Utah's unique geography has always attracted outlaws. Its rare mix of deep canyons, high mountains, and vast deserts holds some of the largest tracts of roadless wilderness in the Lower 48. Since the mid-1800s, cattle rustlers, bank robbers, and common bandits have used the land to shake the sheriff's posses. Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch Gang dodged the law in Robbers Roost, a canyon hideout not far from Knapp's territory.
Even today the West manages to hide a small subculture of misfits. Richard "Dugout Dick" Zimmerman lived for more than 60 years in caves along Idaho's Salmon River. In 2003, George Johnston, a.k.a. the Ballarat Bandit, went on a burglary spree similar to Knapp's after being released from prison. Johnston stole guns from houses and eluded authorities in Death Valley for almost a year before taking his own life when his capture was imminent. In Sevier County, where Knapp has broken into cabins, a transient named Don Guthrie – known locally as the Goat Man – has roamed the mountains with a herd of animals for decades, living with his wife in a secret camp where he's carved chairs out of the trees.
But what Knapp is doing is remarkable in an age of GPS, drones, and thermal imaging. Since Knapp left California in 2004, there have been only a few confirmed sightings of him. The first came a full six years after he disappeared, when he allegedly attacked the transient on the Virgin River, in the summer of 2010. Then, in November 2011, Knapp walked out of the woods and called his parents collect from a pay phone in Kanab. According to Marshal Wingert, they wired him money, told him to get a hotel room, and drove down to see him. On the return journey, they were driving through southern Utah when Knapp asked them to pull over. He opened the door, said goodbye, and walked into the trees.
Then, in December 2011 a cabin owner in Kane County took matters into his own hands, installing a motion-sensitive game camera on his property in the hopes of catching the thief in the act. One winter day, the camera snapped photos of a man walking past the cabin in broad daylight. He had buzzed red hair, blue eyes, and spidery tattoos on his neck and hand. Here at last, in high resolution, was Utah's elusive Mountain Man. Knapp is caught mid-stride, walking calmly in his stolen snowshoes, squinting against the snow glare. He has a few days' grizzle on his face. His jaw is set, his expression confident and comfortable.
Two thousand miles away, in Michigan, his 17-year-old daughter feared that the father she never knew would probably be killed by police in a shootout. But after a lifetime spent dodging the law and on the run, Knapp had finally found his peace. "Eventually they all come back into civilization," says Wingert. "This guy is a true loner."
The break-ins now continued well into the spring, when Knapp would normally retreat to remote camps, where he could hunt and fish unseen. As summer turned to fall, though, authorities had one thing in their favor: Hunting season was approaching. The mountains would soon fill with thousands of quiet, observant sportsmen. With guns.
On opening day, authorities fielded calls from hunters around the state who thought they'd seen the Mountain Man. Most were red herrings, and almost all were days old. Police needed a fresh sighting and a positive ID.
And then, one day it came.