Rick Steber, the author of more than 30 books, spent the past 16 years researching and writing this book about the unsolved murder of Phil Brooks, a cowboy who was found shot to death in the desert near Fossil. "I'm going to run with this until there's an answer. This book answers a lot of people's questions," says Steber. "There were so many rumors and it was my job to sift through all these rumors."On the last day of summer a deadly dance unfolds on the sprawling landscape of timbered hills and open sagebrush country that defines Eastern Oregon. A curious cowboy on a green broke horse, cow dog trotting faithfully alongside moves slowly, cautiously, down the spine of a rocky ridge. The cowpoke slips from the saddle, takes the lead rope in one hand and squints through a narrow opening between tightly packed trees and into the swale below. Then he squats on his haunches, takes a can of snuff from his shirt pocket and tucks a fat pinch of brown tobacco under his bottom lip. He replaces the lid, adjusts his hat to shade his eyes from the setting sun, and continues to intently stare downhill; hoping to see what he might see, expecting something to happen, not at all sure what that something might be. The lead rope remains in his right hand, the snuff can in his left. Behind him, the horse blows a soft trill of air out of quivering nostrils and begins to anxiously paw the ground. The dog at his side, alert to danger, cocks an ear and points it down the hill.
A person takes a rest against a weathered stump, or it might have been against a tree, sights through the riflescope and lines up the crosshairs on a big bull elk that is not there, or sees the target all too well. This person flips off the safety and makes a conscious decision, sending a command impulse snaking down long, pliant arm muscles to an index finger. The finger curls imperceptibly against the fine grooved metal of a trigger, curls a tiny bit more and this sets in motion a sequence of reactions that, once initiated, can never be stopped, or reversed, or taken back. The Sear mechanism trips, releasing the spring-loaded hammer whose sharp point abruptly contacts the soft brass coating of the primer. Nitrogen powder ignites. Smokeless gunpowder explodes and drives the 150-grain projectile down the throat of the barrel. Lands and grooves force the bullet to twist at a ratio of one full spin to each nine inches it travels. And, as if a precise line had been drawn to the target, the bullet travels in a slight arc and slams with an abrupt thud into the cowboy's chest. Body mass absorbs the brunt force, and as the roar of the rifle washes over him, the cowboy rocks onto his heels and begins to fall, almost gently, so that when his head makes contact with the ground his hat remains in place, although the front brim is tilted upward at an odd angle. His right knee stays upright. The fingers on his left hand deftly relax and the snuff can rolls away down the incline. Overcome with panic, the horse rears, breaking off dead limbs from the tree above her head, pulls the lead rope free, and in her confusion races headlong down the rocky ridge toward where the shooter remains hidden. The dog shies, but only for a moment and then comes scooting back on his belly to whimper, whine and to finally lick the face of the dead cowboy.
Phil Brooks was a rangy man, 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds, a boy really, and on the day he was killed - September 20, 1994 - he was only twenty-three years old. His eyes were blue, his hair was cut short and he was dressed in western garb; pretty much what he always wore because, after all, he was a cowboy. He had pointy-toed boots with slanted buckaroo riding heels, Wrangler jeans in need of a wash and held in place with a hand-tooled brown leather belt adorned with a silver rodeo buckle,no underwear, lightweight shirt with the sleeves snagged off at the elbows, and a gray felt cowboy hat that had been scuffed and banged around from wrecks on horseback, wrestling calves and rangy cows, bar fights and occasionally tossed aside when Phil was lucky enough to join a lady friend in bed.
Phil worked as a ranch hand on the Fopiano, a33,000 acre cattle ranch on Waterman Flat in Eastern Oregon, located midway between Prineville and John Day. The Collins brothers, Jimmy and Bob, owned this ranch and several others. Jimmy and his wife Georgia lived at the Fopiano headquarters while Bob and his wife Ruth lived onthe adjoining 101 Ranch.
That morning at breakfast, and during the briefing session, Keith met and observed the Brooks family members and was impressed at their unwavering spirit and belief that Phil would be found alive. He hoped he could find Phil in time, as he had found other lost hunters and rafters, but he was experienced enough to know that not every story has a happy ending. He prayed this one would.
The trackers were driven to the site where the dog had come off the hill, and where the horse had been found. They got out of their rigs. The air was cool and the dawning of a new day was beginning to sweeten the sky with gray light. As they hiked across a flat and through a shallow gully, Bearway Meadow was off to their left, north, and as they moved toward higher ground a Caterpillar could be heard starting up, first the gas engine and then the slow pop-pop-pop of the diesel engine firing. It was at least a mile away, on the far side of Bearway Meadow, and Keith made a mental note of it, figuring if someone was in the vicinity, logging or building roads, maybe one of those workers had seen or heard something. Ahead was a forested area, logged maybe 15 or 20 years before, and there were thick clusters of small trees that had never been thinned. The team of trackers spread out and began a grid sweep up a narrow, timbered draw, looking for tracks or any physical evidence, from candy wrappers to cigarette butts, and of course they were looking for an injured cowboy, or a body.
