‘MIA in the War on Drugs': An Interview With One-Time Fugitive From the Law Todd Barnes

Todd BarnesTodd Barnes a.k.a “Mike West” was a fugitive for 15 years. I met him through Facebook when he commented on my essay Tracking the Coyote Totem He immediately struck me as a kindred spirit and we shared some stories of drifting around the Western United States. I decided I had to interview him and he graciously agreed.

So how did you end up being a fugitive?

I was arrested in 1992 for possession of a fairly large quantity of LSD. I was visiting a friend of mine in his dorm at a liberal arts university. He went downstairs and sold a bunch of sheets to the Task Force and got busted. They gave him the option of sacrificing 10 or so of his friends, and he took it. He brought them right upstairs to me.

They took me downtown to the Detectives Division and offered me the same deal. They told me the more money and property a person had, the more they could confiscate, the fewer people I would have to betray. They said we were looking at about ten people to set up, people whom I could choose as long as they met with their approval. They let me know that some people were off limits. I was disgusted. I couldn’t value the life of one person less than my own, let alone ten. So they had me transported to lockup.

I spent five days in a makeshift jail on the outskirts of town before they allowed me a public defender who finally read me my charges: Felony Possesion with Intent to Sell and a misdemeanor for some grass I had that was just under felony weight. Bail was set and the counterculture community rallied, ponied up the money, and I was sprung. My lawyer sent me to see the prosecutor, the prosecutor set up a meeting with the DTF goons. This all took months; months of fear and intimidation. Good friends were afraid of me and old friends couldn’t take the chance of having me around. Patrol cars followed me to the grocery and on dates. When we finally had our meeting, They told me they had found old out of town traffic warrants and if I didn’t comply with their agenda to destroy my friends, they would have me arrested on those warrants and held without bail until my trial. They further threatened to enhance my charges to something they called a Class X Felony: Possession within one thousand feet of a school. The sentence for that, including the grass, would add up to a 42 year minimum. What’s more, at that time, you couldn’t get good behavior on a drug charge. Rapists, killers, and other violent criminals have lighter sentences. They gave me a date by which time I needed to comply. The next morning I became MIA in the War on Drugs.

I’ve learned that since then, the courts have declared that a university is not a school, but an institute of higher learning and not subject to that line of prosecution.

When I first split I spent a few months in the forests of the Colorado Rockies and it was a struggle. I grew up in the country and knew what I thought was a lot about survival and sustenance in the wilderness, but it was a geocentric knowledge. I had a lot to learn about the pine forests and deserts and what they had to offer. For the next roughly ten years I hid in plain sight in tourist towns and cities. At ten years I decided I’d had enough and would turn myself in, but before I did I wanted to try and spend a whole year in the wild. I eventually stretched it to five. Turning yourself in is a hard thing to do.

What was it like living alone out in the desert those first few days and weeks?

That’s a great question because it hits me where I live right now. I kept journals and have been slowly working them into a narrative. I tend to jump around and haven’t been writing the essays in chronological order because I like to keep writing, even if I get stuck with a certain part of the overall tale. Right now I’m stuck on the first hours when my friend dropped me off in the mountains to begin what became the five year trip. I just sat there in contemplation for a couple of hours. It was pretty heavy.

There was so much going through my mind. My immediate actions of pitching camp, having water, shelter, and food were preplanned and not of immediate concern. What hit me was the immensity of it all, thoughts of the ten years I had spent on the run and what the next ten might bring. It was like the entirety of my past and all those who I had known were sitting there with me on my duffel and pack. I was thrilled and terrified all at once. I had to force fear and regret from my mind and just bend my will to the tasks at hand. It was certainly a head full.

The first leg of my journey spanned 117 days and took me from Strawberry to Heber, Arizona, a distance of about 60 or 70 miles. Maya (my dog) and I stuck mostly to the back trails during this time. The rough cinders of the forest roads were too tough on the pads of her paws.

Even when we did pass through the more populated lake areas we had little contact with others. We were illegally residing in the forest and on top of that there were the felony warrants out of to consider. Forest service cops are Feds. Feds are a lot scarier than local law enforcement. They’re smarter. It seemed best to avoid scrutiny.

