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Sniper Search May End Unless New Leads Found

May 1, 1987

WOLF CREEK, Mont. (AP) _ The mountain search for three heavily armed fugitives may end soon unless trackers can find a fresh trail in the rugged terrain along the Missouri River, authorities said.

″We will seriously be considering a termination date if we cannot pick up any trail or any fresh evidence in the near future,″ Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Chuck O’Reilly said Thursday night after a third straight day of fruitless searching.

However, he would not say how much longer he will continue the manhunt, which involves more than 100 county, state and federal officers. Fresh searchers will replace exhausted troops by Saturday if the suspects are not found by then, he added.

Although authorities believed they had the suspects pinpointed somewhere in a 10-square-mile area Thursday, O’Reilly said trackers and their dogs lost the trail in steep, timbered country east of Holter Lake, a reservoir on the Missouri about halfway between Great Falls and Helena.

″We feel there is a distinct possibility that they doubled back on us and are heading into Forest Service land further back,″ he said.

Planes with night detection devices were dispatched again.

Today, he said, ″We’re changing our tactics a little bit. Instead of generalizing on an area, we’re splitting some of the teams up, so that widens our covergae area.″

The sheriff said he wasn’t surprised that the fugitives have managed to elude search teams because of the rough terrain, heavy timber and underbrush and size of the search area.

″They have all the advantages,″ he said.

The fugitives, two men believed to be escaped killers from California and an unidentified woman, have not been seen since a four-hour gunfight with sheriff’s deputies near a campground Monday night.

Citizens reported hearing numerous gunshots Thursday, but O’Reilly said the reports could not be confirmed.

A news briefing scheduled for Thursday evening was delayed when authorities rushed to investigate a report that the fugitives had been sighted north of the original search area. That report was a false alarm.

The men are believed to be Steven Miller, 34, and John ″Doc″ Whitus, Jr., 36, who escaped from a California prison in Vacaville early in 1986, authorities said.

Whitus was convicted in 1972 of two drug-related killings; Miller was convicted in 1976 of two slayings, including that of an Ontario, Calif., police officer. Both are wanted for questioning in the killings last week of two people near Byers, Colo.

Earlier, officials believed the third fugitive was a girlfriend of one of the men. But O’Reilly said Thursday that woman was found in another state.

Polaroid pictures found at the suspects’ original camp showed them brandishing weapons and making obscene gestures.

O’Reilly said the photos did not appear to have been intentionally left as a message to officers. ″They were clowning around and having an ego trip on a big survivalist kick - we’re-tough-guys-type-thing,″ he said.

That assessment has been questioned by a California Corrections Department official, Bob Gore, who said there were no records of Miller and Whitus being survivalists.

″These men may have been members of motorcycle gangs, but there is no indication they posessed survivalist skills,″ he said.

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