Troy Knapp, a Ghost in the Backcountry

Mj 618_348_a ghost in the backcountry
Jacob Baynham

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.”

Marshal Wingert visited Knapp’s parents in a quiet cul-de-sac in suburban Idaho, after they had ID’d him. Bruce Knapp, Troy’s stepfather, is a 63-year-old soil scientist for the USDA, a Vietnam vet, and a sportsman – in 1988, he won the Rogers City, Michigan, salmon-fishing tournament in Lake Huron. Troy had learned his way around the woods from one of the best. Barbara, 68, was a doting mother. They didn’t strike Wingert as the sort of parents who’d raise a criminal. “It’s not like they’ve thrown him to the wolves,” Wingert says. (Knapp’s parents declined to comment for this story.)

Troy Knapp was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1967, when Barbara was 22. When Troy was growing up, his mother baked bread and cakes for his friends’ birthdays, but his real father wasn’t around for long. His entry into adolescence took the sort of turn parents fear. By age 17, Troy, a skinny, square-jawed teenager with red hair and a mullet, had dropped out of high school, moved out of his parents’ house, and traveled downstate to Kalamazoo, where he was arrested for defacing a city water tower. The next day, he was caught forging a stolen check in a Kalamazoo grocery store and, before facing a judge for sentencing, he broke into a vacant house by melting the lead veins of a window, loaded everything of value into a stolen van, and drove to Kentucky to pawn it. By then 18, the crime spree was enough to send him to prison for the first time. The sentencing judge described him as “deeply ingrained in a street culture of drugs and crime to get drugs and alcohol.” While other kids his age were getting jobs or going off to college, Knapp began a four-year prison sentence.

Knapp was paroled in 1990, at age 22, and moved back in with his parents. One night at the dinner table, he brought up the idea of joining the military, a friend remembers. Barbara was encouraging, doing her best to fan any flicker of ambition she saw in her son, but Bruce scoffed, saying they would never take a screw-up like Troy.

Instead, Knapp got a job working construction for a family friend, and in the winter, he fitted skis at the Homestead resort in Glen Arbor, where he met a high school girl named Brett Griffiths. She rented skis; he adjusted bindings. Griffiths was a bookish, straight-A student who was flattered by the attention. She remembers Knapp as boyishly cute and rebellious – just the sort of guy her father would hate.

Eventually Knapp was out of work again. During the day he’d take Griffiths’ 1990 Nissan Sentra for a spin, running up almost $3,000 on a gas-station credit card that her father had given her. But more often, Knapp spent the day camped outside where she worked. “He had this notion that I was going to go to lunch with somebody else,” Griffiths says. “He wanted to keep an eye on me.”

Griffiths had grown used to Knapp’s temper, but the bursts of rage frightened her. He broke things, and she says he beat their eight-week-old puppy when it peed on the carpet. He tried to fight Griffiths’ father when confronted with running up the credit card. “He was starting to get a little scary,” Griffiths recalls. “He was a heavy-drinking, pot-smoking, conspiracy-theorist ex-con. I thought I could help him. It’s the same thing you read in the paper right before they tell you where she died.”

Griffiths broke up with Knapp and went looking for a fresh start in Salt Lake City. But after a few months, she and Knapp were talking again. Remorseful, Knapp asked if he could come down and give it another try. “Being that I was 19,” Griffiths says, “I said yes.”

If Knapp ever had the chance to turn his life around, it was during this time in Utah. He started working at the Pie Pizzeria. One day he was promoted. Griffiths remembers him coming home that day, giddy with excitement. For the first time in Knapp’s life, no one was looking over his shoulder, telling him what to do. He actually started thinking about a future. He went to a pawn shop and bought Griffiths a diamond ring. He wasn’t proposing, but he wanted her to know how serious he was. He’d buy her a nicer, bigger ring, he said, when he had the money.

In their free time, the two of them explored the foothills around the Great Salt Lake. Once, they found a cave with blankets and a pillow inside. This caught Knapp’s imagination. “You could live in a cave like this for a long time,” he told Griffiths.

But the more Griffiths’ life came together – with a good job and college classes – the more Knapp’s seemed to unspool. He became violent, Griffiths says, for the same reason he always made mistakes in his life – he felt like he was losing control. His moods began to flip like a light switch. He pushed her, hit her, and became forceful during sex. He threatened to chop her into pieces and scatter them along I-80 so her dad couldn’t recognize her. He was on the phone with his grandmother once, telling her that he would make her proud and send money, when Griffiths walked into the room. Knapp put his hand over the receiver and told Griffiths, “I could kill you if I wanted to. I could strangle you and beat you with this phone.” Then there were the conspiracy theories. Knapp thought the government was using contrails to poison people. He read ‘The Anarchist Cookbook,’ talked about pipe bombs, and fantasized about joining the Aryan Nation.

