People

Survialist Fugitive, Death-Row Folk Hero: Danny Ray Horning

38 minute read
by Jake Case

danny ray horning

Following his escape from Florence State Prison in May 1992, convicted bank-robber turned fugitive Danny Ray Horning went on the run for seven weeks, resulting in the largest manhunt in Arizona history. Known as “Rambo” to his pursuers because of his skill at avoiding capture in the wilderness, Horning achieved folk hero status among the general public — viewed as something of a blue-collar Robin Hood. Unknown to the masses at the time, Horning had a dark and disturbing history back home in California’s Central Valley. As a suspect in a 1990 dismemberment murder case and convicted child molester, Horning was not your average fugitive. A tale of cold-blooded murder, wilderness survival, and much, much more: this is the true story of Danny Ray Horning.

danny ray horning fugitive

A Body in the Water

On a warm evening in September 1990, a fisherman named Mark Lawson went down to the banks of the San Joaquin River Delta near Stockton, California. On a little stretch of river called the Burns Cut — a popular fishing hole on the outskirts of town — Lawson cast his line out into the slow-moving current. Little did he know, his catch that night would kill his appetite.

His line in the water, Lawson felt a tug and spun the reel, only to come up with a large black garbage bag. As he pulled the bag out of the stream, a bulge indicated it contained something. Perhaps hoping for a hidden treasure — he opened it only to find a freshly severed human leg.

Disturbed and nauseated by the gruesome sight, Lawson fled the river and called the police.

The next morning, deputies from the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office scoured the banks on foot and dredged the river by boat in search of the rest of the dead body. They found yet another garbage bag containing two severed arms bound together with duct tape.

The search continued, turning up a human torso wrapped in a bed sheet and a freely floating human head. With the torso, they also found a pair of pants and some other clothing, a wallet, and a serrated steak knife — possibly the tool used to dismember the body.

The Sheriff’s department sent the body to a medical examiner, turning up two major clues. First, the fingerprints from the body matched the identity found on the wallet’s driver’s license. The deceased was Sammy McCullough, a local catfish farmer and marijuana dealer.

Furthermore, an autopsy revealed a .22 caliber bullet lodged in McCullough’s brain. Fired into his forehead point blank, the round most likely killed him instantly. The coroner also confirmed the body was, in fact, dismembered with a serrated knife.

With a full-blown murder investigation underway, Deputy Sheriff Armando Mayoya took on the role of lead investigator. He was immediately shocked to learn a crime of this magnitude could happen in his hometown.

“For someone to take the time to dismember a person, and to transport that person in different bags, and just dispose of the body without caring — it’s pretty callous and cold,” Mayoya said.

While Mayoya sorted out McCullough’s identity, deputies located McCullough’s white Jeep Cherokee, abandoned a few miles away from his rural Stockton home. They noted the remarkably clean interior of the Jeep — the mats still damp as if someone recently scrubbed out the vehicle.

Mayoya’s investigation pivoted to search for concrete details about how McCullough’s body ended up in the water. Fortunately, an outdoorsman named James Castro found himself down by the river the night the body was dumped.

The evening before Lawson’s horrific find, Castro camped on the banks of the Burns Cut. At one point, he noticed a white Jeep Cherokee driving back and forth along the Cut. The Jeep moved quickly as if the driver was in a hurry.

When the car stopped by the river, Castro heard the sound of multiple crashes in bushes and splashes in the water. It sounded as if a load of junk was thrown from the vehicle into the river.

From Castro’s statement, Mayoya postulated that McCullough’s killer dismembered the dead body, transported the remains using McCullough’s Jeep, and dumped the body near Castro’s campsite.

Next, Mayoya and his team paid a visit to McCullough’s home, believing it the most likely location of the murder. Vicki Pease and Shirley Sanders, McCullough’s girlfriends, were already on site. At first glance, the home appeared clean and undisturbed — not the typical conditions of a murder scene.

However, Pease reported that many of McCullough’s possessions were missing, including his already recovered Jeep Cherokee, two shotguns, a revolver, and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

Despite the home’s clean appearance, detectives went over it with a fine-toothed comb, searching for the slightest disturbance that might shed light on how the murder went down.

One deputy noticed the glimmer of a shiny object caught on the lip of the bathtub’s drain. Lodged inside was a small fragment of human bone. As they probed deeper, detectives discovered blood and human tissue caught in the trap.

In the kitchen, a cutlery set was missing one piece: a steak knife. The set matched the serrated knife found in the river with the body. Detectives were all but certain McCullough’s murder happened here in his own home, his body dismembered in his own bathtub, using a steak knife from his own kitchen.

Introducing the Hornings

The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is a database that contains records of missing persons and stolen property and is used by law enforcement agencies nationwide to share information. Detectives can search to see if stolen items have been found elsewhere, and can request notification if reported items turn up at a later time.

Mayoya found records of the serial numbers for McCullough’s missing firearms and entered them into the NCIC. Should they turn up, the killer might turn up with them.

With no other leads to follow from the Burns Cut or McCullough’s home, Mayoya dug into the victim’s personal history. The search turned up police records indicating McCullough had a target on his back more than once in the past.

