Me and the KKK: close encounters of the strange kind

Me And The KKK: close encounters of the strange kind, THE OZARKS

AWKWARD…is really the only way to describe my interaction with the Klan. It was the sort of awkwardness I remember having when, as a kid, I paid to see a lady with a beard at a summer carnival. I stared maybe a little too long. I wanted to see if she was really real. She stared back and gave me a look as if to say, “Ok, you’ve had your 50 cent look. Now move on.”

I’m glad bearded ladies have gained enough political incorrectness that we don’t see much of them anymore. Unfortunately, the Ku Klux Klan seems to be trying to re-brand themselves as neighborhood watch patrols.

KKK members carry torches across a field in western Greene County Missouri in the early 1990's. (Copyright John S. Stewart/

KKK members carry torches across a field in western Greene County Missouri in the early 1990’s.

My first encounter came in the form of a business card placed anonymously
on my desk at the weekly newspaper where I worked as a summer photo intern in 1975. It read, “You Have Been Paid A ‘Friendly’ Visit By The American Knights Of The Ku Klux Klan.”

Most of the office staff, the editor, reporter and I had been at lunch so nobody had seen who left it. The reporter said, “Ohhh…I wondered about that.”

“Wondered about what?”, I said.

She replied, “The front page photo you took for last week’s edition.”

The photo I shot the weekend before at the Memorial Day ceremony on the town square showed two Boy Scouts holding a flag and a scout leader standing at attention. The scout leader was African-American and very respected in the community. Not everyone shared that view.

The reporter explained to me that even though this was 1975, there was a town ordinance from the previous century still on the books, but no longer “officially” enforced, that stated, “…no negro man, woman or child would be permitted to stay within the city limits past sundown”.

These towns were known as “Sundown Towns” and there were many scattered throughout the Ozarks and parts of the rest of the country. They were officially outlawed in 1968 when Congress passed the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Even an act of Congress has a hard time reaching into every dark corner of America.

She went on to explain that not everyone thought that was a bad law and were probably offended seeing someone of color so prominently displayed in the newspaper.

If the card was placed on my desk by a real Klansman or by a poser, I never knew because I never heard anything more.

KKK members try to recruit new members in a small Ozarks town. (Photo copyrighted by John S. Stewart/

KKK recruitment rallies had little success in the Ozarks.

The next time they reared their head so publicly was in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

The KKK apparently saw the Ozarks as fertile ground for recruiting new members. For a period of a couple of years, they came from Atlanta and the Grand Dragon’s hometown in Arkansas and staged marches and gave speeches in a few town squares and parks trying to whip up support.

They were received by most localities as a sort of curiosity. Most had never seen the Klan except in movies and news clips. There were a few protesters at each event who resented their town being viewed as “hosting” the Klan and of course the media was there, but almost no supporters. Their last push was a night-time cross burning complete with Klansmen carrying torches circling three 20-foot high burlap wrapped fuel oil soaked crosses in a freshly mowed field they rented from a farmer west of Springfield, Missouri.

As in all counties where they put on displays, they did so under the laws

The KKK was more of a curiosity in the Ozarks towns where they tried to recruit members in the 1980's and '90's. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/

The KKK was more of a curiosity in the Ozarks towns.

protecting free speech and assembly. The county would provide uniformed officers at the entrance of the field to reduce the risk of confrontation. The county would also require the Klan to buy a burn permit usually reserved for those wanting to burn large areas of brush.

The event started long before dark when the crosses would be set ablaze and

each of our news organizations wanted us there beginning to end. That meant an afternoon in the hot sun (hat, extra water…check) in a freshly mowed field with chiggers (ehhh…forgot the bug repellent) listening to hours of vile speeches blaming “The Cath-o-lics” and “The Jeeews” and “The lib-rals” and of course “The nigras” for all of their failures and shortcomings.

As Klan official after Klan official spoke and the initial shock of the language and outlandish claims turned to boredom, the sun beat down on our heads, chiggers feasted on our ankles and polite tolerance among the media turned to subtle displays of disdain. One reporter parked himself in a lawn chair a few feet in front of the speakers’ platform and opened up a newspaper well in front of his face pretending to read it.

