In the summer of 2015 a rough beast slouched out of the shadows and into the waking nightmares of an unsuspecting world. His name was Dark Mill South, but that wasn’t the only name he went by.
Cowpoking through Wyoming, working the feedline, as they used to call it, he’d been the Eastfork Strangler. Not because he ever hung his hat in the Eastfork bunkhouse or rode their fences, but because he’d somehow come into possession of one of their 246 branding irons, and had taken the time with each victim to get that brand glowing red, to leave his mark.
For that season he’d been propping his dead up behind snow fences, always facing north. It wasn’t a Native American thing—Dark Mill South was Ojibwe, out of Minnesota—it was, he would say later, just polite, after all he’d put them through.
His manners extended to six men and women that winter of 2013.
Come spring melt, the Eastfork Strangler lobbed his branding iron into the Chugwater and drifted up into Montana, where the newspapers dubbed him the Ninety-Eye Slasher. It was supposed to have been the I-90 Slasher, since Dark Mill South’s reign of terror had extended up and down I-90 from Billings to Butte, but the intern typing it into the crawl on the newsfeed had flipped it around to “90-I.” By that evening, “Ninety-Eye” had gone viral, and so was another boogeyman born.
The “slasher” part was close to right, anyway: Dark Mill South was using a machete by then. With it he carved through eleven people. He was no longer being polite with them. According to the one interview he’d ever given, Montana had been a bad time for him. He didn’t remember it all that clearly.
Next it was the Dakotas, where he was known as the Bowman Butcher, responsible for eight dead at Pioneer Trails campground over a single weekend, and then two weeks later in South Dakota he became the Rapid City Reaper, who didn’t use a bladed weapon at all but hung his five victims by the neck, one per month.
It was those five victims who got the authorities piecing his history together—what could be his history. The campground this “Butcher” had sliced through in Bowman, North Dakota, was 160 miles directly north of Rapid City, where murders happened two and a half hours from each other, with major arteries connecting them, and on successive months . . . this couldn’t be the same killer, could it?
At which point someone probably unfolded the map to see what roadways fed into Bowman. To the east it was smaller and smaller farming communities, and no major highways or interstates until I-29, which was nearly Minnesota. And there had been no unaccounted-for bodies turning up over there. Nothing to suggest a killer prowling the rest stops and truck stops.
A finger tracing US Route 12 west out of Bowman, though, connects with I-94 just over the Montana state line, and, though called I-94, it’s really what I-90 should have been if it hadn’t taken a sharp turn south. And there were definitely bodies piling up alongside I-90. Or, there had been. It had been two months since the last one turned up in pieces. Either the Ninety-Eye Slasher had been locked up for some minor offense or he had hung up the white pantyhose he’d been using as a mask and moved on to other pastures, other victim pools.
A campground in North Dakota, perhaps? And then Rapid City?
While Dark Mill South hadn’t used a machete on those eight campers, the felling axe he did use to deadly effect that weekend had, according to forensic analysis, been swung from the left, not the right. Just like the Ninety-Eye Slasher’s machete. And those brands the Eastfork Strangler had burned into his victims were all deep—mortally deep in most cases—but autopsy showed that they were just a smidge deeper on their right side.
Since only ten percent of people are left-handed and less than 0.0008 percent are serial killers, then, statistically speaking (ten percent of “0.00008”), it was less likely that the Eastfork Strangler and the Ninety-Eye Slasher and the Bowman Butcher all just “happened” to be left-handed than it was that they were actually the same killer, adopting different methods and rituals with each change of location so as to not attract an interstate task force.
That task force was forming all the same.
However, this Rapid City Reaper wasn’t using a bladed weapon or a branding iron that could give away his handedness. And instead of a sustained killing frenzy involving stalking and masks and campgrounds, he seemed more deliberate with his victims, as if he was feeling out a way to extract more meaning from the act.
How he staged his series of hangings through the suburbs of Rapid City from December 2014 through April 2015 was to allow his victims metal stools to stand on, so as to take their body weight off the rope around their neck. But these stools, which the Rapid City Reaper was bringing with him, were all metal with rubber feet, so he could open up an outlet on the wall—always the northwall—and splice into that current, leaving the stool circulating with blue fire.
