A police officer in a small western Colorado town pulls over a tanker truck suspected of being stolen, and the brutal chain of violence unleashed that day in 1998 set in motion the manhunt and mystery that Schultz documents. I picked this book up because the title and the dust jacket photo reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men", and the back cover review comparing Schultz's true-crime story to McCarthy's iconic novel sold me. The comparison is apt; the desperation and desolation of the characters and locales of the fiction and the history match.
From the murder of the local policemen the story blooms within minutes to a chase through the far reaches of the Four Corners region of Colorado and Utah, and then settles into a weeks long investigation and manhunt as clues tie three young men to the stolen truck, the traffic stop murder and the flight from the vengeance seeking lawmen on their trail.
But in the world before September 11, the shape of the political landscape was formed by private quasi-religious, quasi-military, proto-environmentalist militia on one side and the wake of the Ruby Ridge and Waco failures of law enforcement on the other, and the three suspects were militia trained and desert-ready. With caches of arms, ammunition, and food hidden in the canyons, and friends and fellow militia members within reach, the manhunt comes up empty handed and parts of the mystery remain unresolved for nearly a decade, and much of what has been officially resolved remains speculation even after Schultz's research and writing.
Schultz does a good job of telling the facts in plainspoken spare language worthy of a noir mystery. He weaves together facts from the many different investigating teams from the multitude of overlapping jurisdictions, and makes it clear when he is combining facts and extending them by logic or speculation. The book indeed moves with the quick but measured pace of No Country and keeps the reader's eyes moving ahead to the next sentence, paragraph and page.
One area of speculation is the motive of the seemingly random active of property theft. Piecing together an impressive strong of circumstantial evidence, logical deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes, and disparate facts scattered in isolated case files, Schultz finds a frightening piece of American eco-terrorism as the motive. While not documented with evidence that would earn a conviction in a court of law, the logic is hard to escape, that a simple stolen vehicle stop put in motion the string of events that, though unsuccessful in solving the mystery, may have saved thousands of lives and billions of dollars of property damage.
Which leads back to my allusion in my review title. Schultz begins his book by explicitly linking these modern outlaws with the legendary outlaws of the old Wild West. But while the outlaws of Jesse James and Pat Garrett's generation fought for their own lives, liberty, and loot, these modern outlaws had all of those things secured. Even though a key tenet of their militia political philosophy was that their American liberties were being restricted, these modern outlaws were in truth insiders in the privileged modern American political system, fighting for the ephemeral philosophies of a political party masquerading as environmentalist religion. Some might call that motive ennobling, I call it eviscerating. Give me the good old fashioned self-interest of Jesse James. That is the true nobility of the American outlaw.
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