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Never call your office while youíre on vacation. Thatís always been one of my hard and fast rules. Several years ago I made the mistake of calling the office to make sure one last detail had been properly handled. When Jodie heard my voice she was panic-stricken. A client had called claiming we hadnít filed an answer to a lawsuit and the plaintiff had taken a default judgment. It was untrue, the client had never contacted me about the suit, but the accusation was enough to spoil my vacation. Although we continued on our trip, I had this nagging knot in my stomach the entire time. When I got back from the trip and called the client in, he admitted he wasnít sure he had sent the citation to me, but he thought he had!
Paula, my new partner, however, insisted before we left that I provide her with a written itinerary of our travels. I tried to explain to her that we didnít plan our vacations in great detail and usually just wandered around at will. This bothered her so much, I finally agreed to call her every other day to make sure everything was okay. You would think having a partner to cover for you would make life easier, but so far that hadnít been the case. Whereas I used to do as I pleased, now I had to consult with Paula before I made even the most trivial decision. It was like having two wives. But she had contributed needed capital to the firm and claimed to be an astute business person, something the firm desperately needed, so I bit my tongue and patiently complied with her requests.
It was early afternoon on Friday, July 11, 1986. It was a comfortable seventy-eight degrees, twenty degrees cooler than it was when we left Dallas. We were five days into our long two-week Colorado vacation, where we were staying in a cabin at Estes Park, Colorado. The kids and I had just returned from white water rafting down the Cache La Poudre River. It had been an awesome trip through some class II and III rapids, and we were all as high as the bald eagles we had seen circling above us all afternoon. Rebekah, who had opted to stay in the cabin and read the latest Daniel Steele novel, rushed outside when she heard our van pull up. She hadnít been pleased with the idea of us going white water rafting, despite the guide's assurances that it was perfectly safe. The thought of her baby, Marciaóage eightóout there on the raging river, was particularly troublesome. Marcia, however, put up such a stink at the idea of staying back at the cabin that Rebekah finally shrugged and said she could go.
Rebekah was all smiles once everyone had been accounted for and appeared to have all their limbs.
"So, how was it?" she asked.
"It was so cool," Reggie said.
"We almost capsized," Mark said.
"No, we didnít," Reggie snickered.
Rebekah frowned. "You almost capsized?"
"Not really," I interjected. "It got a little rough, but the guide knew what he was doing."
Rebekah put her hands on her hips and shook her head. "You guys are crazy going out there on the river. You should have just gone fishing."
"Donít worry, weíre gonna do that, too," I said with a wink.
Rebekah gave me a dirty look and then said, "Oh, Paula called. She said for you to call her just as soon as you got back."
My heart sank as I feared my vacation was about to take a nosedive. "Canít they leave me alone? All I want is two weeks of peace and quiet."
"I know. I asked her if it couldnít wait until you got back. She said that it was your call, but that she needed to brief you on what was coming down."
"Wonderful," I said, as we went inside the cabin. After grabbing a beer from the frig, I collapsed on the sofa. Marcia snuggled up next to me.
"This little girl is quite the sailor," I said. "You should have seen her paddle."
"Bull," Mark said. "She splashed me every time she put her oar in the water."
"I did not," Marcia protested.
"Okay," I said. "It didnít much matter. We all got soaked anyway."
Rebekah gave me a hard look.
"What?" I said.
"Arenít you going to call Paula?"
I took a deep breath. "Iíd rather not."
She shook her head. "She said it was important."
"Okay, okay. Iíll call her," I said as I got up and went to the telephone. I dialed the number and waited.
"Law office," Jodie, my secretary, said.
"Jodie, this is Stan."
"Oh, thank God! Paula needs to talk to you."
"Havenít you seen the news?"
"No, we donít have a TV up here."
"Itís Dusty Thomas. They say he shot an IRS agent. They were trying to seize his tractor. Theyíre not sure if the agentís gonna live. The FBI has him cornered in a barn. Martha wants you to go out there and talk some sense into him. Sheís afraid theyíre gonna kill him."
Martha was a sweet lady. She and Dusty had been married for nearly twenty years and were very happy despite a string of bad luck that would have destroyed most marriages. I was torn between my family and duty, as usual.
"But Iím in the middle of Colorado."
"I know. I told her you were on vacation."
"Oh, God. Poor Martha. She and Dusty have the worst luck of any people I know. Do you have a number for the FBI agent in charge?"
Jodie gave me the number and then put me through to Paula.
"Have you talked to the FBI?" I asked her.
"Yes, theyíre not in a hurry to storm the place. I guess they figure he has no way to escape so they can afford to just wait it out."
"Thatís good. I wonder why he hasnít surrendered already. Dustyís not exactly the violent type."
"Heís probably afraid theyíll kill him if he shows his face."
"With his luck, they probably would."
"What do you mean, Ďhis luck?í" Paula asked.