A known drug dealer, McCullough kept a lot of cash around the home, which made him a frequent target of burglaries committed by Stockton’s lowlifes.

Most notably, McCullough was robbed at gunpoint in his home about two years prior to his murder. Authorities arrested and charged Steven Horning — one of five Horning brothers native to San Joaquin County — with the crime.

Under the impression McCullough’s murder may have been a crime of vengeance, detectives paid a visit to Steven Horning’s older brother Timothy, a local security guard and the easiest to track down of the Horning clan.

Timothy Horning told the authorities of Steven’s inseparability from one of the other brothers, Danny Ray Horning. When deputies mentioned Burns Cut, Timothy revealed the Hornings frequented the Cut for years as a favorite hunting and fishing retreat.

When asked to elaborate, Timothy described Danny Ray as especially adept at butchering animals, and once witnessed his brother dismember a deer in the bathtub, meticulously clean up the blood, and place the deer’s meat and body waste in trash bags — details hauntingly similar to that of McCullough’s murder.

The detectives also learned Steven and Danny Ray lived in a trailer behind their parents’ home in Stockton. With evidence mounting, a judge issued a search warrant for deputies to search the residence.

When authorities arrived at the trailer, no one was home. Unable to get inside, the detectives searched the yard nearby. In the grass next to the trailer they found a Western Field .22 caliber rifle hacked into two pieces. Recalling the .22 caliber bullet retrieved from McCullough’s body, deputies entered the sawed-off rifle into evidence as a potential murder weapon.

The following day, deputies returned to the trailer. Steven Horning answered the door, only to be arrested on the charge of murder. Mayoya, however, knew they still needed more evidence, and they needed to find Danny Ray Horning.

The Poor Dog

In custody, Steven Horning denied knowledge of or participation in McCullough’s murder and claimed to be unaware of Danny Ray Horning’s whereabouts. Authorities then questioned the father of the five Horning brothers, who recalled Danny Ray’s ownership of a .22 caliber rifle.

The Horning’s father also divulged a particularly disturbing story about his two inseparable sons.

One day while hanging out in the yard with the family dog, Danny Ray and Steven decided to use the dog as target practice. Danny Ray mercilessly fired a fatal round into the dog’s head while Steven shot at it with his crossbow.

The two men laughed about their escapade with no remorse for the poor dog. The brothers buried the dead dog in the grass next to their trailer.

With the intent to determine if Danny Ray Horning’s rifle was the same one that killed Sammy McCullough, deputies searched for the dog’s grave in the field by the Hornings’ trailer. They excavated a recently disturbed patch of dirt. After exhuming the deceased canine, a deputy removed a .22 caliber bullet from the corpse.

Tests by a ballistics lab concluded both bullets — the one from McCullough and the one from the dog — were indeed fired from a Western Field .22 caliber rifle. The lab also determined both bullets were likely fired from the sawed-off rifle removed from the Hornings’ property.

Detectives resumed their interrogation of Steven Horning. Pressured by a pile of incriminating evidence growing by the day, Steven surrendered additional details about the Hornings’ interactions with Sammy McCullough.

Steven revealed he taken the fall and served the time for the 1988 McCullough robbery which also involved Danny Ray. When McCullough pressed charges and a conviction ultimately sent Steven to prison, Danny Ray vowed to kill McCullough for turning in his brother.

Danny Ray was unable to carry out his initial threat as he went to prison himself following his conviction on charges of child molestation — the victim: his six-year-old daughter. Horning was released on parole in June 1990, three months before McCullough’s murder.

Lacking evidence to hold him further, Steven Horning was released from custody in December 1990. However, Deputy Mayoya had enough evidence to be almost certain Danny Ray Horning was guilty of McCullough’s murder.

However, deputies were unable to track down Danny Ray’s whereabouts, and the case turned cold. It would be another year and a quarter before Mayoya would receive any new information about Danny Ray Horning.

danny ray horning winslow

Horning Resurfaces

On March 22, 1991, Danny Ray Horning found himself in the small town of Winslow, Arizona. Broke and desperate, he walked into the Valley National Bank, armed with a 9mm handgun. As he pointed the pistol at the bank’s manager, Horning instructed the teller to fill a bag with cash.

As the teller filled the bag with $25,000, she secretly tripped a silent alarm. Unbeknownst to Horning, an SOS went immediately to the Winslow Police Department, one block’s distance from the bank.

Officers responded to the robbery in progress within two minutes of the SOS call. As the lead detective approached the bank’s front door, he could see Horning as he backed up toward the door with his arm around a hostage.

When he reached the doorway, Horning released the hostage and pushed through the exit. He stepped out onto the sidewalk only to find the detective’s handgun pressed to his ribs. The detective took Horning’s gun and loot, pushed him up against a wall, and placed him under arrest.

When detectives at the Winslow Police Department ran Horning’s information through the NCIC, it came back with a murder warrant issued in San Joaquin County, California.

Back in Stockton, Deputy Mayoya received the good news when a detective from Winslow called to announce Horning’s arrest. Based on the information on Horning’s murder warrant, the detective informed Mayoya of a 9mm handgun recovered from Horning and gave Mayoya the gun’s serial number.

