On
Newsstands
Now
Current Issue
Advertisement

The Great Buffalo Caper

When two Boulder businessmen financed the creation of a one-of-a-kind piece of art—a buffalo skeleton with Native American myths carved over every inch of bone by an artist named "Big Jim"—they thought it was an opportunity to be a part of something important. And, just maybe, they might make some money. But what started as a high-minded project quickly devolved into a surreal mystery.

By |

Inside a run-down house reeking of weed, two dudes in their thirties and a lady who could’ve passed for older or younger anxiously scurried about, each throwing together an overnight bag. One of the men was fat and freckled with receding red hair, the other was thin and bony with a receding blond mullet; both of them were covered in tattoos. The lady was visibly pregnant. Finally packed, but clearly unprepared for much of anything, the three spilled from the house into a late-summer afternoon, piled into a clunker of a minivan, and wheeled off. Before leaving their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, they made a pit stop to score an ounce of pot and some cocaine, and then hit the highway, heading as far north as any of them likely had ever been. It was Monday, August 21, 2000, and the gang was bound for St. Johnsbury, Vermont—more specifically, bound for the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium.

The freckled fat guy was James Boggs, but everyone called him “Boomer,” short for “Boomer the Beast,” which was ornately inked on his forearm. The house and minivan, a 1985 Chevy Astro, were his. Only a few months earlier Boomer had finished a 10-and-a-half-year prison stretch for drug trafficking, and when he’d gotten out, as he recently told me, “My momma gave me two grand to get me a house and get me on my feet,” and Boomer had applied his momma’s scratch to purchasing the crib and modest ride. The skinny guy was Roger Dale Kinney. At the time, at least, he was Boomer’s best bud, his “dawg,” as Boomer puts it. They’d met on the inside. Kinney had been pinched on an aggravated assault. Doing time, they’d found they had the same interests: tattoos and drugs; and likewise, that they hated the same things: “colored” folk and prison. They’d become so tight that when Kinney got out, Boggs not only let his dawg move in with him, he also welcomed the dawgette, Kinney’s lady, “Tish,” who was due to give birth in four months.

After they got out of the joint, Boomer and Kinney had managed to land legitimate work, installing cable for the local Time Warner operation. The gig was something they did more to shut up their parole officers than to make money. As far as Boggs and Kinney were concerned, the only real paydays were the tax-free lump sums that came from illegal action. And in those endeavors the ex-cons had made a pact to “hit a lick” as partners. Boomer had been the one who’d met with the contact that hired him for this museum gig, but it was a given that Kinney would be in. Make no mistake, though, Boomer wasn’t crazy about Kinney’s lady tagging along, what with her being a pregnant chick and all. But Kinney had pointed out that Tish could be the getaway driver. Boomer said “fine,” provided “she understands she don’t get a cut.”

Keeping with Boomer’s plan, the gang drove straight through the night. Making only necessary food and fuel stops, they cracked wise about their incipient job. “We’re on a buffalo hunt,” Boomer said, laughing himself red-faced and adding, in his best TV Tonto voice, “We come to kill the great white buffalo.” The joke got funnier as they got more and more stoned. Boomer and Kinney did the smoke-and-coke on the road trip, and as the minivan rolled into St. Johnsbury about 1 p.m. on Tuesday, August 22, some 20 hours after they’d left Ohio, they were sufficiently out of their minds. Yet they were not so far gone that they couldn’t see that St. Johnsbury was just about the sleepiest scene in the universe. “I’ve never seen nothing like this except for on the TV,” an awestruck Boomer said, gazing out of the minivan at the quaint storefronts and citizenry. “It’s like Mayberry,” he said. Boomer didn’t even see any cops: “Where’s Barney Fife?”

At last they came upon the Fairbanks Museum. Founded in 1889, the brownstone Victorian building sat atop a hill overlooking the town. Seeing it, Boomer got to thinking that this place might be too quiet for the likes of them to get inside, get to the buffalo, and get out without drawing attention. They parked nearby and Boomer got out alone, reached past his sagging beer belly into the pocket of his drooping pants, pulled out the admission fee, and went inside to case the joint. The Fairbanks was all wooden and musty, a two-floored, gorgeous, churchlike curiosity shop packed with display cases of oddities and artifacts, everything from textiles to taxidermy. Boomer saw the surveillance cameras, which his contact for the job had assured him would not be working. Boomer didn’t see a single security guard. Near as he could figure, there weren’t but maybe 10 people in the whole place. The floorboards creaked under Boomer’s boots as he looked for his mark.

And then there it was: the skeleton of a massive bison. The bright white bones rendered a creature some 10 feet long and six feet tall, identified as the “Sacred Buffalo.” Even Boomer could see it was a magnificent spectacle. It was positioned with head held high, as if the beast were alive and upon hearing Boomer’s approach had raised its skull and snorted. Boomer moved right up close to the buffalo, eased himself alongside a couple of people who were looking at the thing the way he figured smart people who go to museums look at art. He saw the hundreds of tiny carvings in the bones. It was just like in the picture in that Sacred Buffalo book the contact had shown Boomer. All over every inch of the bones, even the tiniest ones, were etched scenes of tiny Indians doing Indian things.

Doing his best to be inconspicuous, Boomer surveyed the exhibit space. The best exit option was way in the back. That’s a pretty substantial run, he thought. And what, he wondered, was outside that door? As the contact had described to Boomer, the Sacred Buffalo was in something akin to an open foyer on the first floor. Above, on either side of the display, were the second-floor balconies, also filled with pieces and open to the public. It wouldn’t be a problem getting up there, and Boomer could see there were plenty of chairs. But the chairs appeared to be heavy, and the balcony was a good 20 or so yards removed from the Sacred Buffalo. It wasn’t going to be an easy feat to accurately hurl a chair down on the thing. A dude would have to be pretty lucky to hit the Sacred Buffalo, let alone hit it so good that the chair would smash up the son of a bitch.

