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 things, and blowing them up” Eventually Don couldn’t handle the encroachment on his space, or the extent of Jello’s drug use, and kicked his son out. Soon Kueck’s hermitage was his alone again, his beloved land riddled with tunnels and jury-rigged contraptions made of desert flotsam. And books. Lots of books.
Most of the characters in Desert Reckoning are avid readers, their codes “deeply shaped by books.” Jello would often quote Henry Rollins, especially a passage from Rollins’s Pissing in the Gene Pool, in which he contemplates whether or not to kill a cockroach: “I thought about all the people who think of me the same way I think of this roach. All the people who see me as a filthy crawling piece of vermin that should be destroyed. Hah! The roach is my brother and long may he prosper!” Another book was amongst the few items Jello had with him when he died, and the suitcase he had left behind at his girlfriend’s house held a big book on outer space. After the manhunt, Bruce Chase, a member of the SWAT team that ambushed Kueck, reread his favorite author Louis L’Amour’s The Lonesome Gods, an outlaw tale set in the California desert. A local congregation had been reading an evangelical bestseller, This Present Darkness, “a suspenseful tale of spiritual warfare in a small town plagued by the never-ending duel between angels and demons,” in the months prior to Sorenson’s death. The heroes of the story are a preacher and a reporter, mirroring Sorenson’s two main allies in town:
With the arrival of Steve, the soon-to-become-epic battle of good and evil was validated by the novel; here was law enforcement coming to the rescue as if in answer to prayers, and together the three allies saw themselves as carrying the cross of goodness across a parched landscape of ill winds.
Books were especially meaningful to Kueck, a voracious reader. Stillman writes
While living in Llano, he had assembled an amazing library of works penned by some excellent writers, picking up the obscure and best-selling books and magazines and pamphlets at flea markets, or finding them strewn across the desert, nature’s very own, always-open, perpetual learning annex. The collection tells us that Don studied American history, war, weaponry, geology, living off the grid, space travel, time travel, the environment, inner dimensions, and aging […]. But there was more than that […] the knowledge and insight he gleaned from these works factor into his last days as a fugitive.
From his readings, Kueck extrapolated ways to elude capture —using the aqueduct as a means of escape, digging himself into the ground and covering himself with cardboard to avoid thermal imaging planes.
Stillman uses the books in Kueck’s library to commit her own escape act, slipping out of her skin into Kueck’s troubled, dreamlike point of view. She taps into his literary interests in shamanism and spirit communication (he tried regularly to contact his dead son) to envision his experience hiding in the desert, leading to some of the most compelling passages of the book. Here, he calls upon his animal friends:
And so here came Scorpion, who said ‘Stay stealthy’, and here came Bobcat, who advised that perhaps the time had come, but not without a fight, and then Raven came — and Don thought, Raven? Underground? You are indeed some bird, one helluva bird if I may say so, and I thank you for finding me in my hour of need — and the black creature with the chevron wings hopped on Don’s arm, as always, and then the hermit looked him in the eye and saw his own reflection and he looked so bad and gnarly that it scared him. “Fear not,” Raven said. “I will help you fly away.”
After she continues to imagine Kueck’s communion with the animals of the desert for several more lines, Stillman acknowledges in one short, self-deprecating paragraph, “Or maybe it did not happen like that at all.” Even so, she makes us believe that it could have.
Stillman doesn’t often insert herself directly into the narrative; when she does, the effect can be startling, as when she meets with Sheriff Lee Bacca, head of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and asks “Where is God in this story?” He isn’t taken aback by the question; “You know the answer,” he tells her, and fixes her with the most penetrating eye contact she’s ever experienced. Reading this book can feel like receiving the same shock of eye contact — you know you are in the presence of something large and unsettling.
It is clear Deanne Stillman has her own sacred connection to both the Mojave and her creative process; this shines through when she discusses the synchronicities that guided her during the research and writing of Desert Reckoning — the mustang (subject of her 2008 book, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West) that led her to Sorenson’s house, the Snake Fountain she happened upon in Los Angeles that helped her bring the story full circle. She still leaves plenty of space for readers to make their own connections to the land and its people; I was surprised by how personal some of these connections were for me.
I live in Riverside, home to Kueck’s daughter and late son. The Riverside depicted in Stillman’s book is different from the Riverside I know — she explores the darker stories of my town, stories of addiction, abuse, abandonment — but I recognized many of the places she visits: the now-defunct punk club, Spanky’s; a downtown liquor store just a few blocks from my former house; and the Life Arts Building, where I realized, with a start, that I had intersected with one of the main players in this tragic story.
Several years ago, I visited the sprawling red brick building that once housed the YMCA to look into renting a studio to use as writing space. A charming fellow with a mohawk offered to show me around. He pointed out the studio where he lived; the side of a Jell-O box was tacked to the door. “That’s my name,” he told me with a flirtatious grin. I stole the detail for the novel I was in the process of writing — my mohawked character, Lime Boy, tapes part of a box of lime Jell-O next to his apartment buzzer. I ran into Jello a couple of times afterwards, and we smiled and said “Hey,” but I never thought about his life outside our brief meetings, never let myself imagine what sort of pain might be hiding behind his handsome punk facade. Deanne Stillman brought me straight into his world; it broke my heart to learn of his struggles and the grim circumstance of his death.
One of the greatest gifts of this book is how Deanne Stillman is able to open our hearts to people we might otherwise judge or dismiss. She never denies that Don Kueck committed a heinous act of murder, but she paints him as deeply human, capable of kindness and intelligence and an almost mystical connection to the landscape despite the demons that plagued him. Sorensen is clearly the “good guy” of the standoff, but he, too, is shown in a very human light; Stillman lets us see his jealous rages, his inability to take a joke, as well as his abiding desire to help people. She lets us marvel at the contradictions within each of these men, and the points of intersection between them — especially their shared love of animals and the Mojave, including their shared view of the Three Sisters Buttes, which she discovers when the new owner invites her inside Sorenson’s house, and his still intact home office:
I sat in his chair and gazed at the buttes, and imagined that quite possibly, on the very morning of their fateful encounter, both men might have contemplated those buttes and their splendor, for each loved every elemental aspect of the desert, especially as it became a new place with every infinitesimal turn of Earth’s axis and the ensuing shift in light, each perhaps raising a cup to his lips at the same time, savoring a favorite beverage, home-brewed or water from a spigot caught in cupped hands, and perhaps as the sun’s rays spilled across the holy vista before them, each was filled with gratitude and awe as they prepared to embark on their fateful day.
That is the ultimate effect of Desert Reckoning, as well; one can’t help but be filled with gratitude and awe toward Deanne Stillman — her clear eye, the depth of her research, her brave and compassionate imagination. She takes us on a journey as full of desolation and grandeur as the desert itself.