When he ran the serial number, Mayoya found it registered to Sammy McCullough.

Florence, a Short Flirtation

In the months following Horning’s arrest in Winslow, the state of California declined to extradite him for the McCullough murder case. From the slew of charges pressed on Horning for the robbery, it was imminent he would face a long sentence in an Arizona prison.

The Winslow robbery case went to trial, and Horning was found guilty of armed robbery, assault, and kidnapping. At sentencing, he gave the public a first glimpse of the gutsy character he would portray on a grand stage months later.

He dared the judge to give him the maximum sentence possible — as a challenge to himself and an insult to the judicial system as a whole. Horning vowed to escape, even if locked down under maximum security, and bragged he would be out within months no matter how long they intended to keep him.

The judge accepted Horning’s challenge and handed him four consecutive life sentences to be served in Arizona’s Florence State Prison.

At Florence, Horning was indeed housed in the prison’s level 5 maximum security Central Unit. However, Horning work assignment turned into an opportunity to stay true on his promise to the judge.

Through his job as a janitor, Horning regularly cleaned both the infirmary and the kitchen. He was often left unattended, or in the company of other inmates, to complete his tasks.

In the kitchen, Horning obtained a pair of white pants from another inmate. From the infirmary, Horning stole a white lab coat. Along the way, he also swiped an employee ID carelessly left out in the open.

By obtaining these key items, Horning had a disguise with which to facilitate an escape.

danny ray horning florence

Escape

On the afternoon of May 12, 1992, the guards assigned to perform the 4pm headcount discovered Horning had not returned to his cell. The prison went on lockdown, but a search for Horning came up empty.

Earlier in afternoon, while on a work assignment, the convict donned his disguise. Wearing the stolen clothing and ID badge, Danny Ray Horning walked, unnoticed, out of Florence State Prison and into the free world.

As Horning escaped from an Arizona State Prison, the Arizona Department of Corrections initially organized the manhunt. However, law enforcement agencies statewide received a “be on the lookout” bulletin in regard to Horning.  The search for the fugitive ultimately involved hundreds of officers from local, county, state, and federal offices.

Officers set out into the surrounding desert by foot, horseback, truck, and helicopter — even with the aid of tracking dogs — but Horning disappeared from the immediate area.

Within a few days of the escape, the FBI commandeered what would become the largest and most time-consuming manhunt in Arizona history.

Based on his criminal record dating back to 1979, the FBI considered Horning a significant threat to the world at large. The FBI was especially concerned the fugitive would return to Winslow and take revenge on the employees at the Valley National Bank or the officers at the Winslow Police Department.

Already a few steps ahead of his trackers, perhaps Horning had a hunch the FBI expected him to head north toward Winslow. In a clever counter maneuver, the fugitive decided to head in the opposite direction, but not without stopping for supplies.

On May 15, deputies from the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department responded to a reported burglary at a rural farmhouse about fifteen miles west of Florence. The property owner told officers of his return home to find numerous missing items, including some clothes and food, a pair of binoculars, and a loaded .44 magnum revolver. Deputies found Horning’s fingerprints at the crime scene.

Horning hitched a ride south to Tucson as authorities focused on the territory to the north. On May 19, he robbed the Tucson branch of the Valley National Bank — perhaps out of revenge rather than coincidence — and made his getaway, of all things, on a bicycle. Horning did not reappear for another two weeks.

Rambo

As the FBI expected, Horning inevitably made his way back up to Northern Arizona. In possession of $2,300 from his most recent heist, he paid a stranger $200 to drive him up to the cool pines of the Arizona High Country.

On June 3, a US Forest Service Ranger spotted Horning in the woods of the Mogollon Rim near Blue Ridge Reservoir. The fugitive disappeared back into a thicket before the officer could catch him. Like deja vu, this same sequence would happen numerous times to officers over the next few weeks.

Witnesses spotted Horning again on June 5, this time another thirty miles north near Mormon Lake. The Arizona Department of Corrections unleashed a canine unit into the woods to sniff him out but Horning vanished again.

As an experienced hunter and outdoorsman, Horning was adept at living in the wilderness for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. Also skilled at covering his tracks, walking in circles, and other deceptive techniques, Horning stayed a few steps ahead of his trackers.

More than once Horning claimed his stint in the US Army provided with him with Special Forces survival training. However, his brother Rodney later rebuked the claim and stated to reporters that Horning was no more than a tank mechanic and received no special training in survival or deception.

Regardless of how he accumulated his skillset, officers began referring to Horning as “Rambo” — after Sylvester Stallone’s character in the 1980s First Blood film series — for his tendency to lose his pursuers amidst some of Arizona’s most mountainous terrain.

Horning would later scoff at the nickname, preferring to belittle his pursuers rather than accept the compliment.

“I think anybody that knows the woods at all could have done the same thing. I just went down obstacle courses that (the police) are too lazy to go through and the dogs can’t go through: down cliffs, up cliffs, through nice little springs, through thick brush,” Horning told reporters.