Running his Art Mart in the heart of Boulder, Rick Rippberger had seen all kinds of people walk into his store. Buyers, sellers, artists, browsers, they waltzed in buttoned-down or looking like hippie holdovers, some appearing not all that different than the street performers outside on Pearl Street. But Rippberger had never seen anybody like the man who strode into his place on that day in early 1994. The guy was about six-and-a-half feet tall, 250 pounds, muscular, with some of the broadest shoulders Ripp-berger had ever seen. The man’s tan, weathered face was the face of an Indian, or at least Rippberger’s idea of an Indian: high cheekbones, prominent nose, narrow, piercing eyes, a long ponytail. In between his cowboy boots and white cowboy hat he wore all denim, except for an oval-shaped belt buckle that might have weighed two pounds.

The man moseyed about the store’s inventory—lots of sculptures and paintings of cowboys and Indians, horses, and more than a few buffalo—and then approached Rippberger. In the voice of an Indian, or at least in the slow cadence and understated tone Rippberger associated with Indians, the man introduced himself as the South Dakota-based artist James Durham. “Big Jim” is what folks called him. Art Mart was selling some buffalo-hide robes Durham had made, and he had come to discuss the pricing, wanted to make sure he was being fairly compensated. With that business handled, Big Jim said he had another piece that might interest Rippberger. Durham clarified: It was not a finished piece; rather, it was still just a “vision.” Durham believed if he were able to complete the work, it would be spiritual and good and might well change the world. Only thing was, to realize the vision he needed financing. Intrigued by Big Jim, Rippberger invited him out for a meal to hear more.

Durham talked a bit about himself, said he was mixed-blood Indian and pureblood Vietnam veteran and biker. He spoke of his visions: One day, not so long ago, he and some Vietnam-veteran brothers he’d met in 1988 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., came together in a lodge back East to join in a sweat, that ancient American Indian ritual of purification, and to pray to the Creator for other veterans. Some of the vets brought their families; Durham’s wife, son, and daughter came along. Reluctantly, Durham allowed his seven-year-old son, Nick, to join the vets in the lodge.

Midway through the sweat, as Big Jim told Rippberger and would later put in writing, his son passed out. When Nick awoke, he told his father he’d had a vision of his dad in a big green field, wearing buckskin clothes, hair below his belt, with bushy eyebrows. In the boy’s dream, Durham had his chanunpa—a ceremonial pipe—in his left hand. He was standing on a prairie looking at millions of buffalo. The herd approached Durham and split, creating a path for one big bull buffalo that walked right up to Durham and spoke to him. It was another language, but Durham and this buffalo chatted for a while. As Big Jim wrapped up the story of his son’s dream: “Finally, [the buffalo] started to walk away, but then he stopped. He turned his head back and looked at [me]. He said something to [me] and [I] nodded. Then he walked backed into the herd and just disappeared into the millions of them.”

Rippberger would be the first to admit he’s no expert on American Indian culture. He grew up in Boulder and did well financially as the owner-operator of a service station and Potter’s Restaurant. In time, Rippberger sold off the businesses and invested in real estate and other ventures, including the Art Mart, which he co-owned and operated with his wife. Still, Rippberger knew enough about the Trail of Tears and the White Man’s role in it to feel sympathy, even a smidge of culpability. In American Indian art, he saw mysticism and nobility and suffering. And so, in Boulder, a town of artsy, politically correct progressives, Big Jim couldn’t have found a more receptive audience than Rippberger, who was enthralled as Durham spoke of a second vision.

Not long after the sweat, Big Jim fell asleep and dreamed he saw a buffalo skeleton standing in the middle of a big room with a high ceiling and a wood floor. He noticed pictures carved onto all of the bones. Then the buffalo skeleton turned and spoke. “Pilamayapelo,” it said, meaning, “Thank you.” When Big Jim awoke, he told Rippberger, he picked up a sketchbook and drew the scenes he had seen on the bones. They were the seven sacred rites of the Lakota people, and a rendering of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Suddenly, as Durham put it to Rippberger, the visions made sense: The Creator wanted him to scrimshaw, or carve, all of the pictures he had dreamed onto the skeleton of a buffalo, and to share the buffalo’s teachings, the Lakota tribe’s religion, with the world.

Durham showed Rippberger the divinely inspired sketches he’d done, and estimated it would cost about $30,000 to get the project going, with a few thousand dollars here and there afterward. Big Jim was confident that the finished piece would be a sought-after museum exhibit, and that the money from such a tour would repay Rippberger his initial investment and likely turn a profit. Rippberger was sold. It sounded like a chance to be a part of something “humanitarian” and maybe make some money. He liked the idea so much that he had an idea of his own. Rippberger wanted Big Jim to meet a friend, Peder Lund. The guy had an office in Boulder, across the street from Rippberger’s old service station. Lund had money and knew a thing or two about promotion, as he was the owner of a unique publishing house, Paladin Press, which published books like Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors and How to Become a Professional Con Artist.

