How I escaped a murderer at the Grand Canyon

It’s all in the intonation.

“May God help you!” – the rising word ‘God’ stretched out across several syllables and the ‘help you’ a dismissive, downbeat ‘help ya’, as the officer waved us through.

We looked at each other, put the car in drive and moved off through the roadblock, past a cordon of armed police.

“Is it just me, or did he really not want us to do this?”

“Oh, I think he was pretty clear on the subject”.

“But we’re going, right?”

“What else are we going to do? We’ve got rooms booked. It’s Fourth of July weekend coming up. There’s nowhere else to stay”.

“There is that. There is also the fact that a heavily armed police officer just advised us definitely not to do the thing that we’re just about to do”.

We looked at each other, shrugged, and drove off down the road towards the Grand Canyon.

America – it all seems so unreal

Because here’s the thing about being British in America. It all seems so unreal in any case, from the first minute you arrive. It’s at once so familiar and yet so alien – the classic example of two countries separated by a common language. Your reactions are a true blend of ‘oh!’ and ‘what?!’, as you encounter famous things and places from TV and the movies – the Empire State! a yellow schoolbus! – alongside inexplicable puzzles like jell-o and marshmallows on the salad bar.

So when an Arizona state trooper holding a rifle tells you there’s an escaped murderer on the loose in the Grand Canyon, on the one hand you go ‘what?! that’s insane!’ and, on the other, you say ‘ooh it’s just like those TV shows’ and don’t take it seriously, because in what world is there an escaped murderer on the loose in the Grand Canyon?

Here’s where Danny Ray Horning comes in. Convicted bank-robber and all round bad guy, Horning escaped from state prison in Arizona in May 1992, where he was serving four consecutive life sentences for armed robbery and kidnapping. He went to ground in the Arizona back-country, raiding homes and cabins and stealing cars, emerging to rob another bank, while staying one step ahead of the authorities by using his wilderness and survival skills. The longer he evaded captivity, the more he became celebrated as a real-life ‘Rambo’ and ‘Robin Hood’ in local newspapers and on TV – despite the fact that he was also a convicted child molester and murder suspect in an ongoing case in California.

Arizona manhunt

By late-June 1992 Horning was the subject of the largest manhunt in Arizona’s history, and had come up with a plan to kidnap a family for ransom. After a couple of false starts and botched attempts, he headed for one of America’s most popular tourist sites, the Grand Canyon, and promptly went to ground again, biding his time. By now, everyone in Arizona – and large parts of the USA – knew all about the manhunt for Danny Ray Horning.

Except us, obviously.

The search teams, the helicopters, the sightings, even a close-shave shoot-out and sudden-death disappearance – all were headline news, day after day, which we had contrived to miss as we barrelled along western highways living our tourist version of the American Dream (‘oh look, a cactus!’ – ‘why do they call it gas? it’s not a gas, it’s a liquid?! crazy Americans!’).

We’d been sat in the road-block for a while as dusk fell, looking forward to drinks in the lodge at Grand Canyon Village. We’d come up the road from Flagstaff – same as Danny Ray, if only we’d known – and the hold-up was frustrating and unexplained, though as it was America’s holiday weekend – coming up to 4 July – delays could be expected.

First we knew was when we wound down the window.

“Folks, we’re advising everyone to turn back”.

By now, Horning had been sighted at various points in Grand Canyon National Park, but had always managed to slip away. Checkpoints were set, with the thought that he’d probably try to escape by hijack or kidnap, using tourists as cover on America’s busiest holiday weekend.

But we had a reservation, and the lodge was just a few miles ahead. We were from out of town, we had nowhere else to go? Was the officer sure we couldn’t just drive on to our accommodation?

“Well all right. I can’t stop you. But may God help you!”

It was all in the intonation.

A long ride on a dark road

I don’t know exactly how many miles it was, but that was a long ride through the trees on a dark road.

Danny Ray Horning was armed and dangerous, had been on the run for six weeks, and had already hijacked at least three vehicles in the last few days, escaping every time. We didn’t know that, but we had been told by an US law enforcement officer – with a gun! at an actual American roadblock! – that a very bad man was at large somewhere in the Grand Canyon, looking for a way out. And we treated it as seriously as a British person treats most edicts from authority – oh it can’t be that bad, I’m sure it’s all fine, as long as we’re careful, let’s have a cup of tea.