However, the FBI and other agencies involved in the hunt defended their tactics, even under the scrutiny from Horning himself. Officials emphasized caution above else as agents gave chase and a reckless Horning dove headfirst into the unrelenting Arizona canyon country.

While their fugitive might scale cliffs and push hard through bush-choked washes, hundreds of men in pursuit doing the same would inevitably result in injury or death at some point. While Horning was daring just like John Rambo, authorities knew if they kept cool and patient, the fugitive would eventually run out of gas.

danny ray horning arizona

He’s No Robin Hood

In order to survive alone out in the pine forest, Horning returned to civilization for supplies from time to time. Largely dependent on raiding cabins and vacation homes, he targeted empty residences in the forest to resupply on food, clothes, and weapons.

On June 12, Horning burglarized several homes near the town of Pine, taking not only food and guns but also a 1980 Chevrolet pickup truck.

Now one month into the manhunt, Horning’s escapades gained fame and attention, not just in Arizona, but nationwide. Every news cycle, whether in the newspaper or on television, the hunt for Horning always made the lead story.

Always the charmer, he knew he could win over at least some of the public’s affection through the sensational reporting of the news media. During his latest rash of burglaries, Horning left notes taunting the cops and thanking the victims for sacrificing supplies for his cause.

While this gave the authorities even more motivation to find Horning, he became a Robin Hood-esque folk hero as news hit of his thank-you note burglaries.

Only known as an escaped bank robber at that time, the public saw Horning as an average blue collar American fallen on tough times and forced into a life of crime. The thank-you notes offered proof to his apologists of his kind heart — they thought of his burglaries and robberies as a necessity to his survival.

Unbeknownst to the public were Horning’s history as a child molester and murderer in California.  Perhaps he wasn’t such a saint after all? Law enforcement knew better, and coined a new running joke: “He’s no Robin Hood.”

Horning’s Master Plan

Two days prior to the Pine burglaries, Arizona Governor Fife Symington declared a state of emergency, releasing additional state funds to aid local agencies in the manhunt.

Predicting the authorities would be ramping up their efforts, Horning used his freshly stolen truck to drive across state lines and away from the increased police presence in North Central Arizona.

After hiding out for a week in the vicinity of Socorro, New Mexico, he drove back into the hornet’s nest as a civilian spotted him driving the stolen pickup near Payson, Arizona on June 21. By the time officers responded to the Payson report, Horning left town and drove over Chavez Pass in the direction of Winslow.

Despite the FBI’s concerns, Horning forwent a vengeful attack on his former captors. Instead, he bypassed Winslow and headed west toward Flagstaff with something else in mind. His success at losing the authorities while gaining fame in the news bolstered his confidence. He wasn’t just on the run for the hell of it now – Horning formulated a plan.

The peak of tourist season descended on the Grand Canyon Region, and Horning conspired to find a wealthy family to take hostage and use to negotiate a ransom – one that would ensure his personal freedom and financial stability for life.

To identify a family with enough wealth to satisfy his ransom demands, he intended to find one in a large RV. He figured a family owning a big motorcoach must have enough wealth to set him up for life. He planned to start his search for hostages when he got to Flagstaff.

Soon after he reached the city, a Flagstaff Police officer spotted Horning while driving on Lake Mary Road near the south end of town. A high-speed pursuit ensued southbound on the highway but ended abruptly when Horning abandoned the truck and vanished into the woods near Mormon Lake.

Horning’s plan would not be foiled so easily as he returned to Flagstaff a few days later on June 25. He thought the busy truck stop at the Little America Hotel looked promising as a place to start his search but was unable to find the right victims.

Moving his search to Flagstaff’s historic downtown, Horning continued on foot, walking the streets of a lively neighborhood overrun with tourists. A police officer took notice of Horning but didn’t immediately recognize Arizona’s most wanted man. While the lawman scrutinized Horning’s face, the fugitive snuck into a nearby hotel.

Worried the officer would recognize him and make chase, Horning looked to create a diversion and ensure he didn’t get any more unwanted attention. Truth is stranger than fiction: Horning noticed a puff of dark smoke radiating out of a nearby building — a fire! He could not have dreamed of a better diversion.

Horning notified the desk clerk of the smoke and told him to call 911 — all but ensuring the emergency would summon the cop away. Once Horning heard the sirens of emergency vehicles on the block, he ducked back out onto the street and fled the scene.

Spooked by the close call with the street cop, Horning turned desperate to get out of town but needed a car. A few blocks away on Historic Route 66, Horning staked out the parking lot of a clothing store and waited.

A few minutes later he watched as Andrew Lakritz and Kathryn Falk — a middle-aged couple from Flagstaff — exited the store and climbed into their white Ford Taurus sedan. Horning jumped in the backseat of the sedan and pointed a stolen .44 magnum at the unsuspecting couple.

Prodding Lakritz with the revolver, Horning told him to drive west out of town.

As Horning plotted his next move in the backseat, the sedan barreled westbound on Interstate 40. When the threesome reached Kingman, two hours west of Flagstaff, Horning ordered Lakritz to turn around and head back in the opposite direction.