"I was on the far left wing," said Keith. "Had gone only a few dozen steps, when I noticed the ground at my feet had been disturbed. Looking more closely, and even though the light was not real good, I clearly recognized the print of a horseshoe - very small, heart shaped - and instinctively knew this was the track from Phil's horse. The prints were dug in deep, side-by-side, indicating the horse was bounding, moving fast and planting its feet hard. When I looked up the rocky spine in front of me, I saw more tracks, evenly spaced, and even farther up the hill I spotted a foreign object. It wasn't anything I could immediately recognize or identify; it was just something that shouldn't have been there. To gain a vantage, I stepped onto a nearby rock and from there plainly saw a body on the ground, lying face up. Definitely male.
"'I have a body,' I called downhill, and then waited until Stoney Miller worked his way to me. He marked where I was standing with red ribbon and I eased forward. As I approached the body I looked for any signs of movement; there were none. The right leg was bent at the knee and slightly elevated, left leg at full extension, dried blood on shirt mid-torso, left of center, but not a lot of blood, left hand extended out and down, cowboy hat pushed back cradling his head, face fully exposed. The skin was pale, almost translucent and slightly blue tinged. The eyes were open, glazed over. Positively, the subject was dead. I made mental note of the broken limbs near the body, and the tracks of the horse leaving the area. It appeared the horse had been spooked, and my initial judgment was the horse had run the subject, which I assumed was Phil Brooks, into a limb and that was what killed him.Although the investigation was halted awaiting the arrival of the state police investigative team, Wheeler County Sheriff Otho Caldera gave Keith Baker and Vinson Macy permission to backtrack Phil and the horse. Keith related, "What we learned from the backtracking we were allowed to do is that about a half-mile above where Phil was killed, on a bench with a well-worn game trail leading through the middle of it, Phil's horse was running flat out. What made that horse run hard? I don't know because we were not allowed to backtrack above that point. What I do know is that at the upper point of our search, Phil's horse leaped a windfall a couple of feet high. The horse did not go around the obstruction and that is abnormal. But what does it mean? I don't make assumptions but common sense dictates it could mean one of two things; the horse was either being pushed by the rider to do something it wasn't comfortable doing, or it was scared and running away.
"Phil did not have control of the horse, and, in fact, he lost a rein while the horse was running. The horse stepped on it, broke it off. We found the rein and that's also a very odd occurrence, for a cowboy as experienced Phil was, to lose a rein. The sign revealed, after losing the rein, the horse continued running and was out of control until Phil cranked on his one remaining rein, the right one, and brought the horse's head around, causing the horse to veer to the right and side-step. A horse can't do much when its head is pulled back to the rider's knees. At that point Phil had regained control, and yet he didn't stop, he kept going for another hundred yards. Then he finally brought the horse to an abrupt, sliding stop. He dismounted; most likely he jerry-rigged the rein, but I don't know that for a fact. I do know he cleared away the pine needles and duff with the sole of his right boot, down to bare dirt, and with his heel drew a straight line and an arrow pointing uphill, in the direction of where we found the rein. Then he remounted, started down off the hill in the direction of the skid trail, abruptly changed his mind and rode onto the rocky ridge. Phil got off his horse and led it 26.8 feet to where he was killed.
"Those are the details I know as fact. I had tracked Phil around the hill on the skid trail, and I had tracked him on the bench above, down to where he was killed. What I wanted to know was what happened between those two points - from the skid trail to where I picked up his track again on the bench. To me, that was the key. Something, or someone, diverted him from his intended route. He had been returning to the ranch, and it would have taken him less than a half-hour to get there. It was getting late in the day, after 5 o'clock. His horse was tired and was slowing down. But for some reason, and it had to be something substantial, Phil turned straight up the hill from the skid trail. Why? Did a cougar scream, a bear growl, an elk bugle? Did he hear a shot? Did he hear someone? Did a hunter blow an elk call? What was it?
"And when I had the answer to what turned him up the hill then I wanted to know what happened on top. I believe something, or someone, threatened Phil and the horse. Threatened them to the point they wanted to put distance between them and the perceived threat. I say that for a number of reasons: the horse was running wild and jumped a windfall; Phil lost a rein and yet waited to get control of the horse; he regained control but kept going. He stopped, got off the horse, but rather than go back and get the rein, he drew an arrow to the spot and continued on. That tells me he did not feel comfortable about going back. And then, of course, I wanted to know why he chose to go to the point where he was killed. That spot does afford some protection, to a limited degree, but more than anything it offers a view of the game trail through the bottom of the draw, as well as the road leading to Bearway Meadow. It is a very logical choice if Phil had wanted to observe a specific area, thinking something, or someone, might pass along the game trail or the road.
"There were answers to at least some of those questions in the dirt and I could have found them, but the state police never allowed me to find the missing pieces, fit them together and complete the puzzle. They were impatient and thought Vinson and I were taking too much time following the sign. We were told to stop and await the arrival of the investigative team. I can't help but think the case would have been solved, and the killer's identity revealed, if only we had been allowed to continue tracking that first day."
Caught in the Crosshairs
Available in Bend at Between the Covers and Dudleys. Online at oregoncrosshairs.com.