A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History
"On March 11, 2006, about thirty members of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians gathered near the site of a new development in Palmdale, one of the two cities in the Antelope Valley. Representing the Tataviam and Fernandeno tribes in the Antelope, Santa Clarita, and Victor valleys, they had come to rebury six of their Vanyume ancestors who had been unearthed two years earlier as land was being bulldozed to make way for the 5,000-home Anaverde community just off the Avenue S exit ramp. The six individuals—men, women, and a baby—were about 800 to 1,000 years old. They were found in separate graves, with a crumbling stone hearth nearby—perhaps a remnant of a burial ritual. One of the ancients, most likely a shaman, was buried with 1,500 shell beads. As late-winter snowflakes fell to the earth, some members of the gaily bedecked group placed offerings of tobacco, sage, and knives in the graves, gifts for the eternal journey, and there was traditional singing and drumming and the shaking of rattles. A backhoe covered the graves, and within a few weeks, a steamroller had finished the job. There was a new paved road over the old burial site, and the latest wave of suitors began to arrive in the Antelope Valley."
* * *
"Most cops have chosen their line of work because they are the kind of person who wants to make a difference. Some perhaps have chosen naïvely, with little understanding of the way it is on the streets, pursuing a dream of wanting to be a police officer or fire fighter when they grew up. Others come right from the streets, a life of petty or sometimes hard crime in fact, heading for a world of trouble. Someone turns them around and they become a cop because they know how to talk to people who are falling through the cracks, especially kids. (Or, in the old days, they were pressed into service by frightened citizens, who sometimes hired outlaws as sheriffs. As the noted cowboy scribe Frank Waters wrote, "With a tin star he stood the chance of also wearing a halo of righteousness; without it, a noose.") Then there are those who instinctively know that someone has to enforce the rules of society, and they feel hypocritical if they don't walk the walk of the American credo: "We are a nation of laws, not men." And yet others join up for the camaraderie, the pension plan, the good salary, or a combination of all of these things, and then some simply fall into the gig because it suits their temperament— they are service-oriented, they feel comfortable in a world of rules—and once inside the club, they know they have come home. As far back as his friends can remember, Steve Sorensen wasn't telling people about wanting to be a policeman when he grew up, but it was clear that he liked to help people."
* * *
In the shadows of the vanished community of Llano, Donald Kueck had pieced together his own desert utopia. Oh, it did not have groves of palm trees or alfalfa fields or waterfalls or even babbling brooks, and it was not pretty or particularly inviting. Nor was it set up for others to live there—but of course that wasn't the point. It was a utopia for one, a place where a man could be left alone and not have to submit to the fetters of the world, to get through the day and night in whatever way that might happen, to smoke pot or get high whenever he wanted to in the manner of his own choosing, to not get dressed in the morning or to get dressed for a while and then cast off the clothing if it suddenly caused an awareness and became constricting, to tinker and concoct and organize, to live like the animals and birds and trees had always lived, to dream uninterrupted. Yet there was a plan of sorts in the construction of Don's world—in fact he was very set in his ways (the German in him, he told friends)—and there were plans to make it better, and he had everything that a man could possibly need and, at one time, kept all of his possessions highly organized in boxes, compartments, and shelves, almost like a personal army barrack...
"The first thing that any desert outpost needs is water. At first, Don acquired some large blue drums in a trade or because they were just lying somewhere, and he cleaned and sterilized them. Then he strapped them on top of an old Lincoln, headed to a friend's house, filled them up, and brought them home. With a makeshift system of pulleys, he would crank and lower the drums into compartments he had dug in the sand. There the water would remain cool and free from dirt, and he piped it into a sink in his trailer with a homemade hand pump. He also rigged an outdoor shower and used it regularly, contrary to the perception that solitary desert dwellers are caked with dirt and haven't bathed in months or years. As the days passed in his new desert abode, he walked the land in every direction, studying its rhythms and ways, coming to know where there were outcroppings of certain plants or trees, which meant there was water nearby, depending on what kind of plants or trees they were, and discovering ancient seeps in the buttes to the east. He also watched which way the water flowed and where it went after the summer monsoons, and soon he was able to dowse the terrain."
Praise for Desert Reckoning
Winner, 2013 Spur Award for best western nonfiction, contemporary.
A Southwest Book of the Year.