"Dustyís mother died in childbirth. His father deserted him at age three. His grandfather and grandmother raised him on the Double T Ranch. Jodie and I call it the Double Trouble Ranch. When Dusty was eleven he was riding his pony out in the pasture when a storm came up suddenly. He took cover under a big tree and was nearly killed when the tree was hit by lightning. At twenty-five he married the woman of his dreams who promptly spent his lifeís savings on clothes, cosmetics, and a boob job. Unfortunately, she didnít hang around long enough for him to enjoy her new boobs and before she divorced him she had managed to max-out a half dozen credit cards to the tune of $50,000."
"Jesus, he is unlucky."
"Oh, thatís just his early history of bad fortune. Just since Iíve known him his house has been blown away by a tornado, the IRS has seized most of his ranch, he broke his leg falling off a tractor, he had a heart attack, and now heís about to be arrested for murder."
"Oh, my God. What are you going to do?" Paula asked.
"I donít know. I doubt I could get there before morning. By then it will probably be too late."
"Wait. There's a special bulletin coming on the TV. . . . Oh, my God!"
"What is it?"
"The IRS agent just died."
"Shit! . . . Okay, Iím on my way."
I hung up the phone and gave Rebekah a disappointed look. "I guess you heard."
"Dusty Thomas killed an IRS agent?"
"They ought to pin a medal on him," Rebekah said with a grin.
I smiled. "I doubt the FBI will see it that way."
"So, why do you have to go back? Canít Paula handle it?"
"Ordinarily she could, but Dusty doesnít trust too many people. He doesnít know her. His wife thinks Iím the only one that might be able to talk him into surrendering. Iíd feel pretty bad if he were killed and I hadnít at least tried to help him."
Rebekah sighed. "Okay, weíll pack up the van and hit the road."
"Actually, I have a better idea. Maybe the FBI will come get me. You guys can continue the vacation without me. Once Dusty is safe, Iíll come back."
"Yeah, good idea," Reggie said. "I donít want to go home yet. We just got here."
"Thatís right," I said. "Thereís no use all of us going back."
"All right," Rebekah said. "Call them and see if theyíll do it."
I explained the situation to the FBI agent in charge in Princeton, Texas where Dusty had his ranch. He agreed to send a helicopter to come get me. About two hours later, I climbed aboard the big black FBI chopper that had set down in the spacious RV parking lot adjacent to our resort. After I buckled up and put on my headset, I waved to Rebekah and the kids and we were off. It was a beautiful ride over the Rocky Mountains, across the Texas panhandle, and then along the Texas-Oklahoma border. The pilot put on some classical music along the way to drown out the hum of the engine. It would have been an incredible ride under normal circumstances, but knowing Dusty might be shot at any moment had me on edge. What was I going to say to him? Did he really kill the IRS agent? It didnít sound like Dusty. But if a man is pushed too far, thereís no telling what he might do.
When we got to the Red River, it was nearly dark. The pilot followed the river awhile until we got to Gainesville where he turned southeast. Soon we were over U.S. 75 just north of McKinney, Texas. Princeton was just a few minutes away and I was beginning to get nervous. What if Dusty was on drugs or something? What if he wasnít happy to see me? Would he kill me? I didnít think so, but with a dozen FBI agents and hundreds of other law enforcement officers surrounding him, who knows what he would do. The thought occurred to me that I might even become his hostage.
As we approached Dustyís ranch, I saw several banks of floodlights which had been set up on the edge of the driveway to illuminate the crime scene. The Double T Ranch once had more than 1,000 acres but the IRS had seized all but the 200 acres Dusty had claimed as his rural homestead. The IRS could have taken the homestead portion too, but had a policy not to seize a homestead until the taxpayer died. The main house was about half a mile from the farm to market road that ran on the southern border of the ranch. It was a modest, 1,800 square foot house in desperate need of repair. The old house occupied by the previous owners was on the left side of the driveway at the front of the lot. Dusty used it for parties and special occasions. The land itself was flat and planted with a hybrid Bermuda grass specially formulated for grazing cattle. Unfortunately the Service had seized most of Dustyís cattle. The barn where Dusty was held up was on the northwest corner of the ranch and was used to keep the horses that Dusty and his wife loved to ride.
As the chopper set down, two agents came over to greet us. One of the agents helped me out of the helicopter and introduced himself.
"Iím Agent Ronald Logan and this is Agent Maureen Cox," he shouted over the noise of the chopper. I forced a smile and shook their hands. As we stepped away from the chopper, it took off and we were able to talk in a normal tone of voice.
"So whatís the situation?" I asked.
"Heís been in there since early this morning. The sheriff got a phone call from a wrecker driver who found a white, middle-aged male body lying in the driveway. He had been shot and was already dead when the body was discovered. It turns out he was a revenue officer from the Sherman office of the Internal Revenue Service who was there to seize a tractor. The wrecker driver was supposed to meet him there."
"Jesus. They just couldnít leave him alone," I said.
"What do you mean?" Logan asked.
"The IRS has been after Dusty for ten years. They just wonít lay off. They say he owes a quarter million dollars, but I personally think itís bullshit."
"Well, bullshit or not it didnít give him the right to kill anyone."
"True. Did anyone actually see him kill the revenue officer?"
