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.
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.'"