How to Chase a Killer

The Longform guide to manhunts.

The once top-secret scale model of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, a precise replica used to plan the raid that killed the Al-Qaeda chief a year ago, is seen May 16, 2012 during its unveiling at the Pentagon.

Photo by Dan De Luce/AFP/GettyImages

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The LAPD’s February pursuit of Christopher Dorner, a trigger-happy ex-police officer, so fascinated the nation it may have dented President Obama’s State of the Union ratings. There’s just something undeniably interesting about a person on the run, whether it’s Osama bin Laden, a Boston mobster, or two fictional heroines in 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible.

The Ballad of Johnny France
Richard Ben Cramer • Esquire • October 1985

A Montana sheriff and a manhunt in the mountains.

“After a month of a fruitless hunt, countless over-flights, daily horse patrols, two swoops by visiting SWAT teams, a flying inspection by the U.S. marshals; after Goldstein’s brother sent a tracker guru (Jesus, with earrings!) twice from New Jersey; after the U.S. Forest Service threw in an infrared detector so slick it could sense body heat even from an airplane (but it was summer, when every rock in the woods threw heat—lit that scope like a jukebox); after the Feds buried in the woods two surplus Vietnam sensor bugs (didn’t work any better here than they did in the DMZ); after dozens of promising tips that failed and five times as many blind alleys, there were friends who were glad to tell Johnny, ‘You’ll never get ‘em. They made Canada. You ask me, they’re gone. …’ But Johnny didn’t ask them. And there were the Old West ranchers who wanted to know, ‘What the hell’s the big deal? Ol’ Don didn’t mean to hurt nobody. Heh. Ol’ Don just thinks he’s a, uh, Mountain Man.’ But Johnny would answer, ‘Yuh, I know him. And I’ll get him. Uh, I’m a Mountain Man, too.’”

Getting Bin Laden
Nicholas Schmidle • The New Yorker • August 2011

The story of the Abbottabad raid.

“The assault plan was now honed. Helo one was to hover over the yard, drop two fast ropes, and let all twelve SEALs slide down into the yard. Helo two would fly to the northeast corner of the compound and let out Ahmed, Cairo, and four SEALs, who would monitor the perimeter of the building. The copter would then hover over the house, and James and the remaining six SEALs would shimmy down to the roof. As long as everything was cordial, Ahmed would hold curious neighbors at bay. The SEALs and the dog could assist more aggressively, if needed. Then, if bin Laden was proving difficult to find, Cairo could be sent into the house to search for false walls or hidden doors. ‘This wasn’t a hard op,’ the special-operations officer told me. ‘It would be like hitting a target in McLean’—the upscale Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.”

Angels & Demons
Thomas French • St. Petersburg Times • October 1997

On June 4, 1989, the bodies of Jo, Michelle and Christe were found floating in Tampa Bay. This is the story of how Glen Moore and his detectives brought the killer to justice.

“Time was running out. The August deadline was fast approaching.

“The detectives drove up and down Dale Mabry, talking to business owners, talking to waitresses, interviewing anyone who might have seen the Rogers women or might know someone with handwriting like the directions on the brochure. They questioned dancers at the strip joints near Tampa Stadium, showing them the composite from the Madeira Beach case, asking if they knew a man who looked like this.

“The first week of June, as the third anniversary of the murders came and went, Cummings and Geoghegan sat in a car near the boat ramp on the causeway, watching for hours in case the killer returned out of some perverse desire to relive the moment when Jo and the girls stepped onto his boat. But they never saw him.”

Whitey Bulger in Exile
Shelley Murphy, Maria Cramer • Boston Globe • October 2011*

On the lifestyle of a fugitive retiree, and how it came to an end.

“At least twice a day, Carol Gasko would crouch on the sidewalk in front of her Santa Monica apartment building to feed an abandoned, tiger-striped cat while her husband, Charlie, stood by protectively. They brought Tiger to the veterinarian when he was sick and kept his picture on their wall.

“Their devotion caught the attention of Anna Bjornsdottir, a former actress and Miss Iceland 1974, who lived in the neighborhood for months at a time and sometimes stopped to chat while they fed the tabby.