One morning last fall, Peder Lund walked into the conference room of his Paladin headquarters and plopped a cardboard box on the table in front me. Stuck on the side of the box was a computer-generated shipping label that read: How to Make $100,000 a Year as a Private Detective. It was obviously a box that had once contained copies of that particular title his company had published, but was no longer used for that purpose; as Lund himself had written on it in black marker, the box now contained “Buffalo B.S.” “It’s all yours,” he said, turning to leave, as if the box were a rotting cadaver. “Have at it. I’ll be back in a while to see if you have any questions.” A quick scan of the box’s contents revealed a Buffalo LLC agreement; two art appraisal reports—one from 1997, another from 2000; a thick deposition transcript of James G. Durham in “Sacred Buffalo Inc. vs. Paladin Enterprises Inc.;” and a handful of newspaper clippings with headlines like, “Police try to flesh out attack on buffalo skeleton.”

Rippberger first came to know Lund at the pump. Before Rippberger bought that gas station, he worked there. As a skinny kid with glasses, he would be manning the station and the handsome, curly haired Lund would drive up in whatever his latest sports car was. Lund and the kid would chat. Rippberger thought Lund had a pretty sweet life. “Some of the time when he’d come in on a Saturday morning,” as Rippberger said to me recently, “it was hard to tell if he was starting his day or ending his Friday night.” They’d pick up their conversation when they bumped into each other around town and became rather friendly. Rippberger’s admiration for the dashing Lund grew as he learned that Mr. Nightlife had been a Green Beret in Vietnam, and had parlayed those interests into Paladin Press, a successful imprint specializing in books about weapons, defense, covert operations, and unusual (and sometimes illegal) professions.

Just as Rippberger had predicted, when he and Durham met with Lund, Lund indeed thought the scrimshawed buffalo sounded like a grand idea. Of course, as Rippberger had also figured, if not counted on, Lund had some ideas of his own for what was quickly becoming the Sacred Buffalo project. Paladin has published hundreds of titles, covering everything from jewelry to jihads. Regardless of the subject, virtually all of the books have had two things in common: a tantalizing subject and a pretty incredible story line. That’s not to say the books were always well written. Being the shrewd former commando he was, it seemed Lund tried to find book material that was interesting on its face, at least to his audience, along with a paint-by-numbers plot, precisely so he wouldn’t have to worry much about the writer lousing up Paladin’s investment.

And so Lund liked the Sacred Buffalo project. There was this Durham character and his story, evidently intertwined with the legends of the American Indian, and—and!—soon there’d be the buffalo skeleton piece to behold. The three men agreed to Lund’s plan of embedding a Boulder-based writer and a photographer with Durham to record the story of the project. The book, which would be entitled Sacred Buffalo: The Lakota Way for a New Beginning, would wrap up as the Sacred Buffalo masterpiece was completed, and would be sold concurrent with the buffalo’s tour. Of course there would be a tour: museums, universities, wherever. The book would provide a revenue stream all on its own. At the very least, Paladin would sell some copies and generate buzz about Durham and the piece, which might enhance the lure and value of the Sacred Buffalo. After all, the people want to see something that’s aesthetically striking, but they also want a story to go along with it.

Rippberger, Lund, and Big Jim formed the Buffalo LLC. Per the terms of the agreement, each had a 33 1/3 percent share in any profits to be made from the buffalo. Meanwhile, the three struck a gentleman’s operating agreement: Paladin would cover the cost of the book; Rippberger and Lund would fund Durham’s construction of the Sacred Buffalo; and Durham would create the mystical work of art. And, as the artist and American Indian character he was, Big Jim would tour with the buffalo, sharing his visions with the public. All that was left was to get the scrimshawed buffalo built and get the magical, rolling bones show on the road.

In my dream about the Sacred Buffalo,” so goes the first sentence of the introduction to the Sacred Buffalo book coauthored by Durham, “I simply walked away at the end without saying a word.” And it appears that after many years of talking to all kinds of lawyers and investigators about his buffalo, Big Jim indeed aims to walk away from it and say no more. Last fall, I reached Durham by phone. He suggested that if we were going to talk that we do it in person at his home in South Dakota, but my subsequent calls and e-mails to him in the hopes of scheduling the visit went unreturned. There is, however, the record Big Jim left behind in that 187-page book, chockablock with photographs, fabled history, visions, and dreams.

Once in business with his Boulder-based partners and patrons, Durham returned home to South Dakota and in the summer of 1994 set about his work. First things first: He needed a bison skeleton. Big Jim wrote in the book about his quest to find a worthy buffalo. Evidently, he lay in the middle of a herd of charging bison; he went into a cave and prayed over a rock that reminded him of a “human embryo,” only to discover the rock “had been in the stomach of a dinosaur;” he had a staring contest with a buffalo he would have killed with his knife if his wife hadn’t been with him. Finally, though, he simply bought a bull buffalo from a rancher. The buffalo was killed in an undisclosed manner. A buddy of his named Les Lutz skinned it, and Durham shipped the bones off to the Ohio State University veterinary school, known for assembling skeletons for museums. The faculty and students were so impressed by the story of Big Jim’s visions that they agreed to spend some 780 hours on the process of preparing the bones free of charge.

It should be noted that scrimshawing is not a Native American tradition. It is a nautical art that began with whalers in the early 19th century. Initially, it was not considered art as much as it was a hobby. With time to kill at night, the men aboard ship would whittle designs on the ample supply of whalebones and teeth scattered about their vessels. In time, the handiwork became more sophisticated and a desired folk art. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville refers to “lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on sperm whale-teeth….” Big Jim had it in his mind to be the first to apply the tradition to bison bones and represent it as Native American.

