A Thanksgiving Jail Visit, An Innocent Man, And Digging for Evidence on 800 Acres

This rancher lived out in the country on 800 acres of land

Every Thanksgiving, I remember my husband (Shaun) visiting a rancher in jail where he'd been sitting since October on two charges of attempted murder (we later found evidence that proved his innocence). Shaun sat with the rancher, who wept as he'd never been away from his family on a holiday. 

I can't even imagine how that rancher felt sitting in jail all those months, facing a possible 48-year prison sentence if he were to be found guilty of attempted murder. A man who had never even had a speeding ticket in his entire life.  

That case was one of the most difficult, challenging and ultimately rewarding cases my husband and I ever worked as private investigators.  

Below is the story, which I also wrote about in How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths. We worked hard to solve this case, which for days I doubted we could ever solve. 

We Got the Call one Freezing Winter Morning...

From an attorney-client who specializes in high-profile criminal cases. A rancher was in jail on first-degree attempted murder charges. Two people claimed he'd shot at them, tried to kill them. He claimed the reverse -- they were threatening him, he thought his life was in danger, he fired warning shots -- four of 'em -- to scare them off his 800+-acre ranch.

No witnesses, except the two people who claimed they were victims. Oh, and a dog named Gus.

Could we, asked the attorney, find those four bullet slugs? The sheriff's office had done a cursory check for the slugs, didn't find them, had closed the case. The rancher, who'd never had so much as a speeding ticket, was now facing two counts of attempted first-degree murder (a mandatory/minimum sentence of 24 years each) and a $300,000 bail.

Could We Find 4 Bullet Slugs on 800 Acres of Ranch Land?

With metal detectors, possibly. Especially after we learned the sheriff's office hadn't attempted to use metal detectors -- in fact, they didn't even own one. We rented several metal detectors, did a quick study with a former crime scene analyst who educated us on how to use and calibrate the instruments (we wanted to check for slugs that were probably slightly below the surface, not buried deep into the earth).

Next, we visited a gun expert and discussed the type of gun the rancher had used, the bullets, and their calculated trajectory. With his help, we figured the bullets had traveled approximately a half-mile, and that the slugs were probably a half-inch to an inch below the sandy, dense soil of that region.

Then we headed to the ranch...that had buffalo...did I mention that I'm a city girl?

Setting Up the Crime Scene

The last thing we wanted to do was to inadvertently search the same area the other had already searched -- the work was going to be tedious and meticulous, and we need to handle the task as efficiently as possible. Therefore, after selecting a likely area (based on where the rancher had said he'd pointed his gun), a half-mile away from where the incident took place, we set up grids wherein each of us would be carefully working the ground with his/her metal detector. Then, hunched over, carefully moving our detectors over the surface of the earth, we inched our way through our respective areas.

Our metal detectors kept pinging! At first we were thrilled, excitedly yelling to each other, pointing at the spot the detector indicated! Then we'd search for the slug -- and find a rusted nail...next time, a rusted bed spring...next time, an antiquated hammer. Heading back home that first day, the rancher's mother (who was taking care of the household while he was in jail) informed us that part of the ranch had been, decades back, a junkyard dump.

Wonderful. We were going to get a lot of false positives before this search was over.

Did I Mention One of Us Is Afraid of Dogs?

Gus, a 135-pound Rottweiler, took a liking to the one afraid of dogs, yours truly

Gus, a 135-pound Rottweiler, took a liking to the one afraid of dogs, yours truly

That first day had another built-in challenge for one of us (me): a monster of a dog named Gus. The rancher's mother said she thought he was 135 pounds, give or take. I'd say give. Lots of give. He was the biggest, baddest-looking muscled hunk of Rottweiler I'd ever seen in my life. And of course, since I'm the one in this PI team who's afraid of dogs, Gus decided he liked me.

But after seeing that Gus's best pal out there on that vast, seemingly endless ranch, was a little barn cat...I realized his big and bad was dog-skin deep. Gus had the heart of Thumper the Rabbit. He also was the only witness to the incident...and he seemed intent on helping us -- staying nearby, sniffing the ground -- as we searched and searched, hour after hour, day after day.

Did I Ever Want to Give Up? Yes.

I'd be lying if I said no. There were times out there on the high plains with the brittle-cold winter winds pummeling us, burs working their way up through the soles of our shoes, our bodies aching from hours of being bent over...that I'd look out at hundreds of acres of barren land and think, "No way we're going to find those slugs. It'd be easier to find a needle in the barn haystack."

Then I'd think about that rancher sitting alone in the jail on Thanksgiving, the first time he'd been without his family on a holiday, for a crime I didn't believe he'd committed. Had to keep searching...

We Found the First Slug

The moment we found that first slug -- I'll never forget it. There it was, a half-inch below the soil, in the region we'd expected to find it. We whooped and hollered like a couple of down-on-their-luck miners who'd just struck gold! Which, when you think of it, we kinda were.

                                                                                                 First slug

                                                                                                 First slug

Then we found the second slug...

                                                                                               Second slug

                                                                                               Second slug

And then we found the third...and the fourth. Their placement proved the rancher had fired in self-defense.

On Christmas Eve, the D.A. reduced the charges, and the rancher was released on a reduced bail. He might have missed Thanksgiving with his family, but he was home for Christmas.

Gus was very happy about that.