DEPUTY SHERIFF MANNY RIVERA was in an upbeat mood as he cruised through the curves of Highway 128 alongside the Colorado River. The massive red rock walls on each side of the river glowed a shimmering, copper color as an early November sun rose in a clear blue sky. The tourist season was winding down and the need for law enforcement actions was dwindling—and that suited him just fine. He was hopeful things would stay that way. Gloria Valdez would be arriving from New Mexico in three days and he didn’t want anything to interfere with his plans for spending a couple of fun days with her. The buzzing of his cell phone interrupted his thoughts.
The caller was Millie Ives, the sheriff’s dispatcher. Rivera had learned years ago that when she called him by cell phone instead of police-band radio, it was a sensitive and serious matter that she didn’t wish to share with the hundreds of Moab civilians who owned police scanners. He instantly feared his plans for Gloria’s visit were in jeopardy.
“Manny, a Moab local by the name of James Kirtland just called and reported a shooting out in the Big Triangle. One man seriously wounded. An EMS unit from Grand Junction has been dispatched. Kirtland said he believes the shooting was deliberate. The Dolores River is running low enough so you’ll be able to drive across the gravel bar at Roberts Bottom.” She gave him the GPS coordinates of the crime scene and directions for navigating the dirt roads which would lead him to the general vicinity. Beyond that, he would have to proceed on foot. Rivera knew he was headed for some of the most remote backcountry in southeast Utah.
He made a U-turn, switched on the light bar of his Grand County Sheriff’s Department pickup truck, and sped upriver toward the Dewey Bridge. He knew Kirtland from playing in pick-up basketball games at the high school gym. He was tall, mid-twenties, a good athlete, and quiet. “What makes Kirtland think it was deliberate?”
“He said there were four of them patrolling the area, looking for the perps who have been poaching bighorn sheep out there for the past year or so. He said the victim called him twice by cell phone—once to say he thought he’d heard a gunshot in the small canyon he was exploring, and a second time to say he’d been shot and needed help. Kirtland arrived on the scene about ten minutes ago. The other two are on their way.”
“I’m guessing they’re all members of that vigilante group I’ve been hearing about—the ones threatening revenge against the bighorn poachers.”
“That is correct. I go to the same church as Kirtland’s grandmother. She talked to me one Sunday about James. Said she was worried because he’d joined some radical militia group dedicated to preventing human destruction of the environment. They call themselves The Keepers of Order. They claim the authorities are doing nothing about the bighorn poaching, so they intend to take care of the problem themselves. She was visibly upset.”
“I’m nearly at the Dewey Bridge.”
“I’ll notify Adam Dunne at BLM of the shooting.”
Rivera clicked off and turned right on a gravel road just before the bridge. He slammed the palm of his hand against the steering wheel, knowing he would now be involved in an investigation during Gloria’s visit. So much for all his careful planning. He thought about calling her and postponing the visit, but he missed her and wanted to be with her. This was going to be a problem—whenever he was working on a case involving a capital crime, he felt duty bound to work twenty-four seven until it was solved. What would he do with Gloria?
Rivera had occasion to visit the Big Triangle only once before. It was during a case involving drug runners growing marijuana on BLM land. The Big Triangle, referred to by locals as the Dolores Triangle, was a rugged and remote area of Utah cut off from the rest of the state by the Colorado and Dolores Rivers. It was 200 square miles of mostly unpopulated mesas, canyons, sagebrush flats, and rocky bluffs, so there was rarely a reason for a deputy to go there. There were no bridges over either river connecting the Big Triangle to the rest of Utah. Driving across the Dolores River when it was running low, or circling around through Colorado, a drive of nearly a hundred miles, were the only means of access. It reminded Rivera of the sign which now-retired Deputy L.D. Mincey used to keep in his office: The Big Triangle—You Can’t Get There From Here.
The gravel road transitioned to dirt and, after a couple of jolting miles, Rivera arrived at the Dolores River. He drove across the gravel bar and headed upriver along a primitive road which, after a distance of three miles, turned north and wound its way up a series of switchbacks to the top of Hotel Mesa. From there, he drove on the dirt of BLM Route 109 across the high mesa until it transitioned to BLM Route 107.
After twenty miles of bouncing along the rutted back road, he passed the entrance to the McGinty Ranch on his left. There the road abruptly turned east. A quarter mile farther, he turned left onto a two track which, after a few hundred yards, dead-ended at a rock field. Rivera strapped on his daypack and followed a barely visible trail which wound through rocks large enough to dwarf a human. Soon, the terrain began sloping upward as he entered the mouth of a canyon bracketed by red rock walls 200 feet high. Using his GPS receiver to guide him to the crime scene coordinates, he wound his way through pinyon pine, juniper, and cottonwoods until he arrived at a clearing where he spotted a young man lying on the ground. James Kirtland was standing next to him, holding a rifle at his side. Both Kirtland and the victim were wearing camouflage outfits.
“Manny, I’m so glad you’re here. But where are the medics?”
“James, lay the rifle on the ground and step back.”
“Huh? I didn’t shoot him, Manny. I’m the one who called and reported it.”
