Learning from deadly LE encounters in rural America
Rural cops routinely encounter violence related to anti-government sentiment
In cities, police families buy security systems to fend off street gangs and drug dealers.
The cameras and motion lights on our mountain home went up in response to threats from sovereign citizens, who made written and verbal threats to take over the local courthouse, ambush officers, kidnap judges and prosecutors, and attempted multiple times to follow officers home, or block them in on dirt roads.
In self-defense, we embarked on a crash course to become educated about every flavor of cop-hating threat extending to rural areas: Sovereigns, tax deniers, anti-eviction activists and self-proclaimed militia members cherry-picking the Constitution.
I’m a firm believer in learning from past events, so I set out to read three books, each a deep dive into violent incidents in rural areas from the 1980s and 1990s. "Give a Boy a Gun," "Bitter Harvest" and "In the Evil Day" describe deadly law enforcement encounters in Idaho’s high desert and in rural North Dakota and New Hampshire.
Between them, three men were responsible for the deaths of a U.S. marshal, a deputy U.S. marshal, a sheriff, a judge, a newspaper editor, two game wardens and two state troopers.
Wounded, but surviving, were two more state troopers, another deputy U.S. marshal, a deputy sheriff, a police officer, a conservation officer, and a U.S Border Patrol agent.
I worked my way through the books, struck by the similarities of the incidents.
One murderer was a draft-dodging loner in his 30s, a sometime ranch hand affecting a mountain man lifestyle in eastern Oregon and Idaho. The other two were 60-ish military veterans, one a farmer in North Dakota, the other a carpenter in New Hampshire.
But on the inside, they were the same: all three murderers were deeply satisfied that they were right, and that the rule of law did not apply to them.
By killing cops, they excised the people whose job it is to say, “No.”
No, you may not frighten away the building inspector with a rifle.
No, you may not stalk and threaten the judge.
No, you may not poach deer and take bobcats out of season.
No, you may not evade your taxes, and fraudulently teach others to do the same.
All three shooters were intensely resentful of government and law and comfortable with violence to express it.
Commonalities of the killers
Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota farmer caught up in the vortex of farm foreclosures in the 80s, sought recourse in the Posse Comitatus movement, based on conspiracy theories that evolved into today’s sovereign citizens. While being sought by government authorities for tax evasion, he and sympathizers, including his son, Yorie, engaged authorities in two separate gun battles ending in the murder of a U.S. marshal, a deputy marshal and a sheriff, and multiple others wounded. Kahl was killed in the final shootout.
Carl Drega sparred with town officials over code enforcement in Colebrook, New Hampshire. By the mid-1990s, he was adding the tagline “A Sovereign Citizen” to his signature on his constant stream of correspondence with government agencies. He killed two state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor and wounded four other law enforcement officers before being shot to death in a gunfight with police.
Claude Dallas, a drifter, cowhand and trapper in the high plains of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, simply didn’t believe there was any reason he should abide by any law he didn’t like and felt entitled to defend his independence violently. He killed two game wardens who entered his trapping and poaching camp in Idaho's Owyhee Desert. Even after his 1982 conviction, he insisted that he killed the two game wardens in “self-defense” because they were going to arrest him.
In every incident, the violence surprised both victims and communities, even though Dallas had previously been imprisoned for draft evasion, Kahl for tax evasion, and both men had publicly vowed never to be arrested again. Drega threatened and stalked a judge, telling his doctor during a checkup that “he had a plan for the police.” Nevertheless, suspicion and doubt were set aside. Rural communities tolerate their eccentrics with few questions, accustomed to people who avoid crowds, the police and rules.
The shooters also shared a shockingly dispassionate demeanor, despite the violence of their actions.
Dallas calmly destroyed evidence at his campsite and pressed friends into service hiding the bodies of the murdered game wardens.
Drega took calm to such an extreme that he left the scene of his first murders driving a stolen police car to commit more while wearing one fallen trooper’s hat. The hat and vehicle made officers hesitate; some paid in blood for their hesitation.
Then he took the time to drive to his home, shave, change his clothes and car, and set his property ablaze. His shop was filled with materials he’d been stockpiling for the manufacture of explosives, and the fire drew emergency resources away from the manhunt, while his changed appearance helped him evade capture for hours.
These were not crimes of passion or panic.
I’d read multiple news accounts of the incidents, so I knew what was coming in each book, but as the authors recounted the experiences of the communities, it grew harder to maintain distance.
