The End Of The Ride For another adventurous fugitive--a mountain biking pioneer--the jig is up

December 03, 2001

In the old coal-mining town of Crested Butte, Colo., there's a
gritty little saloon called the Eldo. Outside the joint,
swinging in the wind like a noose, is a sign that reads: A SUNNY
PLACE FOR SHADY PEOPLE. Until a few years ago that sign best
applied to a bar regular known as Neil Murdoch.

Sporting the brows of Brezhnev and the hair of Einstein, Murdoch
had drifted into Crested Butte in 1974 and become a familiar
face in the community--waiting tables, working at a daycare
center, running a natural foods store, getting involved in local
charities and politics. Back in those days, before Crested Butte
became a popular ski resort town, dropouts and desperadoes
populated the remote Highway 135 outpost, and the dirt roads
were pocked with potholes. "Everyone rode bikes," says local
Klaus Kracht, who owns Alternative Sports, a bike and ski shop.
"You got too drunk to walk."

Murdoch did more than ride. In his backyard bike shop he welded
climbing gears onto rusty bombers, and in 1976 a gang of
gearheads rode his souped-up Schwinns over the rough cattle path
to Aspen, crossing a 12,705-foot pass in what has become an
annual event. Six years later Murdoch started Fat Tire Bike
Week--still one of the nation's largest mountain bike festivals.
In 1988 he was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.

Murdoch was a community pillar until April 1998, when a
sheriff's deputy informed him that during the course of a
routine credit check, a Pennsylvania man had discovered that
Murdoch was using the man's Social Security number. "It's a
mistake," Murdoch said, and the deputy, who knew him, let him go
while the U.S. marshal's office looked into the matter. Two
nights later Murdoch had a friend drive him and his bike to the
Four Corners Monument, some 300 miles from Crested Butte. "Drive
away so you can't see which way I'm headed," he reportedly told
her. Then he clunkered off.

As it turned out, Murdoch was Richard Bannister, who federal law
enforcement officials say had peddled cocaine before pedaling
mountain bikes. Indicted in 1973 for importing more than 20
pounds of coke to New Mexico, Bannister had jumped bail and
vanished. His past wouldn't catch up with him until 25 years
later. "All of Crested Butte was shocked," says former mayor
Mickey Cooper. "To find out Murdoch had a subterranean life was
pretty weird."

And pretty romantic. Two weeks after Murdoch fled, Crested Butte
threw a going-away party in his honor with a big cake and
testimonials. At the Independence Day parade two months later,
town-council members wore Murdoch masks, and a natural foods
store in town sold FREE MURDOCH bumper stickers. The community
theater even gave Bannister a lifetime achievement award--in
absentia--for so convincingly playing the role of Neil Murdoch.

On Sept. 5 of this year federal authorities tracked down the
60-year-old fugitive in Taos, N.Mex., where he had been working
in a thrift store under the alias Grafton Mahler. He was tripped
up by a similar mistake--questions about his Social Security
number--and awaits trial in a jail in Estancia, N.Mex. (Repeated
attempts to interview Murdoch, who has pleaded not guilty to the
charges of drug trafficking and bail jumping, were
unsuccessful.) At the Eldo, many old-timers hope the courts will
be lenient. "Over the last 27 years, Murdoch was never really
free," says Don Cook, a friend of Murdoch's. "He had to lie and
lie and could never admit who he was. Yet he gave a lot to this
town. The highest hope a judge can have for a criminal is that
he'll come out of jail rehabilitated. Murdoch rehabilitated

--Franz Lidz

B/W PHOTO: TIFFANY WARDMAN/CRESTED BUTTE NEWS After fleeing a crime in 1973, "Murdoch" became a big wheel in Crested Butte.

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