Griffiths started quietly putting money aside and looking for apartments in secret. One day while Knapp was at work, she packed up and bailed. He asked if they could stay friends, but Griffiths stopped returning his calls. In 1994, Knapp moved back to Michigan.

At 26, he was washing dishes at a local resort for a living and renting a room in a farmhouse outside Traverse City. His roommate at the time remembers him as a quick-witted but quick-tempered guy with a Mohawk and a sarcastic sense of humor. Knapp got a motorcycle and a new girlfriend, but he was also becoming more steadfast in his rejection of social conventions. Instead of handing money over to the DMV, he painted a fake license plate for his bike, a perfect replica of the real thing.

That August, Knapp and his new 19-year-old girlfriend, Jessica, were caught throwing chunks of bricks from the roof of a building down onto some teenagers below. Knapp was arrested and charged with his fourth felony: assault with a dangerous weapon. When he failed to appear for his sentencing hearing, the judge issued a warrant – and while on the run, he got Jessica pregnant. In October of 1995, she gave birth to their daughter, but Knapp disappeared, off on another nomadic crime spree across the West: an alcohol-fueled bust-up in Seattle; the robbery of a trailer in southwestern Utah, where he stole a rifle and a pair of binoculars. Stealing binoculars would become a hallmark in all of Knapp’s burglaries – in order to live beyond the rules and responsibilities of society, he’d need the ability to see people before they saw him.

Knapp launched his first experiment in criminal solitude in September 2000: He stole a Toyota pickup, pointed it west, and didn’t stop driving until he hit Big Pine, California, on the eastern edge of the Sierras. Toothy granite peaks rim the town, a gateway to some of America’s most popular backpacking. Knapp ditched the truck on a dirt road, stripped it of its tools – and two pairs of binoculars – and walked into the backcountry.

A few days later, a local hiker reported a suspicious man carrying a rifle near the Owens River. A warden from a nearby fish hatchery went to investigate, but while he was gone, his truck and a hatchery building were broken into. Missing were his boots, $3 in change, and maps of the Eastern Sierras and Death Valley National Park. Local cops were put on alert.

The next day, officers in Big Pine stopped a man as he left Caroll’s Market – he was wearing the warden’s boots and said his name was Troy Knapp. At the police station he was read his rights and interviewed. “Go ahead and ask your questions,” Knapp said. “If I can answer some, I will; if I can’t, I won’t.”

Knapp would spend the better part of the next four years in prison, where twice he was released on parole, and twice he was sent back for violating it. The time behind bars didn’t reform Knapp as much as strengthen his resolve to get and stay free. Solitude became his singular pursuit. In February 2004, as soon as he was released from prison for a third time, Knapp dropped off the map.

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.

On a snowy afternoon last November, two Emery County elk hunters spotted a lone figure in the middle of the Manti-La Sal National Forest. He was dressed in camouflage and carried a rifle and a large military-style backpack, but, strangely, no hunter’s orange. The men knew the Mountain Man might be in the area, and they knew not to confront him. They retreated and called the sheriff’s office.

I joined deputies as they picked up Knapp’s trail a few days later. He was moving south, into the high sagebrush valleys of Sevier County. At one point Knapp changed from boots to tennis shoes, which left a fainter print. Then a snowstorm blanketed the area, and temperatures plummeted. The snow covered Knapp’s tracks but lit a spark of hope in Sheriff Nathan Curtis: No one – not even a hardened mountain man – could withstand the extreme cold without shelter. Knapp would be looking for a cabin to wait out the weather. Curtis knew there was only one place he could go – the cabins around Acord Lakes. He called in 12 officers for a manhunt with horses, ATVs, and a mobile command post. If Knapp was hunkered down somewhere, Curtis and his men would flush him out – there was too much at stake to let him fade into the wild again. The team divided into two-man units and rolled out of Richfield like the Spanish Armada.

