Death on a mountain

Soaked in paranoia, Rick Bracklow met death by taking two officers with him

HOUSE OF HORRORS Deputy James Dimmit and Sgt. John Kuhn, who spent much of Monday processing the contents of Rick Bracklow’s ramshackle cabin, said the violent scene inside was “the worst thing [we’ve] ever seen.”

HOUSE OF HORRORS Deputy James Dimmit and Sgt. John Kuhn, who spent much of Monday processing the contents of Rick Bracklow’s ramshackle cabin, said the violent scene inside was “the worst thing [we’ve] ever seen.”

Photo By Tom Angel

Brothers in arms: Randy Jennings was the last Butte County sheriff’s deputy killed on the job. It happened in 1997, while Jennings was responding to a domestic disturbance call in Oroville. The man who killed him then turned the gun on himself.

Just across the road from Rick Bracklow’s tiny rust-red Inskip cabin, there’s a hand-painted sign that warns: “Danger: Mountain Lion.” Otherwise, there’s little to notice about the town located north of Stirling City just before the Skyway turns into a dirt road. A handful of ramshackle houses loosely circles the tiny Inskip Inn ("Open only during summer,” the sign on the paint-peeling porch reads). A few deserted logging roads branch off the Skyway heading into the mountains, and a bullet-holed highway sign warns of heavy winter snow.

Inskip, year-round population two, is a peaceful place—perfect for those who want to get away from society. And it appears that’s exactly what Bracklow was doing when he rented his cabin four years ago—getting away from the society that he alternately feared and found fascinating.

By most accounts he lived in his rickety cabin relatively peacefully until the evening of July 26, when the alpine stillness that defines this tiny hamlet was replaced by the sounds of a violent gun battle that resulted in his death after he apparently ambushed and killed a Butte County sheriff’s deputy and lieutenant who had responded to a call for help there.

Investigators are still examining the crime scene, but what they now believe happened that night was this:

Deputy Bill Hunter, 26, and Lt. Larry Estes, 61, arrived in Inskip just before 6 p.m. in response to a call from Inskip Inn owner Bob Duffey (who was Bracklow’s landlord). Duffey said Bracklow had just broken into his home and stolen three pistols and ammunition. Forensic evidence at the scene, investigators said, indicates that the officers were probably invited into Bracklow’s cabin, and that Hunter entered first. Although Hunter had his gun drawn, he never had a chance to use it, as evidence shows that he was shot in the head and killed as he rounded the corner from the front door into the darkened kitchen.

“He was ambushed,” Sheriff Scott Mackenzie said.

The ensuing gun battle was brief but fierce, said Sgt. John Kuhn, with more than two-dozen rounds fired off between Estes and Bracklow. Estes was hit four times, Lt. Terry Korton said, and Bracklow was hit “several” times with bullets from Estes’ gun. There were reports that Bracklow didn’t die immediately and tried to bandage his wounds, but Mackenzie couldn’t confirm them.

Butte County sheriff’s Lt. Larry Estes who was killed along with Bracklow.

Photo By Sara Sipes

In the end, though, a massive law enforcement contingent that had surrounded the cabin after dispatch lost radio contact with Estes and Hunter found all three men “almost on top of each other” in the cabin’s tiny, disheveled kitchen out in the virtual middle of nowhere.

Bracklow seems to have died the kind of violent death he feared, although the end didn’t come from the Armageddon he expected. Bracklow, 46, posted hundreds of pages of long, paranoid rants on the Internet in the late 1990s. The postings ranged in topic from a critique of the American monetary system to dire warnings to prepare for the imminent apocalypse to rambling futuristic essays about war and disease. He was especially afraid of Y2K and sounded sure that the world would end by the year 2000. He posted several urgings to prepare for the disaster by stockpiling food, water, medicine and weapons. In fact, he prophesied that the disaster would start in November 1999.

“If we make it to mid-November, this is how the scene will most likely look,” he wrote. “Wall Street will have crashed. Stock prices will be at 10 percent of their current value. … Then the real power behind the political element will have been severely hamstrung.”

