Editor's Note: Just a few days before this story was due to hit news stands – and after months of reporting – writer Jacob Baynham received a phone call from Sheriff Nathan Curtis saying that Troy Knapp had been captured outside of a cabin near Ferron Reservoir, Utah. Knapp was reported to have fired shots at a Department of Public Safety helicopter but was taken into custody without injury. This story from our May, 2013, issue recounts the seven-year manhunt that led to his arrest.
For seven years, the lone outlaw who roamed the vast wilderness of southern Utah was more myth than man. He left clues of his existence but not much more. He was fast and fit, could cover 20 miles a day in rough terrain, and was savvy in the art of evasion, stepping on saplings to avoid leaving tracks. He snared squirrels with traps made from shoelaces in the summer and endured subzero temperatures in winter, traversing deep snow at elevations of more than 10,000 feet. He had survived some of the coldest winters on record living off the land – and off supplies he stole from cabins in his mountains.
He would go from home to home, tapping a quarter-size hole in a windowpane and unfastening the latch. He would eat all the food he could find, burn all the firewood, and then move on. He hit dozens of cabins across the state, riffling through the cupboards, taking batteries, binoculars, canned goods, and camouflaged clothing – anything that would keep him alive, moving, and out of sight. He stole all the shoes he could, too, from boots to sneakers to sandals, so his tracks would be harder to follow. Locals called him the Mountain Man, and said he was like a cougar – rarely seen, but always watching.
Many in this part of Utah found something to admire in the Mountain Man. He used his wits to survive the most inhospitable environments. He broke into vacation homes, many owned by wealthy weekenders from Las Vegas. He took only what he could carry and rarely anything of value. Occasionally he did the dishes after helping himself to a meal and once even left a note thanking a cabin owner for his hospitality. He stole a .22-250 rifle but left a .308 carbine in its place. An admiring Facebook page sprang up calling him the Ghost of the Mountains, with quotes from Thoreau and lyrics from Willie Nelson's ballad "Red Headed Stranger": "Don't cross him, don't boss him/He's wild in his sorrow/He's ridin' an' hidin' his pain." With almost 20,000 square miles of wilderness, the Ghost knew how to not be found. His resembled the off-the-grid, self-determined life that many in Utah aspire to live. "On the mountain, he doesn't have to conform to anything," says Sevier County sheriff Nathan Curtis, who began tracking the Mountain Man when cabins in his county started getting hit in 2012. "I envy the sights he's seen, the sunsets, and animals. I bet he's seen things most people never will."
Occasionally, hunters reported sightings, but the Mountain Man moved so quickly that police were always days behind. It took authorities almost four years from the time of the first reported burglaries to connect them to the same person. Eventually, they began to find the same fingerprints in cabins as many as 200 miles apart, but they still couldn't match them to a name. "Nobody knew who this guy was," says Deputy Mike Wingert, a U.S. Marshal assigned to the case last year. "There was nobody to chase."
Police got close in 2009 when they discovered two abandoned camps deep in the woods in Iron County, in southwestern Utah, stocked with a doomsdayer's rations of dehydrated food, backpacking gear, radios, 19 guns, and a copy of Jon Krakauer's 'Into the Wild'. But that was back when people still thought of the Mountain Man as some sort of a folk hero – before they learned that the man who evoked the romance of the Wild West outlaws of old wasn't just a misfit loner, but a violent criminal willing to do anything to stay free.
In the winter of 2011, the Mountain Man made a misstep. A motion-sensitive game camera set up by a cabin owner snapped a picture of him in broad daylight, walking in snowshoes and camo, with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Police released the photo, and an anonymous phone call gave them a name that matched the fingerprints.
The Mountain Man was Troy James Knapp, a 45-year-old career criminal from Michigan whose record spanned five states and stretched back to his teenage years, mostly petty crimes like vandalism and forgery. But there were also episodes of violence. A homeless man Knapp camped with during one of his rare visits to the edge of civilization claimed that, after accusing him of stealing some of his gear, Knapp savagely beat him with a rock, leaving him with a steel plate in his head and brain damage. Before the beating, Knapp told the man that if he had to, he'd shoot a cop to escape being sent back to prison. Sheriffs investigated whether Knapp was responsible for a four-year-old murder, in which a California retiree who owned a cabin on Cedar Mountain, near where Knapp was breaking into cabins, was shot in the back of the head with a .22. "I think he did it," one sheriff told me. "I just don't have any proof."
Immediately after identifying Knapp, sheriffs in 10 counties, along with U.S Marshals, launched one of the biggest manhunts in the West. Being pursued ignited Knapp's rage. His break-ins became more frequent and sinister. He left behind bullet-riddled cabins and threatening notes for his pursuers. "Hey, sheriff, fuck you!" one note read. "Gonna put you in the ground!" He doodled swastikas in the margin. He destroyed religious icons and defaced pictures. In one cabin, he defecated in a pan on the floor.
Police upped patrols during the summer months, but many cabin owners' wives still refused to visit their vacation homes at all. Many started packing guns. But Knapp remained invisible. Even though sheriffs learned he had parents living in Idaho and a 16-year-old daughter in Michigan, it seemed that Knapp didn't have strong enough emotional ties to anyone to draw him out of the wild. He was at home in any corner of the mountains. "He's got what he needs to live out there," says U.S. Marshal Wingert. "He doesn't have to come into town and buy a box of Twinkies to survive."
Still, even with more than 50 local cops and federal agents looking for him – plus the thousands of well-armed hunters who scoured the backcountry for six months of the year – no one could find Troy Knapp. "There's a lot of country between here and Iron County," says Sheriff Curtis. "It's like looking for a needle in a dozen haystacks."