"No, but Thomas was standing over the body with a shotgun when the wrecker driver pulled up. When he saw the driver, he ran. The driver called his dispatcher and reported the murder. When the sheriffís deputies arrived, the driver pointed them in the direction he had gone and they caught up with him a few minutes later. They told him to stop, but he kept on running until he got to the barn. He went inside and took up a position in the loft. When the deputies got too close he fired a warning shot, so theyíve been holding back. Thereís no point in endangering the lives of any of our agents or the sheriffís deputies. Thomas isnít going anywhere."
I shook my head, still not believing what Logan was telling me. "This is so unlike Dusty. Heís the nicest, laid-back country boy youíll ever meet. Iíve really grown fond of him these past few years."
"I hope the feeling is mutual for your sake. I donít know if Iíd go in there if
it were me."
"Iím not worried. He wouldnít hurt me. Right now Iím the only hope he has."
"So, how do you want to play it?" Logan asked.
"Can you communicate with him?"
"He doesnít have a phone. The bullhorn is the only way to talk to him and itís strictly one way," Logan said and then handed me a walkie talkie.
"Take this in with you so we can talk once you make contact."
"Fine, just let him know Iím coming in so he wonít shoot me."
"Okay," Logan said, and motioned to a sheriffís deputy to bring him the bullhorn. With the bullhorn in hand, Logan moved as close to the barn as he dared. He lifted up the bullhorn and said, "Mr. Thomas. Your attorney, Stan Turner, is here to talk to you. Heís unarmed and heíll be coming inside in just a minute."
Everyone looked at me as I mentally prepared myself to enter the barn. I took a deep breath and started walking toward it. Agent Logan grabbed my arm and whispered, "Do you want a vest?"
I looked at Logan and wondered if that would be wise. My gut feeling told me it might spook Dusty. He might think I didnít trust him. "No, I guess not," I said and continued walking. As I stepped inside, I scanned the interior looking for Dusty. "Dusty? Where are you?"
There was movement above me to my left. I looked up and saw Dusty, with shotgun in hand, staring down at me.
"There you are. . . . Should I come up there or are you coming down?"
Dusty glanced outside toward the crowd of sheriffs' deputies and FBI agents. Then he quickly made his way to a ladder and climbed down.
"So, what happened?" I asked. "They say you shot Bobby Tuttle."
"Itís a damn lie. I didnít shoot anybody."
"But they have a witness who saw you standing over his body."
"Thatís true, but I came out of the house after he had already been shot."
"Really? Do you have any idea who might have shot him?"
Dusty shook his head. "I wish I did."
"Why did you run? Now they think you did it."
"I was hoping to get away. I knew theyíd never believe I was innocent."
I sighed. "So, what now?"
Dusty shrugged and replied, "Hell, I donít know. Maybe I should let them kill me. It will probably be the only way Iíll ever get them off my back."
"Donít talk like that. If youíre innocent, weíll find a way to prove it. Donít worry. Why donít you lose the shotgun and weíll both walk out of here right now?"
"No, I canít do that."
"It wouldnít be right. Iím an innocent man."
"If you donít surrender, youíll be an innocent dead man!"
Dusty looked away. I wondered if he was serious about dying. I couldnít imagine how he figured he could escape. "Come on, Dusty. Thereís no way out of this. You donít want to die. Think about Martha."
Dustyís face became grim. "It doesnít matter, either way sheís lost me.
Why prolong the agony?"
"You say youíre innocent and I believe you because youíre an honest man. So, let me prove it. Donít give up before the battle has begun."
The walkie talkie crackled. "Stan, everything okay in there?" Logan asked.
I pushed the talk button and replied. "Yes, Iím fine. Just having a little chat with Dusty."
"Okay, let me know if you need anything."
"I will. Thanks. Bye."
Dusty took a deep breath. "What happens if I surrender?"
I smiled sympathetically and replied, "Theyíll take you to a holding cell, probably at the Collin County Jail, where youíll stay until you are arraigned. If we are able to post bond you wonít be in jail more than 24 hours."
"How much will the bond be?"
"I donít know. Itís a murder charge so it could be pretty steep."
"So what youíre telling me is I might not get out?"
"If you canít post the bond, thatís true. Do you have any relatives who might help you raise the bond?"
"No. No rich relatives."
"Well, I know time in jail isnít going to be much fun, but itís not the end of the world. Iíve been in jail before and I survived."
"Yes, twice. Once in the Marine Corps and not too long in the Collin County Jail on a contempt of court charge."
"So, itís not so bad?"
"Itís not a picnic, but youíll get through it."
Dusty rubbed his forehead like he was in great pain. I could feel his agony and wished I had some way to relieve it for him.
"Listen, Dusty. Youíre in a long tunnel and either way you go itís going to be pitch dark for quite a while. If you go out there with me right now, Iíll do everything in my power to bring you to the light. If you go the other way thereís nothing but darkness."
Dusty smiled. "You donít believe in heaven?"
"I do, but Iím going to hang around on earth just as long as I can and Iíd recommend you do the same."
"Okay, Stan. Iíll do it your way, but you sure as hell better get me off."