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.

January 2009

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.