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'Mountain Man' Troy Knapp's past was a dress rehearsal

Published April 4, 2013 7:52 am

Crime • Man suspected in several cabin break-ins served time for burglary in '01.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Troy Knapp was finally surrounded by Utah law officers Tuesday, he didn't submit without a fight. But the armed survivalist known as the Mountain Man knew that his six-year stretch of isolation and freedom — allegedly at the expense of cabin owners in southern Utah's wilderness — was over.

"Man, you guys are good," Knapp told authorities who tracked him to a cabin near Ferron Reservoir in Sanpete County, according to Sevier County Sheriff Nathan Curtis.

Curtis said Wednesday that the notorious loner has been talkative and open with police. But that attitude might not seem surprising, given the striking similarities with the last case that landed Knapp in jail more than 10 years ago.

Knapp, whose criminal history dates back to when he was a teen, was sentenced in 2001 to two years in prison after pleading no contest to a felony burglary charge in Inyo County, Calif. Documents from the Inyo County Sheriff's Office outline a case that reads like a failed dress rehearsal for what is allegedly his longest and most notorious crime spree.

In 2000, Knapp wandered the mountains around Bishop, Calif., allegedly committing a string of petty crimes that got the attention of local law enforcement, including the state's Department of Fish and Game.

On the night of Sept. 24, Game Warden Bruce Walder parked his truck at a fish hatchery and left to check on a report of their wanted man. Walder was gone for about three hours, and when he returned, discovered that someone had rummaged through his pickup. A pair of boots and $2 in change was missing from the ashtray.

The next day, sheriff's deputies from Inyo County were chatting at a gas station and saw a man walk into a market across the street. He matched the description of the person they'd been looking for: short-cropped hair and tattooed arms. He was wearing the same kind of boots Walder had reported stolen. When deputies confronted the man outside the store, he identified himself as Knapp. Inside a day pack he had were binoculars, work gloves, a ski mask and food he had purchased at the market. He was taken into custody with 82 cents and a cigarette lighter in his pocket.

Knapp talked openly with an investigator about his activities. He told them he had a campsite near the Owens River where he kept the rest of his earthly possessions: a backpack, a .22 rifle and another pair of boots. He even volunteered to show the deputies where it was.

As investigators interviewed him, Knapp said he had broken into the warden's pickup out of desperation: He had not expected the environment to be as harsh as it was. The day before the thefts, he saw the fish hatchery and decided to return at night when no people would be around.

"He did not want to hurt anyone," said a deputy's report from 2000.

As Knapp was trying to figure out how to get into the property, Walder's pickup drove up. Knapp hid and sneaked into the gate after Walder had entered.

Knapp also admitted to breaking into vehicles parked at a road department building in Inyo County and a trailer parked at a landfill in Independence, Calif.

"At this point Troy Knapp stated that he wanted to tell me more and get things off his chest, but he thought he had said enough and better stop," wrote the deputy who interviewed him.

On Tuesday, when Knapp spotted two law enforcement helicopters whirling above him on a mountain in central Utah, he wasn't as easily persuaded to turn himself in as he was 12 years ago. He allegedly fired shots at the choppers and pointed a rifle at Emery County Sheriff Greg Funk, who fired back but didn't hit Knapp.

Knapp soon dropped his rifle and surrendered. According to Curtis, he opened up almost immediately.

"It's a good thing you came today because I was planning on leaving tomorrow," Knapp reportedly joked to some of Curtis' deputies.

Knapp remained in custody Wednesday at Sanpete County Jail, and Curtis said his office and authorities from Beaver, Emery, Iron, Kane and Sanpete counties, and the U.S. Marshals Service, all have their own investigations and questions they want to ask him. The Sanpete County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that it is working with its county attorney on charges but that no court date has been set. Garfield, Iron and Kane counties filed charges against Knapp in 2012.

The contradictory nature of Knapp's behavior Tuesday — purportedly firing at the cops one minute and joking with them the next — seems consistent with his alleged behavior in Utah's wilderness. During some cabin break-ins tied to Knapp through fingerprints, personal property was defaced or threatening notes were left for law enforcement. Knapp was especially hostile to religious or law enforcement symbols, Curtis said.

Other times, Knapp allegedly cleaned up after himself, even washing dishes.

It's unknown how often Knapp encountered other people during his time in the mountains. Curtis said Knapp had a portable AM radio among his possessions when he was arrested Tuesday and that he acknowledged sometimes listening to radio bulletins about him.

But before his brief conversation with the antler hunters in Emery County who called law enforcement about him Friday, Knapp's chance meeting with hunter Duard Riggs in the Fish Lake Mountains in Sevier County in June is the only one law enforcement had confirmed.

Riggs, a 77-year-old hunter who splits his time between Salt Lake City and St. George, said during an interview Wednesday that he was setting up cameras to prepare for an archery hunt for bull elk when he noticed Knapp's campfire on a ridge above him. He said he was concerned it was a wildfire, so he went to investigate. When he got there, he saw Knapp's neat campsite and a rifle leaning against the tree. Then Knapp emerged from the trees, asking "a zillion questions."

The mysterious stranger wanted to know if Riggs could see his fire from the road and whether he owned land in the area. He seemed especially concerned when Riggs mentioned an old Forest Service path nearby.

"I knew he was a really nervous person that didn't want to be found," Riggs said.

Despite Knapp's obvious wariness, Riggs said, he didn't feel threatened. In fact, Knapp seemed to relax a little and the two men swapped hunting and fishing stories. Knapp lit up when Riggs mentioned that he was bow hunting, and he told Riggs stories about bow hunting with his dad in Michigan.

Knapp told Riggs that he fished, too, but didn't have a rod. Instead, he'd just hold a line with some bait and catch fish with his hands.

After he learned that the man he'd encountered was wanted for a string of cabin burglaries, Riggs worked with law enforcement to lead them to where the encounter took place. Riggs believed Knapp should be punished for his crimes, but there is a part of him that admired the Mountain Man.

"He'd have been a guy that you'd like to have come to your Scout troop and tell you about wilderness survival, as long as he doesn't teach them about the illegal stuff," Riggs said.


Twitter: @KimballBennion






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