As they drove, Horning bragged about his outlaw lifestyle and unveiled his plan to kidnap and extort a wealthy family. Again flashing the revolver, Horning told them he would kill any policeman attempting to pull them over.

Horning thought his hostages must be impressed and scared enough to obey his commands — even in a crowd — and decided to head to the Grand Canyon South Rim and its heavy concentration of tourists.

When the car approached the small town of Williams, thirty-five miles shy of Flagstaff, Horning ordered Lakritz to exit the interstate. After forcing the couple to withdraw $1,500 from their bank account, Horning made the order to drive north on Highway 64.

danny ray horning grand canyon

Shots Fired

Somehow, Horning and the hostages managed to walk into the historic El Tovar Hotel and book a room for the night without attracting attention.

At some point during his time with Lakritz and Falk, the couple listened as Horning used a tape recorder to prepare his ransom demands in anticipation of taking hostage a wealthy RV-owning family.

Via the recording, Horning told the presumed hostage negotiators he wanted $1 million cash, his own freedom, and the freedom of his brother Jerry (at the time incarcerated in Florence Prison for child molestation) in exchange for the safe release of the hostages. If his demands were not met, Horning promised to kill all of the hostages, including Lakritz and Falk.

The next day, June 26, Horning and the couple left their hotel room and drove down the street to Babbitt’s General Store. In the parking lot, Horning finally identified a travel trailer parked in the lot that suited his fancy. Parked next to the van accompanying to the trailer, Horning, Lakritz, and Falk waited in the sedan until the RV’s owners returned.

In the late afternoon, Sophia and Manuel Norman Sr. — along with Sophia’s brother Wilfred Hutson and their 15-year-old son Manuel Norman Jr. — returned from an action-packed day at Grand Canyon to find the Horning and the couple waiting by the trailer.

Horning greeted the family and told them he was interested in buying a trailer himself and wanted to have a look inside. Per Horning’s request, Norman Sr. joined the fugitive at the back of the trailer while the rest of the family waited by the van. Lakritz and Falk remained in their sedan, horrified.

After a couple minutes, Sophia Norman grew suspicious and sent Norman Jr. to check on his father.

As Norman Jr. rounded the corner, he saw Horning pointing a revolver at Norman Sr. The boy immediately realized Horning’s intent to kidnap his family.

In an amazing display of quick thinking and situational awareness, Norman Jr. remembered seeing a park ranger in the parking lot nearby. Without missing a beat, the 15-year-old ran toward the patrol car parked a few dozen yards away.

Ranger Donny Miller, a law enforcement officer with the National Park Service, occupied the driver’s seat of the patrol car as Norman Jr. ran up to the car and waved. While Miller was aware of the Horning manhunt and had a newspaper clipping of Horning’s mugshot in his back pocket, he was not aware the fugitive was anywhere near the Grand Canyon.

Norman Jr. now pointed at the travel trailer and said to the officer, “You’ve got to stop him, he’s taking my dad! He’s kidnapping my family!”

Miller sprang into action, threw the police cruiser into gear, and drove across the parking lot toward the trailer. Norman Jr. ran behind the patrol car and shouted, “He’s got a gun!”

As he pulled up to the trailer, Miller initially saw nothing more than a few adults hanging out. Norman Jr.’s shouting spooked Horning, who stuffed the revolver back inside his coat.

Before Miller’s next move, he radioed for backup, reporting an armed man making trouble in the general store parking lot. Three off-duty rangers heard the call and immediately raced to their patrol cars. A moment later, two more police cruisers headed to Horning’s foiled kidnapping scene.

Horning — now clean shaven with dyed strawberry blonde hair (unlike the brown haired and mustachioed look from his mugshot) — stood a few away from Norman Sr., who rejoined his wife and brother-in-law by the van. The ranger still had no idea he was dealing with the infamous Danny Ray Horning.

Miller stepped halfway out of his car and instructed Horning to join Miller on the driver’s side of the police cruiser. Miller prepared to raise his shotgun when Horning pulled the revolver from his jacket and pointed it at the ranger.

As Miller ducked back into the cruiser, he grabbed the handgun from his holster and pointed it back at Horning. Through the passenger’s side window, Miller and Horning stared each other down, guns drawn.

The last thing Miller wanted was gunfire in the crowded parking lot. He hoped Horning would blink first and withdraw his weapon.

Horning granted Miller his wish. But as Horning lowered his weapon, he bolted to the sedan a few yards away. Horning jumped into the driver’s seat, fired up the sedan’s engine, and flew out of parking lot like a bat out of hell. Miller followed in hot pursuit.

The sedan, followed closely by Miller’s cruiser, crossed over the park’s main road and into another parking lot just as a Ranger program ended nearby. People on foot crossed the lot in groves as Horning punched the accelerator, narrowly dodging the pedestrians as he sped through.

Horning realized the parking lot was a dead end, and Miller blocked the only exit. In a desperate maneuver to escape, Horning swung the car off the pavement and into a nearby ditch, just as Miller’s backup arrived.

Two squad cars — one driven by Ranger John Piastruck and the other by Ranger Keith Lober — approached the scene quickly from the opposite direction.

