Phantom In The Forest

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During the summer break after I left school, a man jumped bail at Leeds Crown Court, drove to a picnic site near Harrogate and shot a policeman in the head. The constable was found dead by the open door of his car. A massive manhunt in North Yorkshire began. The gunman went on the run to Nottinghamshire, where he broke into a house and tied a married couple together at the elbows. They were both shot in the head. He stole their car and escaped. The husband died but his wife survived and crawled to some neighbours to raise the alarm.

The killer drove up to Dalby Forest in the North Yorkshire Moors and was stopped by a police dog handler. The murderer drew a pistol, shot the policeman in the face and the dog attacked the man. He shot the dog twice. Both police officer and dog survived. The man set the stolen car alight and hid in the woods. The police found the car and a massive search was mounted with hundreds of police officers, many of whom were armed, dogs and helicopters. As darkness fell, the police withdrew and cordoned off the forest.

At daybreak, the fugitive couldn’t be found. The operation continued for the next two days. During this time, the police found the address of the murderer and discovered his identity. He was a keep-fit fanatic, who was obsessed with weapons and had some military experience in the SAS Reserves, although he failed to get in as his temperament was unsuitable. The police brought in a former soldier of the Parachute Regiment and SAS, who was a renowned survival expert, in order to hunt the man down.

Later that afternoon, two policemen followed up a lead about a suspicious man seen in Old Malton. When challenged, he pulled a pistol. One policeman got away, but the other was shot three times and died. The killer disappeared again and heavy rain hampered the search efforts over the next few days. He evaded capture, but was tracked to Malton and the town was sealed off.

The wanted man broke into a nearby house and secretly held its occupants captive. He stayed up all night talking to his hostages, learning from television reports that he was nicknamed the “Phantom in the Forest” and was being tracked by a former SAS soldier. At 3:30 a.m., the man bound and gagged his captives and left the house in a bid to escape. He laid a false trail, hoping to send the tracker in the opposite direction and then doubled back to nearby tennis courts where he hid beneath a large plastic sheet under a derelict lean-to.

The former hostages managed to get free at about 5 a.m. and called the police. The tracker went to where the man was last seen and marked some fresh footprints in the earth. He followed a trail across some grass and noticed a cobweb glistening with dew that looked like something had brushed against it. He moved forward on his stomach to the back of the tennis club where some fencing leant against a wall behind thick undergrowth. The tracker crept slowly on and noticed the plastic sheet. As he put his hand forward, a foot lashed out and hit him on the knee. He shouted to the armed police nearby, retraced his steps and hid behind a building. The police used stun grenades in an attempt to take the man alive, but he fired a shot and the police returned fire. When the police eventually found the criminal, he was dead. The post-mortem revealed he shot himself in the head.

On the final evening the fugitive was tracked down, Marky and I were on a long hike on the North Yorkshire Moors. That night we pitched a tent beside a forest. We had walked over twenty miles during the day and were heating up our dinner on a small gas stove when Marky put a transistor radio on. We learnt about the manhunt, which was about twenty-five miles from our makeshift campsite. After listening to the radio for a bit longer, we decided it was close enough for someone to make it over our way during the night. If we could go more than twenty miles in a day carrying full kit, a man on the run could easily do twenty-five overnight. We couldn’t hear any sounds of a search. No helicopters, no police, nothing. It was a still, warm night and the moonlight filtered an eerie haze through the trees.

Packing our kit in rucksacks, we moved into the forest. It was far enough in not to be seen by anyone moving near the forest, but close enough to see the edge of the trees. It was 11 p.m. by the time we were hiding in the woodland and settled into our sleeping bags over insulated mats. The radio was on low. It was exciting hearing updates about the manhunt until, at around 2 a.m., part of the search began to sweep toward us. This was serious and we thought about getting off the hills, but decided to stay quiet and still. We passed a long, sleepless night watching the pale grey-blue glow of the moon at the periphery of the forest and the darkness enveloping around. At 5:30 a.m., we moved slowly out of the forest, off the moorland and to a local village, where we got a lift home.

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