Bracklow, who calls himself a “mathematician and programmer in C++ Turbo” in many of his Internet diatribes, predicted that on or about New Year’s Day 2000, Washington and Moscow would aim their nuclear weapons at all the capital cities of the world: “And fire will rain down from heaven on 300 capital cities. Cities plagued with violence and corruption … Some will view the Holocaust as a mercy killing. God will view it from heaven as salvation for man. And for his people.”

Paul Bracklow, who lives in Paradise, said his son was “pretty surprised” when the year 2000 came and went peacefully.

“He talked about that a lot, I guess,” said Bracklow, who’s 82. “He was always afraid of those things and telling us to get ready. … I had to tell him sometimes, ‘Let’s not talk about this,’ and then he’d quiet down.”

Bracklow said his son was diagnosed with manic depression when he was in his mid 20s and that, as far as the senior Bracklow knew, his son was taking the medication he was prescribed for the condition. The younger Bracklow had never worked full time and lived on the disability checks he received from the state.

Rick Bracklow grew up in Canoga Park, his father said, and the family moved to Paradise 14 years ago when the elder Bracklow retired. Although there were reports that Rick Bracklow had served in Vietnam, his father said that was not true.

Deputy Bill Hunter also killed in the shootout.

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“He never had any military service,” Bracklow said. “He was home with us.”

About four years ago, Rick Bracklow moved out of the family home and into the tiny Inskip cabin. It was there, Paul Bracklow said, that his son started listening to the late-night Art Bell radio show, which often discusses conspiracy theories, survivalism and UFO sightings, and when he started getting interested in those topics.

“It was about then,” Bracklow said. “He just kind of went his own way.”

The cabin where Rick Bracklow died with Estes and Hunter shows distinct signs of a violent confrontation. The screen door is broken and ripped off its hinges. Bullet holes pepper the front and side of the house. Several windows are shattered. A peek inside shows a dark, messy house scattered with papers and knick-knacks. The kitchen is splattered with blood, and there’s blood pooled on the floor all around the refrigerator. Bracklow’s eyeglasses are still sitting on the kitchen counter, along with an opened can of corned beef hash with a fork sticking out of it.

There’s a streak of blood on the front door and on the porch, and several plastic trash barrels packed with empty beer cans and liquor bottles sitting on the side the house. Also readily visible is a camouflage Army net and a fatigue cap.

The deaths of Estes and Hunter have rocked Butte County—especially the sheriff’s deputies and officers who knew them well. At a press conference announcing the incident, Mackenzie openly cried, and several high-ranking officers teared up as he spoke. Mackenzie called the deaths “the most horrible thing ever to happen to this department.”

Law enforcement officers from as far away as San Diego and Medford, Ore., are expected at the officers’ memorial service today (Thursday, Aug. 2), and Gov. Gray Davis ordered that flags at that State Capitol be flown at half-staff in honor of Estes and Hunter until Aug. 3.

Hunter was married only last September and was halfway through training a police dog named Illo. He lived in Durham and graduated from the Butte College police academy. Mackenzie described him as a “quiet man, a Christian man who loved his job and was dedicated to his family and career.”

Estes was set to retire next year. He had worked for the Butte County Sheriff’s Department for upwards of 25 years and lived in Paradise with his wife, who’s an elementary school teacher. After rising to the second-in-command rank of assistant sheriff under former Sheriff Mick Gray’s administration, Estes was demoted to lieutenant when Mackenzie was elected last year under the new sheriff’s reorganization plan. Mackenzie called Estes “a hero” and said he was “one of the very best.”

Perry Reniff, Mackenzie’s opponent in the sheriff’s race who served as an assistant sheriff with Estes, said he was “a cop’s cop.”

“He didn’t have to be out there answering calls," Reniff said. "Whenever something like this happens, everyone says, "Oh, he was just a great guy.' But in this case, it’s true. He was a great guy and a good friend."