A bull buffalo skeleton is comprised of some 180 bones. Even with orbital sanders and X-acto knives, realizing Big Jim’s vision, which amounted to etching more than a thousand scenes on the bones, would be an undertaking. He needed a place to work; he needed help. Durham wrote that he searched high and low, traveling to Wyoming and Colorado, hoping for a studio like the one he’d seen in his dream. He ended up renting a dilapidated schoolhouse in the town of Whitewood, South Dakota. As far as Big Jim finding the chosen ones who would assist him in bringing the sacred piece to life, the Creator worked in mysterious ways. Down in Florida, where Big Jim had attended biker week in Daytona Beach, he recruited Harry Lindsay, a fellow Vietnam veteran. Lindsay claimed the boots on his feet were the same ones he wore in Nam, and because he fancied BMW motorcycles his pals called him “Beemer.” It was also in Florida that the Great Spirit led Durham to Teri Krukowski, a striking middle-age biker babe and self-described “dancer,” who in her spare time had taken up engraving the sort of items a biker babe-dancer would engrave: knives, guns, and motorcycles. Beemer joked that they ought to have T-shirts made with the slogan, “Among the Wretched Ones.”

Big Jim, Teri, and Beemer not only worked together in the schoolhouse, engaged in the painstaking and meticulous work of sanding, engraving, and coloring the bones on makeshift desks of plywood on sawhorses; they also lived there together. Durham likened the close quarters to what he and Beemer had experienced in the military. Similarly, there was no mistaking the chain of command: Big Jim was the general, or rather the general-chaplin-shaman-cult-leader-in-chief. He made sure that every day they burned purifying sage and shared the chanunpa pipe. He encouraged them to stay spiritually focused and to refrain from cussing. He led house meetings. Smoking Marlboros and drinking shots of espresso, he preached and inspired. Durham had sketched out precisely what scenes he wanted on each bone, and when Teri was carving the “wiyakas” on the bison’s ribs Durham asked if she knew what they were. She did not. Big Jim explained: “They’re all about spirit. Each of them represents a person, 163 people. As I look at each one, I think about a different person I’ve known. The wiyakas each have individuality; they’re fat or thin, crooked, each is unique. Like people are.”

Standing on the open South Dakota plains, surrounded by hundreds of Indians and tepees, Rick Rippberger watched Big Jim dance around a towering cottonwood tree. The summer sky was clear and the sun was strong. Yet Durham and other Indian men danced around the cottonwood for hours in the blistering heat, chanting what sounded like ancient prayers in ancient repetitive rhythms. Rippberger watched as Durham pierced hooks through his chest flesh; the hooks were attached to long ropes that dangled from the top of the cottonwood. After more time spent dancing and chanting, Big Jim gradually leaned back with hooks in his chest pulling taut the ropes. Farther and farther he leaned back, arms outstretched, the ropes pulling tighter, blood trickling from the pierced holes in his chest, until the massive man’s back was nearly parallel with the ground. The hooks snapped loose, flesh ripped, Big Jim stumbled backward, and the hooks were jerked all the way to the very top of the tree and stuck there.

It was the summer of 1994, and with the Sacred Buffalo project under way, Durham had invited Rippberger out to the Pine Ridge Reservation to witness a Sun Dance, a sacred, communal ritual of Great Plains Indians. In the language of the Lakota, the dominant tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Sun Dance is “wiwanyag wachipi,” meaning, “dance looking at the sun.” Orchestrated by tribes annually in the summer, the Sun Dance is a days-long series of rituals that draws thousands of Indians, who camp, pray, dance, sacrifice, and celebrate together. The buffalo looms large over the Sun Dance as an important symbol, as the great tatanka had long been a source of tools, weapons, food, clothing, and therefore inspiration for the American Indians of the Plains. At the literal and ceremonial center of the Sun Dance is a large wooden pole or tree, which serves as something of an altar. Indian men and women dance around it until exhausted, as a form of sacrifice to the Creator, whom they hope will grant them visions and enlightenment. Some men tether themselves to the center pole, as Durham had done, to show a willingness to suffer for the Creator. For similar reasons, some men hook a buffalo skull to their chest and drag it with them as they chant prayers.

Rippberger considered it an honor to have been invited. So that he could come bearing gifts, on the way from Boulder he had purchased dozens of colorful blankets and some 400 pounds of buffalo meat, hauled out in a freezer. He was overwhelmed by the sight of the Sun Dance camp on the massive, open fields. On the prehistoric-looking plains, he spotted hundreds of tepees, tents, campers, and people camped with only sleeping bags and cardboard. At the perimeter of the camp, Rippberger had been stopped by Indians who wanted to know why the White Man was here. As the jittery art dealer tried to explain, Beemer appeared and informed the Indians the guy was with Jim Durham. The Indian men stepped aside. Beemer, who was on foot, directed Rippberger to drive behind him and to positively not veer off course or else pale face might quickly find himself in hostile territory.

Rippberger noticed there was a hierarchy to the camp: Those with the sleeping bags on the outer reaches were the poorest and least influential Indians. The trailers and tents got bigger as he approached the center; these were the Indians of means and power. And this is where Beemer set up Rippberger, among the chiefs and their families, close to the Sun Dance pole, the towering cottonwood. Rippberger noted that Durham indeed must have ranked high on the totem, and then watched Big Jim do his awesome Sun Dance.

Durham writes plenty about himself in Sacred Buffalo, but doesn’t offer much autobiographical information. He describes himself as a mixed-blood American Indian, but beyond that it’s unclear what his heritage is. He wrote that one of his grandfathers was named George Poor Thunder and the other was called Fools Crow. He reveals that he has known “Dr. Bob,” meaning that he was a recovering alcoholic, and that he was not a classically trained artist. “[I] got kicked out of art class in seventh grade because I wouldn’t draw fruit.” He married a woman named Beth, who was in the Navy, and had two children, Nick, and a girl, Crystal. What autobiographical shreds Durham shares in Sacred Buffalo are wrapped in visions and profound religious experiences, like the Sun Dance.

