Several articles have been written recently about Maine State Police troopers and their K9s. These dedicated officers and their trained police dogs are invaluable to the law enforcement profession and deserve far more credit than what they get.

I’ll relate one of the more hair-raising experiences I shared with Troopers Dennis Hayden and Dennis McLellan and their K9s, Skipper and Ben, when I joined them Aug. 1, 1981, for what became known as the “Moody Mountain Manhunt.”

This wasn’t my first experience tracking alongside Dennis Hayden and Skipper, but it was one of the more exciting episodes ever to be recorded in the diaries. It was the first time I’d accompanied Trooper McLellan and Ben on a tracking excursion.

The full accounting of this incident will be in parts as I scan through the diaries recalling the long hours and days tromping through the woods with my state police comrades and their K9s, searching for two escaped inmates in Searsmont.

The last week of July, my family was vacationing along the shores of Mousam Lake in York County, where I spent my childhood days. While there, I read a newspaper article describing the escape of two inmates from Bolduc State Prison in Warren.

Being far away from the prison on a much-needed vacation, it never crossed my mind that upon my return home I’d be involved searching for these escapees.

Thoughts of escaped inmates brought back a memory earlier in the year of chasing two other escaped inmates from the same facility. It involved a high-speed chase through the streets of Gardiner. It ended in a brief struggle and I ripped out my uniform britches in the process.

In this latest scenario, I presumed by the time I returned from vacation, these men would be back behind bars where they belonged. After all, one of them was a convicted murderer, and the other a well-known burglar. Surely, the Maine State Police would be hot on their trail due to the severity of their crimes.

Milton Wallace was convicted of sexually molesting and brutally murdering a 5-year-old Freeport boy in 1972. He was sentenced to life in prison but, strangely, he was eligible for release in 1983.

Arnold Nash, his companion, was serving a two-year sentence for burglary and he was eligible for early release in June 1982.

Both men simply walked away from the minimum security unit in Warren at approximately 2:45 p.m. July 15, 1981, while on a work detail.

I returned from vacation July 27, 1981, aware that these criminals were still on the loose. I never expected them to have remained in the area. In most incidents, escapees try as quickly as possible to put as much distance as possible between themselves and local authorities.

On the morning of Aug. 1,1981, before going on patrol, I read an article published in a national sporting magazine that detailed the brutal slaying a few months earlier of two Idaho Game Wardens — Conley Elms and Bill Pogue.

These two conservation officers went into the rugged back country of Idaho to apprehend a self-proclaimed mountain man and alleged poacher by the name of Claude Dallas Jr.

When confronted at his campsite, the alleged poacher ambushed the two lawmen – executing them without any sign of compassion for human life. He disposed of their bodies – he dumped one in a nearby river and hid the other in a coyote cave.

After being on the lam for 11 months, Mr. Dallas was eventually apprehended and tried for his brutal crimes. The court proceedings turned into a complete circus, to put it mildly.

Sadly, Mr. Dallas was portrayed as a hero by many folks. He was charged with first degree murder, only to be convicted by a jury of the lesser offenses of involuntary manslaughter and using a firearm in the commission of a crime. This case was a real travesty for the judicial system, to say the least.

It also was a sad time for law enforcement as it revealed a growing trend in the country of people who detested any form of authority.

I pondered the thoughts of my own life being sacrificed over the plight of a poacher who disagreed with society’s rules. Reading this article again emphasized the reality that being a law enforcement officer is indeed a dangerous profession. A police officer never knows from one minute to the next, what evil lurks in the minds of others.

I headed out on patrol that morning wondering what it must have been like for the two wardens during their final moments when they were slain execution-style, so far away from home and assistance.

Little did I realize it at the time, but by day’s end, I’d have visions of my own career coming to the same fatal demise, although under somewhat different circumstances.

On this hot August day, dispatch suddenly advised all units of a possible sighting of the two escapees on the Muzzy Ridge Road in Searsmont. A landowner reported observing them stealing vegetables from her garden.

Trooper Dennis Hayden with his K9 Skipper and myself were the first officers to arrive. The complainant described the two men who had filled a plastic milk crate with vegetables from her garden. From her detailed description, it sounded as if they were the missing inmates from the Bolduc Unit.

A small battalion of police officers, deputies and wardens quickly infiltrated the area and, in hopes of keeping the inmates contained, cordoned off the space between the Muzzy Ridge Road and the Moody Mountain Road.

Dennis was already winding up Skipper, preparing him to strike out on a nearby woods road adjacent to the garden, hot on the trail of where these men fled.

I was toting along behind the burly trooper and his K9, scanning the area with my shotgun in the ready position, should the need arise.

On a dead run, we had gone a short distance along the tote road when we came across the red milk crate in the ditch. It was obvious we were heading in the right direction, although the escapees had well over an hour head start.

Skipper was eagerly running ahead on his leash, sniffing and working, as we desperately attempted to keep up with him. The sweat poured off us as we continued through the wooded area, heading straight for the Moody Mountain Road.

