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'Mountain Man' Troy Knapp: Real survivalist or run-of-the-mill burglar?

Troy James Knapp, who evaded capture for seven years in the vast southern Utah wilderness, told arresting deputies, 'Good job, you got me,' before regaling them with outlaw tales.

Emery County Sheriff's Office/AP
Detectives arrest fugitive Troy James Knapp in the mountains of central Utah. Authorities captured the elusive survivalist suspected of burglarizing Utah cabins and leaving some covered with threats and bullet holes — ending a saga that began years ago.

For years, Troy Knapp was a figure in the mist, a figment floating across the rugged backcountry of southern Utah with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a grim set of the jaw. What he needed, he took, often from shuttered mountain cabins.

For years, his name wasn’t known, until authorities matched a partial fingerprint from a cabin window to a California man who disappeared in 2002 after running afoul of authorities in the Golden State. But before then, motion-trigger cameras had caught several snapshots of the elusive, mysterious and possibly dangerous “mountain man,” sparking widespread debate about his identity.

On Tuesday, Knapp’s nearly seven year walkabout ended after a tip brought local law enforcement to his tracks, which they followed to a cabin where they could hear someone chopping wood. After a brief shootout, Knapp dropped his rifle and said, reportedly with a smile, “Good job, you got me.”

Knapp has been charged with a string of burglaries across several counties, and he will also face attempted murder charges for his decision to shoot at a law enforcement helicopter, which also traded fire with Knapp. No one was hurt.

To many in the area, Knapp had become a menace, even terroristic. In a January 27 court filing, authorities claimed he had begun to leave threatening notes, including one that said, “Hey Sheriff … Gonna put you in the ground!”

Sometimes he left cabins spotless, other times he wrecked them. Meanwhile, theories blossomed about his identity: Was he one of the “lost boys,” members booted from a polygamous sect in the area, who also, like Knapp, have an affinity for coffee and alcohol pilfered from the cabins?

Finally, as Knapp himself reportedly is regaling deputies with stories about his adventures, a more poignant question has emerged: Was Knapp a true “mountain man” who felt justified in using others’ property because they were intruders on “the mountain.” Or was he a lightweight cat burglar, incapable of real bootstrap survival. Either way, Knapp never hurt anyone. He told a couple of hikers who later tipped off police, “Not to worry, I won’t shoot you.”

Similar questions arose after the capture of Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, who had lived in close proximity to the North Carolina town of Murphy for years, surviving most likely with the help of locals.

Mr. Rudolph, experts said, stayed in a “comfort zone” at the edge of society. “I don’t believe he was a good survivalist,” Kevin Reeve, director of the Tom Brown Tracking School, said in 2003, at the time of Rudolph’s arrest.

Knapp didn’t seem to have the same need for human proximity. In fact, his motive seems to come down to a credo he gave police: “I don’t hate people. I just don’t like them.”

But his exploits haven’t impressed everyone.

“Troy James Knapp … is so far from being a true mountain man it isn’t even funny,” writes Michael Gist Burson in a letter to the editor of the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. “Real mountain men, like Jedediah Strong Smith, didn’t break into others’ cabins in order to survive in the wilderness. For punishment, Knapp should be put into the wilderness with nothing. We’ll see if he really has what it takes to be a true mountain man.”

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