Claude Dallas, convicted of manslaughter in the 1981 killings of two Idaho game wardens, was released from prison this week after serving 22 years of a 30-year sentence (interrupted by a year’s escape).
The killings took place just north of the Idaho/Nevada border when Wardens Conley Elms and William Pogue tried to arrest Dallas for poaching. Dallas, who fancied himself a cowboy, drew a .357 pistol and shot both men, then shot them again behind their ears. Dallas allowed a witness at the scene, Jim Stevens, to live after Stevens drove him to a friend’s home. Stevens later testified the killings were unprovoked, in contrast to Dallas’ testimony that one of the wardens told him, “You can go easy or you can go hard.”
Dallas was at large for 15 months, during which the image he cultivated (he had once been featured as a cowboy in a National Geographic photo spread) was adopted by journalists. In fact, Dallas’ reputation as a mountain man was largely a myth created by journalism, which could not resist the image of a loner in the wilderness eluding law enforcement. He was actually an Eastern city boy who, bewitched by the mythology of the cowboy, came west to live it out but never learned to survive in the wild. UNR sociologist James Richardson compares the image-making for Dallas to that of New York subway killer Bernhard Goetz.
“The media bear responsibility for these cases,” he says. “You have someone who commits some horrendous act and ends up a folk hero.”
Actually, during his two periods as a fugitive from justice, law enforcement kept finding Dallas everywhere but the mountains—a Southern California convenience store, a South Dakota steel plant, a Northern California resort. He was initially captured not in the wilderness but in a trailer in the town of Paradise Valley. Far from being a mountain man, he couldn’t make it on his own in the outdoors—the whole reason there was a witness to the killings was because Stevens brought Dallas needed supplies from civilization.
During Dallas’ trial, the defense strategy was to discredit the game wardens and witness Stevens. In Warden Pogue’s case, they had something to work with since, both as a warden and former Winnemucca police chief, he had a reputation as an antagonistic officer. The implication of the defense was that murder was a legitimate response to police bullying. (When author Jack Olsen tried to track down the stories about Pogue, he found they tended to be hearsay—heard from a friend of a friend.)
Nevada Bell executive Geneva Holman and her husband, Reno bank executive Herb Holman, helped raise money to pay for Dallas’ defense.
The case left lasting scars. The conviction of Dallas on a lesser charge than murder angered the law-enforcement community. Many in Nevada’s small counties were angered by the way the press portrayed rural residents as sympathetic to a cop killer. And Western wildlife officials say the friendly relationship between the public and wardens was forever changed by Dallas’ actions. Chris Healy of the Nevada Wildlife Department says wardens started getting training for more adversarial scenarios.
“Nevada’s training became a lot different,” he says. “All of our guys have basically said that. It changed it forever. Our wardens pushed for and eventually received armored vests.”
Two books have been written on the case. Outlaw, by Jeff Long, is essentially a novel written from Dallas’ point of view. Give a Boy a Gun is by Jack Olsen, a more experienced reporter who covered numerous points of view. Both books are currently out of print.
In the days leading up to his release from prison, Dallas was the subject of additional lionizing news coverage that repeated the folklore about him as a mountain man.