After his dance that day in the summer of 1994, Big Jim told Rippberger it was of great significance that his hooks flew to the top of the tree and stuck. It meant the Creator had accepted the Sacred Buffalo, that it was blessed. Shortly thereafter, however, Rippberger and Lund came to think the thing was cursed. Four months became six months, then eight months, and Big Jim and his crew still had not finished the Sacred Buffalo, and they kept asking the Boulder White Men for more and more money. It’s unclear how much Big Jim paid Beemer and Teri. Ostensibly the Boulder bankroll was to cover the salaries, food, and rent. But when it was close to a year in, and Rippberger and Lund had invested approximately $30,000 apiece, their financial benevolence began to waver. There were heated telephone exchanges over cash flow. One especially tense moment occurred when the bank called to inform Durham that a Buffalo LLC check supposed to cover the rent for the studio hadn’t arrived. Big Jim threw down the phone, and, almost directly quoting from the movie Top Gun, said to Beemer, “His mouth is writing checks his ass can’t cover.”

In the summer of 1995, more than a year since the project had begun, Durham at last gazed upon the completed masterpiece. It was just as he had seen in one of his many visions: He sat on a chair in a room of wooden floors with a high ceiling, alone with his buffalo (alone, that is, except for his Sacred Buffalo book coauthor and a photographer). And Big Jim spoke. Moved by the mighty bison he had created, Durham proclaimed, “Power like this hasn’t been seen in a long time. It’ll flat-out walk tomorrow. It’ll walk around the world.”

The Sacred Buffalo’s inaugural tour wasn’t quite the globetrot Durham and the LLC imagined. Lund had hired his ex-wife, Marsha Lund, to handle the tour and marketing. Marsha had met Lund one night in a Boulder bar, and they ended up married for 10 years. She collected silver and turquoise Native American-inspired jewelry, and considered herself an expert. She wrote a book on the subject for Paladin, which, Lund and his ex determined, gave her some frame of reference to spearhead the Sacred Buffalo run. Initially Marsha felt encouraged by the interest in the buffalo. She thought she had the prestigious Field Museum in Chicago on tap. But, as she recently told me, “Jim insisted on getting on the phone with them, and the next thing I know the lady there calls me back and says she’s changed her mind.” The tour that did come together began in the winter of 1995 with a one-month exhibit at CAM-PLEX Heritage Center Art Gallery in Gillette, Wyoming, with at least six stops thereafter at similarly modest venues, including a five-day stint at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

With the Sacred Buffalo roaming such sites, the tensions among the LLC partners intensified. Boxes of Sacred Buffalo books went out, as Lund and Rippberger recall, but the total sales revenue for them did not come back. And although Rippberger and Lund believed they were sending checks to cover Durham’s expenses to travel with the piece and appear at the venues, Big Jim would call them from the road and say he needed more. The Boulder financiers grew more frustrated, especially because, Ripp-berger and Lund say, they were covering expenses they hadn’t counted on. One day, Lund says, he got a call from Big Jim, who said he needed some money because he was behind in child-support payments; if Durham didn’t pay he was going to lose his driver’s license and possibly be arrested. “At that point,” Lund says, “we were well into the project, and if Durham couldn’t travel it would have been over. So I paid him a few thousand dollars for a buffalo-hide robe he’d made. Every time you talked to him, he needed money.”

Meanwhile, Durham was growing exasperated himself, although with a different view of the LLC. Big Jim saw his Boulder partners as perpetuating the history of the White Man welching on deals made to Indians. Big Jim was of the opinion that his investors were shirking their end of the deal. As Durham would later say in the media and to attorneys, he’d call the guys in Boulder and tell them he was having to crash on couches and even sleep on the floor of a bar because Lund and Rippberger weren’t sending the checks they’d promised. Rippberger, for one, was tired of it all. “I know I was at a point where I didn’t care what happened to that buffalo,” he says. “I didn’t care if I ever saw it again. I just wanted to be done with Jim Durham.”

Lund clearly still cared. In May of 1997, just before the final two stops on the Buffalo’s road trip—the University of Central Florida and the Fairbanks Museum in Vermont—he had the Sacred Buffalo appraised. He hired Bernard Ewell, at the time a Colorado Springs-based art appraiser, to provide the information the Buffalo LLC might need to make decisions about rental fees at museums, a possible sale price, and insurance. Ewell is a self-described Salvador Dalí expert, and he refers to himself as “the Dalí Detective.” Regardless of the assignment, however, he promises, “I’ll always be up-front and unflinching in my evaluations of the players and their actions.”

In his Sacred Buffalo appraisal report, Ewell noted that the task of determining a value was difficult because there were no comparables for a buffalo skeleton scrimshawed with Native American religion and history. A senior member of the American Society of Appraisers, Ewell stated that his methodology “is not based on a formula of calculation. It is simply the value which was given to me spiritually while I meditated before the Sacred Buffalo on March 12.” So inspired, Ewell put the fair market value of the piece at $770,000. However, provided with touring and revenue information as articulated by Lund, Ewell upped that assessment considerably. Lund informed Ewell that the LLC had been paid $15,000 and $20,000 in rental fees by at least two of the venues that had rented it. Based on those numbers, the Dalí Detective theorized that at “5 venues a year @ $25,000,” multiplied by 10 years, the piece might be worth an additional $1.25 million.