Fortunately for Piastruck and his passenger — Ranger Chris Fors — their cruiser sped by at too high a speed to stop in time. Had they stopped, it might have cost them their lives.

Horning saw them coming, raised his Ruger out of the driver’s side window, and fired an errant shot at Piastruck’s cruiser as it passed by.

A few car lengths back, Lober saw Horning’s gun blast and hit the brakes, swerving his cruiser to a halt across the roadway in hopes of blocking Horning’s escape. Instead, Horning recklessly barreled around Lober’s cruiser and continued back toward the El Tovar at a high rate of speed.

Miller pulled out of the parking lot and raced down the road behind the sedan. As Horning screamed past the El Tovar, his speedometer read 70 miles per hour — on a road designed for less than half that speed. Miller slowed a bit knowing there was a hairpin turn up ahead. The main road curved hard left, and keeping straight meant crashing into the gate at Hermit Road.

As he flew down the narrow roadway, the sharp turn caught Horning by surprise. He slammed on the brakes and skidded through the gate. The windshield shattered, spraying shards of glass at tourists waiting at a nearby bus stop. The sedan screeched to a halt, as did Miller’s cruiser about fifteen yards away.

Miller jumped out of his cruiser, pointed his shotgun at the sedan, and shouted at Horning to exit the vehicle. The broken windshield seemed to be the only major damage to the sedan, so again Horning punched the gas, this time up the winding Hermit Road.

As the sedan accelerated up the hill, Horning turned over his right shoulder to fire his revolver back at the ranger. Falk ducked just in time as the fugitive fired off two rounds over her head and out the rear window.

Bystanders dove for cover as the shots rang out. Miller jumped back into his cruiser to continue the chase. When the ranger caught up to the sedan a mile and a half later, the Taurus was stopped in the middle of the road as Horning struggled to pull a backpack out of the car.

Miller’s cruiser skidded to a stop just feet from the sedan, and Horning fired off another gunshot at the ranger. Miller ducked for cover behind the wheel and wrestled the shotgun off the seat next to him.

Before Miller had a chance to exit his vehicle, the fugitive bailed from the wrecked sedan and disappeared into the woods. Miller found Lakritz and Falk in the backseat of the Taurus, dazed and speechless but unharmed.

 manhunt danny ray horning

Locked Down Canyon

Until Ranger Miller’s run-in with Horning at Babbitt’s General Store, authorities hadn’t seen the fugitive since he fled into the woods south of Flagstaff nearly a week earlier. Now that the FBI knew he was loose in the Grand Canyon, they refocused their manpower into the 1.3 million-acre national park.

After speaking with Lakritz and Falk, the FBI understood Horning’s intent to kidnap hostages for ransom.

As it was the busiest time of the year at Grand Canyon, Horning had plenty of potential hostages to choose from.

June 27, the day after Horning’s run-in with NPS rangers, the authorities suspected Horning may have dropped into the Canyon via one of its numerous hiking trails. This theory was bolstered by an eyewitness report from a tourist claiming to have seen Horning hike down the popular Bright Angel Trail.

For days, search teams canvassed the network of trails below the South Rim in 100-plus degree heat but came up with nothing.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) stationed roadblocks at the park’s exits where officers checked each vehicle in case the fugitive had stowed away. These efforts also came up empty-handed.

On June 29, Horning appeared at the Grandview Trailhead, about ten miles east of Grand Canyon Village. Just before sundown, Horning approached Jana Cerny and Zdenek Kel, an Oregon couple stricken with car trouble in the parking lot.

When the fugitive flashed his .44 Ruger and ordered the couple to get in the vehicle, they reported the car was overheated and refused to obey his commands. Horning insisted.

Suddenly Kel yelled “Run!” and bolted down the pavement toward the parking lot exit. As he looked over his shoulder, Kel saw the cold barrel of the .44 pointed right at his back. Kel stopped in his tracks, and Horning pointed the gun back at Cerny.

The woman expected Horning to shoot her then and there. When he didn’t, Cerny followed her boyfriend’s cue and bolted. As the couple ran up the road toward the highway, Horning jumped in their station wagon and chased after them. As the fugitive pulled alongside the runners, Horning shouted at Cerny, “Get in the car!”

Cerny refused and saw Horning glance nervously in the rearview mirror. Some sort of activity back in the parking lot caught Horning’s attention. In no mood for another run-in with the authorities, he punched the throttle and took off. Worried Horning would return for them, Cerny and Kel hid in the forest near the road before flagging down a passing motorist and hitching a ride back to town.

The next day, rangers found the couple’s Chevy Caprice wagon in a wreck by the side of the highway. Horning apparently crashed the overheated car into a pine tree and once again ran off into the woods.

Rangers, state troopers, deputies, and agents went hard after their fugitive in the never-ending plateau of Ponderosa Pine near Grandview Point. Horning was up to his old tricks. The tracking hounds on Horning’s scent walked in circles. Helicopters flying low over the trees tops failed at spotting the fugitive as he dove for cover at the sound of chopper blades. Horning continued to evade the trackers for five days before he made another move.

danny ray horning desert

Master of Disguise

On July 4, Horning exited the pinyon-juniper forest near Desert View Point, a popular overlook fifteen miles east of the wrecked station wagon. Despite Horning’s mug appearing in every newspaper and TV news report for the previous month, the fugitive walked into the crowd at the viewpoint unnoticed.