Ku Klux Klan stages a cross burning in western Greene County Missouri in the early 1990's. (Copyright John S. Stewart/

Ku Klux Klan stages a cross burning in western Greene County Missouri in the early 1990’s.

To the side of the speakers’ platform was a table display of KKK trinkets and literature. I have a hat in my office filled with political pins from campaigns I’ve covered and other events and thought a KKK pin would fit in somewhere. A couple of other reporters had the same idea and we quietly discussed the ethics of giving money to the KKK even if it was only a couple of dollars for a hat pin.

Don, (I don’t remember his real name) the KKK member who was there to take your money, overheard the discussion and said, “Here, I can just give you one if you like.” As if that was our cue, the three of us responded in unison, “Oh, no. No thanks. No.” We decided a few dollars wouldn’t further their cause much and was better than accepting graft.

I talked with Don a while longer after we paid for our souvenirs. He was shy but friendly and didn’t seem to show the disdain for the media some of the leaders seemed to. He only looked at you briefly when he spoke which might have been to hide some badly needed dental work years overdue. He spoke with a slight lisp and his grammar indicated schooling wasn’t a high priority. I could see how these things would shut out many opportunities and a person might fall into the trap of blaming a group of people when you felt overlooked. So much for my amateur psychological analysis.

As dusk turned to darkness, the Klan members retreated to the trunks of their cars parked in a far corner of the field where they donned their white robes and pointed hoods. With torches lighted, the group walked back up to the crosses and set them ablaze. The Klansmen, now in a circle, turned their backs to the crosses, raised their torches and shouted, “White Power! White Power!”

The hooded figures were pretty much indistinguishable from one another. A few seemed “fancier” than the others and some had their faces covered except two holes for the eyes. From one, I thought I detected a familiar lisp in his speech.

“Don…is that you?” His eyes shot me a glance and the material covering his mouth popped in and out as his adrenaline induced heavy breathing struggled to move air through the fabric of the hood.

“Yeah…WHITE POWER!…Yeah, it’s me.”

I wouldn’t have guessed. He didn’t seem like the shy retiring “Don” I met a couple of hours earlier.

John S. Stewart


Death Sentence Commuted: An Epiphany For Me

Death Sentence Commuted: An Epiphany For Me, THE OZARKS

WARNING: No graphic photos but the following does include a graphic description of a crime scene. LEFTeyeSTORIES after all, are those personal experiences…good, bad or ugly…that happen during photo assignments.

A boy grieves under the stress of the fast approaching day when his father will walk from his prison cell for the last time and put to death by the citizens of the state of Missouri. His schoolmates taunt him with, “Your daddy’s gonna die soon. He’s gittin’ what he deserves, ya know.” A mother sits in her rural Ozarks home reading the Bible, praying and wondering how her son whom she raised in the church, was well liked growing up and had even wanted to become a preacher before serving in the military in Viet Nam, could come to this. A former county prosecutor takes at least some degree of satisfaction as the last chapter of this capital murder case comes to a close. He was successful and successfully prosecuting cases like this helped to advance his career from county prosecutor to Associate Circuit Judge. An ailing and very frail Pope leans forward and whispers a plea in the ear of a Missouri governor and the wheels are put in motion that ultimately put me on the back roads of Taney County Missouri to meet up with some of these folks. The story of how convicted murderer, Darrell Mease ended up on Missouri’s death row reads like a chapter in Daniel Woodrell’s novel, “Winter’s Bone”. While the book does not parallel this particular crime, it does profile the meth culture that pervades so much of the rural Ozarks. Much of the 2010 movie by the same name was filmed in Taney County where Mease lived and committed the triple homicide more than two decades earlier. In 1987, Darrell Mease began working with Lloyd J. Lawrence to manufacture and sell methamphetamine. The relationship soured and Mease left the area, but not before stealing some of the drug. Lawrence made it known he intended to kill Mease so Mease decided to strike first. Mease and a female companion returned to Taney County in May 1988. He formed and then carried out a plan to ambush Loyd Lawrence while Lawrence and his wife, Frankie and their 19-year old paraplegic grandson, William were riding their four-wheeled all terrain vehicles near the Lawrence home. The three were shot as they drove past where Mease lay hidden waiting for the opportune moment. Each was then shot at point-blank in the head with a shotgun. Lawmen followed the trail back to Mease and he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. After years of going through the appeals process, a date was set for his execution: February 10th, 1999. During that time, Mease claimed to have undergone a jailhouse conversion even though he had come to accept his destiny on earth. In a letter he wrote, “I had gotten saved when I was ten and backslid when I was 19 and then ran with Satan and his own for many years.” Mease’s original execution date was January 27th but was changed when it was discovered that date coincided with a visit to St. Louis by Pope John Paul II. During that visit, the Pope approached Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan and asked that Mease’s life be spared. The next morning the governor signed an order commuting the sentence to ‘life without parole.’ That’s when photo requests started coming in. News outlets like the Associated Press and the New York Times wanted photos of Mease’s mother, the Taney County prosecutor who put him on death row and any other players. The Pope had requested clemency for other death row inmates in Missouri and in other states, but without success. So, this is suddenly a national news story and I’m on the road to meet reporters from the Times and the AP and Darrell Mease’s mother, Lexie Mease at her house.

