ON AUGUST 2, 2003, Deputy Sheriff Steve Sorensen drove onto the property of desert hermit Don Kueck in a remote corner of the Antelope Valley. It is unclear exactly why Sorenson, a desert beat cop and former surfer from Manhattan Beach, decided to pay Kueck, a brilliant but disturbed self-taught rocket scientist, a visit. It is unclear, too, whether he knew that he was entering the property of a man he had pulled over for reckless driving a few years earlier, a man who had gone on to write complaints about Sorenson to everyone from the LA County Sheriff to the FBI. Whatever the circumstances, Kueck, who had become progressively more unhinged since the fatal overdose of his son — a magnetic punk kid from Riverside who had changed his name to Jello — came at Sorensen with his Daewoo automatic rifle, blasted the Sheriff with several rounds, tied his body to the bumper of his Dodge Dart, and dumped his brains in a bucket. Kueck then disappeared into the desert as if he never existed, leading to an intense week-long manhunt that ended in a near-biblical wall of fire.
Deanne Stillman’s Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History tells the story of these two complicated men, their deadly encounter, and the search that ensued. It also shares a larger story about the high Mojave and the people it attracts. The book grew out of Stillman’s acclaimed 2005 Rolling Stone article on the manhunt, and the depth of her inquiry seeps onto every page. Stillman crafts detailed, illuminating portraits of all the players and subcultures in the story, from the surprising fellowship between cops and nuns to the hardcore punk scene of the Inland Empire, and finds openings to drop into the fascinating history of the region, including the 1914 utopian, socialist, feminist community Llano del Rio, which now lies in ruins near Kueck’s trailer, and the creation of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in the lawless mid-1800s, when LA was home to the highest murder rate of any city at any point in American history. Stillman’s lyrical prose brings the desert north of Los Angeles to life as “a terrain of savage dignity, a vast amphitheater of startling wonders” that is home to “a strange brew of loners, outlaws, ultralight pilots, people hunkered in compounds behind KKK signs, meth cookers and asthmatics, those who crave quiet, and serious desert freaks who work hard at blue-collar jobs and out here where land is cheap live like kings.”
This is not Stillman’s first foray into the dark side of the desert; her earlier book, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, explores the murder of two young women at the hands of a Marine who had recently returned from the Gulf War. Both books delve into the violence and beauty that coexist in the Mojave; Desert Reckoning takes us even more deeply into the land itself, the off-the-grid world of hermits who blend right in to the stark and sprawling terrain. It is here that Don Kueck “pieced together his own desert utopia,” a place where he was able to “live like the animals and birds and trees had always lived, to dream uninterrupted.” For a brief — and even more briefly idyllic — time his son Jello stayed with him; they became “little boys again, running around in the open space, having deep talks, watching the stars, exploring the land, building th...read more