Long before “First Blood” was released in 1982, there was a real Rambo reigning terror in the foothills and mountain canyons of northwestern Wyoming 43 years earlier.
For over a week in March 1939, Earl Durand roamed the rugged countryside, eventually killing two law enforcement officers, two members of a posse sent out to capture him, and a hostage in a final gunfight that ended with Durand taking his own life.
Durand was described as a “mountain man.” A local kid, raised in Powell, Wyoming, Durand quit school after 8th grade and began working in the area.
By the time he was in his early 20s, he was 6-3, 250 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes, and as athletic as an NFL linebacker in 21st-century terms. His incredible strength was matched by stamina that allowed him to run miles without stopping.
An unsubstantiated legend has Durand covering 40 miles on foot one night.
Durand worked fighting forest fires in Oregon, on farms in the area feeding cattle and harvesting hay and grain, but he was a frontiersman at heart.
An avid outdoorsman, his love of hunting led to his eventual demise. Durand was an excellent shot with a rifle, and like the Rambo character, he was deadly accurate with a bow and arrow as well.
On March 13, 1939, Durand, and his friend Gus Knopp accompanied by two teenage boys who were skipping school poached four elk on the Shoshone River west of nearby Cody, Wyoming. It was the beginning of a gradual slide into crime that would ravage the quiet mountain countryside and leave six people, Durand included, dead of gunshots.
He was reported by a rancher who heard the shots and game wardens Boyd Bennion and Dwight King responded to the call.
They set up a roadblock of sorts at the Shoshone National Forest boundary and waited. Hours after sunset a single car drove up the gravel road. The wardens stood in the glare of the oncoming headlights in the middle of the road, trying to flag the car down. The car slowed a bit but didn’t stop. King jumped out of the way, but Bennion grabbed a mirror while jumping on the running boards. Knopp swerved trying to throw Bennion off, but the warden drew his revolver and shoved it into Knopp’s ribs, shouting, “Stop the car, or I’ll stop you.”
That did the trick. Knopp stopped the car. Durand grabbed his rifle before running out of the passenger side door and into the darkened wilderness.
The wardens had the evidence they needed in the car, 10 fore and hindquarters of elk filled the trunk and part of the back seat.
Knopp and the two boys were arraigned in Powell.
Durand wasn’t quite done with his crime spree. He killed two cows owned by local rancher Leonard Morris, taking a cut out of the flank of one. Morris joined game warden Tex Kennedy to search for Knopp. They found him in the Shoshone River Canyon just west of Cody, surprising him at his camp, then arresting, and restraining him before bringing him back to Powell.
Knopp was fined $100 and sentenced to two months in the Park County jail, the two juveniles were released. Durand also took a $100 fine, but his sentence was a bit longer at six months.
The elk were auctioned off on March 16, bringing $31.75.
Durand didn’t care for captivity. On his first evening in the county jail, he jumped Undersheriff Noah Riley as he brought him dinner. Durand walloped Riley in the head with a bottle of milk, knocking him down. Durand took Riley’s pistol, snagged a rifle from the small arsenal at the jail, then forced Riley to drive him to Durand’s parents’ home near Powell.
Word of mouth spread the news quickly, as did radio broadcasts of Durand’s escape as far away as Billings, Montana, broadcasts that went nationwide just a few days later.
Deputy Sheriff D.M. Baker, with Powell Town Marshal Chuck Lewis, acted on a tip that Durand had returned home to the family farm.
They confronted Durand, who shot and killed Baker, before wounding Lewis. Durand’s parents drove Lewis to the hospital in Powell, where he died later that night.
A double homicide, with jail escape and the original poaching charges, made Durand a national celebrity as news of his crime spree spread across the nation. A Chicago reporter gave him the nickname, “Tarzan of the Tetons.” The 1930s had been a decade of celebrated outlaws like Baby Face Nelson, who had ties to Lander, Wyoming just 150 miles to the south.
Durand fled to the mountains, a place he knew better than anyone else.
Retired game warden Tex Kennedy took charge of the effort to capture Durand. Sheriffs from neighboring counties brought their deputies to aid in the search. Kennedy set out at 3:30 a.m. in a spring blizzard with 50 men in a posse to begin the search.
Aircraft flew over the hills looking for Durand’s tracks in the newly fallen snow. Bloodhounds arrived from the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City, but neither man nor dog could find a trace of Durand.
He was hiding within a mile of his parent’s home on Bitter Creek while law enforcement searched the mountains dozens of miles away.
In an act more political than practical, Wyoming governor Nels Smith authorized the Montana National Guard to join the search with a howitzer, machine guns, and a mortar, none of them were needed.
Durand left his hideout on March 21, moving into the mountains behind the search party, where he was spotted on some high rocks.
His location was only accessible from below. As Arthur Argento of Meeteetse and Orville Linaberry, a seasonal rodeo cowboy from Cody approached, Durand warned them to stop. They kept coming. Two shots rang out and both men rolled down the slope dead.
In another scene reminiscent of Rambo, Durand slipped down the slope in the darkness, taking Linbaberry’s shoes and the laces from Argento’s boots. Durand followed a stream down the canyon, eluding the entire posse, then slipped into the brush.
Two days later the posse discovered Durand had escaped. He didn’t go far, hiding in a thicket near a gravel road waiting for a car to hijack.
Two days passed before a lone car approached. Durand had on a sheriff’s badge he had stolen earlier, sat on a boulder with his rifle, and asked for a ride. The four men obliged. When he asked to open the trunk to put in his sleeping bag, he pulled a revolver, identified himself, and ordered the driver to take him back to Powell.
In a quirk, he ordered the car driver to Deaver, about 15 miles away to pick up an order of 300 rounds of ammunition waiting for him at the train station. He paid $2.70 to have the car filled with gas at a Deaver filling station, then returned to his parent’s home where he said goodbye to them with finality in his voice.
Durand dropped the four men off about three miles from the nearest ranch, saying, “Come to my funeral boys,” as he drove away.
His funeral was imminent. He arrived in Powell, walked into the First National Bank with a lever-action 30-30 Winchester rifle, and took about $2500 from the teller drawers. Nine people were in the bank. For unknown reasons, Durand started to shoot up the place, not hitting any people, but shooting out windows, lights, and doors.
The gunfire brought armed citizens to the bank since all law enforcement was still in the mountains hunting him.
As he walked out the door he took three hostages with him, including bank president Bob Nelson, 21-year-old teller Johnny Gawtrop, and loan officer Maurice Knutson.
Pot shots came in every direction from the rapidly assembling crowd, a shot hit. Gawthrop lay mortally wounded on the sidewalk as the melee continued.
Another shot missed the bank entirely, hitting the wall at a nearby hotel just above the cage where a pet canary had been chirping in the lobby a few minutes before.
At a nearby Texaco station, Tipton Cox, a 17-year-old high school kid was skipping school when the shooting started. He hit the ground first, but then picked up a rifle, stood in the doorway of the station, and shot Durand as he walked out of the bank.
The shot wounded Durand severely. Durand crawled back into the bank. A single revolver shot rang out as Durand killed himself with a shot to the head.
Cox loaded Gawthrop into a car but he died as they pulled into the parking lot of the hospital.
Legend has it that Gawthrop told Knutson he had laid awake all night imagining that Durand would come into the bank that day.
The story of the wildest crime spree in Park County history came to a blood-spattered end on the floor of the bank, but the legend of Earl Durand is still told around campfires in the Big Horn Basin.