Residents Fearful After Snipers Escape
WOLF CREEK, Mont. (AP) _ Wary residents kept guns at hand today as police searched the wild country for up to four snipers, including two escaped killers linked to a total of six slayings, who fled after a four-hour shootout.
Aircraft with heat sensors buzzed through the skies over the foothills around Holter Lake, a Missouri River reservoir, searching for the heavily armed fugitives who slipped away after trading hundreds of rounds with police Monday and wounding two campers.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Chuck O’Reilly told reporters that tracks of the fugitives were found at daybreak today about a mile northeast of the scene of the gun battle.
Four tactical weapons teams and a tracking dog were pursuing the suspects, but O’Reilly declined to say how many searchers were involved, in fear the snipers may have a radio.
″If they give us the chance, we will give them the opportunity to surrender,″ O’Reilly said. ″There’s a good chance, assuming they are still in there, to try to pinch them out today.″
The sheriff said he feared the snipers may dig in and try to ambush searchers. ″In fact, we’re expecting that,″ he said.
Two of the suspects are wanted in a double-slaying last weekend in Colorado, authorities said.
The snipers fired at least four different types of weapons, O’Reilly said. They appeared to have large-caliber weapons and an automatic weapon such as a submachine gun, he said.
Police searched cabins and boathouses, warning residents to lock their boats.
Frenchy Forgette, who operates the Oasis Bar, said Tuesday that residents are keeping guns within reach. Forgette quoted one patron as saying he planned to have a ″Wolf Creek lunch,″ - a can of beer and a loaded gun - and empty both.
″I got the gun out,″ said a clerk at the Canyon Store and service station, who refused to identify himself.
County, state and federal officers combed the sparsely populated area Tuesday, but found no trace of the snipers. Three planes and a helicopter flew over thousands of acres surrounding the reservoir, and a tracking dog was brought in.
The shooting broke out Monday afternoon after shots were fired at officers investigating an abandoned, rolled-over van near Holter Lake.
O’Reilly said the van was taken from the scene of the double slaying.
The shooting intensified, and two campers were slightly wounded when gunfire struck their car. The shooting lasted until darkness, when deputies backed off and began evacuating residents and campers from the recreation area midway between Helena and Great Falls.
One camper, John Harrington, who lives in Great Falls, 45 miles north of the recreation area, said he spent Monday night with his wife and seven other people near the shooting area.
″We were nervous. The biggest thing to me was that these guys might want hostages,″ he said. ″We’d doze off during the night. We were waiting for that knock at the door.″ He said the group pulled two motor homes and a camper on a pickup truck together, believing there is ″safety in numbers.″
The two male suspects were identified late Tuesday as escapees from a California penal institution where they were serving terms for homicide.
Steven Miller, 34, and John ″Doc″ Whitus, Jr., 36, escaped Feb. 21 from California Medical Facility in Vacaville, said prison Lt. Bob Houston. Whitus was convicted in 1972 of two drug-related killings; Miller was convicted in 1976 of two slayings, including a police officer.
Miller’s mother, Judy Bartley of Fontana, Calif., said her son disliked prison so much that ″I know in my heart he would rather be dead than go back.″
Even though Miller and Whitus were identified as suspects, Bartley said, ″I’m hoping and praying it’s not.″
Until late Tuesday, O’Reilly and authorities in Adams County, Colo., had tentatively identified the men as Paul or Michael Brandt and David Charles Lund but said those names might be aliases.
The sheriff said the two men have been described as survivalists, but he was not sure whether they are experienced in the mountains.
Adams County Sheriff’s Capt. Carl Blesch said authorities want to question the two in the execution-style slayings of Grace Kuamoo, 73, and Russell Swartzmiller, 48, whose bodies were found near Byers, Colo., last weekend.
The victims also were survivalists, he said, adding that a number of guns were stolen in Colorado.
A third person with the men was identified only as a woman they picked up in Wyoming on their way to Montana. O’Reilly said the woman is ″not a hostage,″ and he believed a fourth person, possibly another woman, is with the fugitives.
State Rep. Tom Bulger of Great Falls said he and his wife may have given a ride to one of the snipers Monday.
Bulger said he picked up a man who said his van had overturned. The tall, mustachioed man was intoxicated but amiable, Bulger said, and they talked about fishing on the way to Holter Lake Lodge.
The snipers were last spotted Monday night, when about 300 rounds were fired, O’Reilly said. ″Numerous weapons have been recovered, and thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition.″