Deserts are a place for oddities like the Joshua tree, and a refuge for peculiar people who cannot flourish elsewhere, and the Mohave is a haven for "a strange brew of loners, outlaws, ultralight pilots, people hunkered in compounds behind KKK signs, meth cookers and asthmatics, those who crave quiet, and serious desert freaks who work hard at blue-collar jobs and out here where land is cheap live like kings." That's from Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (Nation Books) by Deanne Stillman. The author originally wrote a story on this theme for Rolling Stone, and has expanded it here, making the Mojave something more than just a setting, as she did in her previous true-crime book Twentynine Palms. Stillman lives in Los Angeles, and it is strange to think that there is a desert so close to Tinseltown, but a big part of the story here is the town's outward march, and ostensible civilizing influence, into regions where civilization may simply not belong.
Stillman includes a history of the instillation of law by sheriffs into Los Angeles County, which once included the Mohave. No small number of sheriffs died in the effort, and the Mojave remains primed for conflict. Except for law enforcement and the military, Stillman writes that the Mojave is the most heavily armed region in the country. The inhabitants there in their desert bunkers are fond of their rights, "quoting the Second Amendment and search-and-seizure law like scripture, but in the end always destroyed by that American urge to go out like Custer." Donald Kueck liked his guns, but his sister explained he was no gun freak; he liked old guns, and he liked the wide-open spaces where he could fire them without intimidation. Kueck was born in Alabama in 1950 to a family steeped in law enforcement and military service. Kueck, however, went out to Southern California in the hippie wave, married, had a son, and then disappeared into the desert. For years he had no contact with his family, and little with any of the other desert denizens. He was prodigiously intelligent, a reader who stowed away countless bits of possible useful information. He may not have had human friends, but ravens would come to him (remember that ravens are said to have brought sustenance to saints in the desert), and jackrabbits would come for breakfast at his place. He nurtured some of the endangered ground squirrels. He was fully acclimatized to the heat, and he knew the desert better than anyone; when the law came for him, his desert skills ensured it would not be an easy collar.
Kueck's counterpart in this story is a fellow desert resident, Deputy Sheriff Stephen Sorensen. He had grown up in an attentive but not expressive Southern California family and became a hard-core surfer. He got the classic job of lifeguard, sitting in a tower all day, admired by the girls, and rushing to an emergency when needed. He wasn't laid back, but tightly wound, and he was ashamed of imperfections in himself, even that he had to wear glasses. He did a stint in the Army, and returned for training to be a sheriff. In 1999, a new resident deputy position opened in the Mohave region. Sorensen lived nearby already, he liked the solitude of the desert, and he became a model for anyone in law enforcement. He helped the elderly when they could not take care of their properties, he bought groceries for the poor, he brokered deals between angry residents so that jail could be avoided, and he advocated for the rights and employment opportunities for Hispanics.
Kueck and Sorensen had encountered each other before, in 1994 when Kueck's erratic driving had nearly caused a collision with the sheriff's car. Kueck thought of himself as the victim, and embarked on a scatter-shot letter-writing campaign, but eventually pled guilty to a charge that got him mere probation. Sorensen was on a day off in 2003 when he was called to Kueck's area to investigate an unrelated squatter complaint. No one knows why he then entered Kueck's property, and no one knows of the interaction that occurred, but Kueck let fly repeated volleys of bullets into the sheriff. No one knows why Kueck reacted in such a way. Part of the reason may be the death of his son Jello, with whom he had formed a partially successful reunion. Jello lived with Kueck in the desert, where they jointly fired rockets and did drugs, until Kueck kicked him out, whereupon Jello descended into heroin and death.
Large parts of this story will have to remain unknown. Stillman has a novelist's flair for colorful explanation. One narrative section of an explanation of what Kueck was doing in his last hours, an explanation that contains many times "perhaps," "may have," and so on, ends with "Or maybe it did not happen like that at all." The resultant manhunt, however, is amply documented. There was a seven-day pursuit pitting SWAT teams, helicopters, FBI and DEA agents, hundreds of troopers, Air Force signal interception planes (for tracing his cell phone), an enormous tank and more, deployed against a hermit whose only real resource was an extensive knowledge of the desert and the tunnels beneath it. The result was inevitable, but that Kueck was able to hold off the inevitable for seven days is astonishing. This is a story of terribly warped souls, terrible violence, all within a terrible landscape. The killing in this story, at least, is over, and the Joshua trees and scorpions, and even the rattlesnakes with whom Kueck had a special relationship endure, and the Mohave remains a home for outcasts.