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'MANHUNT'--HOW TRUE? : A CBS docudrama about the nation's most-wanted criminal is drawing fire for alleged inaccuracies.

October 26, 1986|JENNIFER LEONARD and DAVID JOHNSTON

When two Idaho game wardens caught Claude Dallas poaching in 1981, Dallas pulled a revolver from under his heavy coat, killed the lawmen, and fled into the wilds.

Now both widows of the game wardens say that a CBS docudrama about Dallas is going to murder the truth.

Nearly six years later, CBS will air "Manhunt for Claude Dallas" about the trapper who was convicted of the two killings but who later escaped from prison. Dallas, whose life as a mountain man has spawned a myth of the Old West in the 1980s, is now No. 1 on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. ("Manhunt" is scheduled to air Tuesday night at 9 p.m. on KCBS Channel 2).

The TV movie depicts the killings of Bill Pogue (played by Claude Akins) and Conley Elms (Ed O'Brien), the only game wardens in America ever slain in the line of duty. Sheriff Tim Nettleton of Idaho's Owyhee County, who led the investigation in the celebrated case, says that the net effect of what CBS is doing is to favor Dallas' contention that he shot in self-defense.

One of the widows, Dee Pogue, told Calendar that she regards the book on which the docudrama is based as fiction. The other widow, Sheri Elms, said almost everyone seems to forget that "this man is a cold-blooded murderer of two police officers."

"I don't think CBS cares about the truth or cares about whether the movie is factual," said Bill Pogue's brother, Eddie. "CBS just wants to make money."

An inquiry by Calendar shows that while the movie covers the broad outlines of the case, it also excludes crucial facts and alters others.

CBS re-creates the killings twice, but leaves out what the only witness--Dallas' friend Jim Stevens--says were last words of game warden Pogue that suggest he was shot without warning.

In both depictions, CBS dresses Dallas in clothing that suggests that the game wardens knew--or should have known--that he was armed. In fact, Dallas actually wore a heavy fireman's coat that concealed his .357 Magnum revolver. CBS also shows game warden Elms reaching into his open jacket for his readily accessible handgun when, in fact, Elms' gun was buried beneath a tight-fitting sweater covered by a zipped jacket.

"Manhunt's" producer-director Jerry London ("Shogun," "Hogan's Heroes"), Lance Evans, director of the Dramas Based on Fact Unit at CBS Program Practices, and Evans' subordinate, senior editor Tom Fortuna, told Calendar that they knew these facts but agreed to exclude or change them. They acknowledged that accurate dialogue and wardrobing would not have interfered with the drama of telling the story. All three characterized the exclusions and alterations as merely matters of "dramatic license" that don't materially affect the impression left with viewers.

But the impact on audiences of these exclusions and reversals of fact is powerful: According to London himself, an audience at an advance showing of the docudrama was split on whether Dallas murdered the two lawmen or shot in self defense.

The movie is based on the book "Outlaw: The True Story of Claude Dallas" (Morrow: $12.95; McGraw-Hill: $4.95 paperback), a compellingly written tale that recounts the romantic legends surrounding Dallas.

Since his trial, Claude Lafayette Dallas Jr., 36, has become a folk hero to some people. To some, he's the last true cowboy of the Old West, a man born 100 years too late whose only crime was standing up to the unreasonable demands of a couple of hard-nosed fin-feather-and-fur cops trying to enforce a trivial law against shooting deer and trapping bobcats out of season.

In a telephone interview from his home in Boulder, Colo., author Jeff Long said he's not troubled by the changes in the docudrama, explaining that they are the kind of liberties "I'd expect from a TV movie."

Long, producer London and CBS' Evans and Fortuna all said that the film, which opens under the rubric "based on a true story," is truthful. Labeling a TV movie as true can be worth as many as 10 additional audience share points, the CBS research department has found in the past, which creates powerful financial incentives for independent producers and the network to bill a story as true.

CBS' Evans said that his and Fortuna's research went beyond Long's book and that "we added a lot of information about (Dallas') past, his criminal activities as a poacher, his threats against law enforcement in the past, to fill out the context of the film."

But the acknowledged inaccuracies raise questions about CBS's standards for docudramas and to what extent viewers should believe what they see on the screen. Indeed, the art form itself has been criticized repeatedly as inherently distorting, but this film raises further questions of integrity because CBS acknowledges that it knew the facts about the shootings and yet didn't portray them accurately.

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