OWYHEE COUNTY, Idaho – Idaho's most infamous outlaw, Claude Dallas (search), killed two state officers in a remote desert 24 years ago in a crime that brought him notoriety as both a callous criminal and a modern-day mountain man at odds with the government.
Now a bespectacled 54-year-old, Dallas is to be released from prison Sunday after serving nearly 22 years for the execution-style slayings of Conley Elms and Bill Pogue, officers for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (search).
The case has been among the most polarizing in Idaho history, with some expressing disgust at how Dallas has gained a measure of folk-hero status among those who rally against the establishment.
Some compared him to Gordon Kahl (search), a tax-evader killed by U.S. marshals in Arkansas in 1983; to Randy Weaver, the protagonist in the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff; or even to Timothy McVeigh (search), the Oklahoma City bomber.
"Those cases always end up getting connected after the fact," said Jess Walter, the Spokane, Wash.-based author of a book about Weaver. "But at the time, they were just having trouble with law enforcement."
Dallas' 1986 jailbreak only heightened the legend perpetuated by his friends, that his rugged lifestyle got crossways with a heavy-handed U.S. government. Dallas hid for nearly a year before he was caught and sent back to prison. He was charged in the escape, but acquitted by a jury after he testified he had to break out because the prison guards threatened his life.
"It's sure an emotional issue, and his release has heightened those emotions," said Jon Heggen, head of the Fish and Game Department's enforcement bureau. "There's been a lot of tears shed the last two weeks."
Dallas' 30-year sentence was cut by eight years for good behavior.
He was convicted of manslaughter in 1982 for shooting the officers, who had entered his winter camp on the South Fork of the Owyhee River, one of the West's least-populated regions, to investigate reports of illegal trapping.
Jim Stevens, a friend of Dallas who was visiting the camp, witnessed the killings.
According to evidence at the trial, Pogue, who had drawn his own weapon, was hit first with a shot from Dallas' handgun. Dallas then shot Elms two times in the chest as the warden emerged from the trapper's tent, where he'd found poached bobcats.
Dallas then used a rifle to fire one round into each man's head.
The 28-day trial made national headlines, with Dallas claiming the game wardens were out to get him. A group of women — who became known as the "Dallas Cheerleaders" — gathered daily to support him.
A jury of 10 women and two men acquitted Dallas of murder, finding him guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter instead.
"We remain horrified somebody could have gotten manslaughter for cruelly killing our people, and then following it up with shots from a .22 rifle," said former Fish and Game Director Jerry Conley, who testified at Dallas' sentencing.
But one of Dallas' lawyers, Bill Mauk, still sees Dallas as a victim: He fired on the officers after his privacy had been violated and after he was threatened by government agents enforcing game laws he didn't believe applied to him.
Jury foreman Milo M. Moore, a retired shopkeeper, said Dallas might have been freed outright if he hadn't used his .22 caliber rifle. Moore said testimony about Pogue's reputation as a tough-guy lawman influenced the verdict.
"We felt it was self-defense up to a certain point," Moore said in a recent interview. "Had he not shot them in the head, it would have been a different verdict."
Moore said Pogue had come "gunning" for the poacher, and said Pogue was on trial in some jurors' minds more than Dallas.
Dallas' story inspired a television movie, and writer Jack Olsen chronicled the crime in a book called "Give a Boy a Gun."
"Claude Dallas," a ballad written by singer-songwriters Ian Tyson and Tom Russell, and sung by Tyson, romanticizes Dallas' lifestyle and life on the lam, saying: "It took 18 men and 15 months to finally run Claude down. In the sage outside of paradise, they drove him to the ground."
Kevin Kempf, the warden at the Idaho Correctional Institution at Orofino, where Dallas has been since Jan. 15 when he was moved from a Kansas prison, won't say where Dallas will be released.
"He's prepared," Kempf said. "It doesn't appear he's going to be leaving our facility without any direction or without a plan."
Dallas did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.