Former rodeo cowboy Johnny France had been sheriff of Madison County, Montana, for three years when Kari Swenson, a Bozeman resident training for the World Biathlon Championship, went missing near Big Sky Resort in July 1984. Her friends feared that Kari had been attacked by a grizzly bear, but the truth was far scarier: She’d been kidnapped at gunpoint by father-and-son survivalists Don and Dan Nichols. The pair had been living in the wilderness off and on for years and hoped to make Kari a “mountain woman” and Dan’s bride. But the plan went horribly wrong from the start, and after a deadly firefight with rescuers, the kidnappers vanished into the rugged terrain of the Spanish Peaks.
As Montana’s summer froze into brutal winter blizzards, SWAT teams, forest rangers, and antiterrorist units searched the backcountry but sighted the mountain men only once. Then came the call about a strange campfire on a slope above the Madison River. Sheriff France decided to go into the forest to face the fugitives—alone. The resulting showdown made him “perhaps the most famous Western sheriff since Wyatt Earp . . . a modern legend” (Chicago Tribune).
Incident at Big Sky is an “amazing . . . exciting retelling of a modern crime” that made headlines around the world (The New York Times Book Review). In a voice as distinctive and compelling as the Montana landscape, France takes readers on a high-stakes adventure so bizarre and unforgettable it could only be true.
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About the Author
Malcolm McConnell is the author or coauthor of many books, including the Edgar Award finalist Incident at Big Sky (1986) with Sheriff Johnny France and the #1 New York Times bestseller American General (2004) with General Tommy Franks.
Johnny France is a former sheriff of Madison County, Montana, and coauthor, with Malcolm McConnell, of the Edgar Award finalist Incident at Big Sky (1986), the true story of the kidnapping of world-class biathlete Kari Swenson and the pursuit and capture of her mountain men abductors. France was born in Wyoming and raised on a ranch outside of Norris, Montana. He was competing in rodeos by the time he was twelve years old and won the Montana Rodeo Association’s all around title in 1965 and bareback championship in 1966. France began his career in law enforcement as a night patrolman and was elected Madison County Sheriff in 1980. His daring showdown with Dan and Don Nichols made national headlines and led to television appearances and an invitation to attend the 1985 inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. France was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2012 and lives with Sue, his wife of fifty-six years, in Ennis, Montana, and Apache Junction, Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
Incident at Big Sky
By Sheriff Johnny France, Malcolm McConnell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Johnny France
All rights reserved.
Madison Range, Montana
July 15, 1984
The Madison County Courthouse is old by Montana standards. It has stood on a lean, treeless slope in Virginia City for over a century. The graceful red brick and white portico are topped by a fretted cupola, evocative, perhaps, of a more settled civilization thousands of miles to the east of the violent mountain frontier where the structure was built.
But to the citizens of the sprawling county, the courthouse represents more than a colorful landmark, dating from the Alder Gulch gold boom of the 1860s. The cathedral-like building is a tangible symbol that the rule of law firmly governs the affairs of men. Road agents and cattle thieves, vigilantes and ambushes in the muddy streets are flamboyant history.
In the spring and summer of 1985, the handsome courtroom on the building's second floor was the scene of two widely publicized criminal trials. A middle-aged man named Donald Boone Nichols and his twenty-year-old son, Dan, were charged with the most serious offenses in Montana's criminal code, kidnapping, armed assault, and deliberate homicide.
During the course of emotionally charged testimony, the witnesses, the surviving victim, and the participants in these crimes detailed the bizarre and tragic events of the previous summer.
In the words of the state's key witness, a striking young woman with auburn hair, the crime began on the hot afternoon of July 15, 1984.
Kari Swenson ran alone through the dry heat. Above her left shoulder rose the heavy angles of Lone Mountain. The dark tree line, giving way to stone and, above, vestigial snow. Ahead stood the massive Spanish Peaks. The dazzle of a glacial lake cut through the lodgepole pines. Then the trail rose into thick timber and the lake was gone. Sudden green shadow, cicadas, and aromatic pitch in the windless afternoon.
Coming up on one mile. The Forest Service trail dipped to join Jack Creek logging road. Kari's cleats pounded on hardened truck ruts. She skidded on bark trash and gravel and lengthened her stride for the level.
A mile and a half. The sun was a weight on her neck and arms. Her long braid slapped below her shoulders. The terry cloth headband kept the sweat from her eyes. To the left, Lower Ulerys Lake had disappeared in the jumble of blowdown lodgepoles. Her feet struck the ruts. The slope rose before her. Almost two miles. Camp robber jays squawked in the bright Montana sky. She shortened her stride, pumping with her elbows.
