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Everyone called him the mountain man. They said he was the most dangerous, gun-crazy renegade seen in the hills and valleys of Southern California since the days of the Wild West outlaws. The local police departments and sheriffs’ offices all said it would be next to impossible for any cop or federal agent to bring him down alive from his mountaintop hideout.
In April 1986, when I first caught wind of Mark Stephens—this “mountain man” terrorizing the Inland Empire communities (those in Riverside and San Bernardino counties)—I was only in my third year as a special agent with the Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But I’d been a law enforcement officer for over a decade, and I’d made my bones as a local cop in North Carolina and as a federal border patrol agent before becoming an ATF agent—I’d certainly heard my share of war stories. Some so-called badass or another was always being touted as the hardest, most cold- blooded criminal in the county, the scariest dude to make the most- wanted lists. I seen this guy whip a dozen cops, other cops would tell you. This guy, he ain’t gonna be taken alive. He’s crazy. If you try to get cuffs on him, he’ll kill you. Ninety-five percent of the times when I confronted these so-called tough guys, all the fight instantly drained out of them. Their ruthlessness turned out to be nothing more than a front, an actor’s persona. When I cornered them, they folded up, dropped their guns, and surrendered without so much as a peep.
But there are those few criminals out there who are righteously bad. Guys who won’t give up without a fight. And when you do decide to confront them, you’d better be ready to fight for your life.
Mark Stephens was one such criminal. Stephens was the real McCoy, the most brazen and fearless criminal I encountered in my early years with ATF. He proved to be equal parts gunman, mountain man, drug trafficker, and out-and-out thug.
Mark Stephens was a paradox for a criminal investigator. He didn’t fit the stereotype: He didn’t come from the wrong side of the tracks and wasn’t abused as a kid; he wasn’t semiliterate or lacking in career opportunities. His parents were well-educated, fairly affluent people who lived in an upscale neighborhood in Rancho Cucamonga, a city of nearly one hundred thousand, located under the majestic San Gabriel mountain range in the Inland Empire, thirty-seven miles east of my ATF desk in downtown Los Angeles.
Sometimes the path to a criminal personality can’t be easily explained; the factors that determine one’s character defy reason. Mark Stephens wasn’t a typical bully, the kind of person who seemed to get emotional gratification from picking on the weak. It didn’t make any difference to him whether you were male or female, old or young, black or white—if you stood in his way, he was going to hurt you. Stephens was a man who had no conscience when it came to taking what he wanted by force. And he’d learned early on in life that hurting people was the way to get what he wanted. The intelligent man locked inside of him may have known that violence was wrong, that he had an uncontrollable problem. But violence physically possessed him; it was an overwhelming force he simply couldn’t rein in. He understood that it would land him in prison one day, and prison wasn’t an option for Stephens. So he decided to separate himself from society—literally. He headed for the hills, disappearing into the vast, impenetrable San Bernardino Mountains.
Stephens put together a basic plan. He would live off the land. He’d grow marijuana in prodigious quantities, smoke as much of it as he wanted, and sell the excess kilos when he needed cash to buy firearms and explosives. He would be as self-sufficient as a human being could be; he wouldn’t depend on any friends or family. The only people he would interact with would be the small network of low-level drug dealers he would keep in check with constant threats. His only daily companions would be the wild animals in the mountains. It was a near- perfect plan for a lone wolf determined to live outside the borders of civilized society.
I’m something of a lone wolf myself. It’s a character trait that has worked to my advantage during investigations. Special agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are often charged with the task of operating as a one-man law enforcement agency. Our mandate is primarily to enforce violations in firearms and explosives laws, but our jurisdiction in this area encompasses a wide range of criminal types—narcotics traffickers, traditional organized-crime families, outlaw bike gangs, inner-city gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips, and anti-government and hate groups such as the neo-Nazis and Aryan Nations.
