Hes a perfect stranger,
Like a cross of himself and a fox.
Know when you see him,
Nothing can free him.
--lyrics from Neil Young's song "The Loner."
According to an old saying, everything in the desert stinks, stings or sticks and Death Valley, California, fits the description perfectly. It is considered the most inhospitable place in America. Unbearable heat during the day, cold nights, a dessicated wasteland adjacent to the Nevada border and an even larger desert. Home to rattlesnakes, scorpions, gila monsters and thorns. Miles and miles of blinding nothingness below sea level where you can easily lose your way and die.
Death Valley was enough to drive anyone crazy if they spent too much time there. One man came in 2003 because he was already a little crazy.
A quote from the Bible says: "Yea, though I pass through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil for God is with me." Was God with the loner in Death Valley or was he running from his own inner demons?
Police nicknamed him the Ballarat Bandit after a ghost town in Death Valley because he stole to live and they didn't know who he was for a long time. They chased him for a year through Death Valley and across western Nevada, but he always saw them coming first and he managed to escape each time.
Mostly from tourists, he stole the things he needed to survive and to avoid capture: food, clothing, tents, sleeping bags, hunting rifles, flashlights, night-vision goggles, portable radios, etc. One of the first items he stole was an ATV to travel through rough desert terrain where regular vehicles couldn't go. He stole cars or trucks to flee police pursuit on highways.
His thefts also included odd things like every spice he came across and audio tapes of old radio detective programs.
For fresh meat he hunted jackrabbits, rattlesnakes and birds. He kept moving his camoflauged campsite and he collected drinking water wherever he could find it in the driest place in the U.S.
Once, he outran two law officers who had gotten within 50 feet of him. They gave up the foot chase when they became exhausted. He kept running until he was out of sight. Another time he ran
over the top of a mountain to escape capture. At what turned out to be the age of 50 he was in better shape than any of his pursuers. He even evaded capture by a police helicopter that located and then lost him -- possibly by burying himself in the ground like a mole.
After the close calls in Death Valley, he migrated to the Nevada desert. Unfortunately for him, some of his abandoned campsites were found near top-secret military bases. With visions of Timothy McVeigh and Al Quaeda fresh in their minds, local police called in Homeland Security and a small army of law enforcement officers gathered to search for the possible terrorist.
Lawmen lost his trail in northern Nevada. Some time later he turned up in Death Valley again.
He finally ran out of luck on a day in July, 2004, when the temperature reached 124 in Death Valley. He was out of gasoline for the ATV. He had no water. He was dehyrdated and suffering from heat stroke when a federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agent spotted him sitting alongside a highway.
He made it to his nearby campsite, stripped off his clothes and waited in the shade of his tent holding a rifle while dozens of law officers moved in on him. He couldn't run any longer.
When someone shouted for him to drop and weapon and put up his hands, he turned the rifle barrel to his head and pulled the trigger.
No identification was found on his body or at the campsite. The police still had no idea who he was. No matches were found when they sent his fingerprints to the national FBI database. He remained unidentified for nearly a year after he was buried in a pauper's cemetery.
A sheriff's investigator finally sent a mass emailing to law agencies across the country. One reply read: "Who talks like an American and looks like an American, but isn't an American? A Canadian."
Canadian police found a fingerprint match in their records. The Ballarat Bandit was George Johnston, the son of a Canadian Army general and a marijuana parolee from Prince Edward Island.
The island lays off the east coast of Canada. It is covered with evergreen trees and the weather is damp -- the exact opposite of the American desert.
George hadn't always been a loner. In fact, he was married and had four young daughters. The family had lived elsewhere in Canada before settling on Prince Edward Island. George worked as a house painter and drywaller for 25 years.
Jobs on the island were scarce, however, and George began growing marijuana in 1997 to support his family. He got caught by police and spent two and a half years in prison.
Something happened to George shortly after he started his sentence. His wife, Tommi, thinks he suffered a mental breakdown. Tommi had leukemia and she and their daughters couldn't afford to travel to the prison to visit George because they were destitute. George's widowed mother was bewildered by the change in George after he was released. He wasn't the same son she remembered.
George expressed guilt over letting his family down. He told his wife he had to go away and live alone in the wilderness to see if he could get his head back together. He didn't say how long he would be gone or if he would ever return. Tommi and their daughters never saw him again.
The BLM agent whose sharp eye led police to George's last campsite feels bad about how it all ended. He estimates that George would have spent only a few years in prison since no violence was involved and his worst crime was auto theft. He wonders why George chose suicide over a relatively brief prison sentence.
Some people can't handle incarceration. Certain native tribal people in Africa, South America and Asia simply die when they are imprisoned because they live in the here and now and can't imagine their future freedom. Perhaps George was similar to them and he couldn't face another prison term. Or maybe he just went crazy the first time as his wife believes.
In hindsight the BLM agent thinks George's strange behavior in the desert was really a cry for help.
"From now on, if I see someone acting odd, I'm going to try to help them," he vows.