Reading the words of families – daughters of a game warden whose body was hidden in a shallow grave and not found for a year, wives who endured trial testimony that torched their husbands’ character and rationalized murder – was utterly different from the sterile reportage of news accounts. Reading the recollections of EMTs who responded to downed officers they knew as friends, who suppressed grief to search in vain for a pulse, hurt.
It touched me because I know it’s the reality of fallen officers in rural areas: it’s impossible not to take it personally when every single person on the scene knows every other, not just as a coworker but as a neighbor, a coach, or the kid who ate your potato chips and played video games on your sofa 10 years ago.
Preparing for the threat
The question remains: What can you do to understand the threat, and prepare for it?
Learn about anti-government movements and related indicators – symbols, phrases and styles of language. Indicators don’t mean any one individual intends harm, but they can lead you to heighten vigilance during contacts.
There’s a tendency in some circles to transform offenders motivated by anti-government beliefs into folk heroes; common defenses are “he was pushed too far,” or “they should have just left him alone.”
However, the extremist shooters who killed and maimed cops in rural Pennsylvania, Baton Rouge and Las Vegas had no personal contact with the officers before the attacks at all. They were simply lashing out at the readiest available symbol of the rule of law: badges. You cannot depend on courtesy or de-escalation for defense when you don’t get a chance to interact.
Don’t assume that because you know someone, or they’re polite, or old, or female, that they won’t hurt you. If they have made threats, take them seriously. Few critical incidents erupt without warning; it’s more likely multiple people saw the signs and ignored them.
Wear your vest. Even though ballistic protection was available in the 1980s and 1990s, many of those killed and wounded in Colebrook, Medina and Owyhee County were not wearing vests. Any tool that helps you stay in the fight improves your chances.
Train with your neighbors, and get to know them. The incidents in North Dakota and New Hampshire involved multiple local, state and federal agencies, and the Colebrook incident seeped over the state line into Vermont.
The New Hampshire agencies didn’t share radio frequencies, so sometimes the only option was officers parking window to window to hear each other’s transmissions.
Because the local agencies were all small, officers responded from home in plainclothes, and sorting law enforcement from civilians grew difficult.
In every incident, the officers on scene were outgunned. Rural agencies rarely have the luxury of fast response by specialized units, so every officer responding must be equipped and trained to hold their own, possibly for hours.
Raising awareness of rural risks
Finally, reading these three books raised the question: Why don’t we hear about these incidents? Clearly all violence motivated by anti-government beliefs isn’t urban, or on a massive scale like the Oklahoma City Bombing.
I think it’s several things.
One, violence against rural officers happens in settings distant from large news agencies. There are simply fewer people to tell the story, or publicly observe anniversaries of it. Despite the impact of the event locally, there just aren’t millions of people watching the violence live on national news, and reliving it on talk shows later.
Make no mistake, though, violence impacts small communities profoundly. Four years before the 9/11 attacks, Susan Harrigan, a Newsday writer living in Manhattan, the sister of Colebrook’s local newspaper publisher, described the scale of the murders, quoted by writer Richard Adams Carey: “Four people out of a town this small? Well, you can just run the numbers. That’s like – what? – five thousand people dying in Manhattan on one day. That’s your impact.”
Two is what I call the Mayberry Effect, or what psychologists call normalcy bias.
John Harrigan, Colebrook's news publisher, said when he was asked how his hometown was different now, “The Shangri-La factor,” he said to Carey, “It’s been lost. It seemed like something like this couldn’t happen here.”
We want to believe it can't happen here because it hasn’t happened so far, but for law enforcement, a firm grasp on reality is key to beating back the cliché of the complacent rural cop.
And three, because of the first two reasons, rural outbreaks of violence simply get eclipsed in history by urban ones.
Case in point, the Colebrook incident happened six months after the North Hollywood bank robbery. Both gun battles were unprecedented, catalyzing major changes in policy, equipment and tactics, but the glamor and compact geography of the California episode ensured that it remained center stage.
In fact, even though the News and Sentinel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its stalwart coverage of the massacre while their editor’s blood still gleamed in the parking lot, they lost to the Los Angeles Times for coverage of, yes, the North Hollywood bank robbery.
So be aware of the threat, train, collaborate and prepare to take care of each other when the inevitable unthinkable happens.
Like most rural agencies, the Colebrook Police Department had no critical incident management plan. Without the resources available to the federal and state officers, every single member of that department left within the next two years.
You can’t control the criminal choices of others. You can change how you prepare.