Typical of many rural Ozarks’ homes, Lexie Mease’s home is in Taney County, Missouri. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/

Late January in the Ozarks is not particularly picturesque. In fact, most of us who live here are beginning to feel the effects of the gray landscape, gray sky, short days and like today, cold rain that sum up most winters in the Ozarks. As I drove past familiar summer tourist spots and turned on a gravel road, I passed small vacant A-frame shaped chicken coops. I have seen these coops on past trips down this road when each miniature A-frame housed a single rooster tethered to a stake. I am reminded of just how close the family oriented summertime touristy Ozarks and its seedier cock-fighting meth making kin are to each other. The gravel drive up to her house just sort of petered out into an undefined area of parking and yard. Lexie Mease’s house sat at the bottom of a hill with no neighbors close by; not close by like we have in town. I could see a faint ribbon of blue smoke rising from the chimney through the cold windshield wiper drizzle. Two dogs lounging on the front stoop were now on high alert deciding if I was friend or foe. When I am travelling separately from a reporter, I like to arrive a little early. It gives me a chance to get oriented before the reporter/subject conversation moves into high gear. I have less of that, “got in on the middle of the conversation” feel that makes it hard to feel like you are at your best. Lexie answered the door with, “Oh, come in. I just have to finish dressing. I’ll be just a minute.” She was pretty much dressed except for changing out of a terry cloth wrap and house shoes. The small shy, almost timid woman seemed like the type that would bring a plate of cookies over if she knew you were having a bad day. On the wall hung a cross and picture of Jesus. On the table lay a Bible. In the corner near the door was a wood burning stove that are still the primary source of heat in many rural Ozarks homes. “That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll just warm up by your stove. I love the smell of wood smoke and there’s nothing like wood heat.” She looked back, smiled and said, “You know, this has all happened so fast. My grandson, Darrell’s boy, was here but I sent him away. He’s had such a hard time and has been so stressed. The kids at school have been so cruel. I just didn’t think he needed to have to talk to the news people.” Before she made it to the bedroom, the phone rang. “Hello. Yes. Darrell! Yes, honey.” Then to me, “This is Darrell. This is my son, Darrell. This is the first I’ve talked to him since…” Turning back to the phone, “Yes, it’s wonderful. I’m so happy.” Sorry lady. Terry cloth wrap or not it’s picture time. As compelling and dramatic as stories like this are, they are visually slim. They are best told by the wordsmiths with quotes from those involved and as a photographer, you hope to get photos of the people being quoted so the reader can put a face with quotes. When mom talks to her son for the first time since his death sentence was officially commuted, that’s worth a shot. Sometimes it pays to be early. The phone conversation ended and Lexie was euphoric having talked with her son who literally had a new lease on life. The reporter from the New York Times arrived and she began her interview and I took some more photos. It wasn’t long, however, before the mood turned as chilly as the cold drizzle outside. My pre-interview warmup rapport I had established was gone. The little lady I was sure would have brought cookies to my door if I was having a bad day had transformed into the ice queen. In the years since the trial, Lexie Mease had come to terms with the fact that her son had murdered three people. What she had not come to terms with or had just denied it to herself was that it was drug