At the end of the 117 day trip, I returned to town for a couple weeks to visit a friend and store the journals I had amassed. I was unprepared for what I found there. The months of silence seemed to have built up to a point where I craved human interaction. Back in the city, I caught myself waving at people I passed on the street, just like I would in the forest. This was an activity which drew a lot of looks-not all friendly. Most of all I was blown away by all the perceptual stimulation provided by the city. I was experiencing a form of Culture Shock, an anxiety level brought about by a total change in stimulus and perception. That which was once normal for me, suddenly became strange.

For me it was uncomfortable, even frightening. Part of me wanted to hide indoors, while another part needed to socialize. It was a strange sensation. I equated it with the way one must feel when released from prison or returning from war, and I had only been “out there” for three and a half months. I knew there were psychological elements of survival to consider, I just wasn’t aware how serious they could be in such a short time. When I returned to the forest I did so with a different plan.

I spent more time in campgrounds, where I could find human company and take more frequent side trips into nearby communities. These efforts paid off. Every few months I would visit friends in one town or another, and even though I experienced periods of adjustment, I was never again broadsided by the intense anxieties that accompanied my first return to civilization.

Had you had much experience in survival skills before that or did you learn as you went along?

(Chuckling), I thought I did! In addition to a lifetime of interest and avid reading and exploring, I spent weeks at the Burton Barr library in Phoenix studying and learning everything I could get my hands on concerning survival. It was all very fascinating, and some of it might have saved my ass here and there, but I certainly wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. There’s more to it than the big three of Water, Shelter, and Food. I was herded along, my planned route blocked by forest fires for the first three months and I was forced along by one in the first month. I was in a flood, raided several times by Tree Cops and thieves, and nearly froze a couple of times. Life itself was the best teacher. You figure out what you need to in dire situations sometimes. Sometimes you get lucky.

How did you get most of your calories? What did your main diet consist of?

Mostly protein. I ate lots or trout and some squirrel in the high country in the summers, and catfish and bass in the desert in the winter. I ate crawdads everywhere I went. I planned my travels to always be near water, it is the most important thing we need. Additionally all food gathers at the water. Fish, game, you name it. There are always greens. Occasionally I would meet people who would invite me to dinner at their camp. I’ve made some great lifelong friends out there. It’s hard to get carbs in the wild, and I would have vivid dreams of carb-loading at the Chinese buffet. Pasta and puddin’ don’t grow on trees.

How do you feel living alone on the desert away from people for the most part affected your state of mind? Did you find yourself developing new types of perception and intuition?

I’ve always been a very social person, but now I also really dig some serious alone time. There are benefits to being completely alone for decent stretches of time; “Know Thyself” and all that. It’s just as important though to temper the isolation with social interactions. In my time in the forest, I was able to hone that balance to where I was comfortable with or without company and cherished both states for the benefits they provided. I REALLY got to know myself. I thought the LSD was a good tool for understanding the self, It was nothing compared to a few months with just me and the mountain.

That’s awesome! I’ve never been a fugitive, but I have spent a lot of time in the woods during times I was dealing with different things in my life. I remember one canoe trip where I could just feel the layers of stress peeling off of me as I got into the flow of the natural rhythms around me. The first time I camped in an old growth forest, the quiet actually got to me a little bit. It started freaking me out actually. I remember hiking into town on a frivolous errand and bought a bunch of Slim Jims and energy drinks. Afterwards I felt like an idiot. The contrast of the beautiful natural surroundings and the garish labels on the “food” I bought really struck me. I think what it was that I had never been completely alone with my thoughts with nothing to distract me. I had never experienced that kind of quiet before. I had no way to hide from myself at that point. I can really relate to what you said.

What was the extent of your social contacts during this 15 year period?

After my second year in the forest, I became more social than I had been all of the previous years of exile. Being a fugitive in the city was a tremendously lonely life for me. I couldn’t afford to get close to many people, for fear they might solve the puzzles of my past. Also, the socioeconomic class I lived within made me a pariah to those who lived within the status quo. I was self-conscious as hell and didn’t really fit in anywhere. I was, by the nature of being a fugitive, a different type of creature than those around me and couldn’t ever really share myself. I always had to wear the mask. I dared not show my true face for fear of scrutiny. In the forest, those lines are blurred a bit. Nature is a great equalizer. I made friends with corporate big shots, cops, and folks from the religious right. There were types of people who wouldn’t have spoken to me in the city, but invited me to share their fires and celebrations and relate my adventures in the deserts and mountains. Being in exile can really bring you down. It was the first time since I had fled that I felt like I was as good as the next guy. It was as though the forest healed the damage I did to myself in all those years of hiding.