Horning felt his trackers’ dragnet closing in on him, and sought to get out of the Grand Canyon. He needed a car, and he needed someone else to drive it so he could lay low in the backseat when it came time to navigate the roadblocks.

In the parking lot, he spotted Sally Edwards and Caroline Young as they approached their rented Nissan Sentra. Horning pulled out his trusty Ruger and ordered the two British graduate students into the front seat.

Slouched in the back, Horning commanded them to drive west toward Grand Canyon Village, his .44 poking the back of driver’s seat.

Lonely after a week alone in the wilderness, Horning was talkative. He bragged of his planned escape from the park for that day, July 4, as it would make for the heaviest traffic and give him the best chance to sneak through the roadblock. Instead of using the nearest exit by Desert View Point, he decided to leave via the much busier main gate.

As he rambled, the young women feared for their lives.

Seven miles south of Grand Canyon Village, Horning and his hostages exited Grand Canyon National Park. Just outside the park gate, a long line of traffic piled up behind the roadblock where deputies scrutinized each car in search of the fugitive. Horning changed appearance a week prior, and under the shade of a wide-brimmed straw hat, he rode past the officers unnoticed.

The fugitive was not home free just yet. Twenty miles south of the park gate, another roadblock awaited them. In the village of Valle, a DPS officer stood at the roadside, Horning’s mugshot in hand.

As the Nissan pulled up to his post, the officer noticed the terrified look on the women’s faces. When he peered into the back window, Horning tilted his head down to keep the hat’s brim over his face. Growing suspicious, the patrolman asked Horning to step out of the vehicle.

As he stood face-to-face with the most wanted man in America, the officer asked Horning to remove his hat. Horning in the flesh did not quite look like the face in the mugshot.

The officer second-guessed his intuition. In search of another clue, he asked the driver to open the trunk. Inside, he saw only luggage.

“Is there a problem, officer?” Horning asked.

The patrolman thanked Horning for his time and sent the car on its way.’

Horning’s Last Stand

Despite hundreds of officers from numerous agencies teaming up in an effort to catch Horning within the borders of Grand Canyon National Park, the fugitive managed to escape between the slippery fingers of the roadblocks.

Edwards and Young — still in the front seat as the Nissan traveled southbound toward Williams — no longer served a purpose for Horning, but he still needed their car.

Ten miles outside of Williams, Horning made the call to pull off onto a dirt road. Once out in the forest and well away from the highway, he ordered Edwards and Young to exit the vehicle. The two women were sure the fugitive was about to kill them.

As he tied the women to a tree, they begged, “Please don’t shoot us!”

Horning assured them he intended no harm, he just needed to escape. He dumped the women’s luggage onto the ground next to the tree and took off with the car.

Horning had tied their bonds loose and the two broke free within a few minutes. The women walked back to the highway and the safety of a nearby gas station where they called the police.

The fugitive bypassed Williams and headed toward Flagstaff in the hijacked Nissan, perhaps with the intent to seek another set of wealthy hostages while his trackers were still focused on Grand Canyon.

Horning didn’t even make it into town before a DPS officer identified the stolen vehicle as Horning sped down Interstate 40 at over 100 miles-per-hour. A high-speed chase ensued, and at one point Horning fired his revolver out of the rear window at a pursuing squad car.

Near Flagstaff, Horning turned southbound onto Interstate 17. The chase continued for another 25 miles until Horning attempted to exit at a freeway off-ramp when he lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a signpost.

By the time the patrolmen pulled up next to the wreckage, Horning again vanished into the pines.

The next day, July 5, Horning descended Woods Canyon, a beautiful but rugged red rock ravine. Only a few pockets of water dotted the canyon floor as the air temperature hovered around 100 degrees.

Horning climbed over a rocky saddle and dropped into the neighboring Jack’s Canyon, picking up a hiking trail that dumped him to the Village of Oak Creek, a small town just south of Sedona.

After nightfall, a parched and exhausted Horning wandered into a neighborhood. First, he needed a drink. Then he needed to sleep.

At about 10pm, Horning snuck a drink out of a garden hose in the front yard of a home. The homeowner noticed the fugitive lurking outside and called the police.

Deputies from the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office teamed with Border Patrol agents to canvas the area. As they patrolled, a bloodhound picked up Horning’s scent.

Under the deck of a nearby residence, authorities found Danny Ray Horning asleep, clutching a .44 caliber revolver.

As the officers pulled the fugitive out from under the deck and placed him under arrest, he thanked his captors for showing him a good time.

“It was a really fun chase. I really enjoyed it. I wish I could do this every week,” Horning said with a grin on his face.

After 7 weeks on the run, much of it navigating on foot through the wild of Arizona, Horning felt relieved it was over, even if it didn’t end in an escape to Mexico. Instead, he found himself headed back to Florence Prison.

danny ray horning california

Horning Meets His Fate

Following his 54-day run from the law, the court convicted Horning on charges including multiple counts of kidnapping and attempted murder. His sentenced numbered six years in prison — in addition to the remainder of his four life sentences for the Winslow robbery.