Special agents with ATF have two basic options. They can forge a smooth, relatively hassle-free investigator’s career by focusing on background work, running errands for the administrators, and picking up what we call “adoptive cases”—that is, bringing in federal resources and manpower to investigations that were initiated and completed by local law enforcement. Or they can take my career path. Always pushing into overdrive. Making cases against real bad guys. Putting themselves in harm’s way by getting right in the line of fire and, if necessary, going undercover to get the most violent criminals off the street.
Throughout my ATF career, often to the dismay of my supervisors, I took that “put your life on the line” attitude to the limit. In dozens of cases, I went undercover to infiltrate armed organizations such as the Skinheads and the Aryan Nations—and most notably, in the late nineties, near the end of my ATF stint, when I penetrated the Mongols outlaw motorcycle gang in a landmark two-and-a-half-year investigation. During that case, playing the part of a biker badass named Billy St. John, I achieved something nearly unthinkable for a federal agent: I became a “patched-in” member of the club and eventually rose to the position of treasurer and vice president of the Mongols’ San Fernando Valley chapter.
Going deep undercover or running and gunning in the streets always fueled me. I thrived on that high-risk energy. Call it an adrenaline addiction or sheer machismo, but I felt like that was where my investigative talents were best utilized. I wanted to be out on the firing line. Wearing a coat and tie behind my desk at headquarters, typing up the stream of official reports and memoranda, I felt like a fish out of water. My place was in the street, down in the trenches, chewing the same dirt with the state and local cops.
In early 1986 I was a thirty-seven-year-old recently married special agent. My wife at the time and I lived in a peaceful bedroom community called Corona and I commuted to ATF Metro Group headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Since I lived in the Inland Empire, it was only natural that I’d start poking around the various police departments and sheriffs’ offices, expressing an interest in what criminal cases they saw brewing.
I was looking for the real bad guys. I always tried to do it in
as low-key a manner as I could. Locals often don’t appreciate the unsolicited attention of special agents from the FBI, DEA,
or ATF. They see the feds as being overpaid and self-serving, sweeping in to take the glory of a promising investigation away from blue-collar cops.
I’ve always found that interagency rivalries are most pronounced at a senior management level, where a lot of publicity is at stake; a few headline-grabbing cases can bump an administrator up the Bureau hierarchy pretty damn quick. For rank-and-file ATF agents like me, developing close working relationships with local law enforcement was essential. Many of us started out our careers as local patrolmen, so we knew what made cops tick and could appreciate the nitty-gritty of police work. Though we carried federal badges and credentials, we talked, thought, and did our jobs like cops.
In my day-to-day routine, I would pop in at different agencies around Southern California and make contacts with detectives and patrolmen, the behind-the-scenes guys working dangerous assignments in narcotics and gang units. I told them I was the kind of guy who kept my ear to the pavement. I left them my card and let them know that if they needed federal help, I was the guy at the ATF Metro Group in L.A. to call. If the local guys needed help, I was there. I never stepped in where I wasn’t wanted. And it was completely up to me if I took on a case or not.
In every department I visited, I’d always ask who was the biggest threat in the area in terms of gun crimes. Early in 1986, over and over again, I kept hearing the name Mark Stephens. He either had outstanding warrants or was a prime suspect in felonies in nearly every community from Pomona to San Bernardino.
The boys in the detective division at the Montclair Police Department first briefed me on Stephens. For some months I’d been working closely on a case with a young Montclair detective named Bill Kendrick. In his late twenties and sandy-haired, Kendrick was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense cop; I could quickly see that we shared the same love of street work and the same distaste for hunkering down behind an IBM Selectric to keep our bosses satisfied with the requisite paper trail.
One afternoon over coffee in the squad room, Bill Kendrick began telling me stories about Stephens that sounded so far-fetched, so outlandish, I wondered if he was planning on soon leaving the underpaid cop world to take a stab at a career as a Hollywood screenwriter.
