Fugitive in the Wild

Date Published 07.22.09
New developments frequently occur in the unsolved cases I write about on True Crime Diary.  Suspects are caught or exonerated.   Cause of death is reclassified.  But no development has been as shocking, or potentially significant, as the news from New Mexico that broke on Monday.

In August 2006 I wrote about the potential connection between several unsolved murders of couples camping or hiking in the West and Northwest.  Of particular interest to me was the case of Lindsay Cutshall and Jason Allen, a young couple, set to marry in less than a month, who were shot to death while camping on a beach north of San Francisco in 2004.  Cutshall and Allen had recently wrapped up summer jobs at a Christian camp and were sightseeing along the coast when they were killed.  The murders were odd.  They appeared motive-less.  The killer had used a powerful hunting rifle to shoot the couple in the head at close range.

One name that was floated as a potential suspect was Joseph Henry Burgess.  Burgess was a fugitive wanted for the murders of a young Christian couple on Vancouver Island in 1972.  The two cases bore striking similarities --- remote beach, campers, unmarried Christian couples (Burgess was a religious fanatic who apparently didn’t believe in premarital sex), rifle shots to the head.

I speculated Burgess might be responsible for even more murders, specifically the many couples camping in the wild over the years that, like Cutshall and Allen, had been shot to death for no apparent reason.  Some investigators I talked to thought Burgess was probably dead, or at the very least an old man out of commission. 

But I thought the fact that Burgess led an itinerant outdoor lifestyle --- something he began doing as a Vietnam War draft dodger --- was interesting, since most of the couples were killed while camping or hiking, and the only things taken in some cases were fishing poles and other outdoor survival gear.

I called the story about the murdered campers and Burgess "The Hunter."

I wondered, I speculated, but I didn’t really think anything would come of it.  It had been over thirty years since any credible sighting of Burgess.

Then came last Thursday.  In the Jemez Mountains northwest of Albuquerque two sheriff’s deputies staked out a cabin looking for any sign of the “Cookie Bandit,” an elusive prowler who’d been breaking into cabins in the remote region for years, stealing food and outdoor supplies.  The thief used an ax to break down doors and sometimes left messages asking for forgiveness.  Locals came across his abandoned campsites, bleak settlements consisting of a blanket and a broken down chair.

Just before dawn, the bandit stormed into the cabin where the deputies were staked out.  A fight ensued, and the suspect and Sgt. Joe Harris were killed in an exchange of gunfire.  The surviving deputy later described how the suspect appeared at the window like an “evil entity” in the early morning hour.

The dead thief had no identification.  He was older-looking, and weathered, as someone living outdoors in the wild would be.  Investigators fingerprinted him and hoped for a match.

They got one.  The unidentified man was a suspect in the murders of a young Canadian couple 37 years ago.

He was Joseph Henry Burgess.

He had been alive all this time.  Not only had he been alive, he was also, as speculated, living outdoors in survivalist mode. 

And he had clearly remained violent.  He spent 37 years as a fugitive, running from two murders and then finishing with another.  How likely is it that those episodes were his only outbursts?

Joseph Henry Burgess, caught on surveillance used to monitor wildlife

Authorities in New Mexico are grieving for their lost colleague.  They’re also intent on thoroughly examining Burgess’s past.  Sonoma County investigators in charge of the Cutshall and Allen murders plan to travel to New Mexico to see if they can link him to their case.  One obvious avenue will be to compare DNA from Burgess with that found at the crime scene.

Establishing a timeline for Burgess will be key.  Where was he for the last 37 years?  There appears to be evidence he was rooted in the Jemez Mountains region, but did he take any trips?  In 2007, Pete King of the LA Times wrote an excellent story delving into Burgess’s past.  He revealed that Burgess has a sister who lives in northern California, just a few hours from the beach where Cutshall and Allen were killed.  Did Burgess ever visit her?

Another case to look at closely will be Brandon Rumbaugh and Lisa Gurrieri, one of the couples I wrote about in my original story, who were gunned down while camping in Bumble Bee, Az., which is almost directly west of the Jemez Mountains area. 

In the story I posted on August 20, 2006 I asked the following question:

Did Joseph Henry Burgess disappear into the wilderness and embark on a thirty-year murder spree?

Three years later, when Burgess emerged from the woods and broke into the cabin, I received an answer to the first part of that question.  Hopefully the second part will be answered soon.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.