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Community Activist Runs From Law Into Folk-Hero Status

National Perspective | JUSTICE

U.S. marshals nearly caught up with Neil Murdoch, wanted for 25 years on drug charge. His impact on town he fled has many hoping he remains free.

October 15, 1998|BARRY SIEGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been half a year since Neil Murdoch--with U.S. marshals belatedly in pursuit--pedaled off into the remote Four Corners region of the American Southwest. That the scraggly-haired 58-year-old remains a fugitive only fuels his status as a folk hero, at least among certain circles in Colorado. Virtually no one in Crested Butte, the mountain hamlet where Murdoch spent the past 25 years, will help authorities track him down. Instead they honor him with awards and parades.

Murdoch's story, after all, is one of redemption and transformation, mixed with a funky brand of eccentric '60s iconoclasm. His transgression--jumping bail in 1973 after being arrested for intent to distribute 26 pounds of cocaine--happened long ago, and he's since carved a much-appreciated niche for himself as a community activist passionate about everything from child care to the theater. "Murdoch did a lot for this community," declared Crested Butte's former mayor after the U.S. marshals came to town. "He's already paid for what he did in ways none of us could ever guess. If someone wants a manhunt, I won't help them."

Nonetheless, an active manhunt continues. Deprived of clues by the citizens of Crested Butte, Murdoch's pursuers instead look to him for help. "He left a history," explains Larry Homenick, chief deputy in the Denver office of the U.S. Marshals Service. "We start working through the life he left behind. To catch him, we try to re-create his life. We try to capture the essence of him."

Murdoch Fit In at 'Throwback Village'

When Murdoch arrived in Crested Butte in 1974, he took a job in a lapis mine five miles south of town and lived in a tent nearby, but this didn't attract much attention. Back then, Crested Butte, some 250 miles southwest of Denver, was a typical "throwback" village of about 800, full of dropouts and mavericks. A "little hippie town with a few leftover miners and no law, up at the end of a dirt road," is how one citizen described it to reporters. "Murdoch fit right in."

He moved from his tent to town that first winter, sharing a rental home with a roommate, and opened a bike shop in the back of the house. Soon he was tinkering with old Schwinn frames, putting fat knobby tires on them so they could be pedaled through Crested Butte's muddy roads. The notion caught on; customers started buying. In time thousands were riding a rocky 40-mile trail to Aspen in Murdoch's annual Fat-Tire Bike Week Festival. If he wasn't the "father of mountain biking," as some now claim, he was certainly a pioneer.

Other businesses followed--a health food store, stage props, designer diapers--Murdoch selling each as it grew and moving on. He bought a home; he registered to vote; he acquired a wide circle of friends. He became an outspoken activist at town meetings, often campaigning for the arts. He organized children's activities and helped out at a day-care center. He volunteered at the Crested Butte Mountain Theater, designing sets and props. One year he turned up at New Year's Eve parties wearing nothing but a diaper. He had chronic insomnia. He loved Chuck Berry, abhorred recycling, had no serious girlfriends. His bent for volunteering often left him short of cash. He was, as a result, always taking part-time jobs.

It was that last habit that led to his discovery. Applying for paying jobs at Mountain Earth Whole Foods and CB Printing last spring, he provided a Social Security number that belonged to a Pennsylvania man, who complained to authorities. On April 28, a Social Security agent showed up at Mountain Earth while Murdoch was working behind the counter.

There must have been some kind of mix-up, Murdoch told the agent. Given Murdoch's reputation in town, the agent could only agree. He took Murdoch's fingerprints and picture, but let him go, assuming they'd made a mistake.

Murdoch didn't wait for authorities to learn otherwise. Two days later, on the evening of April 30, he packed a bag and walked out of his house, leaving the front door unlocked, a computer monitor flickering. A woman friend drove him southwest through the Rockies to the Four Corners region where Colorado touches New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. In that rugged high desert surrounded by mountains, Murdoch pedaled off on his bike, pulling a small trailer. "Don't watch which way I go," he told his friend. "That way, you won't know, and you won't have to tell."

He Had Served Time on Drug Charge

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