Mark Stephens was unlike any other bad guy Kendrick had encountered. From his hideout in the hills, he had built up a small arsenal of machine guns and hand grenades. His acts of violence were well documented, but eyewitnesses were nonexistent. No one would dare come forward and give testimony against him. Over the years, with his hair- trigger temper, Stephens had built a foolproof shield, scaring the shit out of everyone who’d witnessed him in action.
I asked Kendrick the obvious question: “Why’s nobody going up in the hills to take him down?”
Kendrick let out a laugh without cracking a smile. “You don’t understand, Queen,” he said. “When I say this son of a bitch lives up in the hills, I mean he lives up in the hills.”
He got a map to show me the general vicinity. I immediately understood the scope of the challenge: Stephens had picked a virtually inaccessible area in the San Bernardino Mountains, so high up in the badlands that no one had been able to get near him. The Montclair Police Department didn’t have a lot of solid intel on his exact whereabouts, but they did know that the camp was located somewhere north of Rancho Cucamonga and approximately ten miles west of El Cajon Pass. Stephens had been living like a hermit in the mountains for about five years, tending to his marijuana crops and coming down from his hideout only to sell his dope and commit acts of violence in the communities of the Inland Empire. His patterns of movement were completely unpredictable.
I began mulling over the facts I would need to obtain a federal warrant. Growing marijuana on federal land was enough, of course, but I wanted more. My bosses wouldn’t move unless there was irrefutable evidence that Stephens posed a public-safety risk. I asked Bill Kendrick about the known acts of gun-related violence.
Kendrick said that Stephens had been involved in countless unsolved shootings. He never came down from the mountain without one of his machine guns or semiautomatic pistols, and he wouldn’t hesitate to blast people who crossed him or to spray gunfire indiscriminately into homes and businesses. Most knew his reputation; few dared to cross him. He had managed to intimidate a network of criminal associates into doing what he wanted, which was selling his dope and getting him more firearms. At any one time, Kendrick told me, Stephens had four or five dealers in various towns who sold marijuana for him. All the dealers were scared to death—Stephens had left them no choice. He might as well have said, Work for me, or I’ll have to fucking kill you.
Kendrick’s briefing had me hooked. I told him I was going to swing by the Berdoo sheriff’s office to see what they had in their Mark Stephens file. As I got up to leave, Kendrick shook my hand and said he was glad to have me on the case. Then he laughed.
“This guy’s right up your alley, Queen.”
“He’s as wild as they come. When he shoots up a place, the motherfucker does it with a machine gun.”
I initially thought I was only going to pitch in on a local investigation that was already up and running. The Stephens case was atypical. In fact, there was no case to speak of. I didn’t realize that I was going to end up taking the lead investigative role, developing my own operational plan from scratch and ultimately going against Stephens man-to-man. I didn’t realize that the cat-and-mouse game was going to consume me, all but taking over my life.
After leaving Bill Kendrick, I shot over to the San Bernardino sheriff’s office and reviewed their confidential files. Putting together some kind of psychological profile was essential if I was going to make a serious effort to take Stephens down. What I found most fascinating about him was his self-awareness. He apparently knew he had a mental disorder. But if he was a psychopath, he was an extremely intelligent one, the kind who knew he couldn’t deal with other people. He seemed to know that he had homicidal tendencies, but he also enjoyed the power they gave him. He was always ready to deal with other people in the most violent manner. He’d realized very early on in life that the working world held no place for him; it was impossible for him to hold down a nine-to-five. Instead, he started every day armed to the teeth, prepared to resolve any situation with bloodshed. By now most of the tax-paying citizens in the
middle-class neighborhoods Stephens frequented knew his reputation. He’d terrorized them with his hand grenades, machine guns, and bare fists. Everyone knew that before Stephens left town for his hideout in the hills, somebody almost invariably would be hurt—possibly killed.
Stephens was fearless. He was in extremely good shape, a little over six feet and a rock-hard two hundred pounds of muscle. I was astonished when I read the file accounts of his lightning escapes up to his place in the mountains. In a matter of hours, he could complete a treacherous climb that would take even an athletic and trained lawman a day and a half.