Darkness in the Desert

Deanne Stillman's look at a crime in the Mojave depicts aching heartbreak, haunting beauty

Welcome to the Mojave Desert, a land of outcasts, a crucible of nightmares and the incinerator of dreams. It now has its own poet laureate in Deanne Stillman.

Her latest book, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History, is the most powerful and important writing about the place and its denizens since Mary Austin's classic The Land of Little Rain. The book is an expansion of Stillman's Sept. 22, 2005, article in Rolling Stone called "The Great Mojave Manhunt," later reprinted in Best American Crime Writing 2006.

Austin and others such as John Van Dyke, Colin Fletcher and even Ed Abbey created an aesthetic vision of "the desert" as a place of stark magic and timeless wonder. Tucsonan Stillman, by contrast, is the beat reporter going after the story behind the scenery. The dark tale she returns with is one of aching heartbreak and haunting beauty. It is about the terror and beauty of the Great American Desert, and of the shadowy landscape of the human soul.

North of Los Angeles, the Antelope Valley is surrounded by mountains in the high Mojave Desert. The huge Edwards Air Force Base in the north will forever be associated with Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. The heart of California's Inland Empire, the Antelope Valley is filled with squatters and hermits and is, according to Stillman, "the most heavily armed region in the country."

Small communities dot the valley. Places like Lake Los Angeles host a bizarre cast of fighter pilots, ranchers, real-estate developers, winemakers, Hispanic farmworkers and blue-collar Hollywood types—and also "fuckups, violent felons, meth chefs, and paroled gang-bangers who live in government-subsidized housing." Cops can be hours away. A typical resident might be the Vietnam vet who lived in a mine shaft and whose best friend was a rattlesnake living in the shaft with him.

Nearby Llano was the site of a failed but fascinating socialist commune/utopian community in the early 20th century. It quickly became a ghost town, but with the spillover of Los Angeles, it was revived by folks who can't or don't want to be too near other people. A major thoroughfare through the area is locally referred to as Tweaker Highway, a nod to the local recreational-drug industry. The valley is the last remaining wide-open space in Los Angeles County.

On Saturday, Aug. 2, 2003, at the request of a neighbor, Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Steve Sorenson was checking on the eviction status of a squatter in Llano. No one knows why the deputy subsequently stopped at an adjacent property where a man named Donald Kueck, a troubled ex-con, lived in small ramshackle trailer.

As Sorenson approached the trailer, Kueck kicked open his door and pumped 14 .223 caliber rounds into the deputy. At least one round blasted through Sorenson's eyeball, blowing out the deputy's brain. Kueck tied the deputy's legs to the rear of a yellow Dodge Dart, then scooped up his brains with a bucket. He took a moment to call his daughter on a cell phone, apologizing for being a bad father and letting her know he wouldn't be over to see her that coming Monday. He drove off, dumping the body some distance away in the desert. Then he vanished.

The story of the intensive, weeklong manhunt that followed—the largest in modern California history—and the convergence of factors that brought these two men together is the connecting tissue of this book. What brought the handsome ex-surfer and ex-lifeguard deputy to this place? How did Kueck, by all accounts a brilliant man who read books, baked bread and shot off rockets in the desert, become a drug-addicted hermit, a paranoid loner who abandoned his family, including a son who eventually died with a needle in his arm?

This fiery-hot mosaic of the book sizzles from its opening pages. Its finely drawn characters and taut narrative emerge from the ancient deserts of our dreams and make real our fears.

Deanne Stillman is a literary shaman who has conjured a violent and potent vision of our disturbing life and times—a vision without judgment, but filled with empathy and wonder. This is not natural history, nor is it true crime. It is something entirely new that Stillman has created from deep within the sun-blasted heart of the American dream.

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