MODESTO — Though safe and secure in the comfort of his Sonora home, Bob McColloch felt his heart pounding Tuesday as he watched TV coverage of the manhunt, shootout and tragedies 400 miles away in Southern California.
The chases, the gunfire, the havoc, the tension, the sadness
McColloch, 61, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, certainly understood what many of those officers were experiencing as they pursued an ex-cop so intent on killing.
McColloch left the CHP in 2008 after 33 years. In 2000, he was the resident meaning only patrolman for all of the Death Valley area. Living in Furnace Creek, his nearest comrade lived 65 miles away in Pahrump, Nev.; the next closest, 120 miles away in Lone Pine.
The middle of nowhere is somewhere by comparison.
Just before 6 a.m. on St. Patrick's Day that year, McColloch got a wake-up call from a dispatcher who told him that a high-speed pursuit involving the Nevada Highway Patrol had crossed the state line heading into Death Valley.
"I knew only that it was a pursuit," McColloch said. "I thought I'd never see 'em, or be the last one there."
Nor did he know the suspects already had fired at the officer in Nevada.
As McColloch began his patrol, a BMW sedan driven by a 20-year-old man came barreling down the road at high speed. The driver was accompanied by his father and father's girlfriend. Authorities later learned they were part of an anti-government extremist group in Alaska, and heavily armed.
McColloch saw them approach and turned his cruiser into a position to pursue.
As the BMW passed by at more than 100 mph, the driver extended his arm through the open window.
"He fired three shots boom! boom! boom! a pause, and then two more," McColloch said.
The first three didn't come close. The last two whizzed by on each side of his patrol car.
"I went from being asleep to being shot at in 11 minutes," he said. "To this day, I can still see the smoke coming out of the barrel. I ducked and hit the gas pedal."
He began pursuit, and they turned off onto a road leading to an old borax mine.
"They went around a blind turn," he said. "The road circles back to the highway, but they didn't know that. I thought they might be setting up to ambush me."
Instead of following, McColloch stopped his car and parked it across the road, blocking their escape. Armed with an AR-15 rifle, he called for backup and waited.
"At that point, I still didn't know they were militia," he said. Or that the BMW was loaded with high-powered rifles and more than 700 rounds of ammo, according to one report.
SWAT teams came from as far away as Yosemite, McColloch said. They were joined by helicopters already in the area to conduct drug surveillance. The choppers delivered rangers to various points in the area to prevent the suspects from making another run for it.
At least 600 tourists were at the campgrounds at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, and authorities had to make sure they didn't become hostages. What officials didn't know was that the BMW had broken down and wasn't going anywhere.
"The (National) Park Service got an airplane up, and (the suspects) were shooting at it," he said.
The suspects had holed up in a ravine, shooting at anything and everything.
"Hundreds and hundreds of rounds in our general direction," McColloch said.
And some of them were fired at a CHP helicopter, which they actually shot down. Amazingly, the crew escaped injury and was rescued by the other copter crews. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs provided night-vision gear, according to a report.
Around midnight, the suspects tried to creep away under the cover of darkness, unaware they were outnumbered 40-to-1, and by officers wearing night-vision gear.
They were taken into custody, ending the 18-hour ordeal without the bloodshed of this week's incident.
The 2000 chase drew surprisingly little media attention, in part because it happened in such a desolate area, but mainly because no one was killed or seriously wounded.
But there were some lasting impacts, McColloch said. The members of the downed CHP helicopter crew asked to be reassigned to other duties, he recalls. And he had trouble getting it out of his head for a while. Five bullets fired at you, no matter how errantly, will do that.
"I had to take some time off before I went back to work," he said.
The coverage of this past week's ordeal the ex-cop killed four people before apparently committing suicide reminded him of that St. Patrick's Day in the desert nearly 13 years ago, and generated a similar feeling.
"I felt my heart beating," McColloch said.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.