Armed and Dangerous: Manhunts and Cop Killers


By Susan D. Harris

September 20, 2014

Armed and Dangerous: Manhunts and Cop Killers

The hunt for the 31 year-old suspect who shot two Pennsylvania State Troopers earlier this month, ambushing them near their state police barracks, is eerily reminiscent of two other manhunts in the Northeast.

Most recent was the hunt for deranged cop killer Ralph “Bucky” Phillips in Western NY in 2006. Phillips was wanted for shooting three New York State Troopers, one of whom — Joseph Longobardo — died from his wounds.

Phillips was eventually caught by Pennsylvania State Troopers after a five-month manhunt. Reportedly familiar with the area, he successfully evaded capture as he maneuvered through dense woodlands.

Another manhunt, now seemingly forgotten, took place in 1954 in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

In the summer of 1954, my mother and father readied to take a weekend getaway a few months after the birth of their first child. Leaving their young son in his grandmother’s eager and capable hands, they set off for the mountains.

They kept abreast of the latest news, so they had heard about the manhunt in the Adirondack State Park; but they proceeded with their plans because, as my mother says, “the world was our oyster and we had the fearlessness of youth.”

After reaching the park, they stopped at a diner in Old Forge. They were running a little behind schedule to make it to Blue Mountain Lake later that night. They wanted to venture as deep into the mountains as they could before concluding with a visit to Lake Placid. At the diner, they overheard conversations about the manhunt for the “bushy-haired gunman.” They noticed posters around town displaying a sketch of a scary-looking man. They looked forward to finding isolation in the mountains, hoping to leave these strange stories behind.

Evening had turned into night as they drove along a lonely road with only their headlights to pierce the darkness. News reports of the “bushy-haired gunman” began to swirl in their minds, as the car radio brought them closer to reality. My mother broke the silence:  “If we so much as see one person along this road I think I will scream.” A short time passed and my father sighed “Oh no, I meant to get more gas back at that last town.” My mother let out a low groan. After a while they saw a dizzying array of flashing police lights in the distance. They found themselves in a roadblock in the middle of (what was then) the greatest manhunt in New York State history and one of the largest in the country. Surrounded by heavy woods on both sides, they felt uneasy even with the large police presence. After being questioned as to whether they had seen anything strange on their drive, they went on their way.

“Spooked” didn’t even begin to describe how they felt as they came into Blue Mountain Lake running on gas fumes in the middle of the night.

The next day, they pulled into a parking lot to look at a map. My father got out of the car to look around and quickly jumped back in after hearing a noise in the woods. Were they just on edge or was someone really there?

Not to be deterred, they finished their getaway despite massive police presence throughout the mountains.

After returning home, they followed the hunt for the bushy-haired gunman in the newspapers and radio.

Were they right to have been scared traveling those remote roads at night? Indeed they were.  Later they would learn that the gunman had traveled 300 miles on foot through the Adirondack Park; across Franklin, Hamilton, Fulton, Montgomery, and Schoharie Counties. The manhunt began in August, but the hotly pursued gunman did not leave the Adirondack Park until October.

Twenty-nine-year old James Call was a decorated Air Force major who had flown 18 combat missions over Korea. After losing his young wife to liver failure, he went AWOL from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. For reasons unknown, he headed to the Adirondacks, stealing from homes and camps all along the way. Burglaries skyrocketed in the Lake Placid area, and $100,000 in jewels were stolen from the Lake Placid Club.

Responding to reports of a squatter in a cabin, four Lake Placid Police officers surrounded the structure before rushing the door. They were, after all, looking for a thief not a murderer. Call was hidden in a shower stall in the basement, waiting. Officer Richard Pelkey was the first one to enter the basement. Call shot him twice in the abdomen with a Luger. He shot the next officer twice in the stomach, then used him as a human shield before shooting another officer twice in the chest. As the gunman retreated through the back door, the fourth officer held his fire, unable to get a clear shot. Call dropped the injured officer he held in front of him, and ran into the woods. Officer Pelkey died eight days later. The two other injured officers recovered.

Call’s disheveled appearance and wild hair earned him the notorious nickname.

He evaded capture for nearly 3 months. At one point, he emerged from the woods clean-shaven and joined a group of young boys playing softball in Tupper Lake. He played with them all morning, and they brought him lunch in the afternoon. One of the mothers became suspicious that a stranger was asking for food and called the police. After displaying a fake ID to the police who tracked him down, they reported the man “clean-shaven, neatly clothed, very cooperative, self-assured and amiable.” They warned him to be careful of the “bushy-haired gunman” before bidding him goodbye. Call disappeared into the woods again.

In November, Call was arrested on an unrelated charge in Reno, Nevada. An observant newspaper reporter who was present when Call was being booked at the police station noticed a newspaper clipping that had been taken from Call’s wallet. It was about the hunt for the “bushy-haired gunman” in New York. The reporter contacted Lake Placid police. The next day two Lake Placid officers arrived in Nevada. Call was identified as the New York gunman by fingerprints.

When brought back to New York, Call led officers through the places he had camped, explaining how he had used pepper to throw off the dogs. He also told chilling accounts of how he hid in the woods for hours near numerous roadblocks, watching both the officers and the cars they stopped.

Call was sentenced to 20 years in prison for first-degree murder. He served nearly 14 years.  After his release, he moved to Ohio and married a woman 25 years his junior. Four years later, after purchasing a Lotus Europa racing car, he hit a guard rail at 90 mph. The guard rail pierced the driver’s side door clear through the passenger door. Call had literally been impaled with a giant steel lance. Thus ended the tale of the Bushy-Haired Gunman.

Today we rightfully question whether America is becoming a “police state.” We see disturbing stories of SWAT raids, drones, and use of excessive force. At the same time, we see decent men and women who have chosen to live their lives as the only barrier between civilized society and anarchy. And we have seen them die — too many through the years — for making that choice.

One thing is certain — when we see men like Officer Pelkey or Pennsylvania State Trooper Cpl. Bryon Dickson II gunned down in cold blood, we are reminded that a barrier between evil and good must exist in order to protect the innocent in society. Regretfully, that barrier must be reinforced with the blood of each successive generation.

Today, as our world spins out of control, it is imperative that we maintain a checked and respected police force in order to stave off the unchecked lawlessness and depraved criminality that bangs at our door… or hides in our woods.

(Note: The 2004 book Tailspin: The Strange Case of Major Call proposes the theory that Major James Call was the killer of Marilyn Sheppard, wife of Dr. Sam Sheppard.)

Originally published in American Thinker:

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  • Glenn Fairman

    Loved this piece in AT. I like the way that you interweave the personal in your writing. Highly readable.

  • Alleged Comment

    People forget so fast as the crime goes by. Released after 14 years when he should of been executed and dead for 20 years?

    Even the guard rail had better common sense. You can tell by the name.