When James “Boomer the Beast” Boggs finished casing the Fairbanks and returned to the minivan, pregnant Tish was bellied up to wheel. Boomer directed her to cruise around back, behind the museum, as close as she could get to that back door he’d seen from inside. Tish couldn’t get that close. Between the van and the door were a good- size parking lot and then a hillside of trees. Boomer announced plain and simple he wasn’t going to do it. More like he couldn’t do it. Never mind the challenges inside, Boomer said, “What’s gonna happen is, I’m going to have to run 250 yards. There’s no way I can do it and not get caught and [not] have a heart attack.” This didn’t sit well with Kinney. “Well, I didn’t fuckin’ come all this way for nothing,” he told Boomer. “I’ll do it.” Just like that, Kinney shouldered open the van door and the blond mullet was out of sight.

It was about 2 p.m. on that Tuesday, August 22, 2000, when Tish put the van in park. She and Boomer waited. Boomer anxiously pumped his leg. Truth of the matter is, Boomer’s an easily rattled guy. On at least one occasion, he described himself as “getting more nervous than a cat shitting razor blades.” Imagine how he’d have felt if he’d known the St. Johnsbury police department was only two tiny blocks from the museum. A few long minutes later, the museum back door swung open, and damned if that stickman Kinney didn’t come bounding out, running and stumbling through the trees, down the hill, and through the cars in the lot. He breathlessly yanked open the minivan door and jumped in. Tish and Boomer sat there, uncertain of what had happened or didn’t happen. They watched as Kinney slammed shut the door and immediately turned to puke out the open window, only the window wasn’t open. Dawg ended up vomiting all over the interior of Boomer’s Astro. Which, considering the circumstances, Boomer let slide.

Tish and Boomer sat there all catatonic-like until Kinney looked up with one of those well-what-in-the-hell-are-you-waiting-for expressions, and between pants and gags, shouted, “Go! Go! Go!!!!!” Tish punched the gas and then slowed to a meander, driving out through the center of St. Johnsbury like she and the boys were on their way to the local Ben & Jerry’s for some Chunky Monkey. No one said anything for about an hour, until they realized that they weren’t being followed. Boomer then made the call to the contact, told him it was done. The voice on the other end of the phone, said, “Are you kidding me? Man, you’re fucking crazy. That’s great.” The gang drove straight through the night back to Ohio, now joking, “We killed the great white buffalo,” high on adrenaline and the promise of big money.

Thus far, the contact had fronted Boggs only $500 for “traveling expenses”—most of that had gone to the dope and coke—and now they were expecting the agreed-upon payday of $25,000, which Boomer would split with Kinney. All the way home, Kinney kept nagging Boomer, “I want my cut right now.” And Boomer kept telling Kinney, “Look, dawg, I’m going to take care of you. We’re gonna get paid.” When the gang got home, as Boomer puts it, he went to meet with the contact to get paid and was more than a little disappointed: “He gave me four pounds of pot and $1,000. And I was like, ‘What the fuck is this? Where’s the rest of my money?’ And he was like, ‘Look Boomer, I just don’t have liquid cash that I can give you right now.’ He knew I’m a killer, that if you fuck with me you better bring your lunch, and so he’s like, ‘If you work with me—I mean this is a gift—just work with me and I’ll give you the twenty-five. But we gotta wait until insurance money comes through.'”

Armed with the Dalí Detective’s appraisal, Lund obtained an insurance policy for the Sacred Buffalo, covering the piece for up to $1.25 million. In addition, each venue that hosted the Sacred Buffalo provided its own insurance coverage for the piece while it was on display in their care. And because the hit on Durham’s creation occurred under the watch of the Fairbanks, it was that museum’s policy alone that would be on the hook for the damage. The Fairbanks’ insurance on the Buffalo was handled by a company called Acadia Insurance, which, in the weeks following the August 2000 hit, promptly put a claims adjuster on the case. The Acadia investigator was a seasoned professional with more than 15 years’ experience, and was primarily responsible for handling cases in the million-dollar range. Although the investigator has since left Acadia for a new insurance firm, he remembers the case well. He remembers it so well that when we recently spoke about the Sacred Buffalo he asked that his name not be used because, he said, “I have a wife and kids, and you’re talking about some serious bad guys involved here.”

So this “Mr. Acadia” was on the case, finding that the only information the police department could provide at the time, according to Police Chief Richard Leighton, was that a skinny guy covered in tattoos was seen running out of the museum. After all, the Fairbanks ain’t exactly the Louvre. And it turned out the intelligence Boomer had received from his evidently well-informed contact about the nonfunctional security cameras was dead-on. In the local press, Big Jim said his best guess as to who was responsible was zealous Christians who rejected American Indian spirituality. Durham didn’t have any more answers for the insurance investigator, but Mr. Acadia did receive a copy of Ewell’s appraisal report. In his talks with Mr. Acadia, Durham said that there was no point in discussing whether it was possible to repair the Sacred Buffalo because “its spirit had been broken.”

Mr. Acadia was suspicious of the values the Dalí Detective had placed on the piece while he had “meditated before the Sacred Buffalo.” Likewise, he didn’t buy the Christian theory, or, for that matter that the random act of vandalism was random. Mr. Acadia hired his own expert to give an appraisal of the broken buffalo, and meanwhile contracted a private investigator to see what he could find. The PI was Ken Springer of New York-based Corporate Resolutions Inc., which specializes in high-value insurance fraud matters. Based on Corporate Resolutions’ legwork, according to Mr. Acadia and Springer, they believed the Sacred Buffalo caper was a scam, and that if any of the Buffalo LLC players was involved in busting up the bison and hoping to collect on an insurance-policy payout, it was most likely Durham. In addition to the alleged back child-support payment situation Lund had described, Springer determined that Big Jim was in financial straits, the details of which the PI would not disclose to me. Nevertheless, Springer told Mr. Acadia, he didn’t have proof of a connection.

