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Gunman wanted in Kern County manhunt is 'one step ahead' of deputies

A gunman wanted for killing a retired dentist and wounding two Kern County sheriff's deputies is believed to be alive and hiding in the wilderness near Lake Isabella.

After more than a week of searching, authorities Tuesday identified the gunman as Benjamin Peter Ashley, 34, a homeless man with an extensive criminal background, including incidents in which he resisted arrest.

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Authorities used evidence gathered at several crime scenes to identify Ashley.

Ashley has likely been living in the area, squatting in vacant cabins and homes for some time, sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said. Authorities believe Ashley is a survivalist and is finding enough food and water to sustain himself. He is believed to be armed.

"He has been able to stay one step ahead of us," Pruitt said. "He is a dangerous person."

A manhunt that had been mostly focused in a five-square-mile area centered at Kelso Valley and Jawbone Canyon roads has shifted north into Weldon, a community west of Lake Isabella.

More than 125 deputies are searching for Ashley, who could be hiding in any of the numerous cabins and homes dotted throughout the rugged, isolated wilderness. There have been no confirmed sightings, Pruitt said.

Aided by U.S. marshals, sheriff's officials are digging into Ashley's background. So far, what they know is he has not served in the military and does not have special training.

In 2011, Ashley was arrested in Oceanside for two warrants stemming from an open container and illegal camping, according to Oceanside police Lt. Leonard Cosby. Ashley's criminal record indicates he was homeless and likely familiar with the outdoors, Cosby said.

Oceanside police became aware of the manhunt Wednesday and thought he might be connected to a missing Oceanside man last seen in Rosamond, more than 80 miles south of Weldon.

But so far, there is no indication of foul play involving the missing man, police said.

Ashley was charged in 2012 and 2013 for resisting arrest in Orange County and in Glendale, respectively. He was also arrested in San Diego and San Marcos.

In 2014, Ashley was arrested in Bear Valley Springs on a fugitive warrant connected to the Glendale incident. Ashley never appeared in court for the case in Glendale.

Bear Valley police received a report of a suspicious person inside the gated community and searched the area, police Chief Jeff Kermode said. Officers found Ashley about two miles away. He was dirty, disheveled and "looked out of place," he said.

He was arrested and booked into a Kern County jail.

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"I certainly hope they find him soon," Kermode said.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said Ashley's criminal past was not surprising.

"We're confident this is our guy," Youngblood said. "He's a survivor."

Since the search began, nearby schools and roads have been closed and forest land and trails in the Piute Mountains shut off. The Pacific Crest Trail from California 58 to Bird Springs Pass was closed until further notice.

The community within the search area, sheriff's officials said, has disrupted residents' way of living. Residents are used to leaving their doors unlocked and their keys inside their cars, Pruitt said.

Deputies urged residents this week to lock their doors and remain vigilant. Ashley has been known to break into cabins and homes in the area.

"Our priority is the safety of the public," Pruitt said.

The rampage began July 28, when Ashley allegedly held a 19-year-old man and two 20-year-old men captive for an hour in a cabin near Twin Oaks, where he was probably squatting, sheriff's officials said.

The men were able to escape, but the gunman stole their off-road vehicle and fled, authorities said. He later abandoned the vehicle.

Investigators said they believe Ashley probably hiked over the Piute Mountains, possibly using the Pacific Crest Trail, to get to Weldon, 10 miles away.

Two days later, Ashley allegedly shot retired dentist David Louis Markiewitz, 64, of Tehachapi, killing him. Family members found Markiewitz's body inside his cabin in Weldon.

On Aug. 1, SWAT deputies were searching for Ashley on the secluded property near Kelso Valley and Jawbone Canyon, when authorities said he shot Deputy Michael Booker and Deputy Jose Perez. Booker was shot in both arms, and Perez was grazed by a bullet.

For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA.

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