Until Monday, almost no one had seen Troy Knapp in nine years. The tattooed, red-haired drifter had more or less disappeared in 2004, after the latest in a string of prison stints, and the number of people who had laid their eyes on him—let alone spoken with him—could be counted on two hands.
Where was Knapp for that decade? Roaming across thousands of miles of southern Utah wilderness, surviving off the land—and off of the area's many weekend cabins, which he'd break into and steal supplies from, sometimes leaving mocking notes with swastikas doodled in the margin.
Knapp, 45, was arrested on Tuesday, the culmination of a seven-year manhunt, in a collaborative effort between several different law enforcement agencies. "He was severely outgunned at the time," Sanpete County Sheriff Brian Nielson told reporters. "He ran into a number of officers that were also well armed and he could see that he was out of his league."
That the final confrontation would be so peaceful was never a guarantee. In 2009, rangers found two camps Knapp had apparently abandoned in Iron County, stocked with an arsenal of 19 guns (and a copy of Into the Wild). He'd vaguely threatened his pursuers in notes he left in burglarized cabins: "Hey, sheriff, fuck you!" one read. "Gonna put you in the ground!"
Serendipitously, Jacob Baynham wrote a superb long piece about Knapp and the hunt for "the Ghost of the Mountain" for Men's Journal's May issue—completed, unfortunately, just before Knapp was captured:
For seven years, the lone outlaw who roamed the vast wilderness of southern Utah was more myth than man. He left clues of his existence but not much more. He was fast and fit, could cover 20 miles a day in rough terrain, and was savvy in the art of evasion, stepping on saplings to avoid leaving tracks. He snared squirrels with traps made from shoelaces in the summer and endured subzero temperatures in winter, traversing deep snow at elevations of more than 10,000 feet. He had survived some of the coldest winters on record living off the land – and off supplies he stole from cabins in his mountains.
He would go from home to home, tapping a quarter-size hole in a windowpane and unfastening the latch. He would eat all the food he could find, burn all the firewood, and then move on. He hit dozens of cabins across the state, riffling through the cupboards, taking batteries, binoculars, canned goods, and camouflaged clothing – anything that would keep him alive, moving, and out of sight. He stole all the shoes he could, too, from boots to sneakers to sandals, so his tracks would be harder to follow. Locals called him the Mountain Man, and said he was like a cougar – rarely seen, but always watching.
Baynham goes back to Knapp's pre-wilderness days, as a troubled kid and then a man in and out of jail, prone to violence and jealous rage, who'd been accused of assaulting a homeless man—"a heavy-drinking, pot-smoking, conspiracy-theorist ex-con," as his ex-girlfriend describes him. Knapp first took to the wilderness in 2000, stealing a truck and a ranger's boots and disappearing into the Sierra Nevadas in California, only to be caught when he snuck back into civilization to buy some groceries.
When he was finally released from jail four years later, he committed fully to his new lifestyle, and was barely heard from again. The homeless man who says Knapp beat him nearly to death was one point of contact; Knapp's parents, who drove out to see him when he called them from a payphone—only to have him walk into the woods after asking them to pull over on the side of the road—were another.
No one even knew Knapp was the man robbing the cabins (and defacing them: in one case he took an oddly considerate dump in a pan on the floor) until a motion-detecting camera set up at a cabin shot a photo of him in late 2011.
Knapp was finally caught thanks to one of his brief encounters with the rest of civilzations: two hunters who ran into him on Good Friday and reported their sighting later. A number of Utah police organizations agreed to work together, and, after tracking him over the weekend, set off early Tuesday morning on snowmobiles. They found him barricaded in a cabin and willing to give up. He's sitting in Sanpete County jail now.
"I envy the sights he's seen, the sunsets, and animals," Sevier County sheriff Nathan Curtis told Baynham. "I bet he's seen things most people never will."