The result was that the stool these people could stand on to take the pressure off their necks was sizzling hot, and the heat would arc up and down through their hanging bodies. Without shoes or socks, just touching that stool would cook the soles of their feet, a show the Rapid City Reaper would observe while eating cold leftovers from the victim’s refrigerator, the crumbs of which he was leaving either carelessly or due to overconfidence.
Since there were no wounds on these hanging victims other than their cooked feet and crushed windpipes, where the authorities had to look for the telltale signature they needed was the splices in the wires used to pass the current. As it turned out, these copper unions had all been twisted counterclockwise instead of what would be natural to a right-hander—and so were the murders all connected, and the various media-bequeathed epithets collapsed into a single name.
This is when Dark Mill South became sensationalized as the Nomad, a term dialed back from the throwaway “nomadic” the authorities used to explain his interstate peregrinations, but also stemming from the “Indian” silhouette the surviving camper from North Dakota insisted wasn’t her imagination—traditionally, before incursion by wave after wave of settlers, Plains Indians had been nomadic.
Which is perhaps when Dark Mill South himself started counting.
The couple he killed in their car just outside Denver, Colorado, in June 2015 had “31” and “32” burned into their torsos with the cigarette lighter from the dashboard. They’d evidently been alive for this hours-long process, and it hadn’t quite killed them—a car lighter is no red-hot branding iron. What did kill them were the headrests of their seats, which had twin metal posts with adjustment notches in them. Dark Mill South lined those two metal posts up with this couple’s eyes and then pushed them in to the last notch. When found, the murdered couple had their seat belts on, the car had been repositioned to face north, and the radio was tuned to an oldies station high up on the AM band. One responding officer claimed that, while he’d once had a taste for what he called “Poodle Skirt Music,” he now preferred silence on patrol. The quieter the better.
The next three victims were in Elk Bend, Idaho—a 770-mile drive by the most direct route, which crosses Caribou-Targhee National Forest here in Fremont County. In Elk Bend, Dark Mill South took on the guise of Dugout Dick, the local legend, and stalked and eviscerated volunteer firemen with a railroad pickaxe. Finally, pushed to her limit and beyond, one of those firemen’s wives—Sally Chalumbert, Shoshone, technically a widow by this point—stalked this Dugout Dick back, and, in a final confrontation, bludgeoned him with a shovel. After Dark Mill South was down, though, Sally Chalumbert’s fury was still far from spent. Screaming, she continued beating him with her now-broken shovel, dislodging most of his front teeth, fracturing the bones of his face, and then using the blade of the shovel to neatly remove his right hand. The only reason she stopped there was that her husband’s brother tackled her away, trying to, as he said in his statement, “save her soul.”
He was too late.
The dark place Sally Chalumbert had to go to was a place she couldn’t come back from, thus her continuing institutionalization.
Dark Mill South came back, though.
The good ones always do.
When he tried to swim the Salmon River and get away to his next killing spree, one of the remaining volunteer firemen rammed the county fire truck into a utility pole, dropping its transformer into the water. Before that power line shorted out, it killed every trout, muskrat, duck, and beaver in that portion of the Salmon, and apparently scalded a young moose as well.
Dark Mill South floated over to the shore facedown, his wrist and face seeping blood, and when he woke weeks later, he was strapped to a reinforced hospital bed, the charges against him accumulating fast, every federal agency wanting a piece of him, every state he’d passed through angling for extradition. The Nomad was a nomad no more.
In that one muttered and variously reconstructed interview he sort of gave, recorded by a nurse who had been given questions she’d had to crib onto her inner forearm, Dark Mill South claimed that he wasn’t done yet. Thirty-five dead wasn’t thirty-eight, and that’s the number he was going for.”
The media followed this number back to his home state of Minnesota, where thirty-eight Dakota men had been hanged in 1862—the largest mass execution in American history. Dark Mill South’s claim, then, the media surmised, was that he was merely taking lives to balance the scales. Whether this had been his mission all along or if it were just something he picked up along the way was anybody’s guess. Either way, the effect was to permanently associate this 1862 atrocity with Dark Mill South’s seven-year, multistate rampage, as it was now being called.