“‘Isn’t she nice?’ Bjornsdottir said of Gasko to a neighbor.

“It was this bond, formed over the cat, that proved the downfall of one of America’s most wanted men, South Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, after 16 years on the run.”

The Devil on Paradise Road
Bruce Barcott • Outside • September 2012

It started as a bluebird New Year’s Day in Mount Rainier National Park. But when a gunman murdered a ranger and then fled back into the park’s frozen backcountry, every climber, skier, and camper became a suspect—and a potential victim.

“At 11:42 A.M., rangers Camiccia and Snure met with a group of Pierce County deputies at a turnoff called the Stevens Canyon Y, about 500 yards south of the shooting site. In addition to Deputy Brown, Sergeant Nick Hausner and deputies Brian Coburn, Kevin Reding, and Ara Steben had answered the call-out. An hour had passed since Anderson’s last radio contact. Shooter or no shooter, they decided they had to go in.

“The team gathered what gear they had. Brown had an armor-plated vest. Hausner found a ballistic shield in his SUV.

“The deputies strapped on helmets and piled into the back of Camiccia’s bullet-pocked pickup. Each held a rifle. ‘If the suspect engages,’ Hausner told the team, ‘immediate return fire is authorized.’

Troy Knapp, a Ghost in the Backcountry
Jacob Baynham • Men’s Journal • May 2013

In “an age of GPS, drones, and thermal imaging,” a fugitive remained invisible.

“Immediately after identifying Knapp, sheriffs in 10 counties, along with U.S Marshals, launched one of the biggest manhunts in the West. Being pursued ignited Knapp’s rage. His break-ins became more frequent and sinister. He left behind bullet-riddled cabins and threatening notes for his pursuers. ‘Hey, sheriff, fuck you!’ one note read. ‘Gonna put you in the ground!’ He doodled swastikas in the margin. He destroyed religious icons and defaced pictures. In one cabin, he defecated in a pan on the floor.

“Police upped patrols during the summer months, but many cabin owners’ wives still refused to visit their vacation homes at all. Many started packing guns. But Knapp remained invisible. Even though sheriffs learned he had parents living in Idaho and a 16-year-old daughter in Michigan, it seemed that Knapp didn’t have strong enough emotional ties to anyone to draw him out of the wild. He was at home in any corner of the mountains. ‘He’s got what he needs to live out there,’ says U.S. Marshal Wingert. ‘He doesn’t have to come into town and buy a box of Twinkies to survive.’

“Still, even with more than 50 local cops and federal agents looking for him – plus the thousands of well-armed hunters who scoured the backcountry for six months of the year – no one could find Troy Knapp. ‘There’s a lot of country between here and Iron County,’ says Sheriff Curtis. ‘It’s like looking for a needle in a dozen haystacks.’”

The Ride of a Lifetime
Sheila Weller • Vanity Fair • March 2011

The making of Thelma & Louise.

“The film had its fair share of out-of-sequence shots, but the last scene was actually saved for last, and by a scheduling quirk had to be done during the “golden hour” of the final filming day—after that, Scott was off to direct 1492 in Costa Rica. A ramp was built over the bluff; there were three car shells, containing dummy Thelmas and Louises. Before the cameras rolled, one of the cars, set up as a test, accidentally went over the cliff at a weird angle. “My stomach went, Oooo,” says Davis. To everyone’s relief, the second car went off perfectly. Then Sarandon and Davis, readied by the makeup team, got in the real car, with a camera on each of them, for simultaneous close-up shots. “There was no getting it another time. This was it,” recalls Davis. With a phalanx of cop cars behind them and a helicopter zooming dramatically up from the canyon floor, Thelma says, with dazzling vulnerability, “Let’s keep going.” Louise asks, her smile a blend of incredulity, hope, and sorrow, “You sure?” Then (Sarandon’s idea) Louise kisses Thelma hard on the mouth and—with Slocumbe running behind, desperately trying to stop them—she floors the accelerator.”

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*Correction, April 6, 2013: The article originally and incorrectly stated that the Boston Globe’s feature on Whitey Bulger ran in October 2013.