Dispatches, September 1998
There's only one paved road into crested Butte, Colorado — Route 135, a meandering two-laner that winds up from Gunnison through wildflower meadows and jittery stands of aspen — and the locals have always liked it that way. A quiet mining town built tight against the Elk Mountains, it has long been a place where people with checkered pasts came to hide out, to hang low, to start over, no questions asked.
The prospect of starting over is apparently what lured Pennsylvanian Neil Murdoch up Route 135 in the winter of 1974. A bright, genial man of restless energy, Murdoch, who was then 34, would play a pivotal role in birthing the sport that's now the town religion: mountain biking. In the mid-70s he started attaching cannibalized parts to battered Schwinn frames and field-testing the results on the old cow paths braiding through the Elk Mountains. Before he knew it, he'd become one of the entrepreneurial forefathers of the fat-tire revolution by opening what is generally considered the second mountain-bike shop in the nation, Bicycles Etcetera. Then, in 1982, he started Crested Butte's annual Fat Tire Bike Week, which would ultimately become one of the country's largest mountain-bike festivals.
True, Murdoch was a bit of an eccentric — or at least that's the way people explained his odd and, in retrospect, inculpatory quirks. A man apparently without family or close romantic ties, he was nonetheless beloved. He gave his time to local charities, started a health-food store, led wide-eyed kids on field trips into the high country, and took passionate, eloquent stands in local political debates. After nearly a quarter-century of residence, Murdoch was part of the Crested Butte fabric, a high-profile character in a low-key town.
Then, in April of this year, a man in Pennsylvania filed a complaint, saying that as a result of a routine credit check, he had reason to believe that someone else was using his Social Security number. On April 29 a Social Security Administration inspector in Denver drove to Crested Butte, where he escorted Murdoch to the local police station and interviewed him. Murdoch was fingerprinted, photographed, and released. "There's been some sort of mistake," he said confidently. "You'll see."
When the inspector drove back to Denver and plugged the information into the computer, he turned up what law-enforcement officials call "a hit": Neil Murdoch wasn't really Neil Murdoch. He was one Richard Gordon Bannister, who'd been indicted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1973 for importing 23 pounds of cocaine with intent to distribute. At the time of his arrest, Bannister was living on a commune near Taos, and he'd secreted the contraband inside four statues hidden in the trunk of his car. After he was indicted, Bannister, who'd already served time in Pennsylvania on a 1966 drug charge, posted a $20,000 bail bond. Trial was set for early 1974. And then Bannister vanished, his case ending up in what is known as "the cold file."
Realizing that the file had suddenly warmed up, the inspector turned the case over to the U.S. Marshals Service in Denver on April 30. The next morning, agents arrived in Crested Butte with a warrant — but Murdoch was nowhere to be found. He'd packed a few belongings and bidden his roommate, Kathleen Mary, good-bye. "Here's my keys," he told her. "My name's not really Murdoch. You'll never see me again."
The marshals missed Murdoch by less than an hour. A friend later told investigators that she drove him to western Colorado and dropped him off at the Four Corners Monument. Murdoch got out of the car with nothing more than his trusty mountain bike and some clothes. "It was kind of poetic," says Deputy U.S. Marshal Ken Deal. "He told his friend to drive away so she couldn't see what direction he rode off in. And then he started pedaling." Murdoch has been on the lam ever since, a modern-day Butch Cassidy ghosting across the sandstone solitudes on a most unlikely escape vehicle.
Back in Crested Butte, folks were stunned by the revelation of Murdoch's identity, but they soon rallied around their venerable, knobby-tired fugitive. A legal defense fund was established, and the bagel shop started selling free murdoch bumper stickers for a $2 donation. The community held a big party in his honor that took on the bittersweet tone of a wake. The town theater gave him a "lifetime achievement award" for playing the role of "Murdoch" for 25 years. And this month, the Crested Butte-based Mountain Bike Hall of Fame will hold a Neil Murdoch roast during its annual induction ceremony at the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas. "Old friends will give speeches," says Hall of Fame codirector Don Cook, who used to ride with Murdoch back in the sport's Pleistocene period, "and then we'll have a moment of silence."
People in Crested Butte generally argue that the feds have far bigger fish to fry and that Neil Murdoch has already done his time by putting in 25 years of community service. "We understand that the law's the law," says former Crested Butte mayor Mickey Cooper, "but Neil Murdoch had a spotless record for a quarter-century. Yeah, he made some big mistakes. But this is one of those rare cases where a criminal has rehabilitated himself."
That's all well and good, say federal officials, but the man they're after is not Neil Murdoch. "Mr. Bannister owes the government some time," says Tom Bustamante, Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal in Albuquerque. "Twenty-three pounds is a lot of cocaine, and that warrant is not going away."
Meanwhile, federal marshals have been following up leads across the Southwest and Midwest in a search that, as of press time, has proved fruitless. Friends in Crested Butte insist they have no idea where Murdoch is, but speculation on his whereabouts remains the talk of Elk Avenue. "My guess is that he'll slip in somewhere else, maybe find the next Crested Butte, a place that's not overhyped and ruined by tourists," says Cook. "But I'm sure there isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't wish he could wake up and find out it was just a bad dream."