And so the Eastfork Strangler, the Ninety-Eye Slasher, the Bowman Butcher, the Rapid City Reaper, Dugout Dick, and the Nomad had their day in court as Dark Mill South. Specifically, as he’d been arrested in Elk Bend, Idaho, Dark Mill South’s “day” was down in Boise. Since those three killings were the most recent, had the most evidence directly associated with him, even including cell phone footage of surprisingly good quality, it was felt that conviction was guaranteed in this case.
Dark Mill South was a media sensation by then, and nearly a celebrity—not just another serial killer after a half century of them, but the West’s favorite new boogeyman, a “latterday Jeremiah Johnson” according to one account in Montana. At an imposing six and a half feet tall, with shoulder-length hair he never tied back but wore like a shroud, with a hook attached to the stump of his right wrist and a sly grimace permanently etched into the knotted scar tissue of his face, the public couldn’t look away. Fan fiction surfaced of him escaping his holding cell, making his way to the local lovers’ lane, and, with his hook hand, “giving precedent after the fact to all the urban legends, and making some new ones in the process.”
Because the so-called trials of the thirty-eight Dakota in 1862 had been as short as five minutes in some cases, Dark Mill’s day in court went for years, as every i needed careful dotting, every t the most patient crossing, and he had to get a new set of teeth installed besides. The Elk Bend Massacre, as it came to be known, had been on both July 3 and July 4, 2015—the latter a fateful day in the history of American violence, to be sure—but Dark Mill South’s much-negotiated plea deal wasn’t entered until mid–October, 2019.
His claim was that he could show the officers of the court more of his north-facing dead if they were interested in that kind of thing and had enough body bags.
They were interested.
And of course nobody doubted that Dark Mill South could lead them to leathery body after leathery body in Wyoming, in Montana, and down through the Dakotas across, to Colorado. There could even be some in southern Idaho, on the way to Elk Bend, right? After all, there had been a sensational death along that path that had garnered national attention in the summer of 2015, and it very well could have been a murder, not just an animal attack. Better yet, if it could be established that Dark Mill South had passed that holy body count of thirty-eight well before getting to Elk Bend, that would serve to mitigate the continuing outrage over all those Dakota men Abraham Lincoln had hanged in 1862, as they wouldn’t be people anymore, but simply an excuse a wily killer had used to rally public sympathy.
Social media dubbed this circuit the Reunion Tour—the killer reuniting with his victims.
The convoy of armored vehicles left Boise on Thursday, December 12, 2019. Dark Mill South’s shackles supposedly had shackles, he had been doped to the gills besides, and the blacked-out SUV he was strapped into was one of four identical vehicles, each of the others mocked up to appear as if they too were carrying him. The fear was that the victim’s families might attempt an ambush, or—worse—that Dark Mill South’s ever-expanding fan base might stage an escape.
There was air support, state troopers both led the way and rode drag, and local constabulary closed the roads ahead of this convoy when possible. And in what was surely a strategic slip, the speaker at the press conference laying all this out went “off-script” to whisper into his bouquet of microphones that there would at all times be an armed guard assigned to sit directly behind Dark Mill South, for “any eventualities,” which was of course wink-wink code for the last resort being a bullet to the back of the Nomad’s head, halting his murderous peregrinations once and for all.
If, indeed, a bullet would even be sufficient.
All of America poured a stiff drink and settled in to their most comfortable chairs to ride this out with the grim men and women assigned this task, but then the hour got late, the channel got changed for a quick look at the game, and . . . attention waned.
Which was just how the convoy of armored SUVs wanted it.
Better to travel in anonymity, well out of the camera’s eye. And, though they hadn’t counted on the weather helping them stay off the national radar, the weather was a boon all the same. When visibility is nil and the temperature’s in a nosedive, journalists can’t deliver progress reports to the world. The convoy ceased to be a blinking blue dot on a map over an anchorperson’s head. Instead there were special reports interrupting the usual programming to warn viewers about this winter storm, this once-in-a-century whiteout.
The first of the interstates along the convoy’s route to shut down was I-80 across Wyoming, which was no surprise to anyone familiar with that stretch of highway. The convoy shrugged, went to their Plan B: the old stomping grounds of the Ninety-Eye Killer—Montana.