Sunday was a long day for the summer restaurant staff at Lone Mountain Ranch. Brunch lasted from ten till two, and set-up for dinner began at five. Some of the other waitresses napped in the afternoon. But today Kari ran through the dry mountain heat, up the logging roads of Jack Creek, away from the Jacuzzis and satellite dishes of the Big Sky resort and into the Pleistocene wilderness of the Spanish Peaks. As Kari often told her friends, she did not simply "go jogging" in her free time. This was a training run, six miles at altitude, a circuit of rugged trails around the two pothole lakes hidden in the steep forest. Six miles was almost exactly ten kilometers, her best distance.
Four months earlier, at the women's world championship biathlon at Chamonix, Kari had placed fifth overall in the ten-kilometer final. Her performance was the best ever for an American biathlete in postwar international competition. At age twenty-two, Kari had suddenly become America's strongest Olympic contender in the brutally demanding composite sport that combines Nordic trail skiing with rifle marksmanship.
Biathlon evolved out of Scandinavian army training and has been dominated since the war by the military "amateurs" of Eastern Europe. Before the war, the endurance and martial skills needed for the sport were considered by some Olympic officials impossible for a woman to master. Now Kari Swenson, a recent graduate of Montana State University in nearby Bozeman, ran through the heat of these isolated mountains toward the goal of a biathlon medal at the next winter Olympics.
Coming up on two miles. The trail cut to the right, along an alpine meadow bright with asters and columbines. Kari was now cut off from the Gallatin Valley below to the east. The Jack Creek drainage, as this canyon was called, divided the southern Madison Range from the Spanish Peaks wilderness area ahead to the north. When she had parked her car at the trailhead she could still distinguish the miniature log lodges of Big Sky. That was Resort Montana, an all-season recreational preserve for wealthy Easterners and the tanned Calvin Klein set some of the old ranchers called "Californicators." Down there, the meadows were cut with tractor mowers and gardeners tended even the quaking asps.
The dark mountains ahead did not offer gondola cars or chair lifts. In the Spanish Peaks, the trails were cut by elk and moose. Mule deer made ruts in the mud up there, not logging trucks or snowmobiles, and the ponds were designed by beavers, not landscape architects. At every trailhead entering the roadless wilderness, the Forest Service had posted signs instructing hikers how to avoid grizzly bear attack. The Madison Range was not a park; only the previous summer, a camper had been dragged from his tent up near Quake Lake and eaten by a grizzly.
That morning, Bob Schaap, the owner of Lone Mountain Ranch, had told Kari about the grizzly signs he'd seen while hiking on Jack Creek Road yesterday.
"I've never sighted a grizzly in the wild," Kari said. "I'd die to see one." And so she'd decided to "go training" up here today on the chance she might sight that grizzly bear.
Although she had spent the first nine years of her life in Philadelphia, Kari could be considered a native Montanan. Bob Swenson, her father, was a professor who had brought his family back to his home town of Bozeman to take over the chairmanship of the Montana State University Physics Department in the early seventies. There was an unwholesome urban environment back East, and he and Kari's mother, Jan, wanted their kids to experience the natural outdoor childhood they'd had in the West.
Kari had flourished in Montana. In May, she had received an honors degree in microbiology from MSU. Sometime in the next few years, she planned to start the grueling slog of veterinary school, but not before she trained to peak performance level and led the U.S. Biathlon Team to the next winter Olympics.
The meadow steepened, and the trail ahead climbed toward the timbered ridge that should mark the rim of Upper Ulerys Lake. She had never run this particular trail, but she wasn't afraid of getting lost. This was the edge of the wilderness, but the forest was, despite the grizzlies, a managed area.
With small adjustments in breathing and stride, she found the proper pace for the incline. Kari was a disciplined woman, self-directed and confident. From her parents, she had learned that a person could control a complicated life involving scholarship, athletics, and a vigorous attachment to the mountains. Her joint careers of scientist and athlete were right on schedule. If she continued to work hard and stayed healthy, there was very little that could stop her.
The trail grew steeper as she neared the ridgetop. Then the trees opened, and she saw the shimmering blue lake below her. Although Kari knew trout fishermen often hiked in here after the big cutthroats and browns, the lake looked untouched, primitive. The slope before her was so steep and jumbled with blow-downs that she couldn't be sure of the trail. But Kari saw the faint path, snaking down through the brush to the right, and she dug in her cleats for the descent.