On November 12, 2000, the expert Acadia hired to examine the damaged bison skeleton and estimate what it would cost to repair the buffalo submitted her findings. Lisa Kronthal was no Dalí Detective, but she was a conservator at the American Museum of Natural History. She examined the Buffalo on October 27, two months after the crime, near Columbus, Ohio, where Beemer and Durham had retreated with the damaged piece. She determined that the buffalo had suffered “significant damage,” and that even if repaired it would “never be as strong as it was originally.” Kronthal wrote, “It was found after speaking in depth with the artist that although he believes the buffalo has lost all spiritual value, he recognizes that it retains significant historical value. Mr. Durham feels the buffalo should be brought back to an exhibitable state.” In the detailed report, which reads like a medical autopsy and breaks down the bone-by-bone cost for repairs, Kronthal came up with a cost of roughly $210,000.

Provided with Kronthal’s findings, Mr. Acadia entered into a months-long series of settlement negotiations with the Buffalo LLC and with Durham personally, and, finally, sent the LLC a settlement check for $456,000. “As much as society likes to believe insurance companies like to get out of making payment,” Mr. Acadia says, “it’s actually a lot easier to make payments than it is to get out of them. That’s a fact. Unless you’ve got [concrete evidence of fraud] or you’re a really bad insurance company, you’re going to pay the claim and move on. That’s how it works. [Our investigator] was like, we know [Durham] did it, but we don’t have enough to give you to sink your teeth into. As soon as things started to develop that way, it was obvious that we felt that way. We let [Durham’s lawyer] know. Communications with Durham didn’t exist after the check was sent. The check was another issue.”

Indeed, the check was another issue. From that $456,000 settlement, Lund and Rippberger each took $193,000; they sent Durham the remaining $70,000 and told him he could keep the once Sacred and now broken Buffalo.

Fairborn, Ohio, detective Andy Kindred couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. It was March 2001, and a fat, freckled dude just busted with three pounds of pot was giving him some whack-a-doodle story about smashing up some buffalo bones in Vermont six months ago. “I was like, you’ve got to be shitting me,” Kindred told me recently. “So I picked up the phone and called the St. Johnsbury P.D., and got Chief Richard Leighton on the phone, and he goes, ‘No, that happened. You got the guy? I’ll be damned.'”

Boomer had found himself across the table from Detective Kindred that day because, thanks to an informant’s tip, the Fairborn police had raided Boomer’s home, where he was now living with his girlfriend, Angie. Behind the house, police found a plastic bag in a tree with three pounds of marijuana. “It’s not hers,” Boomer had blurted. “She don’t know nothing about it. It’s mine.” Possession of three pounds legally implied intent to distribute, and considering Boomer’s record, such a conviction would be enough to put him inside for a long time. And faced with the possibility of going away (again) for a long stint, Boomer figured he could strike a deal by providing Sacred Buffalo information.

See, Kinney was no longer Boomer’s dawg. First off, Kinney had insulted Boomer’s new girlfriend. “Angie had been with a colored man before me,” Boomer explained to me. “She had a mixed baby. And Roger was like a big-time racist. I mean, I don’t like colored kids either, but that baby didn’t have nothing to do with it. So me and him fell out about that.” What’s more, the contact for the buffalo job never did pay up. And so Boomer decided to tell Detective Kindred everything he knew about the buffalo and more in exchange for a lighter sentence. Boomer revealed the contact for the Sacred Buffalo hit: He swore up and down that it was a dude named Johnny Decker.

In a tape-recorded statement to Kindred, Boomer described himself and Kinney as “the Apple Dumpling Gang,” and stated that when this Decker hired him for the job, “he told me that the artist [was his] brother. He told me a couple of times that he’d been to South Dakota. He never told me why.” Kindred asked Boomer if he’d ever heard the artist’s name. Boomer said, “He showed me a picture of him that was in a book. I don’t know if he said his name or not…. All I know is [he said] the artist was his brother and that’s the one that made the buffalo…. Evidently the buffalo was on its last leg. It wasn’t a major attraction anymore. It went through the circuit and was about to be retired. There wasn’t going to be any money made on it. And supposedly this artist had a deal…some type of insurance deal that if anything would ever happen to the buffalo, all proceeds would go to some Indian kids on a reservation. Now this is the story he told me.”

Within a matter of weeks, Ohio police officers raided Kinney’s house. They found a bunch of gas grills that had been stolen and found the dawg hiding in a bedroom closet. Kinney confirmed Boomer’s version of events to law enforcement, to Acadia, and also to the court, as both men pleaded no contest to felony burglary for their roles in the Sacred Buffalo hit. Kinney served 12 months, with his four- to eight-year sentence suspended in exchange for his cooperation with the investigation. And because Boomer had agreed to provide information about the buffalo, along with other, unrelated criminal investigations, he did only 120 days in prison, with his sentence of four to eight years suspended. (According to Detective Kindred, information he received during the buffalo case helped solve a missing-person case.) When Boomer got out of the Vermont prison, with some assistance from Kindred, Boomer worked on getting straight. He and Angie had a baby of their own. But Boomer gave in to his drug addiction and got arrested trying to rob a gas station with a knife. When we spoke last fall, Boomer was on the front end of a three-year sentence in Ohio at the Warren Correctional Institution.

