Trail of Many Fugitives Has Grown Cold

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took 25 years, but federal marshals thought they were finally closing in on Neil Murdoch.

Way back when Richard Nixon was president, Murdoch had skipped out on $20,000 in bail while awaiting trial on drug-smuggling charges in New Mexico. This April, the federal marshal's office here was tipped off that Murdoch was living under an assumed name in remote Crested Butte, Colo.

The marshals staked out his house. They found the front door unlocked and a computer screen still flickering. And they waited. But Murdoch never came home. He had vanished again.

He was last seen heading farther west into the Four Corners area--where federal officers now are looking for a pair of suspected cop killers hiding in the rough canyon terrain.

About 200,000 fugitives are wanted nationally at any given time, and increasingly the federal government is finding itself lagging in the race to find them. But authorities have learned lessons from the failed government actions near Waco, Texas, and at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Most important is that fast is not always smart.

"Safety is our No. 1 issue, and you tend to see law enforcement not rushing into these incidents anymore without first stepping back and doing more planning," said Arthur Roderick, chief inspector for the U.S. Marshal's Service in Washington.

Domestic Terror, Militias on Rise

But with authorities dogging their prey with more caution these days, another phenomenon has also set in: Since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people, episodes of domestic terrorism have risen in the United States, as has an expanding network of anti-government militias and hate cells that officials say provide shelter to their brothers on the run.

The result is that it often is getting harder for law enforcement to run their prey to ground. For example:

* Eric Robert Rudolph, suspected in abortion clinic bombings in the South and possibly the 1996 bombing at the summer Olympics in Atlanta, has eluded officials for nearly six months, apparently in the woods and hills where North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia fold together.

The search for Rudolph has grown decidedly cold, conceded Brian Lett, a supervisory agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A million-dollar reward has yet to bring him in.

"We haven't even had any 'Elvis sightings' for a few months," Lett said with a shrug.

* In Missouri, the hunt goes on for Timothy Thomas Coombs, a member of a militant religious group who allegedly fired a high-powered rifle through a window and gravely wounded a state highway patrol officer who had arrested Coombs' friend.

Trooper Bobby J. Harper was shot near the heart while eating ice cream in his kitchen. That was in 1994. He died in 1996. Authorities still cannot find Coombs, last known to have no driver's license, no car and no Social Security number.

"There are no new leads," said the case agent, Sgt. Miles Parks. "We're just following up on old information."

* Glen Stewart Godwin, with black hair and green eyes, remains on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List after escaping from California's Folsom State Prison.

Godwin was convicted of murder in 1981 and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. In June 1987, he escaped through a prison storm drain and made it to the American River and a waiting raft. Five months later he was arrested in Mexico. Sentenced to seven years for dealing cocaine, he escaped again, this time from the Jalisco state penitentiary.

He made it out of that Mexican prison just before he was to be turned over to U.S. authorities.

"There is an informal and sophisticated network of far-right extremists who knowingly hide fugitives," said Brian Levin, director of the Center on Hate and Extremism at Stockton College in Pomona, N.J.

Underground Network

At the nonprofit Intelligence Project of Klanwatch and the Militia Task Force in Montgomery, Ala., experts who track hate criminals said that the underground network is growing exponentially. Before Oklahoma City, the FBI was investigating about 100 domestic terrorism cases, they said. Now there are more than 900 open files.

Add to that the countless other fugitives gliding unfettered across the country--bank robbers, prison escapees and those like Murdoch.

Predictably, the more sensational cases get most of the attention. But even those do not always end with an arrest.

In October, 1995, saboteurs derailed an Amtrak train in Arizona, killing one person and injuring others. Left behind was an anti-government message signed by the "Sons of Gestapo." The "sons" remain at large.

And in May, 1997, a standoff between Texas authorities and a band of seven anti-government separatists ended with the surrender of five of those belonging to the self-styled "Republic of Texas." A sixth republic member was killed in a gun battle with police, while a seventh lost himself in the West Texas brush country.

It took four months to bring him out.

Fugitives often take refuge in the kindness of others and that was perhaps never more true than in the celebrated manhunt for Christopher Boyce.

Larry Homenick, chief deputy marshal in Denver, helped lead the 19-month search for the young Palos Verdes man who was convicted of selling secrets to the Soviets in the 1970s, was convicted and then escaped from the federal prison in Lompoc.

Known as the "Falcon," Boyce vowed that he would never be taken alive. But Homenick and fellow agents, after first looking in Costa Rica and South Africa, eventually found him near the Olympic Mountains of Washington--about as far north as you can go without leaving the country.

"Nobody would cooperate with us," Homenick recalled. "For as much as we in law enforcement like to think we're Sherlock Holmes, much of our success relies directly on people who have information.

"And in Chris' case, we didn't run across anybody willing to cooperate."

Seeking Alternative Methods

Roderick of the Marshal's Service in Washington said that when a manhunt does not produce immediate results, officials quickly regroup and look for alternative ways to flush out their quarry. Sometimes, he said, it can be as simple as waiting at the home of the target's parents on Father's Day.

Too many agents involved in a manhunt sometimes complicate the search, he said, making it like "trying to shoot a fly with an M-16 rifle."

"Sooner or later," he said, "you have to pull back. Is it worth it getting a law enforcement officer killed?"

That is how the Four Corners manhunt began.

Three men wearing camouflage and firing automatic weapons killed Cortez, Colo., Police Officer Dale Claxton on May 29 and wounded two other law enforcement officers.

It was not until the fifth day that authorities were able to identify the suspects as Jason McVean, 26, Alan "Monte" Pilon, 30, and Robert Mason, 26.

Because the three were trained in survival skills, authorities brought in search dogs, night vision equipment and even Native American trackers.

At the one-week mark, officials found Mason's body, shot dead between the eyes, an apparent suicide victim. But the search still goes on for the other two--through red mesas and brush-covered hills, on cliff overhangs and inside darkened caves, even among the ruins of an ancient pueblo.

On Thursday, the FBI announced a $50,000 reward for McVean and Pilon in hopes that it would help agents find them.

Also lost in the Four Corners area--if he is still there at all--is Neil Murdoch. Now 58, he has been on the lam this time just six weeks. For most of the last 25 years he lived quietly in Crested Butte, where he became well-known as a scraggly-haired community volunteer and entrepreneur who designed mountain bikes.

Some recall him affectionately as the "father of the mountain bike"--the first to come up with wide, heavy bicycle tires to maneuver the town's rocky bluffs. Indeed, officials later were told that a friend dropped him off in the Four Corners and that he pedaled away on his bicycle, pulling a small trailer that carried his few personal belongings.

"I hope we get him," Chief Deputy Marshal Homenick said.

"Someday."

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