I used to look for work like I looked for apartments. No corporations. I’d tell the Mom or Pop owners that I had just moved from out of town and lost my documents. I’d tell them I was adopted and because the records were sealed, there were a lot of hoops to jump through to replace them. I’d give them a target date to comply with their requests, but by then, they would forget or just wouldn’t care. They’d have already falsified the I-9 forms and reported that they had seen my papers. If possible, I took jobs that paid under the table. There are a lot of restaurants that do that in the southwest. A couple of times employers asked me if I was wanted. I just laughed as if they were joking and tried not to look nervous. More than once I was asked what a guy like me was doing working jobs like that. I’d say, “Why? do you have something better for me?”.

Yeah, I like those kinds of jobs too. I like people that look at you shake your hand and hire you. Less and less of that. Everything is online now. So when the police questioned you, did you have a residence? How did you establish that? How extensive was your use of the alias? Did you have fake ID?

Yes, at that point I was staying with a friend. When I left the forest the plan was to turn myself in. I had a date in mind, but that date slipped by. I think I made it about three blocks, stopped at a bar for a few beers, then went home. Like I said. It was a hard thing to do to turn myself in.

I had several residences over the years preceding my return to the forest and eventual surrender. I had to stick to places where the landlords were people and not organizations. They’re less likely to check up on you. I also stuck to places where utilities were included. Accounts with them are easily traceable.

Did you survive when you were in civilization through any type of underground economy?

I spent a good chunk of ’93 painting bootleg pictures of Ninja Turtles and Disney characters on playhouses for a weird shop in Tucson that sold children’s items in front and was a head shop in back. They once paid me a couple of hundred dollars to drive a carload of stuffed animals down from a similar store they owned in Phoenix. I often wonder what might have been in those teddy bears and unicorns.

I also learned to cut and polish turquoise, and do some light silver work. The guy who taught me paid me in food boxes and grass and a shack to sleep in. Actually he didn’t teach anybody anything. He had a few artists in his compound and lived off of their sweat. We were definitely exploited, but in my case, anyway, it was a good deal. It kept me under the wire and surviving and I learned a valuable skill. We did southwestern tourist stuff. Sometimes it was hard to find work without proper papers. The stones kept me afloat between gigs. I kept pieces out on consignment, or sold them outright. In a pinch I could always trade a pair of turquoise earrings for a pack of smokes or a cheeseburger. There’s always a counterculture, and the counterculture digs barter. Everybody digs a great deal. I figured I had a leg up on all the hippies doing wire wrap and braiding hemp. That stuff raises flags in certain circles, and I couldn’t afford to raise any flags.

I’ve done similar things even though I wasn’t on the lam. I used to rent rooms for cash on places I found on Craigslist. I would pay ahead so they wouldn’t give me shit for not having a job. I think different times my footprint in the modern world was a bit ephemeral. What did you do to conceal your identity?

I just told people I was somebody else. It was a lot easier than I expected, In no time I was able to condition myself to hear my name and respond naturally. I still occasionally hear the name Robert or Mike in a crowded room and my head will turn. For some reason I found it more difficult to adjust to being myself again once I was free. A lot of people still call me Mike. I’m cool with that. I’ll always be that guy.