“I know James, but this is a crime scene.” He raised his voice slightly, articulating each word. “Lay the rifle down now and stand over there.” He pointed to a pinyon pine about fifteen feet from the victim.
Kirtland placed the rifle on the ground. “Sure, Manny. No problem.” He backed up to the tree, holding his hands partway up with a wide-eyed look of disbelief on his face.
“I’m going to have to pat you down, James. It’s procedure. Just stand still.” Rivera walked around behind him and frisked him, removing a hunting knife from a sheath on his belt and tossing it next to the rifle.
“Manny, you don’t think—”
“No, I don’t, James. Just bear with me.” Rivera walked over to the victim, knelt down at his side, and checked his condition. He had a serious chest wound, up high on his right side. Rivera felt for a pulse—the man was still alive. The deputy removed his daypack, extracted a tube of antibiotic ointment, some gauze pads, and some adhesive tape. He cut open the man’s shirt with his pocketknife, applied the ointment, and covered the wound with gauze pads. There were powder burns on the front of the man’s shirt indicating he was shot at close range. Rivera gently checked the victim’s back for an exit wound, finding none—the bullet had lodged itself somewhere within his body. Rivera realized nothing more could be done until the medics arrived. He hoped they wouldn’t get lost trying to find the place.
Rivera looked up at Kirtland. “What’s his name?”
“Zeke Stanton. He’s new to Moab. Is he still alive?”
“He’s alive. The medics should be here shortly. I understand you were out here looking for those bighorn sheep poachers.”
“That’s right.”
“Who else was with you?”
“There were four of us. Zeke and me and Butch Jeffers and Butch’s younger brother Billy. Butch is our leader. We were spread out in half-mile intervals between here and the Colorado River, heading northeast. We’d gotten a tip that the poachers were in the area.”
“I understand you’re members of a militia.”
“We’re not supposed to comment on that, but yeah, we are.” He smiled. It was obvious he was proud to be a member.
“What were you going to do if you found the poachers?”
“Make a citizen’s arrest and bring them in.”
“How did you know the poachers would be out here today?”
“Like I said, we got a tip.”
“Who gave you the tip?”
“He wants to remain anonymous for his own safety.”
Rivera considered that. Decided not to press the matter. “Where are the other members of your group?”
“They’re headed this way. This is pretty rough country so it’ll take them awhile longer to get here.”
Minutes later, just as two medics trotted into the area carrying a stretcher, a young man wearing a camouflage outfit and carrying a rifle, appeared from an opening between a large chunk of fallen red rock and a copse of junipers. He was tall and lanky with a bewildered expression on his face. Rivera figured he couldn’t be more than seventeen years old—too young to be playing in this kind of game. He instructed the young man to lay down his rifle. The boy complied, after which Rivera frisked him, removing a small caliber pistol from the pocket of his jacket. Rivera recognized him as Billy Jeffers, the son of one of the Grand County commissioners. Jeffers, who couldn’t take his eyes off his wounded friend, walked over and stood next to Kirtland.
While the medics attended to Stanton, the fourth member of the militia, also carrying a rifle, arrived at the scene. Rivera recognized him as Butch Jeffers, Billy’s older brother by about twelve years. He had a reputation around Moab as a trouble-maker—not a lawbreaker, but a bully and an intimidator. He was wearing a camouflage outfit with an ammo belt draped across his shoulder. He was a large man and stood about six-feet-two inches tall, about three inches taller than Rivera. He strode up to Rivera. “What happened here?” he demanded.
“Put your rifle on the ground and turn around,” ordered Rivera.
“Like hell I will. What happened to Zeke?”
“Lay the rifle down now.”
Butch looked Rivera up and down. Smirked.
“Do what he says, Butch,” yelled Kirtland.
“Shut up, James. This is none of your business.”
Rivera stepped toward Butch who reacted by raising his rifle. Rivera grabbed Butch’s wrist, twisted it with both hands, and threw him to the ground face down. Rivera put a knee on his back and cuffed him. He collected the rifle and set it aside. Then he frisked Butch, finding a 9-millimeter handgun in his pocket.
“You idiot,” shouted Butch. “Don’t you know who I am?” He spit dead grass and dirt out of his mouth. “I’ll have your job for this.”
The medics, now finished administering to Zeke Stanton’s wound, placed him on the stretcher. “You okay here?” said one of them to Rivera as they were leaving.
“I’m fine. See if you can save that boy.”
The medics carted Stanton off just as Adam Dunne, the local BLM Investigative Agent and a good friend of Rivera’s, arrived at the scene. “Need help?” he asked Rivera.
He pointed to Butch. “Keep an eye on this one. I need to tag all these weapons before I forget which is which.”
Butch rolled over and struggled to sit up. “If you guys had been doing your goddamn jobs, none of this would have happened.”
“What do you mean?” asked Dunne.
“Bighorn poaching has been going on out here for a year and you law enforcement people have done nothing about it.”
“There are only a few of us covering several million acres. We do what we can. We can’t stake out the whole backcountry.” Dunne sounded defensive.
“You guys are next to worthless. And take these damn cuffs off me.”
“Not just yet.” said Rivera.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Butch through clenched teeth. “Those poachers aren’t going to get away with shooting Zeke. There’s going to be hell to pay for this. From now on, this is war.”
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