'Survivalist' Outmaneuvering Deputies in Hills of Topanga

Times Staff Writer

Authorities are waging a mountain manhunt for a self-styled "survivalist" who practiced war games in the hills of Topanga Canyon before allegedly shooting at two Topanga residents and disappearing into the rugged Santa Monica Mountains.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies said Tuesday that they are stepping up their search for Phillip Capps, 28, a shotgun-wielding handyman who neighbors say has bragged frequently that he had undergone Green Beret-type training.

According to Sheriff Department reports, Capps is sought in the kidnaping and shooting of William O'Brien, 30, last Friday and also in the attempted shooting of Gary Greaves, 23, four weeks ago. Deputies said both men are acquaintances of Capps.

Escaped Unharmed

Greaves narrowly escaped injury, deputies said, when Capps paid a pre-dawn visit to his small trailer home and fired five shotgun rounds at him. Greaves dived to the floor and escaped unharmed.

O'Brien, who remained hospitalized in fair condition Tuesday at an undisclosed location, was abducted at gunpoint from his home early last Friday, deputies said. He was shot in the hip as he tried to escape, handcuffed, from Capps, they said.

A Montau Road resident who came to O'Brien's aid after the shooting was chased by Capps, who soon after disappeared down a nearby trail, according to investigators' reports.

Sheriff's officials said they plan to circulate wanted posters of Capps throughout the canyon after failing over the weekend to track him down with the use of dogs, helicopters and the Sheriff's Department special weapons and tactics team.

The shootings--and the unsuccessful search--have rocked Topanga Canyon, a quiet community known for both its laid-back atmosphere and its acceptance of individualistic life styles. Some canyon residents said they were bolting doors that usually go unlocked and loading their guns.

"There's a feeling of concern around here. People are very worried," said Pin Coe, a bartender at a popular Topanga meeting place, the Bent Oak tavern. "Everybody who knows the guy says they'll never catch him because he knows his way around these hills."

Awakened by Shotgun Fire

"People are freaking out," said Mimi Smith, a 27-year resident of the canyon who was awakened Jan. 15 by the sound of gunfire at Greaves' residence.

"This place is an easy place to fit in if you behave yourself. Even though Phil used to run around the hills shooting his shotgun off, people didn't think it was a detriment until he started going for people with it."

Phones Kept Busy

Officials at the Malibu sheriff's station said their phones have been kept busy with calls from nervous Topanga residents asking about Capps.

"He's definitely dangerous," said Detective David Gates, who is heading the investigation. "He's going around shooting people for no apparent reason.

"If he's out there hiding, commando-style, survivalist-style, we might never find him. There are caves and heavy brush throughout those mountains."

Deputies said they had been told by acquaintances of Capps that he frequently took to the hills to stage what appeared to be one-man war maneuvers.

Gates called on military officials Tuesday for help in determining Capps' background after worried Topanga residents told investigators that Capps had frequently talked about having served in the Army's Special Forces. The unit is known for its intensive wilderness combat training.

Military intelligence officials at Pt. Mugu Navy base had not completed their check on Capps by Tuesday night, Gates said. Other military experts noted that it is unlikely Capps could have seen combat in Vietnam combat because of his age.

Police Lt. Ray Gonzales, who headed a search Sunday and early Monday of caves and abandoned cabins in a remote valley off Old Topanga Canyon Road, said residents of the sparsely populated area were quick to offer their homes as command posts for officers.

The 11-member Sheriff's Department SWAT team was airlifted to Red Rock Road when Capps was reportedly seen carrying his shotgun, Gonzales said. But deputies came up empty-handed after a five-hour search.

"When people live as close to the land as he seems to have, the wilderness sometimes offers a very easy avenue of escape," Gonzales said.

But some residents complained Tuesday that the SWAT team's tactics, usually used in an urban setting, may have backfired and given Capps time to disappear into the woods.

"They came rappelling out of their big, noisy helicopter like it was World War III," said Ardyne Andrew, 19, who lives in a trailer off Red Rock Road. "They kept us away because they said he was armed. But they smashed a window to get into my trailer and they turned everything upside down."

Rick Holliday, 24, said many hiding places escaped deputies' attention as they scoured the brush near 110-foot-high Strawberry Rock, a local landmark that contains three caves and a 50-year-old abandoned dynamite storage bunker.

"He could have been inside these houses here, holding people hostage. He could have gotten out in a couple of trucks filled with brush that came out of the area during their search," Holliday said. "The way the SWAT team came in here, he had time to bury himself under six feet of dirt and leaves if he was a commando."

Landowner Ken Vining, 43, complained that deputies in their search smashed a window to a trailer he owns and slashed two tents kept on his property to store books.

Area residents said Capps has lived in Topanga Canyon for 2 1/2 years. His most recent residence was in a small tin home alongside Topanga Creek, at 1111 Topanga Canyon Blvd. Deputies raided it Sunday.

Mariah Woodruff, 36, who operates a glass etching studio next door to the house, said Capps was a "nice person" to her.

"I knew he had guns, but he was polite. He was never rowdy or anything. The first I knew that he might be a shady person was a few weeks ago when the police were here with their guns drawn. It was scary," Woodruff said Tuesday.

"He's certainly stirred things up around here."

On the other side of the canyon, 59-year-old Smith gave a similar evaluation of the man being sought.

"People who knew him here are uneasy," she said. "They're worried he'll come back to some of his old buddies for help."

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