Although Boomer agreed to testify against Johnny Decker in any future criminal proceedings related to the Sacred Buffalo caper, there weren’t any future criminal proceedings. According to Mr. Acadia, lawyers once involved in the case, law enforcement in Ohio, and Boomer, it just so happened that this Decker fellow was in business with the FBI. The way Boomer puts it, Decker was a “federal informant.” The way the now-retired Detective Andy Kindred puts it, Decker “did a lot of work for the FBI” knocking around Ohio and Indiana and associating with motorcycle gangs as a tipster, and the Feds determined that wherever Decker was or wasn’t, and regardless of whatever role he did or did not play in the Sacred Buffalo job, he was too valuable to get caught up in it. In other words, whoever planned the Sacred Buffalo caper and hired Decker to be the middleman was either dumb lucky or a master of the scam.

Apparently unconcerned about Boomer and Kinney, in 2002 Big Jim filed suit against Lund and Rippberger, arguing that he should have received a third of the insurance settlement. He claimed that, according to the LLC agreement, any profit from the Sacred Buffalo was to be equally divided three ways. Lund and Ripp- berger countered successfully by claiming their agreement established that all profits would be split three ways, provided the two financiers first recouped their investment plus a 100 percent return on their investment, which was equal to the $193,000 each took out of the Acadia payment. In memos to a Buffalo LLC lawyer on the matter, Lund instructed the attorney to fight Big Jim’s suit because it was “ridiculous.” On principle, as Lund put it, he told his attorney not to settle. The case dragged on into March 2004, when Lund’s attorney deposed Durham. Well into the hours-long deposition, Durham took it upon himself to solicit a settlement.

“I want two cows, 40 blankets,” he said. In the flow of the transcript, the opposing counsel is clearly stunned and attempting to collect his thoughts when he says, “Let me write this down.” Durham’s own lawyer then asks his client, “Are you serious about this?” To which Durham replies: “You’re damn right I’m serious…. Two cows, breeding cows. That means breeding stock, male, female. Two cows, 40 Pendleton blankets. Good ones…. Two chain saws for Sun Dance to cut our arbor down so we can dance, and half the money they took over what they had coming. Forty blankets, 65,000 bucks, two chain saws, and two cows. Any thief would take that. I ain’t paying your attorney’s fees. I will go to hell first…. I’ll walk away. You can make fun of us forever.” Lund and Rippberger’s attorney rejected the offer, and shortly thereafter the case withered away.

Rick Rippberger no longer has anything to do with the Art Mart in Boulder. He’s divorced from his wife and thereby divorced from the business. After he got his piece of the Acadia payment, he deferred to Lund on the business of the lawsuit Durham had filed against them; nor did Rippberger closely follow the news of Boomer and Kinney. Until we spoke in a Denver coffee shop last fall, he says, he’d never even heard the name Johnny Decker. “I didn’t even know who he was,” Rippberger said. He had on aviator-style glasses with lenses tinted a rose color, which seemed uniquely suited for his worldview. Visibly frustrated, he took off the glasses. “You know what this did for me? I mean, I’m that type of guy that trusts everybody, all right? And with this whole thing, and as far as Native Americans, I have the worst taste of Native Americans in my mouth.”

In the Buffalo book, Durham wrote “There’s another old saying. ‘It’s not for sale.’ I wish that were true of religion. People without any real spiritual knowledge try to run a sweat lodge—or a vision quest—for a fee. They learn to sing a couple of songs and to go through the motions and then they offer to run sweats for people who will pay the price. The people who pay have no idea how much preparation and prayer goes into running a real sweat lodge ceremony, or that the adviser for a vision quest must be spiritually responsible for them. At best, the people who pay to go to a sweat lodge just waste their time and money; at worst, they can be hurt bad. Unlike religion, true spirituality isn’t for sale.” But as far as Durham was concerned, the Sacred Buffalo was for sale.

Big Jim restored the Sacred Buffalo, or, hell, who knows, maybe he had the Sacred Buffalo restored. In any case, the buffalo was put into exhibitable form. And in January 2002, while Boggs and Kinney were coming as clean as they could to authorities, and Rippberger and Lund were fending off Durham’s suit, Big Jim sold the Sacred Buffalo. An acquisitions director for an international museum chain, Edward Meyer, bought the piece. When I spoke with Meyer on the phone this fall, he wouldn’t disclose how much he’d paid for it, but he said it was the third most expensive purchase he’d ever made in the 30 years he’s been in the business. He would say that the priciest piece he’s ever bought, which was a matter of public record, was a makeup case once owned by Marilyn Monroe, which Meyer purchased for $265,000.

Before we hung up, Meyer mentioned that the buffalo wasn’t the only thing he bought from Durham. He also purchased a human skeleton nailed to a crucifix. What makes the human skeleton piece even more interesting, and controversial, and therefore attractive to Meyer, is that on the bones, every inch of the bones, Durham had scrimshawed scenes from the Bible. “To this day,” Meyer says, “I would say it’s the most controversial piece in our collection. And we have some 25,000 items. His work is spectacular. The crucifix is beautifully woodworked, and the scrimshaw is incredible. He has told the New Testament and Acts of the Apostles, but from an Indian viewpoint based on his religious upbringing, I guess, in missionary schools. Visually, it is disturbing. People don’t see skeletons hanging on crosses. It’s a one-of-a-kind.” Meyer says the human skeleton exhibit is on display at his venue in London, England, and that as of just last year the Sacred Buffalo could be seen at his museum in San Antonio, Texas. Oh, of course, the name of the international exhibition and museum operation Meyer oversees: It is Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Maximillian Potter is executive editor of 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].

Recommended for You