I started out using a made-up name and numbers. I landed a job managing a bar after about two years of running. A couple of years into that gig, the Social Security people sent me a letter saying my name and numbers didn’t match their records. They said I had ten days to come to their office and explain. That gave me enough time to get a paycheck and blow town. I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to go. I had a baby by this time. I picked up a hitchhiker the night before I left and he left his wallet in my car. I figured it was fate. His name was Mike West. Get it? My Quest. How could I pass that up? And there are a LOT of Mike West’s out there. His SS card and Birth Certificate were in the wallet. He was a few years older and a little shorter, but the eye and hair color were the same. I didn’t use his name for credit or bills, so I did him no harm. I just used it to get jobs. He told me he always worked off the books, so I probably paid more into his FICA than he did. That’s my gift to him for the use of his name. Several years later, I was garnished for his child support, but that was near my surrender target date. I didn’t want to start over again with a new name in a new town after a decade. I was getting tired. I hadn’t seen my daughter in years. I’d always planned to give it up after ten years, so I went to the forest with the plan of surrendering at the end of a year. I stretched that year to five. I had amassed quite a collection of documents for other ID’s, but I destroyed those files when I gave up on civilized life and hit the woods.

What is the closest you ever came to being caught?

I had several close calls. One time I was hitchhiking to a place called Fossil Springs by the General Crook trail and as I crossed the bridge just outside of Camp Verde, I was stopped by a Federal Marshall. I couldn’t produce any ID so he told me to unload my pack so he could make sure I didn’t have any drugs or weapons. I had some grass so I was taking my time emptying my pack. A truck came around the corner, tires screeching, and took out a traffic cone on the other side of the bridge. The G-man told me to wait right there, and took off after the guy.

As soon as he was around the corner I stuffed everything back in my pack and stuck out my thumb. An old seventies custom van with stars for side windows stopped and picked me up. There were two people in the van. The girl in the passenger seat asked me if I was going to the springs and baffled that she would guess, I said I was. She said “Yay!” It turns out the driver had picked her up hitchhiking as well and they were headed to “The Springs”.

I wasn’t even too concerned when they rolled right past my turn. They kept lighting joints and passing beers back to me and everybody seemed friendly and happy. We ended up on a terrible washed out mud and rock road with long drop-offs and we were sliding like crazy. There was one bend in the road that was nothing but thick, wet, red clay and when we hit it we went careening toward the cliff. I was sure these maniacs were going to get me killed. Eventually we dropped down into a deep valley to the Verde River. There was a Hot Spring just upstream. They had brought me to a different, better kind of spring. I stayed for a month and a half, and returned every year after that when the high country got too cold.

Could you share about the situation that led to you no longer being a fugitive?

I originally planned to turn myself in after ten years. That turned out to be a difficult thing to do. I kept putting it off. Then after five years in the forest I went back to the city and kept chickening out. Several times, I set out for the police station, only to turn around and go home. One morning, I was walking down the sidewalk a block from my house and saw a squad car pull up to my door. I knew they were there to talk to me about a few things, and thought about just walking on down the road, but the whole turning myself in issue had been rearing its head lately so I did. When I approached, the officer asked if I was Mike West. I said “Yeah, but not really”. and laid the whole story on him.

I had witnessed a lot of felony stops and fugitive raids in my years on the road, and always expected it to end with a billy club to the face or a boot in my ribs. This cop was great. He told me I seemed like a good person and not to worry, those charges were probably dropped a long time ago. He let me sit, unchained, in the shade while he called it in. He actually apologized when he told me he was going to have to take me in on the narcotics warrant. He gave me his cell phone when he put me in the holding cell and said he figured there were people I hadn’t talked to in a long time, and to give them a call.

After six days in jail, they let me out on bail to fight extradition. Even though I wanted to go back, you have to fight it to get bail. Otherwise you have to sit and wait for months sometimes. Big city jails are no place to kill time, if you have the choice. Bail was ridiculously cheap. I couldn’t believe they would even give bail to a fugitive,

I had to go to Fugitive Court every month and check in. After six months, the governor signs the papers and the state where you are wanted comes to get you. At the fifth month, the judge told me when I returned to have made arrangements to surrender back home. I called the court clerk where I was arrested, and she told me the charges had been dropped just a week earlier for lack of evidence. The acid was gone and the chemist who tested it wasn’t around to testify. I was free. I never saw it coming.

So what are some of your thoughts on wilderness in general and our disconnection from it as a society?

I think artificial environments are unhealthy across the board: physically, mentally, and emotionally. We don’t really experience life if we condition ourselves to exist wholly within a manufactured construct. One synonym of the word artificial is “unreal”. How can people expect to be content in an unreal setting? Like I said, in the wilderness you can feel the woes of civilization falling away and what you’re left with is yourself and reality. Now I don’t recommend people run out and live in the woods. Neither society nor the woods are prepared for that. There are many ways to appreciate and experience nature and reality.