related. When the Times reporter brought it up, Lexie denied it was drugs at the root of the crime. When pressed on the issue, Lexie terminated the interview and invited us to leave. In the meantime, the Associated Press reporter arrived and was waiting outside for his one on one time. He had the awkward task of pleading my case to allow me to stay for photos for him since I wasn’t really with the Times anymore now that the interview was over and that I was with him now and that I was really a good guy. Lexie warmed back up, a little, and I got my photos. Next, I had to make a short drive to Forsyth, Missouri to get a photo of the former Taney County prosecutor who put Darrell Mease on death row. James K. Justus was now Associate Circuit Judge James K. Justus and he did not share Lexie Mease’s joy at having her son’s life spared. Justus greeted me in his office and invited me to sit down at a table. I did so and then with all the restrained anger of a husband who had just found out his wife had cheated on him and had the photos to prove it and wanted to show them in hopes of gaining an ally, he slapped down three crime scene photos one by one in front of me. They were gruesome. Two of the photos showed the bodies of a man and a woman with their heads blown into many pieces spread over several square yards of green grass like smashed watermelons. The third photo showed the body of the 19-year old paraplegic grandson with his legs still tied to the sides of the four-wheeled ATV so he could stay on. It showed his body thrown backward and severe head trauma. I looked at the photos for a time making a concerted effort not to recoil or show any emotion and then looked up at Justus. He said, “Why…why should a person who did this NOT pay with his life? What do you think? Do you have an opinion?” I looked back down at the photos and thought for a moment. Why should he not pay with his life? This is awful. If there were any “innocent victims” of this crime, surely it was the 19-year old or maybe his grandmother. They were obviously killed to make sure there were no witnesses. Then I began thinking about Mease’s own son. He’s a victim. He’s alive. He’s not been shot in the head but still he is a victim of this crime. This will affect him for the rest of his life; but how? That could depend on his father being allowed to live (not go free) or if we, the citizens of Missouri, decide to make Darrell Mease pay with his life. Would that de-victimize anybody or help ease someone’s pain in some sick fashion? Or, will it just create more victims in ways that are not as obvious and may not become clear for many years. I looked back up at Justus and responded, “I’m not really here…to give an opinion. I’m here to take photographs.” He said, “OK. Then let’s do what you’re here to do. Where do you want me?”

John S. Stewart

Link to the Associated Press Story:

Link to the New York Times Story:

Link to an NPR  audio interview with Michael Cuneo, author of “Almost Midnight”, a book that  profiles Darrell Mease, the circumstances that lead up to the killings and the Pope’s involvement.

“Wasteland” in the Ozarks

"Wasteland" in the Ozarks, PHOTO STORIES, THE OZARKS

The 2010 Oscar nominated documentary film, “Wasteland” profiles a few of the estimated 250,000 people in Brazil who make their living reusing and recycling the trash the rest of the population generates.

The Ozarks has its own 1976 version of “Wasteland”.

I lay in bed listening to the nearby early summer nighttime chirping of crickets and tree frogs. The more distant sounds of highway traffic and dogs barking completed the nocturnal ambient noise drifting through the open windows of my new non air conditioned abode in Salem, Missouri.
So much for nostalgic sensory memories.

Humans and animals pick through pick through garbage at an open burn waste dump in the rural Ozarks-1976.

