The Rise and Fall of Sheriff Johnny France : He Tracked Down Mountain Men but Lost Trail of Montana Voters

Associated Press

The rise and fall and wising up of Sheriff Johnny France didn’t take very long: just time enough to capture a couple of outlaw mountain men, visit the White House, write a book, then get trounced in the next election.

This age of instant communication creates instant celebrity. Royalty, movie stars, jet-setters and politicians no longer have a monopoly on household names. Hijacking hostages, terrorists, an actress in a commercial, even a dog named Mike explode in sudden, greater familiarity than the folks next door. All it takes is a twist of fate and a video camera.

Sheriff Johnny France knows all about that. He danced in the media circus for a while, acquired a personal manager, a lawyer and an accountant, and he made money.


Called a Grandstander

He also earned the ire of his own deputies and scorn from some of his peers in law enforcement. He was called a grandstander and publicity hound. And the voters who had put him in office turned on him. They threw him out of his job--twice.

The 46-year-old France has learned that there is a narrow margin between hero and goat.

“I call it my ‘thermal theory,’ ” says the top lawman of Madison County, Mont., where 5,000 people live in 3,528 square miles of very wide open spaces.

“Your peers like you at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If you heat up above that, they want to cool you off. If your temperature falls below that, they want to warm you up. The people of Madison County want their local boy to be exactly 98.6.

“I’ve been hotter and I’ve been colder. Right now, I think I’m normal.”

Incident on Lonely Trail

France’s temperature fluctuation began July 15, 1984, on a lonely trail slashed through tall timber near Big Sky.

On that sparkling summer Sunday, biathlon champion Kari Swenson was jogging alone when two men stepped from the woods to block her path. Don Nichols, then 53, and his son Dan, then 19, kidnaped the 22-year-old Montana State University athlete to make her a “mountain woman” who would live with them in the Spanish Peaks wilderness. The rough-looking pair told her she eventually would like living away from civilization and would grow to like them too.

Off and on for years, the Nichols men had foraged for themselves in the mountains 50 miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park. The father was a hermit who doted on his boy. The son was a disgruntled misfit who had joined his father to please him. They survived on berries, home-grown vegetables, deer and squirrels.

Within hours of Swenson’s disappearance, France was on the case, along with Sheriff John Onstad from neighboring Gallatin County. They did not know what had happened to the pretty young woman, but France guessed a grizzly bear might be involved. They decided to hold off a search until dawn.

Searcher Killed

The next morning, two volunteer searchers, Alan Goldstein and Jim Schwalbe, stumbled into the Nichols’ camp. Swenson shouted a warning. The younger Nichols’ gun went off. Swenson took a bullet in the chest. The elder Nichols fired at Goldstein’s head. The searcher died instantly. Schwalbe ran for help.

The two mountain men fled into the tangled woods, and the long hunt began.

Swenson was airlifted to safety, seriously injured. In time, she recovered.

Journalists from television networks, wire services and big city newspapers swooped in. A command post was set up, and Onstad, France, the state police and federal authorities plotted strategy.

But it was .44 magnum-toting Johnny France who captured the attention of the press and the imagination of TV viewers.

Onstad came from nearby Bozeman, a college town of nearly 19,000, and had a force of a couple dozen deputies. He used helicopters and sophisticated equipment. He was cautious with his news releases.

Rodeo Champion

Virginia City was France’s headquarters. It had a population of 150. His annual salary was $19,000. He had seven deputies to patrol an area two-thirds the size of Connecticut. His silver belt buckle proclaimed him the Montana Rodeo Assn.'s bareback champion of 1967. And he was always congenially available to reporters.

France talked about psyching out his quarry, about how he was reared in the same rugged country, about his tenacity.

“In my own way, I’m a mountain man too,” France told reporters eager for his quotes. “It will take one to catch one. I’ll get them.”

The SWAT teams and tracking dogs and deputies on horseback did not get the job done. The search was called off. Fall came, then winter.

“The taxpayers were tired of the expense. And I was tired of walking into Bettie’s Cafe (in Ennis) and getting all the questions: ‘Johnny, do you think they’re still up there?’ ‘Johnny, why don’t you give up?’ ‘Johnny, don’t you think they’ll freeze to death and a hunter’ll find them?’ ”

For five months, the “Incident at Big Sky,” as France later called his book, was a loose end in his life. He didn’t like loose ends, hadn’t had many since his mother died when he was 4.

Father Was a Drifter

His father was an alcoholic drifter, so he and his three sisters were split up in Oregon and parceled out to distant relatives. Johnny drew Uncle Joe France, who had a spread along the Madison River.

“He was stern, demanding, never praised. He toughened me up.”

By his 12th birthday, Johnny was a bronc rider; by 19, he was performing in rodeos every weekend, and winning.

“I’m at my best when I’m under pressure,” he says. “I love responsibility. I like it when I’m crowded. I don’t put myself above anyone, nor do I put myself below anyone.”

What Sheriff France did on Dec. 13, 1984, was, he said, in character with the way he had lived his whole life. It was just like the times he rode wild horses and mean bulls; when he climbed out on the wing of a single-engine airplane to kick down the jammed landing gear; the time he had faced down a suspect armed with an ax.

On that bone-numbing winter’s day five months after Kari Swenson was kidnaped, Sheriff France “made a judgment call that my whole life had prepared me to make. Right or wrong, it was my decision.”

France’s office had been tipped that the Nicholses might be down from the mountains and out in the open by a rancher who had spotted their tracks. More than a dozen armed officers from Gallatin and Madison counties surrounded the area.

Sheriff Onstad was en route from Bozeman in a helicopter when France, worried that the pair might escape in the growing darkness, decided to suspend radio contact with the posse and go it alone.