Retracing their route, they picked their way through Pocatello, then Blackfoot, intending to follow the I-15 north to Idaho Falls and then all the way up to Butte, ideally in a single push.
The blizzard rocking their SUVs didn’t agree: I-15 shut down as well, and wouldn’t open even for badges.
Now this convoy had no recourse but to either register at a hotel they hadn’t vetted or attempt a northern passage up Highway 20, which would spit them out just west of Yellowstone, right at the Montana state line.
When the call went out for a snowplow to clear the way for them out of Idaho Falls, three class-7 trucks showed up, each of them the size of a garbage or cement truck. The drivers let it be known that if that judge down in Boise needed someone to pull the switch on Dark Mill South’s electric chair or gas chamber or lethal injection, they could probably find an open slot in their schedule for that as well.
Or if, say, he were to accidentally fall out the side door of an SUV, then . . . well, it was slick, and snowplows are heavy, and that big blade’s gonna do what it’s gonna do, right?
There was much manly handshaking, many shoulders patted, and so began the slow grind up the mountain, the swirling gusts of snow revealing only greater blackness beyond and, every few miles, old billboards touting Proofrock, Idaho, as The Silver Strike Heard ’Round the World! and Proofrock’s Indian Lake as The Best Kept Secret of the West. By 2019, of course, these billboards had been defaced—a shark fin spray-painted onto the glittering surface of Indian Lake, along with the obligatory Help! Shark! dialogue balloon, the miner making that world-famous silver strike given overlarge eyes and a leering grin, since there was now the cartoon of a screaming woman painted in between his pickaxe and that seam of foil.
It’s probably safe to assume that Dark Mill South, seeing this graffiti through the storm, chuckled to himself with satisfaction. Just as the Marlboro Man would feel right at home walking into a forest of cigarettes, so would the Nomad recognize the country his convoy was broaching into. He was even, at this point, facing north.
As were his drivers, his guards, his handlers.
The individual flakes of snow crashed into the windshields and the wipers surely batted them away, smeared them in, fed them to the heat of the defrosters on full blast, but still the safety glass had to be icing over, making it tricky to stay locked on the taillights of the phalanx of snowplows leading the way, flinging great but silent curls of snow over the guardrail, out into open space.
Had air support been able to stay aloft in this storm, they would have had to hover so close over this crawling black line that their rotor wash would have only made visibility worse. But the two helicopters had retreated to the private airports hours behind, were handing the convoy off to Montana pilots, already waiting at their pads.
So, by 11:00 a.m., possibly 11:30 a.m., the convoy was out of the media eye, it had no air support, and it was being swallowed by the snow, by the blizzard, by the mountain. There was a team of snowplows carving a route, and there was thermos after thermos of coffee for those drivers, but there was also Dark Mill South, perhaps already testing the limits of his shackles’ shackles—handcuffing a prisoner who only has a single hand is a tricky proposition, and some metabolisms burn through sedatives so fast you can almost see them steaming away.
It was like the West was calling him back. Like the land needed a cleansing agent to rove across the landscape, blood swelling up from each of his boot prints, his shadow so long and so deep that last cries whispered up from it.
Or so someone might say who believed in slashers and final girls, fate and justice.
But we’ll be getting to her later, of course.
And everyone else as well.
First, though, this convoy lost in the whiteout, this Reunion Tour slouching toward a Bethlehem already swimming in blood.
Fifteen miles up Highway 20 is where accounts of that night begin to differ, Mr. Armitage, but where they converge again is a pier jutting out onto Indian Lake here in Proofrock, eight thousand feet up the mountain. In the offhand words of Deputy Sheriff Banner Tompkins—the sound bite that came to characterize this latest series of killings—“If we were looking anywhere for more bad shit to go down, we were looking out onto the lake, I guess. Not behind us.”
“Behind us” would be US Highway 20.
Dark Mill South’s Reunion Tour began on December 12, 2019, a Thursday.
Thirty-six hours and twenty bodies later, on Friday the 13, it would be over.
As Martin Luther says on that poster by your chalkboard, “Blood alone moves the wheels of history.”
Our wheels are moving just fine, thank you.
Just don’t look in the rearview mirror if you can help it.
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