Here in the thick brush, mosquitoes whined around her sweating face. There were swarms of deer flies. Her shoes hit gummy black turf as the trail reached the lake level. Animal tracks pocked the mud, and she slipped in the craters. To her left, the chill water gleamed in the sun. Then there was a movement in the dense lodgepoles across the lake. A man standing in the trees. Kari's feet pounded the mud, and she gazed down at the track before her, wary of twisting an ankle. Probably a fisherman, just another dedicated angler, willing to put up with the steep hike and the mosquitoes and flies to land a big one.
Kari was halfway around the small lake now. The trail was hardly wider than a deer path, and steep, following the sharp contour of the pothole lake shore. She splashed through a stream and puffed up a sharp rise. Here the pines were even thicker than up on the ridge. But ahead, to the left, the trail opened again, a clear route, cutting up the slope among the dense deadfalls to rejoin the ridge. That should be Jack Creek Trail, and if she followed it, her route would cross the logging road again, and she could head back to the trailhead where she'd parked her car.
Just before the end of the lake, the trail climbed another rise into dense timber, and Kari stared intently at the ground to avoid injury in the roots and stones.
Two men appeared, not ten feet away. The older man stood to the left, one foot on the trail. The younger man was half hidden in the trees to the right, five feet off the path. Her first reaction was surprise, then apprehension. These men were dirty; they did not look like fishermen from Big Sky. And they stood very still, watching her with flat dark eyes, expressionless, just staring at her body. Now she saw their green backpacks, propped against a tree at trailside.
Kari slowed, breaking stride. Two rifles leaned against the tree near the packs. July was a long time before any legal hunting season, and these two guys with their grungy beards and sooty clothes sure did not look like wardens from the Fish and Game. As she stumbled ahead, she realized that they both wore holstered pistols and thick-bladed hunting knives.
The older man's face was almost hidden beneath a matted gray beard and the brim of a greasy cowboy hat. But the intense blue eyes frightened her. ("Feral" was the word they used when a domestic animal went wild. That was the word for his eyes.) Even on first sight, she realized that he was not normal.
She slowed more when she saw the younger man was staring at her body, his lips grim. The Day-Glo Sasson jogging shorts billowed over her hips, but the old blue T-shirt was plastered sweaty tight across her chest. He bore a certain resemblance to the older man, but his beard was blond and thinner. His eyes were deep brown.
Kari was shaky and dry-mouthed. But she did not panic. These two men were definitely grungy, some kind of rough misfits, but they had not actually attacked her. She did not intend to give them the chance. She decided to run right past them, up the ridge and back to the Jack Creek logging road where there might be hikers.
Without a word, the older man stepped onto the trail, blocking her way. Kari stumbled to a stop, but still overcame the natural panic reaction rising inside her. Maybe, she thought, if I just ask directions, I can keep the conversation short, then turn around and leave.
"Hi," she began, keeping her tone normal. "Is this the trail to Jack Creek?"
"Yeah," the old man answered. He formed a quizzical smile. "This is the Jack Creek Trail all right."
"Thanks," Kari blurted out, then spun to dash back along her original route.
Before she could complete her turn, the older man seized both her wrists in a grip so tight she felt her bones might crack.
"Please let me go," she cried.
"No. We don't want to let you go." The old man's voice was amazingly calm, as if he were discussing the weather.
Kari struggled against his grip, twisting her weight right and left. "What do you want?" she demanded, anger overcoming her initial fear. "Why won't you let me go?"
"Well," he began, "we don't meet many beautiful women up in the mountains, and we just want to talk to you for a while ..." He shrugged. The boy remained silent, staring. "Just to carry on a conversation," the older man added.
Kari was not taken in for a moment. She understood exactly what they wanted from her. "Well," she said coldly, "I sure don't want to talk to you. Let me go."
Again she twisted. Again the old man held her tight. They were so close together that she was engulfed in his stale, smoky odor.
"All we want's some conversation," the old man said.
"I know what you want." Kari's outrage grew as her fear and frustration mounted.
"Well," the old man said, almost indignant himself now, "we're not going to rape you, if that's what you're worried about."
"I don't believe you," Kari said. "What do you really want me for?" The old man formed a lopsided smile beneath his beard. "Just for conversation ... like I said."
Kari had stopped struggling momentarily, but now she resumed. Once more, his grip defeated her. He did not appear to be exceptionally strong, but she realized his lean frame was deceptive.
"What's your name?" His voice seemed more relaxed now.