He drove a snowmobile to within half a mile of where the fugitives were holed up, then strode across the ranch land of his own foster family into the Nichols’ camp and asked, “Seen any coyotes lately?”

Later, after the bedraggled mountain men had given up without a fight, France explained, “I had the drop on them.”

Within 24 hours of the capture, France was besieged by reporters, film producers, talk show hosts “and all kinds of people I didn’t know existed.”

“I have an attorney friend who told me, ‘Get yourself an agent, get yourself a lawyer, go hunting in Kansas, have other people field suggestions, don’t ever put yourself in a position of saying no.’ So that’s what I did.”

L. D. Stohrdal, a transplanted Montanan who had read about France in his Tulsa, Okla., newspaper, signed on as the sheriff’s personal manager. Writer Malcolm McConnell was chosen from a dozen eager ghostwriters to co-write France’s story. The sheriff received a $100,000 advance for “Incident at Big Sky,” published by W. W. Norton and Co., but he says he got less than half after paying McConnell and other expenses.

Met Ronald Reagan

Then there was the chat with Ronald Reagan.

“I was chosen to represent Montana in the inaugural parade, but it was so cold it was canceled, so my wife, Sue, and I went to the White House instead. When I met the President, it was a cowboy-to-cowboy handshake. The President is a real man.”

He finds something else memorable. In the capital, “right there on the street, I ran into three old bums. I guess they refer to them back there as bag people. I was in my cowboy hat, and one of them yelled: ‘Hey, aren’t you the sheriff that caught those mountain men? Where’d you say you were from?’

“I shook hands with them and told them I was from Montana, and those old guys laughed and said: ‘Welcome to the real world.’ That’s when I was most comfortable in Washington, with those three bums.”

Basked in Accolades

It took a year to finish the book with McConnell. Meantime, France continued to bask in accolades and public attention. His temperature was decidedly up.

But there was a distinct down side to celebrity status. “After the media had made me a hero, everybody started chipping away at me,” France says. It started right after the capture of the mountain men, a grating undertone at first. He was accused of being a publicity hound, a glory-seeker, a bungler who had got lucky.

Kari Swenson refused to comment on the case. Her mother, Jan, made no secret of her contempt for the way France had handled it. Critics, she said, “voice my sentiments.”

Sheriff Onstad, referring to the single-handed capture, said: “I couldn’t believe that he would do what he did. Any prudent law enforcement officer would’ve called for backup for his own safety as well as the safety of other law enforcement officers.”

Onstad told reporters he thought France was “a grandstander.” France was stung. “I asked him about it and Onstad replied, ‘I said it and I meant it.’ That was the most personal hurt that came out of the whole case. That’s when I realized this whole thing was going to come down around my ears.”

Defeated in Primary

On June 3, 1986, the voters gave it a shove. On that day in the Republican primary (there was no Democratic candidate), France was defeated, 1,120 to 919, by his deputy, Dick Noorlander. France didn’t take the licking quietly.

He fired Noorlander a week after the election on the ground that the deputy did not have a high school diploma, as required by state law. Noorlander sued France, who then reinstated him.

There were consolations. France took off on his national book tour the day after the election, starting in Bozeman, “the hometown of my adversaries, and we sold 400 books in one day. I felt better after that.”

Then came talk shows, autograph parties, appearances in bookstores--"Meet a Real Life Matt Dillon, the Sheriff Who Gets His Man!” the sign in one proclaimed. He told interviewers he was uncomfortable with the hero stuff. After an appearance on the “Today” show, he complained of “being made up like a Kewpie doll.”

Built Dream House

After the tour was over, France came home to the new log house he and Sue had built, the dream place with the sweeping view of the mountains, the new barn and plenty of room for the horses. The book was selling well.

The lame duck sheriff spent a lot of time alone, sometimes sitting in the fancy hot tub and thinking about what would happen after Jan. 1--when his term as sheriff ends--sometimes turning on his new electronic toys to watch the “Today” show or listen to the audio interview he did with Australian radio.

He was pleased when Nancy Reagan’s representative asked him to be the national law enforcement spokesman for her “Just Say No” campaign against drug abuse. He made a few personal appearances at rodeos, “for expenses.” He was philosophical when somebody asked him about his defeat: “When one door shuts, two more open. I am almost looking forward to getting out for a while, cooling off.”

By autumn, however, the sheriff was saying things like “I may be back” and “I’m still a cop at heart.” He’d been a lawman for 17 years--he needed three more to get a pension.

A month before the November general election, France announced that a groundswell of support had persuaded him to be a write-in candidate to win his old job back.

Also a write-in was young Lee Edmisten, another France deputy.

Sheriff Comes in Third

On Nov. 4, the citizens of Madison County spoke again. This time they said no to both France and Noorlander. The 35-year-old Edmisten, who had run hard on a platform of sticking to business in a quiet way, came in first. Noorlander was second. France was a distant third.

So, two years after his biggest moment of glory, Johnny France stares unemployment in the face.

He is not dismayed. Perhaps there are other books to write, maybe somebody will make a movie of his story. Who would star in his role?

“I like that feller Robert Duvall, he looks like me. Then there’s that guy Redman, or Redford, or whatever. I’ve always liked Dennis Weaver too.”

But, when everything has been said and done, France will remember this: Only the murderer, Don Nichols, ever thanked him. Nichols is serving an 85-year term, his son, 20 years.

“Nobody ever said thanks for helping Kari when she was shot and bleeding, thanks for spending months looking for these guys, thanks for doing your duty,” France said. “The only person who thanked me for anything was Don Nichols. He thanked me for not killing him and his boy.”