We could hear a host of police officers chatting over the portable radio, as they came screaming into the region from every direction imaginable.

Each of them played a vital role of establishing a barrier, as best they could, of preventing the escapees from fleeing to a paved highway around the triangular area of woods where we believed they were hiding.

After a few hours of steady tracking and running, we arrived to where the Moody Mountain Road intersected with the old tote road we had been following.

The trail Skipper pursued had stayed away from the road and led us directly to an old grownup field. We were still on the mark, indicated by the matted down grass in front of us where these men appeared to have gone. They seemed to be maintaining close proximity to the woods, using it for shelter.

We were completely exhausted and Skipper lied down in the tall grass, panting and puffing from the extreme heat.

We all needed a break and we were joined in the grassy field by Maine State Police Commanders — Sgt. James Nolan, Capt. Rey Lamontagne, Col. Alan Weeks, and other Maine State Police officers, who sought whatever information we could provide.

Dennis wisely knew the limits of his dog, and he advised the officers that Skipper had done about all he could for this day. The heat had taken its toll on the exhausted dog. We weren’t much better!

Capt. Lamontagne stated, “Dennis McLellan is coming with his K9, Ben. Would you be willing to accompany him on the track from here, John? It’ll be a few minutes before he’s ready to go. If you’ve had enough running, I understand, and we can get someone else to replace you,” he politely inquired.

“I’ll be ready,” I offered, as I quickly swallowed the contents of a bottle of water, replenishing some of the sweat I’d lost while running through the pucker brush behind Trooper Hayden and Skipper.

More law enforcement officers continued arriving. It was an impressive sight; there were more police officers than I’d ever seen before, except for Trooper Tom Merry’s funeral a year prior in Fairfield.

And more officers were coming from all around the state.

The capture of these men was a top priority for the Maine State Police, at the direction of Gov. Brennan. Apparently, Gov. Brennan had been the Cumberland County District Attorney at the time Milton Wallace committed his heinous crime in 1972. It was a personal matter for the Chief Executive.

Warden Pilot Jim Welch was circling low in the department aircraft, attempting to spot the men from the air. If nothing else, hopefully he would keep them confined.

A command post was quickly established at the intersection of the Muzzy Ridge and Moody Mountain roads. Roadblocks were set up around the area. Officers searched every vehicle and warned folks living nearby of the developing situation.

It seemed impossible for these men to escape the barricade that surrounded them. As the afternoon progressed and the temperature got hotter, it was just a matter of time to locate where they were hiding.

Trooper McLellan finally arrived with his K9, Ben, who was on his leash, pumped up and ready to take over where Skipper had left off. In no time, we struck out across the field, heading for the dense woods ahead.

The plane circled above and as we disappeared into the woods we could hear the outside speakers blaring from the many police cruisers parked nearby.

A short distance from where we began Trooper McLellan stated, “We’re on to something here, John.”

Ben was quite excited. He seemed to be concentrating most of his efforts in a direction off toward our right. I held the shotgun in the ready position, not knowing what to expect as we started down a small grade along a narrow game trail which led us into even thicker brush.

We were concentrating our efforts in the direction where Ben seemed to be alerting, as we cautiously hiked down the narrow pathway.

Denny whispered, “We’re getting real close. Ben is real excited, so keep your eyes open.”

You could have cut the tension in the air with a dull knife.

Suddenly, directly in front of us, concealed behind a thick fir tree, a voice yelled, “Drop that *#$*$*# gun right now or I’ll shoot!”

We both froze in our tracks, searching for where these demands were being made. Ben was going ballistic, ready to attack, but he was being restrained by his handler’s leash.

I quickly raised the shotgun to my shoulder and aimed in the direction of the voice, but all I saw was the end of a rifle barrel poking out through the thick branches. And it was aimed directly at my head.

Again he screamed, “Drop your *$#* gun right now, or I’ll shoot. You’re covered from both directions!”

There was no way either of us was about to give up our weapons.

Unable to get a clear view of a target, we both jumped for cover in the nearby bushes and landed on our stomachs a few feet apart from each other.

Ben furiously lunged toward the tree where the assailant was concealed. There’s no question he wanted a piece of this guy – and he wanted it bad. I knew at any moment we were going to be shot and I wondered how bad it was going to hurt … or if we’d feel the pain.

The article I’d read earlier that morning about the murder of the two Idaho wardens quickly flashed through my mind. Was this an omen of what my day was going to end up becoming?

My heart pounded like never before. If only I could see a target and bring a conclusion to this bazaar predicament in which we suddenly found ourselves.

Stay tuned for the next saga of the Great Moody Mountain Manhunt.

John Ford Sr. is a retired game warden, Waldo County Sheriff and Chief Deputy. The wildlife artist and award-winning columnist lives in Brooks with his wife, Judy. He may be reached at jonnylaw@fairpoint.net.