What has been lost in our culture by the fact that most people never forage for food or live by their wits in the wilderness?

People are scared and they make mistakes out of fear. The guy who set me up was scared and acted out of fear. I lived like a hermit in one of the largest cities in the United States out of fear. If you think about it, this pattern repeats itself across the board. Greed is fear of not having enough. Violence often comes from a fear of not being in control. I didn’t just want to go live in the wild. I wanted to do it and show people that the best course of action is not to respond to your fears. A big fear is the fear of failure to thrive. People do all kinds of stupid things for fear they have to. They sacrifice themselves in a million tiny little poisonous ways because they’re scared. I spent a decade in fear, building a semblance of conformity for fear of being noticed and losing my freedom. Once I let that go, and learned to live in the ultimate reality of nature, I no longer had to be a fugitive. Life works out like that if you let it.

What are your opinion on hunting and fishing laws and laws against foraging in protected areas that prevent people from acquiring a significant amount of food from the outdoors?

The law of the land states that you have to pay the king if you want to take his fish or game, but I’ll be the first to admit I’ve done my share of poaching. If I’m hungry, I don’t give anybody the authority to tell me I can’t eat. That said, I think the laws are necessary to prevent the destruction and depletion of resources. People can be stupid and wasteful. Knowing you are breaking the law by fishing without a license or hunting out of season makes you more responsible.

I’ve been known to warn people on the river when DNR is prowling about. The same officer approached me three times at a local reservoir in a three day period demanding to see my identification and license. I caught two white bass while he was rifling through my possessions. The first was while he was telling me I was wasting my time because nobody was catching anything. I told him he must be good luck then, as they started biting when he showed up. He responded that most people were not so happy to see him. I told him that was probably due to his actions and demeanor when he approached, and that a smile and friendlier attitude could improve the response he received. Too many times law enforcement Officers use bureaucratic regulations as an excuse to harass and scrutinize people. The DNR guy knew I had a license the second time he visited me. He was either hoping to find something else, or didn’t like a longhair like me fishing his lake.

Public lands are for the public. That means you and I. It includes the poor and disenfranchised. Public lands aren’t just for the recreation of the one percent and they’re not just for capitalist exploitation. The wilderness is Reality. Nobody has the right to control my access to reality.

I was wondering about the fishing license? Had you recently obtained it, or was it through your alias?

I did get a fishing license my last year in the forest (and maintain one to this day). It was dangerous for me to be wanted and flaunting the law like that. It would suck to be free for so long and then go down for illegal fishing, and that’s the way people get busted: trifling details. Getting the permit was easy. I just went to Walmart and told them a traffic cop took my ID in a DUI bust and showed him some old mail to “prove” who I was. I was an avid collector of any kind of mail or document with “my” name on it. One of the close calls I had, the cops didn’t believe I was who I said and I produced an eight year old magazine with my alias on the shipping label and stack of old pay stubs. They never think you’ve been at it that long; that a person can get away without screwing up, so it must be real.

Could you share a little about the trip you are planning?

In the seven years since I’ve been free, I’ve revisited most of my old camps in Arizona. I even dug up the dry buckets I buried at Potato Lake when my pack was too heavy (They were none too dry). It seems a few days just isn’t enough. I’ve got Arizona in my blood and I need more. My daughter is grown now, and has kids of her own. The death of industry in this country has rendered the city I returned to a shell of its former self. Blight has crept in, and many of my former homes and haunts and people are gone. Homes sit vacant on every street. I love this place and I’ll dearly miss some old friends, but it’s no place for me.

There’s a longing in my heart for the deserts and mountains; the rivers and lakes and ruins of ancient civilizations where I used to roam. I’m going to go back and do it again, this time as a legal citizen with truck and store, upgraded gear, and this great “new” communications technology.

There are more places to see, more campers to meet, and more adventures to be had. There are too many places out there that I want to see to send much more time watching this town die. There’s no sense in just sitting around talking about it.