An old woman and a dog look for something usable or edible in an open burn waste dump in the rural Ozarks in 1976. (Copyright John S. Stewart/

What really got my attention this night was the smell drifting through the window screens; a burning smell. This smell wasn’t the sweet smell of wood smoke on autumn days but the acrid smell of stuff burning that will burn but wasn’t made with the intention to burn it. Things like household products and the stuff we need or think we need to live each day.

The next afternoon on my way home from work, I made it a mission to follow my nose to the source of the offending odors. I found it at the end of a gravel road across the highway from where I lived.

At the end of the road the terrain dropped off to a sloping hillside until it reached flat ground again 30 or 40 feet below. At the top of the hill garbage trucks, pickup trucks and even cars would back up and empty their contents down the side of the hill.

An Ozarks' Version of "Wasteland"

Two boys pick through refuse at an open burn waste dump in the Ozarks-1976. (Copyright John S. Stewart/

Within a few minutes, three or four or a half-dozen people would gather around the fresh drop and begin picking through it. Men, women, children and the old all made up the group of people who gathered daily to find something they needed or could use that others didn’t need or couldn’t use.

I photographed some of the pickers and approached a few but found none anxious to talk. Most turned and walked away when they saw my camera. Whether the shame of such pursuit is self-imposed or handed down from society, it is there regardless.

An attendant told me most of the pickers came late in the afternoon when most of the trash was dumped. Then in the early evening he would set fire to what would burn reducing the volume on the hillside.

The resulting piece was offered to the editor as a photo page with little copy since I wasn’t able to really talk to the subjects. If I remember correctly, I likened the experience to walking into Dante’s Inferno and presented it as a window the people of the town could look through and see a part of their town most of them had never seen.

I’m not sure if it was really appreciated but I had found the source of my sleepless nights; the nocturnal smells drifting past my open bedroom window and now visions of people picking through garbage.

  John S. Stewart

A Biker’s Funeral


“Well, you sure have some pretty rough, scruffy lookin’ friends”, the office secretary shot across her desk as I came through the door of the small Missouri town newspaper where I worked in 1978.

Booger Red's friends escort him to his final resting place.

Friends of “Booger Red” line up for the funeral procession that will take him to his final resting place. “Hagen” is at right in the German helmet. (Photo copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

Twenty minutes earlier, the office was full of a dozen or so leather jacketed tattooed (tattoos weren’t so mainstream then) motorcycle gang members wanting to see me. Their friend and fellow gang member, “Booger Red” had been ‘murdered’ and now they were going to bury him with a proper biker’s funeral.

Some weeks earlier I had taken a photo of a local teenaged boy being airlifted to a Shriners’ Burn Hospital after he ignited himself  with gasoline while filling up his motorcycle. His father, “Hagen” was the gang’s leader and wanted me to photograph their friend’s funeral. I was to go to his house where the gang had gathered and we would talk about it. O…K….sure why not?

Motorcycle gang member "Booger Red" at the funeral home the night before the biker's funeral.

Motorcycle gang member “Booger Red” at the funeral home the night before his biker funeral. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

Booger Red got his name from his flaming red hair and by his friends’ own description, he was a “booger”…mean. He was killed by a single gunshot to his chest through a screen door after he threatened the person inside with an ax during a drug deal gone bad. I was not going to argue with his friends whether he was “murdered” or killed in self-defense.

I arrived at Hagen’s house and was greeted in a quiet way like anyone arriving at a wake. The group, dressed in leathers accented with chains and images of skulls and fire was somber.

Years later while visiting an Amish household I would remember the

Mounted on their hogs, friends of Booger Red line up outside the funeral home.

Mounted on their hogs, friends of Booger Red line up outside the funeral home. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

similarities in the two experiences. None of the men, except the leader, would talk to me. When I made eye contact with the female members of the group, they would look away.

Hagen and I sat a table and he thanked me for coming and then outlined the next day’s funeral activities. There would be a traditional funeral at the local funeral home for “Booger’s” immediate family. Yes, Booger actually had a mother and siblings. After that, it was the gang’s show. There would be a motorcycle escort the fifteen miles to the grave site out in the country and graveside services.

