Thirty-nine years ago today, I drove south of Topeka on a manhunt. A murder suspect was on the loose. County Sheriffs and Highway Patrolmen combed an area near Scranton, where the subject was last seen, 25 miles south of Topeka.
Wanting to be there when law enforcement captured the suspect, I drove along gravel roads knowing one thing – I needed to keep moving. Nothing could have been worse than to have the man accused of killing his ex-wife pop up next to my car parked along some county road. Oh, how my fellow photographers would have slaughtered me if I made it back alive.
As futile as this might seem, the latest reports from law enforcement radio traffic kept me informed thanks to a lab man in the photo department. Reports began to focus on a new area where a farmer spotted the possible subject. Once again the call came, “Photo to 27,” my two-way radio number. This time the call came with a new urgency in his voice. The Shawnee Country Sheriff’s plane had just crashed in the same area.
The plane diverted from its planned flight path to help in the search at the request of local sheriffs. The DeHaviland Beaver, a veteran of the Vietnam war, piloted by Marc McKinley, carried prisoners bound for incarceration in Hutchinson and Larned. A witness later reported the plane, flying very low over the area, suddenly dipped its left wing and went down into a heavily wooded area.
I looked for the closest set of trees and took off. At a junction of two gravel roads, a Highway Patrolman roared past in front of me. I jumped behind him and followed in his cloud of dust. Sliding to a stop, he swung open his door and began to run into the woods. Surprisingly, he shouted to me, “C’mon!” I did not hesitate.
Our run became a slog through thick underbrush before we finally reached the plane. Another officer arrived ahead of us. A third patrolman soon joined us. The pilot sustained head and leg gashes. He complained of pain in his hip, later found to be broken. Another deputy on board, along with three prisoners, remained in the plane, all injured.
With no medical kits available, I dug into my camera bag and unwrapped my lens and gave the towels to the officers treating the pilot. One of the officers then removed the deputy along with prisoners, chained in the plane. Cuffing them to trees, the officer asked me not to publish any photographs of the prisoners. One prisoner was admitted to the hospital, but the others sustained only cuts and bruises, initially treated with my camera lens wraps.
Eventually, rescue crews arrived after cutting away undergrowth and trees needed to get the injured out to the road and into ambulances. As I relayed information back to the newspaper from my car, it suddenly struck me that no other news agency ever arrived at the scene. Driving back towards the main road, all the news trucks and their crews impatiently waited as law enforcement teams held them back. Trying to politely wave as I drove by my media friends, I knew they secretly cursed me. I could not help but smile.
Later in the lab, after the pictures were off to press, Delmar Schmidt, our beloved lab tech, asked me about the towels he saw in the photographs. Schmidt, as lovable a man as you could ever meet, tried to sternly make it clear lab towels were not for personal use. He wanted to know what I was going to do about replacing the bloody towels. Then he smiled. We laughed as he patted me on the back telling me at least they were used for a good cause. The next day I brought in replacement lab towels.
As for the murder suspect, I cannot remember his capture. At least, I think he was captured?