Indian Joe and Why I’m Nuts
I was alone in a dirty little cabin somewhere in the middle of my home state. I was a college student and working for the middle-Missouri NBC affiliate. It was really dark. Everywhere. My camera batteries were on charge. I had one beer in me (all I would let myself drink in the town’s only bar and still drive the station’s embarassing mini-new-vans). The little bit of alcohol wasn’t doing the trick. I couldn’t sleep. It was–in part–because a crazed and homicidal mountain man was somewhere in the woods around me and–in part–because I was so excited to be the guy on the story.
Alis Ben Johns (AKA Indian Joe, Joe Johns) was the real-life equivalent of the feaky mountain men you see in Hollywood movies. His beards alone were enough to frighten small children. His mother (I found her in an assisted living facility out in the middle of nowhere–she invited me in and sat down for an interview) described her son as slow, but the type of man who could live in the woods for weeks at a time. He was the type of guy who could be three feet from you in the woods…and you would never know it. His mother wanted him to come home. “They’ll kill him,” she said.
He was wanted by about a half dozen different police jurisdictions. He killed out of jealousy. He killed for money. He killed three different people in three different far away cities and every new organization in Missouri wanted a piece of the story. CBS’s 48 Hours had a four-person crew in the middle of Benton County, Missouri.
The three weeks previous I had been all over middle-Missouri. I had been down the long dirt roads, in the gun shops where scared people were buying .45’s, in the home of one of Johns’ victims (the Sheriff thought that was as good a place as any to set up a command post), and into that Benton County bar that the Sheriff there had turned into media central. Every few hours the cameras would circle around the young man and he would update us. You can hear my voice in the “48 Hours” story, doing my best not to sound breathless as I asked “Regarding his movement…?”
It was the manhunt of manhunts. The authorities thought they had a pretty good idea where he was and they weren’t letting up. Unfortunately, after that one dark night in that dark cabin’s bed, I had to let up. I was a college student working for a low-budget station. Until that point, I had the freedom to roam Missouri looking for the killer and the people who knew him. But the run came to an end about two days too early. College students have classes to deal with.
I was actually in the TV station when the word came in. I was in a back room learning “how to become a reporter.” (I now know that if I wanted to be a real reporter, I never should’ve left Benton County). Someone walked in the door and looked directly at me. They knew I had lived and breathed Alis Ben Johns for about six weeks.
“They got him.”
I’m not sure how many bad words I said as I grabbed my stuff and ran out the door. I don’t know how many laws I broke as I flew toward Cole Camp Creek in that embarassing little mini-van. I only know that I was soon standing in an emergency room and may have been doing so illegally. The hospital had cordoned off the emergency room door, but not a back door that a maintenance man led me to. Once I was inside, the good Sheriff didn’t make me leave and fed me juicy tidbits. Water Patrol officers had shot Johns’ as he held his girlfriend at gunpoint. I was soon providing a phone report to my employer and my home town station KY3. It was a fine moment for me, but not as fine as if I had been there.
And that’s why I’m nuts.
It’s like a dog seeing the leash but not getting the walk. Or an alcoholic seeing sobriety at the bottom of a bottle. The culmination was cut short. Money shot interuptus.
I don’t think about Indian Joe very much anymore. When I do it both excites and depresses me.
It reminds me of the time when I wanted nothing more than to do my job.
That is both exciting…and depressing.
Related: Alis Ben Johns