Kari was not about to give this creepy scarecrow her real name, and she was prepared to use the question to her advantage. "Sue," she muttered.
"You work down at Big Sky?"
"Yeah," Kari added. "I work in a kitchen."
He leaned closer to watch her eyes. "You married?"
Kari did not hesitate. "Yes, I'm married."
"So what's your husband's name?"
"Bill Soa," Kari answered, this odd name springing to her mind. Perhaps she might have thought that the name had a rugged working-class ring to it, evocative of a vengeful young husband.
"Where's your wedding ring?" he demanded, twisting her left hand open to examine the fingers.
"I ... don't wear a wedding ring," she said. "Working in the kitchen with those machines and all, a ring could get caught and rip your finger off."
The old man examined her hand more closely. "I don't believe you. It doesn't look like you've ever worn one." There was a cold, bullying dogmatism to his manner now, as if he were being rational and Kari herself was creating a problem.
"No," Kari said desperately, "I don't wear one, and my husband doesn't either because he works in the kitchen, too."
"You believe her?" The old man turned to the boy.
For the first time, the young man spoke. "She's lying. All women lie." His voice was flat, a bizarre copy of the old man's.
The boy moved closer now, and she could smell the same rancid, smoky odor as the old man's. But he didn't seem as calm about this whole nasty business as the older man. The boy was searching about to get a better view through the trees both back down the trail and up across the ridge. Clearly he was worried that a hiker or fisherman might stumble on them, out here in the open on the lake shore trail.
"Please let me go," Kari said, looking up again. "You don't want to get involved in something like this."
The old man did not answer.
She turned to directly address the boy for the first time. "You're young," she pleaded. "You don't want to get involved in this. It doesn't make sense."
Mosquitoes swarmed on her legs and arms now, but she was powerless to brush them off. For an uncertain moment, no one spoke. Finally, the old man asked: "Well, Danny, what do you think, shall we keep her?"
The boy nodded decisively. "Yeah. Let's keep her."
Kari thrashed out with her elbows and lurched backward, but the old man was not taken off guard. "All right," he shouted, "get the rope, and let's tie her up."
When she saw the boy extend a dirty white nylon cord, she screamed and dragged backward from the old man's grip.
His reaction was fast and shocking. Seizing both her wrists in one hand, he turned and clubbed her hard with his fist, striking her near the left temple. His blow knocked her to the ground, where she lay, stunned silent by pain and outrage. Never before had Kari been struck in anger. She came from a social world where people did not employ physical violence. But before she could protest, he was on top of her, his sweaty green sleeve across her throat as he gripped her in a painful necklock. Kari kept her wits. Instead of exposing her arms to the boy's extended rope, she thrust her hands beneath her to hide them. The old man dragged her head harder to the left. Twisting her mouth, she tried to find exposed flesh to bite, but he only cranked her head more sharply, and she bit into the side of her own cheek.
"You keep screaming like that," the old man shouted, "and we're gonna beat you up. You want a couple black eyes, a broken nose? Is that what you want?"
Wordlessly, Kari shook her head.
"Wouldn't matter to me at all that you're a woman," he went on in his bullying way. "I'll do it anyway ... no problem."
Kari stopped screaming.
"We want you to come up in the mountains with us for a couple of days," the old man said in an almost normal tone. "We just want you to come on up and try living with us."
Excerpted from Incident at Big Sky by Sheriff Johnny France, Malcolm McConnell. Copyright © 1986 Johnny France. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Part 1: A Place of Isolation
- 1: Madison Range, Montana
- 2: Ennis Lake Shore Lodge
- 3: Moonlight Basin
- 4: Ennis
- 5: Moonlight Basin
- Part 2: Manhunt
- 6: Madison County
- 7: Madison Range
- 8: Madison Range
- 9: Madison Range
- 10: Madison Range
- 11: Madison Range
- Part 3: Pursuit
- 12: Madison County
- 13: Big Sky and the Beartrap
- 14: The Beartrap
- 15: Madison Range
- Part 4: Barnstorm
- 16: The Beartrap
- 17: Gold Springs Ranch
- 18: Madison Valley
- Epilogue: The Madison Range, Montana
- Image Gallery
- About the Authors
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Enjoyed from cover to cover!
... if you were thinking this was more about the kidnapping itself, as I was, it will likely seem slow and dragging.
Johnny France deserves any and all praise as a hero. He may have been a small budget Sherriff, but he was a large Law Officer just the same. This account impresses with accuracy and telling. Robert Frost