Hagen went on to explain that after that at most biker funerals,  everyone stands around and drinks beer and puts their empties into the casket. Charming. That would not happen for Booger Red. The celebration would wait until that evening when there would be dancing and drinking ON his grave. There would also be a couple of vans parked there with a girl in each …there for the taking. Thanks but no thanks.

At this point a whirl wind of journalist ethics, morals and questions began spinning in my head. Do I even continue pursuing this story? It was unusual to have been granted such access without a great deal of rapport but was my presence as a journalist guiding the behavior of the subjects?

The day of the funeral was cold, rainy with a little sleet and snow mixed in. The procession would be stopped several times as biker after biker

Mourners at fellow motorcycle gang member, Booger Red's funeral.

Mourners at fellow motorcycle gang member, Booger Red’s funeral. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

slid out on the slick pavement ending up on the ground in front of the hearse.

I didn’t go to the evening activities after the graveside services. Instead, I developed film, printed photos and worked on a full-page layout to present to the editor the next day. He went for it and it would run in that afternoon’s paper. Before the presses started to roll, one of the pressmen asked me, “How many extra copies do you want to run?” “Extras?” I replied. “That’s not my decision but I don’t think we’ll need any.” He assured me there would be a need and by six o’clock that evening he was pulling early run rejects (those first copies that come off the press before they have the ink adjusted correctly) out of the trash to put out in the now sold out boxes on the street.

The next morning the office secretary that had remarked about my rough-looking friends locked her eyes on me as I came in and said, “Do you know how many phone messages I have listened to this morning about your biker funeral story and I’m not even to the end of the tape?”

The break was about 50-50. Half  the readers loved it and half hated it

but everybody wanted to read about it. Some saw it as glorifying a seedy element of society and others were interested in getting a glimpse of a side they ordinarily would never see.

To me, that is why you do stories like this one.

John S. Stewart

MANHUNT…but without the Hollywood ending

MANHUNT...but without the Hollywood ending, PHOTO STORIES, THE OZARKS

At first glance the photos seem to depict a classic manhunt in the rural mid-20th century South (except in this case the Ozarks) where the racist white lawmen and their dogs hunt down a young African-American man, shoot him and then stand around smoking cigarettes patting themselves on the back.

This was not the case here. I know. I was there. This is where real words have to fill in the blanks of those 1000 word essays that photos are suppose to deliver.

Minutes after firing a single rifle shot that ended the flight of fugitive Willie Joe Taylor, the sharpshooter kneels at his side.

Minutes after firing a single rifle shot that ended the 3-day flight of fugitive Willie Joe Taylor, the sharpshooter kneels at his side. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

In October of 1977, Oklahoma fugitive Willie Joe Taylor  eluded capture after killing a Oklahoma Highway Patrolman and fleeing in a stolen car up I-44 into Missouri where he was captured by a Missouri Highway Patrolman in Pulaski County.

Following standard procedure, the patrolman removed Taylor’s shoes and was attempting to handcuff him when a struggle ensued. Taylor, an ex-marine, wrested the patrolman’s service revolver from him, put it to the patrolman’s head and pulled the trigger.

Only by the grace of God and a bullet that misfired did the patrolman escape unharmed.  But Taylor escaped on foot beginning a three-day manhunt through rugged Ozarks hills.

Sightings of  Taylor by residents of the hill country were many. Doors were locked and guns kept close by as lawmen pursued but always  just one step behind. A few close encounters reported that Taylor would “growl” and flee but not speak when confronted by residents checking outbuildings.

On the third day, I got word through an informed source that “today could be the day they get him.” The focus of the manhunt was now one county away in Camden County Missouri. I drove down the rural road where the command center was  located and found a string of 12-15 law enforcement vehicles from several county and state agencies parked beside the road. Amazingly, there were only two TV crews and one radio station there. I was the only still photographer.

Dogs track fugitive Willie Joe Taylor over the rugged Ozarks' terrain in south central Missouri.

