Sparks from a dragging chain and a conscientious sheriff concerned about the possibility of wildfire led to a shoot-out that left the target of a weeklong manhunt dead late Sunday.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers shot and killed double murder suspect Michael Dale Vance Jr. in a late-night firefight on a lonely stretch of Custer County road in western Oklahoma.
The shoot-out came about a half-hour after authorities say Vance shot Dewey County Sheriff Clay Sander during a traffic stop related to the sparking chain.
After that shooting, Vance led officers on a chase that spanned at least a dozen miles of winding country roads through rugged hills and buttes.
About 10 p.m. Sunday night, Vance pulled over as he approached a roadblock set up by law enforcement and started firing, said Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples. Law officers returned fire, killing Vance.
Authorities had been seeking Vance in connection with the previous week’s shootings of four people, including two Wellston police officers, and the slaying of a Luther couple. Vance had been on the lam since Oct. 23.
The manhunt’s dramatic end began to unfold Sunday afternoon, when someone spotted a car that matched the description of Vance’s getaway vehicle parked on rural land north of Hammon in Roger Mills County, authorities said.
Don Williamson and two friends were cutting wood on land he owns when one of them spotted a vehicle covered with brush.
Almost immediately, Williamson said his friend, Cathy Roman Nose, of Clinton, recognized the silver Mitsubishi Eclipse as the car being sought by authorities in connection with Vance’s crime spree.
Before Sunday, the last known sighting of Vance had been early Oct. 24 at a truck stop near Sayre about 35 miles away.
Roman Nose took a couple of photographs with her cellphone and the group left the area and contacted authorities.
The car sat next to a camp site at a curve in the Washita River two miles north of Hammon, west of Highway 34, where Vance had apparently been hiding for several days, Roger Mills County Sheriff Darren Atha said.
“He could see Highway 34 clearly,” Atha said. “He was well concealed.”
Williamson said he called 911 to report the car. The call prompted local, state and federal authorities to set up roadblocks and a massive perimeter, Atha said.
At some point, Vance left his hideout in the Mitsubishi, drove to far northeast Roger Mills County, concealed the car there and stole a large pickup with a flatbed trailer, Atha said.
Later, Sander, the Dewey County sheriff, saw a large flatbed pickup dragging a chain and worried the sparks would ignite a wildfire. He pulled the pickup over at Highway 34 and Highway 47 near Leedey.
Behind the wheel sat Vance, who got out of the truck and fired an assault rifle hitting the sheriff in the shoulder and arm. Sander, who is also a firefighter for the Seiling community, is recovering from his injuries, which are not life threatening, according to a statement from the Seiling Fire Department.
Vance then drove south on State Highway 34, according to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. Vance turned east and crossed into Custer County, Peoples said.
Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said the chase lasted about a half-hour; Peoples said authorities tracked Vance by car and air.
Vance ended up at a roadblock about seven miles north of Butler on a country road that runs west of the town.
“He approached the roadblock, pulled over to the side of the road and opened fire on the troopers. He was caught in a crossfire and killed,” Peoples said.
“Our main mission is the protection of the citizens of Custer County,” Peoples said. “He was a definite threat. He’d demonstrated on numerous occasions he would kill someone if they had something he needed or wanted and had the tools necessary to do it.”
Willie Villegas, of Hammon, said he had been surprised to learn Sunday afternoon that Vance had been spotted in the area. Hammon is the kind of town where few residents bother to lock their doors, he said.
“It’s a quiet little town,” he said. ” … We all know each other. Really, we never thought it was going to happen here.”
Villegas works at Trout Disposal, a few miles north of Hammon. About 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Villegas was checking the property when he saw a pair of headlights in his rearview mirror. He was startled at first, then realized that patrol cars from several law enforcement agencies were behind him.
After pulling into the business’s parking lot, Villegas rolled down his window and asked an officer what was wrong. The officer made a gesture with his hand that Villegas took as an instruction to do what he needed to do, then leave.
So Villegas quickly checked the property, then drove away. The patrol cars followed behind him, but as soon as they reached State Highway 34, the cars’ sirens came on and they sped away.
About 45 minutes later, Villegas was home, watching the evening news, when he saw that Vance had been killed just a few miles away, likely just moments after he left the disposal company.
Brittni Laird, a clerk at Leedey Corner Store, said business was brisk Monday morning at the gas station and restaurant, which sits about 15 miles north of Hammon. Rumors were flying about the shoot-out and why Vance had come to the area, Laird said, and many people seemed rattled by the news.
“It’s scary,” Laird said.
Laird and her cousin were in Elk City, about 17 miles south of Hammon, on Sunday afternoon. She got a call from a friend telling her to hurry back, because police were putting up roadblocks around town.
By the time Laird and her cousin made it back, the road through Hammon was blocked, and they had to take back roads around the town. She would later find out they passed by where Vance’s car was hidden.
When she got back to Leedey, police seemed to be coming through the town from every direction, and the town was on edge, she said Monday morning.
“Everybody was locked and loaded last night,” she said.
Vance, 38, shot two Wellston police officers Oct 23, fled in a police pickup, stole a car at a trailer home park, drove to a home in Luther and killed his relatives, Ronald Everett Wilkson, 55, and Valerie Kay Wilkson, 54, authorities said. Two others were wounded in the spree. On Monday, authorities charged three people for allegedly helping Vance in the hours after the initial shootings, including giving him a weapon.
He had a hit list of as many as eight others he wanted to kill, authorities said. He had targeted most of them because of a pending child sexual abuse case against him, authorities said. He also was targeting a former boss who fired him.
On Monday morning, the stolen Dodge Ram that Vance drove during the chase sat on the shoulder of the road, opposite an Oklahoma Highway Patrol vehicle. Both vehicle’s windshields were pocked with bullet holes.
“It’s pitiful,” Williamson, the property owner, of all that had happened in the last week. “It’s sad.”
Contributing: Josh Wallace, Nolan Clay, and Robert Medley.
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