Treasure Hunters and the Desert Madness

LASD SEB (SWAT) was called in. They approached the structures in an armored car. Suspect Kueck engaged the SEB vehicle with his .223 assault rifle giving away his position. A heavier LAPD SWAT armored battering ram was brought up and tear gas was fired into the wooden structure.

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Los Angeles sits in the middle of a huge desert. Only the water stolen from the Colorado River or the lakes in the northern part of the state and pumped in through aqueducts or pulled from wells in the ground keep the L.A. basin from returning to scrub of tumbleweeds and yucca cactus that it used to be. The city and county consume millions of cubic feet of water every day, but it is still a desert.

The tiny pueblo mission "Queen of the Angels" was founded by mostly mulatto and mestizo pilgrims and built from the adobe mud bricks and the sweat of their brows. But in 1849 gold was discovered in California, and Los Angeles enjoyed the financial boom of the gold rush. The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department was founded in 1850, and the first weapon issued to a sheriff's deputy to aid in keeping the peace was not a pistol or a rifle. It was a lance.

Back in the mid-1800s, Los Angeles drew good men like the mission fathers or the first Los Angeles Sheriff George Thompson Burrill. It was also the home of good men like Native American Chief Juan Antonio of the Coahuilla tribe, who twice saved the pueblo from marauders. Bad men also were attracted to the tiny town. Texas gunman and outlaw Jim Irving and his gang called the Irving Party roamed the vast territory. They say the gold fever drove some of these men to madness.

Today, mad men continue to roam the great expanses and remote areas surrounding Los Angeles.

In 2003 a new form of treasure hunter and prospector searched this desert.

The remote areas around Los Angeles are littered with "old cooks," or the remains of old clandestine methamphetamine labs. The toxic byproducts of the illicit production of meth are normally just dumped into the soil to contaminate the ground with their poison.

But one man's poison is another man's treasure. Destitute meth users called "treasure hunters" have started mining these sites. These bottom-of-the-barrel users find an old cook site and shovel the contaminated soil into barrels or vats and then mix the residue with acetone or kerosene and wash the chemicals through filters to yield methamphetamine.

One such "treasure hunter" was Donald Charles Kueck, a male white of 52 years. He stood 6 foot, 2 inches and weighed about 160 pounds. Kueck had dirty brown hair pulled back into a pony tail and brown eyes. He wore a mustache and a long goatee and looked like some one who might have roamed the 1850's desert of L.A. A petty criminal with associations to the Hells Angels motorcycle gang and the Peckerwoods, he had succeeded in alienating even these "good" citizens. He was unemployed and unable to work because of a back injury and received about $200 a month disability income. He was addicted to pain medication and meth and very paranoid. In September of 2001 he sliced a victim with a box cutter in Riverside California for menacing him.

Donald Kueck had a stepdaughter and grand daughter living in the city of Riverside. Kueck's sister was a commander in the U.S. Navy stationed in Pensacola, Fla. He gave the address of 19100 East Avenue S-8, Llano, Calif., when booked. However, it was his habit to roam the remote areas near Lake Los Angeles and squat when he found a treasure site. Llano is an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County and the "lake" would be considered a small pond in most places. It is east of Palmdale and Lancaster and south of the huge Edwards Air Force base.

One of the major problems in these remote areas is squatters. People without resources or who have given up on our society just drive out into the desert and park a trailer or bus or old car somewhere. This becomes their squatter's home site. No rent or association dues are collected. In fact no electric bills, gas bills, telephone bills, or utilities of any type are required.

Sometimes the squatters will form small groups or communities for protection. These group sites sometimes take up a fortress like formation. Trailers and vehicles are parked in the center and then lean-tos and tin and board structures are built around them with a protecting wall of wooden pallets sometimes several stories high surrounding the center. If you have ever watched Mel Gibson in one of the "Mad Max" movies you have an idea about what such a compound looks like.

There are no addresses on these structures; many of them are not on any surveyed street or even on a dirt road. If you approach these sites in a vehicle your dust can be seen for a great distance away. If you approach on foot, the dogs and small children announce your drawing close. It was like Vietnam for me; walking toward a village not knowing if it was friendly or hostile. This required moving in the open across open fields vulnerable to ambush on every side.

But even in these hermit communities there are individuals who choose to be loners. Donald Charles Kueck was one of these. He considered himself a survivalist and stashed cashes of water, food, and ammunition for his Daewoo K-2 .223 rifle in hiding places scattered in the desert. The meth and its toxins, the desert, and his own personal paranoia combined to make him a dangerous man.

One of the good men working this area was Resident Deputy Sheriff Stephen Sorenson. A resident deputy does not work out of a police station, he or she lives in the rural community he or she polices and works from home. You may find it hard to believe that this actually still exists in Los Angeles County, but it does. There are advantages to working and living in this remote rural setting. You get to know everybody over the years, where they live, what they drive, and what they are about. There are disadvantages too. The bad guys know where you live and who your family members are.

