The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been under siege lately, with its operations and practices going back for many years under scrutiny. But there's a side of law enforcement that is rarely talked about. It came to the fore the other day, in the Texas shooting of a cop and several others; as it happened, the constable had gone to the home of an unstable man to serve eviction papers. The man killed him.
I write about a very similar incident in my new book Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History. It's about a beloved deputy in the Antelope Valley - the little-known side of LA County - who was gunned down by a hermit in August of 2003 (nine years ago this month) by a hermit who may have feared eviction. As it turned out, the deputy was looking for someone else he had evicted from the area in the days prior to his visit - and there were additional, underlying reasons for the incident, all of which are explored in my book.
I first wrote about the killing and the manhunt for Rolling Stone; during the two years that I worked on my piece, I came to see a side of law enforcement that is not generally apparent to many civilians. The work of a cop is dangerous. It's one thing to say that but another to see it. Most cops get nervous about domestic violence calls or traffic stops - the deadliest kind of police work. Deputy Stephen Sorensen had volunteered for the position of resident deputy in Lake Los Angeles. That involved patrolling a far-flung area of the Mojave, where if you're in trouble, it might take an hour for back-up to arrive. As it happened, he had a run-in with the hermit Donald Kueck during a highway encounter years before their final clash. It nearly became violent, and strangely, occurred at just about the same time - high noon on a summer day - in the Antelope Valley.
After my magazine piece came out, I spent the next six years working on my book. It continues my long-time desert wanderings, expanding the story of the week-long manhunt and the two main characters, the sheriff and the hermit. In addition, it takes a look at the history of the old commune of Llano; it was near these crumbling ruins that the shoot-out occurred, just outside the trailer where Kueck once tried to build a utopia for one, and not that far from where Sorensen lived and worked, available when anyone had a need.
During my journey into this story, I spent time with several cops who were involved with the hunt for Kueck, a dedicated desert citizen who knew the terrain so well that he managed to outfox a massive, high-tech posse for seven days. One of the cops, veteran homicide detective Mark Lillienfeld, loaned me a book which recounts the history of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Through that book and others, I learned that Los Angeles - not Deadwood or Tombstone - was the most violent of all frontier outposts, the place where many an outlaw landed as they rolled westward.
I also spent hours listening to tapes of the final conversations between Detective Lillienfeld and Donald Kueck, as the cop tried to convince the fugitive to surrender after he was surrounded in a complex of sheds where he was making his last stand. Throughout this strange shadow play, Lillienfeld was at the Riverside apartment of Kueck's daughter; Kueck had been calling her while on the run and now, in his final hours, the siege was being televised, with choppers hovering over the hide-out as a sundown deadline for surrender approached. The conversations between the cop and the hermit are recounted in my book, with both men wanting something from the other as a distraught daughter is caught in the middle. Listening to these conversations told me a lot about an unseen side of police work - an emotional toll that cops try to hide in one way or another - and a few other things as well.
To write my book, I also went inside the SWAT operation, with the help of Lt. Bruce Chase and then others involved in it. During my many conversations with Chase, we talked about why he signed up with the sheriff's department. To my surprise - and I'm not sure why, as I'm not surprised by all that much - one of the reasons was that he was a long-time fan of Louis L'Amour. Reading L'Amour's work as a kid, he was struck by the code of honor that motivated the Sackett brothers and other L'Amour characters; like them, he came west one day and joined the law.
But that doesn't mean law enforcement didn't throw him a few curves. For instance, during the manhunt, the SWAT team staged its operations from, of all places, a desert convent. In addition to their own vans and other equipment, the sheriff's department needed a structure near the crime scene which could serve as a base. They also needed a place where they could land a chopper. A convent in Lake Los Angeles served the purpose and during the seven-day hunt, deputies were coming in from the desert to eat and sleep; some prayed with the nuns. Chase was relieved to throw off his gear in a shady place and catch some rest on the cool cement floor of the convent after trekking across the desert bakery all day. Yet it was certainly not how he or any of his compadres had envisioned a life in law enforcement.
Months after the manhunt concluded in a Wagnerian firestorm under a full moon, I sat down with Sheriff Baca and asked him why someone would want to go to the desert and guard it, alone. "Whatever it was," he told me, "it was Steve's mission to protect God's creation." It's an apt description of the Mojave Desert, with its Joshua trees, terror, and beauty.
When it comes to law enforcement, we have a schizophrenic relationship. A free country needs rules after all, and nowhere is this dynamic more palpable than in the Mojave, where the silence can calm you down or jack you up, whispering all sorts of messages until one day, someone has a problem and the man shows up and you suspect that you have to leave your home.
Photo: LA Observed