Distraught and enraged by the press Horning received during his escape — and the folk-hero status he achieved — Mayoya’s investigative team and the McCullough family lobbied the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office to extradite Horning for murder. District Attorney John D. Phillips agreed, and the state of California extradited Horning in May 1993.

A year later, Horning stood trial for McCullough’s murder at the San Joaquin County Superior Court in Stockton.

Horning continued his “nice guy” charade in an effort to gain a not-guilty verdict from the jury.

Under oath, Horning said, “I’m a good guy with a good heart who does bad things.”

In an attempt to prove his honesty after pleading not guilty to the murder of Sammy McCullough, Horning admitted guilt to all of the charges brought down upon him during his escape from Florence Prison.

He admitted not only to the bank robberies in Winslow and Tucson, but four others as well, including one in Pocatello, Idaho and one in Eugene, Oregon.

In an effort to show his robberies as peaceful, Horning claimed, “Ninety percent of the time, my gun was in my shoulder holster.”

When he admitted to firing shots at officers, he claimed to be a military-trained master marksman, and if he really intended on killing his pursuers, he wouldn’t have missed.

Horning stressed the fact he never harmed any of his hostages, made them “as comfortable as possible”, and treated them like human beings instead of animals.

In his most brazen admission, Horning acknowledged his guilt in molesting his 5-year-old daughter. After he described it as the worst thing he ever did, he claimed he would never forgive himself for the act.

At odds with Horning’s claim of innocence was the testimony of Jan Biaruta, a fellow inmate of Horning in Florence Prison following the Winslow bank robbery. Biaruta claimed Horning confided in Biaruta while incarcerated and admitted to killing McCullough.

On July 15, 1994 — after deliberating for two and half days — the jury found Horning guilty of first-degree murder.

In yet another cocky move, Horning arrived for the penalty phase of the trial taunting the courtroom by holding his hands in a V — for victory.

He asked the judge to waive the two-week jury sentencing trial even as he knew the judge would likely sentence him to death.

Already knowing his fate, Horning sought to prevent a drawn-out sentencing in order to fast track to appeals. Horning, of course, still insisted he was not guilty of McCullough’s murder.

A month later, while incarcerated in a segregated cell along the death row wing of San Quentin Prison, an unknown attacker stabbed Horning three times. Although he was hospitalized in critical condition, he survived.

Another of Horning’s brothers, Mark Horning, speculated, “He wasn’t there long enough to make enemies. He wasn’t there long enough to get into any trouble. I think it was a contract hit.”

More than a decade later, Horning found finally found someone to believe in his claims of innocence when he developed a long distance friendship via mail with a British woman.

Human Writes, a British non-profit organization providing death row inmates with pen pals, introduced Horning to Sandra Leyland, a retired teacher from Huddersfield, England.

“Danny Ray was sentenced to death for a murder he swears he did not commit,” Leyland said, “I believe he is innocent, but my attitude towards him would be the same if he were guilty.”

When the Huddersfield Daily Examiner documented the friendship in 2009, Leyland said, “He does not hear from his family, except occasionally from one brother.”

Horning’s case continues to cycle through the appellate courts, but his appeals have not been successful at overturning his conviction. However, he has successfully postponed his execution for more than twenty years.

As of this writing, Horning remains on death row at San Quentin Prison.

danny ray horning mugshot

Sources

ABC 15 News, 3 July 2016. “Old Time Crime: Bank Robber Escapes Prison, Eludes 400 Officers for 2 Months in Northern Arizona.”

Collier, Randy and Kelly, Charles; The Arizona Republic, 9 July 1992. “Horning recalls manhunt, ease of eluding lawmen, dogs.”

Daunt, Tina and Laughlin, Laura; The Los Angeles Times; 6 July 1992. “Escapee Captured After 7-Week Chase.”

Engler, Dan; Verde Independent; 12 February 2008. Capture of Danny Ray Horning ends biggest manhunt in Arizona history.

Garties, George; Associated Press, 8 July 1992. “Grand Canyon fugitive says he’s no Rambo.”

Ghiglieri, Michael P. and Myers, Thomas M.; Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, 1 January 2001.

Huddersfield Examiner; 12 July 2013. “Hudderfield’s woman (sic) campaign to save Death Row killer.”

Johnson, Dirk; The New York Times; 1992. “Prison Escapee Is Caught After 2-Month Manhunt.”

Louie, David; The Associated Press (via Tucson Citizen), 10 October 1994. “Inmate’s Brother.”

Prud’Homme, Alex; People, 27 July 1992. “Dragnet in the Desert.”

Rockdale Reporter, 21 April 2011. “Rockdale couple relives ordeal for TV.”

Supreme Court of California; Stanford Law School, 16 December 2004. “People v. Horning.”

Wright, Hugh; The Record; 11 January 2011. “Killer wants death row.”

The FBI Files (TV); New Dominion Pictures, Season 3 – Episode 15, 17 July 2001. “Manhunt.”

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