As much as I miss Arizona, I miss Mike West, that person I was for so many years. I lose track of him from time to time among the worries of “civilized” life. That’s just the way things are. I like to imagine he’s in the high country somewhere, smoking one of those left-handed cigarettes and watching the dying embers of a campfire. If he’s warm and dry he’s happy enough. The sun will shine, the springs will flow, and the fish are always biting somewhere. Like I used to tell people on the trail when they asked me how I was: “It’s hard to do any better”.

Todd Barnes has a blog of travel essays from his fugitive period titled The Fugitive Diaries. Check it out!

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  • echar

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Jason Lewis

    Great interview and great story. I’d like to see Mike West’s story on the big screen somehow. It would be much better and more inspiring than ‘Into the Wild’.

  • Craig Bickford

    I like the part at the end where he is talking about fear driving behavior. Our society (all societies for that matter) is setup and run by this very mechanic.

    • jnana

      almost everyone is afraid to do what this guy did and survive on their own. but is the alternative better? they seem to think so. but I decided a long time ago it isn’t and am not looking back.
      its either freedom or slavery. and some believe freedom means free from the dictates of nature. i’d say freedom means free from a delusional society’s dictates.

  • Juan

    Brilliant, Ted. Thanks for that:)

    • Ted Heistman

      I thought you’d like it!

  • Ted Heistman

    Awesome!

  • thisbliss

    This is amazing thanks for sharing. He would be a cool guy to hang out with while wild camping, very wise guy. I do my share of isolation experiences in the wild but never for more than a few days at a time. I always wondered what it would be like to just retreat from the organism of society for say a month or two. To just experience what happens to the chatter in your head. I would say it is tough but also possibly the most freeing experience you can have. Imagine how the habitual thought patterns in your mind, of work, social life etc basically maintaining your identity would gradually fade away. When your attention is not being taken up by these things your thoughts will be free to focus on the real of the natural world. A life at peace

    • jnana

      “a life of peace”
      not exactly. there may be many moments of peace. but much of your attention will be focused on survival until you are pretty well used to surviving or have found a niche that isn’t too much of a struggle. I would still call that peace, but many may not.

      • thisbliss

        Definitely, there will most certainly be moments of struggle and possibly extreme hardship but I think the essence/spirit/being would be at peace or harmony as opposed to a largely dissonant sense of being associated with societal living. Of course yeah it depends on the individual too, many would consider it hell to be alone in nature for so long. I love being alone in the wild but then I don’t even know how I would react with prolonged isolation. I think I just want to try it so I’ll have experienced both sides of the coin. Everything in moderation I’m guessing

  • InfvoCuernos

    I wish more people would do the math on turning rat. This guy approached it the right way-his life, or 10 of his friends’ lives. I’m glad he was able to turn this into positive experience.

    • Ted Heistman

      Yeah, its pretty bad. Especially the “off limits people” thing. I have heard that from other people before as well.

      • Todd Stuart Barnes

        This system insures that the biggest scumbags remain free. The police help them put more drugs on the streets, so it isn’t ACTUALLY about stopping drugs. It’s about the revenue and perpetuating the system. Somebody who will turn like that has a weak character, and is probably also more likely to sell dangerous drugs to children or commit other criminal acts. Certified Informants often get a pass when breaking the law.

        • InfvoCuernos

          I live in a world where informants are the biggest scum, and if someone finds out that a person is an informant, that informant is treated as a non-person. You can never trust a rat-even if you are squeaky clean, they can make up shit about you to save their own ass and ruin your life. The good thing about informants is they usually can’t keep their mouths shut about anything, so they’ll tell you they are informants. Cops have no respect for them either, as an informant can just as easily turn on them and reveal their criminal misconduct. There really is no payoff for being a rat.

      • InfvoCuernos

        Ya, that whole “approved suspect” thing was sketchy as hell but I don’t doubt it one bit.

        • Ted Heistman

          I heard that same thing from a cop. I had a next door neighbor who was a cop. He worked with the DEA once and traced a shipment of drugs off the dock, and he had to get way down the food chain before it was OK to arrest some body. The upper guys were “off limits” It made him sick, too.

    • thisbliss

      It is mad how a man was forced and driven to these lengths over a tiny quantity of substance while others profit over much more dangerous substances. But as you say it was the making of him, the path he had to take.

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