Curtis, a likable man with a goofy laugh, stopped for gas on the way out of town. He told the cashier they were going out to look for a bad guy in the mountains. “That guy who’s been breaking into cabins?” the cashier asked. “He’s probably a Popsicle by now.” After arriving near where they thought Knapp was hiding, the men gathered in the command post for a final briefing. Curtis said a few words as he pressed rounds into an AR-15 magazine. The men were cold, but upbeat. “If we’re going to be up here,” one said, “let’s find him.”

SWAT commander Lt. Mitch Blackham and three others set out to gain a ridge on horseback. The others climbed on ATVs. Deputy Brandt Deaton and I rode a four-wheeler to the top of the mountain to inspect cabins. Deaton approached them slowly, clutching his rifle to his chest. When he reached a door, he drew his handgun from a thigh holster and jiggled the door handle with his other hand. He switched on the gun’s light and scanned the interiors through the windows. In all of the cabins, the beds were made and the counters clean. No one had been in them for weeks.

We were checking a pretty A-frame when Deaton’s radio crackled to life. “We have a lone walker with a rifle and a backpack, walking northeast,” a voice said. It was Blackham. He was on a ridge with the other horsemen, glassing the valley.

Deaton stopped. The backpack matched Knapp’s latest description. It was rifle season for elk, but it would be unusual for someone to hunt that remote country alone. We jumped in the four-wheeler and scrambled to intercept him.

The man was walking calmly across an open valley, half a mile away and unaware of his pursuers. Deaton pulled off the road and tore through the sagebrush to the edge of a ditch. He and two other deputies began the chase on foot. Lt. Blackham and the horses descended the ridge toward the walker. He now seemed to know he was being followed, but he continued walking away.

An intimidating band of camouflaged men and automatic rifles on tall steeds closed in on him. They were almost on top of the man when he finally turned to face them. Deaton and the others stopped to watch, hands on their rifles, braced for a shootout. But as the horsemen spoke to the man, something softened in them – they could see now that the man was in fact wearing an orange beanie. It was just an elk hunter.

The men had badly wanted to believe they had found Knapp. Now there was little they could do but pocket their hands and return to the vehicles in the fading light. We were in the middle of a wide, open valley, and had made a lot of noise to get there. The evergreen slopes surrounding us were gilded with fresh powder, and the air was still. It felt like we were inside a snow globe. As the hunter walked on, I scanned the mountains around us. The real Mountain Man could have been looking down at us from any direction. Looking down and backing deeper into the trees.

In late February, Jessica, the mother of Knapp’s daughter, posted a simple message on the Ghost of the Mountain’s Facebook page: you’ll never find him, it read. A week later, Knapp’s daughter “liked” it.

As Troy Knapp slipped through the authorities’ fingers, time and time again, one man did manage to find him – by accident – last June. The last person known to have spoken to Knapp is a 76-year-old bow hunter named Duard Riggs. If anyone were to stumble upon the Mountain Man, it would be Riggs, who has stalked elk across the Utah high country for most of his life. Riggs didn’t know who the man was until later, but he recognized in him the caginess of a wild animal afraid of being caught or killed.

Riggs was hiking into Fishlake National Forest early one morning to scout for elk when he saw flames on a hillside 35 yards above him. That summer, wildfires were torching the state, so Riggs dropped his pack and ran up the slope.

At the top he found a small campfire. The flames were three feet high, but there was no one around – just a can of bug spray and a rifle propped against a tree. When Riggs called out, Knapp emerged from the undergrowth, a few days’ worth of reddish stubble on his jaw and dressed entirely in camouflage.

“Oh, thank heaven,” Riggs said. “I thought we had a forest fire going.”

Knapp was wary. “Could you see my fire from the road?” he asked.


“Do you have a cabin up here?”

“No. I’m just an old fart who drew an elk tag,” Riggs said. That calmed Knapp a little.

Knapp asked Riggs about the nearby Hightop Mountain. Was it above timberline? They talked for a while about the fishing and the hunting in the area. It was a “good old country conversation,” Riggs remembers. But Riggs was skirting the question he really wanted to ask: Who was this guy, camped alone in the trees, so nervous about being found?

Later, after he learned who Knapp was and that he was one of a tiny handful of people to have had any contact with him in eight years, Riggs would admit that he had some respect for a man who could survive in the wilderness for that long, eluding everyone. Knapp was like a crafty bull elk, trying to outlast enough hunters, wolves, and winters to die of old age. It was him against the world.

“Where are you from?” Riggs had asked.

“I’m from everywhere.”

[Editor’s Note: On April 2, police found and arrested Knapp near the Ferron Reservoir in southeast Utah.]

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