Even so – not quite believing that anything would happen – it was still a long ride through the trees on a dark road. Half-expecting a man to emerge from the shadows pointing a gun, but not really, because that would be crazy, what kind of country is this?

The atmosphere at the lodge, when we got there, unmolested, was subdued. Others, doubtless more sensible, had clearly not made the same trip we had – had turned round when offered the chance. We drank a quiet drink and ate a quiet meal, and turned in to bed, listening to the rustle of the wind and the creak of the boards and eventually falling asleep, though never feeling fully reassured that a man who’s name we didn’t yet know wasn’t lurking somewhere outside.

Too grand to appreciate?

The next day we stood at the viewpoint and marvelled at the grandeur while arguing about its relative impression. As a spectacle, the Grand Canyon is too big, too large to appreciate. Does everyone say that? It’s almost 280 miles long and up to 18 miles wide in places. Those are crazy numbers for the mind to manage. You don’t peer over the edge, at a plummeting rock shelf that falls to a snaking river – as in the Westerns you’ve seen, the novels you’ve read. Instead, you look out over shimmering swathes of graded colours that fall away into an interlocking landscape of bluffs, peaks, table-tops and valleys. You try to take in its vast scale and fail miserably, as a mere human in a natural tableaux of godly proportions.

We peered through some binoculars and took some photos, and then we left on the five-hour drive to Las Vegas, where a phantom escaped convict rather pales into insignificance when confronted with the unrealities that unfold every day in that miraculous city in the desert – where Venice and Camelot, Frank and Elvis, Caravaggio and Elton, all somehow come into sharper view than the river at the bottom of a mile-deep canyon.

That’s where my Grand Canyon story might have finished – a not-quite tale of a non-encounter, which I’ve recounted many times – if I hadn’t thought to Google ‘escaped convict grand canyon 1992’ when I first thought about writing this piece. All I had was an anecdote and half a story, but the internet gave me the rest.

That’s when I learned that our escaped convict had a name – Danny Ray Horning; and that Danny Ray was no Rambo or Robin Hood but a thoroughly nasty piece of work, not just a prison escapee but also the chief suspect in an ongoing murder and dismemberment case.

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

So Danny Ray Horning was a genuinely bad and dangerous man. And two days after we had driven through the road-blocks, into and out of the Grand Canyon, ignoring the police warnings, he emerged from his hiding place somewhere in the forest. He walked up to the viewpoint parking area, pulled his gun and kidnapped two British tourists, and then forced them to drive their rental car out of the park, slipping through the net one more time. Mercifully, that’s all he did – eventually tying them to a tree and making a final short-lived escape before finally being captured on 5 July 1992, after seven weeks on the run.

Two British tourists. Not us, but two others who probably also thought that things like that just don’t happen, it can’t be that bad, I’m sure it’s all fine, as long as we’re careful, let’s have a cup of tea.

And this is where my newly minted Grand Canyon story might have finished, except for one more odd coincidence. Down at the bottom of one of the online stories I used for source material about Danny Ray Horning was a link to another newspaper story in a publication from my English hometown of Huddersfield in Yorkshire.

Arizona, meet Yorkshire

After his capture and re-arrest, Danny Ray had subsequently been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. While on death row in San Quentin State Prison in California he had struck up a pen-pal relationship with a retired teacher from Huddersfield, who – the Huddersfield Daily Examiner was reporting in 2013 – believed in his innocence and was planning on visiting him.

After that, the trail runs cold and my story comes to an end. California announced a moratorium on the death penalty in 2019, so Danny Ray Horning remains – as far as I know – in prison. The Grand Canyon endures, its unfathomable gulf widening and deepening, grain by grain, year by year. Looking back at the photos I took on that July holiday weekend almost thirty years ago, I still can’t decide if it’s the most impressive natural wonder I’ve ever visited, or the most over-rated. And America continues to be the most recognisable yet strangest place on the planet, a land where Arizona and Huddersfield can collide against all odds, where escaped convicts do hide in the trees, and where police officers should probably be taken at their word.

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I’m indebted to this post by Jake Case at Territory Supply for the full story about Danny Ray Horning and Arizona’s biggest manhunt.

Image: Grand Canyon by Paul Fundenburg, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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