Dogs track fugitive Willie Joe Taylor over the rugged Ozarks' terrain in south central Missouri. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

Events like this were a lot less formal in 1977 than they are today. Maps were spread out across the trunk of a patrol car and if you weren’t too intrusive you could listen in on the discussion. Today those conversations are locked inside a mobile command unit van and media updates are issued periodically.

On this day law enforcement officers even shared their hot coffee in Styrofoam cups to fend off the cold drizzle that made everyone all the more hopeful for a quick end to the manhunt. Within 30 minutes of my arrival that hope came in the form of several more vehicles loaded with police tracking dogs from Indiana that were training at a police K-9 school 70 miles away in Strafford, Missouri.

Until now one or maybe two privately owned “bloodhounds” had been used without  success. Their primary “day jobs” were  running raccoons up trees during those fabled Ozarks coon hunts and keeping their owners warm on cold winter nights. They were being asked to do something that was a little out of their league. Plus, the cold drizzle was making any scent left by Taylor that much harder to follow.

Within 30 minutes after the newly arrived Indiana dogs were let out of their cars, handlers briefed at the back of a squad car and then disappearing over a nearby ridge, we began hearing the rapid chorus of barks that seemed to say, “we’re on to him.”

No one spoke. We couldn’t see what was happening on the other side of the ridge other than what was conjured up in our minds. The sound of the dogs’ excitement moved across the vista in front of us as everyone’s head panned right to left.

And then, muffled by the damp terrain of the ridge, boom…boom, boom, boom, boom…………………….boom.

Still no one spoke. Coffee cups dropped to the ground and a rush to the cars followed. Lawmen and media drove a short distance up the road until we came to a drive with a closed gate where we left the cars to continue on foot. We ran past a house whose occupants stood watching wide-eyed and mouths hanging open as we scrambled over their barbed wire fence and continued up the hill.

A 3-day manhunt for fugitive Willie Joe Taylor ended with Taylor lying on the ground shot and his shooter kneeling beside him surrounded by a dozen or more lawmen.

A 3-day manhunt for fugitive Willie Joe Taylor ended with Taylor lying on the ground shot and his shooter kneeling beside him surrounded by a dozen or more lawmen. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

At the top of the hill I stopped to click off a few shots of what I saw in the field in front of  me. A dozen or more lawmen surrounded a figure lying on the ground with another figure kneeling beside him. We learned later the first shots we heard were gunshots fired into the air trying to get Taylor to stop after the dogs had flushed him out of the woods. The dogs were never let off their leads like you see in the movies. When he didn’t stop the last shot was fired by a young Missouri Water Patrol officer sharpshooter who took time to get into a sitting position on the ground to improve his aim. The single shot shattered Taylor’s femur dropping him to ground and rendering him unconscious.

The Missouri Water Patrol sharpshooter (center) kneels at a fugitive's side minutes after felling him with a single shot from across a field.

A Missouri Water Patrol sharpshooter (center) kneels at the fugitive's side minutes after felling him with a single shot in his leg. Taylor's torn socks are a testament to the three days he spent running shoeless in the Ozarks' woods. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

I ran up to the scene and dropped to my knees a few yards from Taylor’s feet. I remember seeing the scene in front of me but being so out of breath I worried I wouldn’t be able to hold the camera still enough to record it on film.

Taylor’s socks were in shreds from running without shoes for three days in the woods through two counties. Kneeling beside him was the Missouri Water Patrol officer who shot him. This was the non-Hollywood ending. He was obviously emotionally drained if not distraught. Other officers, older and

Lawmen catch a ride from the field where Willie Joe Taylor fell.

Lawmen catch a ride from the field where Willie Joe Taylor fell. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

more experienced, put their hands on his shoulder as if to comfort rather than congratulate. The atmosphere was somber as they waited for paramedics to arrive. Few if any of them had felt what he was feeling now.

Even though Taylor would survive, the emotional trauma the officer felt ran deep. No amount of  hunting squirrels and deer that honed his skills to be able to do what he had done could prepare him for shooting another human no matter what that human  had done. That’s the part you don’t get in the movies.

John S. Stewart