— Pima County Library
“A must-read for the summer.“
— Rolling Stone
“An editors' pick for July.“
“Few writers capture the rhythm and brutality of the American Southwest quite like Deanne Stillman….[a] fascinating new book….Stillman writes with such clarity, insight, and exquisite detail, one feels the chap of the heat and inhospitality of the desert on each page. Simply put, this is crime reporting at its very best and by an author [who] is at the top of her game. Meticulously researched, beautifully written, *Desert Reckoning* is a true achievement and a modern masterpiece.“
— Larry Cox, King Features Syndicate
“[The Mojave Desert] now has its own poet laureate in Deanne Stillman….[Desert Reckoning] is the most powerful and important writing about the place and its denizens since Mary Austin's classic "The Land of Little Rain"…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….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.“
— Jon Shumaker, Tucson Weekly
“Stillman is a great writer, and one of the few who fully capture the sparse culture [of] our California deserts….She has enormous sympathy for everyone involved, and yet never lapses into sentimentality or melodrama. The text rocks along like a good novel.“
— Tom Lutz, Los Angeles Review of Books on KCRW
“One of the greatest gifts of this book is how Deanne Stillman is able to open our hearts to people we might otherwise judge or dismiss...One can't help but be filled with gratitude and awe toward Deanne Stillman — her clear eye, the depth of her research, her brave and compassionate imagination. She takes us on a journey as full of desolation and grandeur as the desert itself.“
— Gayle Brandeis, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Desert Reckoning* is a compelling literary work.“
— David Steinberg, Albuquerque Journal
“Desert Reckoning* is an evocative, richly textured narrative that places the reader squarely amid the ranchers, outlaw bikers, and dropouts who eke out an existence in the unforgiving heat and isolation of the Mojave Desert….Desert Reckoning is written in lovely lyrical prose. It renders beautifully the lives of the lost and marginalized souls who take refuge in the desert.“
— Joseph Barbato, Red Weather Review
“[C]ritically acclaimed writer Deanne Stillman weaves an eloquent elegy of strange and twisted characters….A talented writer of literary nonfiction, Stillman writes beautifully about the Mojave, and once again makes it a character in the story.“
— Colleen O'Connor, Denver Post
“This a real life desert noir written in prose as taut as Raymond Chandler….Stillman's book reads like a thriller.“
— Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch
“A page turner.“
— Kevin Roderick, LA Observed
“It's all too rare these days that a book keeps me awake at night, racing through its pages yet not wanting it to end—but that's what happened with Desert Reckoning.“
— Anneli Rufus, Psychology Today
“Stillman...is the voice writing about the Mojave Desert, a place where serenity and violence wrestle for domination unto eternity.“
— Nancy Rommelmann, The Oregonian
“Mysterious and terrifying.“
— Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Magazine
“Deanne Stillman does for the 'lonely heart' of the desert behind Los Angeles what Raymond Chandler did for the shabby glamour of the city's garden suburbs. You can hear dreams being broken in every sentence of Desert Reckoning. In Stillman's propulsive, often hallucinatory account, a brutal crime and its strange aftermath expose the terrors and beauties that still inhabit the empty places that lie at the end the city's freeways.“
— D. J. Waldie, author of Notes from Los Angeles: Where We Are Now
“Desert Reckoning is a major achievement. Fusing truth with the insight of a talented novelist's imagination, Deanne Stillman has created a masterpiece of empathy and understanding for those so often least afforded it. Nothing here is simply rendered. Stillman's vision of society's outcasts, the lost souls who take their final stand in the badlands of California's deserts, demonstrates a remarkable sense of humanity and compassion. I haven't read something this good, and so beautifully written, in a long, long time.“
— James Brown, author of The Los Angeles Diaries and This River
“Deanne Stillman is the Raymond Chandler of the New West, a hell of a writer who leaves no cacti unturned, no long-dried gulch unexamined, and no abandoned settlement left be in her latest gritty, implausible-yet-too-real story. The tale told in Desert Reckoning will quickly join the same vein of Western anti-hero epics such as Willie Boy and Tiburcio Vasquez. “
— Gustavo Arellano, author of Orange County and the syndicated column, ¡Ask a Mexican!
“Deanne Stillman's Desert Reckoning is a modern-day corrido, a protest ballad of lost lives and broken dreams set in the vast Mojave, one of California's most delicate and volatile regions, a too-often-forgotten landscape beyond the surf, the stars, and the palm trees. The rhythms, beats, and chords of Stillman's writing—brutal, haunting, and heartbreaking—bear witness to the lives of lonely hermits and desperate tweakers, outlaw bikers and tenacious cops, in prose that shimmers and aches so beautifully that it splits your soul and shakes loose your skin, leaving you speechless and yearning for more and more. With this book, Deanne Stillman proves once again why she is one of the most powerful chroniclers of the modern American West.“
— Alex Espinoza, author of Still Water Saints
“Deanne Stillman's meticulously researched book takes us behind the scenes of real police work and into the hearts and minds of two men. In her spellbinding account of the murder and the massive manhunt, she leaves no doubt as to the consequences of how we raise our children, particularly our sons.“
— Norm Stamper, Seattle Chief of Police (retired) and author of Breaking Rank
“Deanne Stillman's work is gritty and unflinching, yet filled with humanity.“
— Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Finding Casey and Solomon's Oak
“Stillman explores, with exquisite detail, the broken families and failed strivings of her two protagonists...In her gentle hands, Kueck and Sorenson emerge as tragic figures who traveled radically different paths, but found their lives and deaths in the desert. The details of the manhunt for Kueck are interspersed with Stillman's imaginings about his seven days on the run, with the desert sometimes becoming the main character. Was Kueck concealed in the hidden tunnels of the Mojave? How did he get water? Stillman skillfully excavates the vividly drawn landscape to reveal the desert's mystical spirit and history of human striving. Soon, Stillman speculates, the building of the High Desert Corridor, a highway scheduled for completion in 2020, will "drive the remaining castaways deeper into the desert... desperados displaced one more time." Through the lens of a gripping true crime story, this beautifully written, humane book preserves the history of a remarkable and very American place and its people.“
— Publishers Weekly
“Stillman does an admirable job building a full portrait of this beleaguered landscape by looking at individual characters, including Sorensen's aggrieved fellow officers and the eccentric ruffians who compose the hermit and punk subcultures, which Kueck and his son embodied. The result is lyrical and intense... A dynamic synthesis of Western saga, true-crime thriller and California-based transformation narrative.“
— Kirkus Reviews