A tale of hidden identity in a Western hideaway

A fugitive reinvented himself in a remote town, but the Old West's 'ask no questions' ethic is fading.

When the first winter storm blows into this tiny town in the West Elk Mountains, Crested Butte will be almost - but not quite - cut off. Only a single, 20-mile-long, two-lane road will lead to the rest of the world.

Once, that helped make this a perfect place for a fugitive from justice, such as Richard Gordon Bannister, to hole up and start a new life. Using the alias Neil Murdoch, Mr. Bannister arrived here in 1974, fleeing drug-trafficking charges, and went on tto become a pioneer of the budding sport of mountain biking.

But as more-recent developments in Bannister's story make clear, little Rocky Mountain mining towns like Crested Butte may no longer be the anonymous mountain hideaways they were from the 1800s until just a few years ago.

Sprawl and commercialization have permanently altered many such enclaves that once offered almost total refuge from the outside world.

When Bannister first arrived, "there were dogs sleeping in the streets," he recalls. "And none of the streets were paved." Now, this former silver-mining town is a growing ski and summer resort. It flaunts a performing arts center and a bus system.

Ironically, Bannister himself may have contributed to the changes. Not long after getting settled, he opened a bicycle shop. Messing around with a pile of bikes he purchased from a junk yard for $20, Bannister built prototypes of what became mountain bikes. "It seemed natural to go from riding around town to riding on the mining roads," he says.

In 1976, a group of residents rode their single-gear bicycles over the rough jeep road to Aspen, crossing a 12,700-foot pass. Bannister turned the annual ride to Aspen into a week-long "Fat Tire Festival." Today, "the Butte" is a Mecca for cyclists.

Bannister - known here as "Murdoch" - earned himself a special display in this town's Mountain Biking Hall of Fame. So, when federal agents showed up on May 1, 1998, with a 25-year-old warrant for Bannister's arrest, most locals knew him - by his alias.

Bannister allegedly had jumped a $20,000 bail bond in 1973, posted after he was charged with importing cocaine to Taos, N.M. Knowing the feds had tracked him down, he vanished again - just as quickly and anonymously as he arrived in Crested Butte. He finally was arrested last month in Taos and awaits trial in a jail in Estancia, N.M.

After he disappeared in 1998, Bannister's friends here held a party in his honor (he didn't show up). "Free Murdoch" bumper stickers appeared. The community theater gave Bannister a lifetime achievement award - in absentia - for playing Neil Murdoch.

For some residents, Bannister's story had a certain romantic quality. He reinvented himself and started a new life in the West. "I think that's something that a lot of people who live out West and have moved out West embrace," says Ashley Sargent, who works at Camp 4 Coffee.

"People in the 60s and 70s were looking to get away," says Lynda Jackson, the town's clerk. Ms. Jackson came from New York in 1978 with a suitcase in her hand - and never left.

Today, Crested Butte is a lot closer to the American mainstream than that lone, narrow highway would suggest. Then again, today's newcomers aren't necessarily looking for escape. New homes are popping up on former hay meadows. Buyers often are people who look to combine mainstream life with small-town atmosphere. Tom Martin, Crested Butte's chief marshal, says he's watched the town shift from a haven for dropouts to a place that markets its lifestyle to telecommuters and second-home owners. "Some of our more recent residents, they want the best of both worlds."

As for Bannister, now 60, he won't be running away any more, and at one level he's relieved. "A lot of people romanticize being a fugitive," he says. "There's no glamour in it at all. You're always looking over your shoulder."

Some in Crested Butte hope Bannister will return. "I'm not glorifying him," Ms. Sargent says. "But he was a good person. I would love to see him back here."

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