Dep. Stephen Sorensen and Donald Charles Kueck knew each other. They had a history. In 1994 Kueck had supposedly threatened Sorenson after he was involved in a traffic accident with Sorenson. Sorenson had run Kueck off from trespassing or squatting on private property and "prospecting" for chemical treasure in the past. Since then things had been tense, but Sorenson had successfully handled each encounter.

Recently there had been reports that Kueck and another treasure hunter had been squatting on private land on a semi-abandoned dirt air field. The field was near Sorenson's home so he checked on it as he drove by on and off duty.

On a hot, lazy Saturday morning, August 2, 2003, Sorenson arrived home and jumped into his uniform and started up his Sheriff's SUV Patrol Vehicle. He told his wife that he had seen a small trailer trespassing on the airport property and thought it might be Kueck. He drove off toward the airport. He parked and approached a small travel trailer, the kind you would pull behind a sedan. He confronted the man who walked out of the trailer; it was one of Kueck's associates. After a quick look around, Sorenson ordered the treasure hunter off the property.

"Where is Kueck?" Sorenson asked. He was told that Kueck was about 200 yards further down the dirt path. As he drove toward the tiny trailer used by Kueck, he was unaware that Kueck had spotted his approach. In another fit of paranoia, Kueck had armed himself with his Daewoo K-2 South Korean assault rifle. Some speculate that Kueck may have thought that he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest in another matter.

He was on the makeshift porch of the trailer as Sorenson exited his patrol SUV and approached. Kueck unleashed his weapon firing numerous times at the vulnerable Sorenson. The .223 rounds ripped through Sorenson's body armor. Sorenson managed to draw and fire his 9MM Beretta 92 F but missed Kueck and struck the trailer. Sorenson was down. Kueck approached the mortally wounded Deputy and fired his Daewoo point blank into his head.

Donald Charles Kueck then took the Beretta and police radio from the fallen Sorenson. He then tried to take the patrol vehicle but for some reason was unable to start it with Sorenson's keys. Witnesses passing the scene some distance away on a nearby road would later report hearing shots and seeing someone (not a Deputy) trying to start the LASD vehicle. Kueck then tied the Deputy's body to the rear bumper of his car. He dragged the body away from the trailer into the desert. Apparently the rope he used broke and he continued driving for a while then abandoned his vehicle and walked into the vast desert taking the Daewoo, Sorenson's Beretta and police radio.

Patrol cars from the Lancaster and Palmdale Sheriff's Station responded to the area following up on the witness reports of gunfire and a suspect trying to take a sheriff's SUV. They located Kueck's trailer and followed the blood and drag marks to Sorenson's body. The suspect had managed to dump the body very near Sorenson's home.

Dep. Javier Clift, Dep. Mike McCravy, and I happened to be in Palmdale area with an informant at the time of the shooting and responded to the command post. Soon most of our Major Crimes Unit would form up in three squads and begin a weeklong search of the desert bad lands.

My unit was a plainclothes detective unit. We had only three AR-15 patrol rifles and several shotguns to supplement our 9mm Berettas and 15 men and women. So I authorized an additional three "civilian" ARs to be carried. We wore the field equipment we could find including an assortment of ballistic vests and camelback hydration systems. Nylon web gear and nylon raid jackets completed our uniforms, and we stepped out across the open desert. We drove our vehicles when we could but often we had to move on foot searching for this armed and dangerous cop killer.

I then became aware that very few of my detectives knew how to move tacitly across open ground. They were all proficient in urban settings and dynamic entries but few had experience in approaching armed suspects on open ground. Luckily two or three detectives were recently active duty military, so they became valuable in helping the others learn how to move in wedge and line formations.

We also received unexpected aid from the Riverside District Attorney's Office. DA Investigators Bob Creed and my old Compton High School friend Bernie Skiles, had provided us with information on the suspect's stepdaughter and cell phone numbers. Kueck had been calling his stepdaughter. Kueck had gone into hiding in the desert near the home of a friend. My unit surrounded the home and maintained surveillance of the several wooden structures around the main house.

LASD Homicide Detectives Sgt. J. Percell and Det. P. Guzman had contacted Donald Kueck on his cell phone. Kueck admitted the murder of Dep. Sorenson but refused to surrender. He was somewhere on the property we were survelling.

LASD SEB (SWAT) was called in. They approached the structures in an armored car. Suspect Kueck engaged the SEB vehicle with his .223 assault rifle giving away his position. A heavier LAPD SWAT armored battering ram was brought up and tear gas was fired into the wooden structure.

Kueck continued to fire at the armored vehicles and the tactical officers, but the house began to smoke and eventually was completely engulfed in flames. Soon officers could hear rounds going off inside the house, but were unsure if Kueck was still firing his Daewoo or the rounds were just cooking off in his 30-round magazines from the fire.

By the next morning it was all over. Donald Charles Kueck's charred body was found smoldering alongside his Daewoo K-2 rifle. Dep. Sorenson's Beretta and police radio were also found in the burned wreakage.

Dep. Stephen Sorenson was 46 years old and a 12-year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He is survived by his wife and son.

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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