It was Saturday afternoon, Aug. 1, 1981, when Maine State Police Trooper Dennis McLellan and myself were ambushed at gunpoint by two Maine State Prison escapees.

We hastily sought cover on our stomachs in the nearby bushes, desperately trying to locate exactly where these men had positioned themselves. One of them screamed for us to disarm, as he poked a rifle barrel out of the low-hanging branches a few feet away.

The firearm was aimed directly at our heads, but we still didn’t know where the other inmate was lurking or if he too was armed.

Ben, the Maine State Police K9, was going ballistic. He stretched and tugged at his master’s leash, snapping and gnashing his teeth, in an attempt to lunge underneath the tree where the assailant was well concealed. Ben definitely wanted a chance to get at him – and he wanted it bad.

Dennis and I were desperately attempting to get a clear view of the escapee, but the thick branches provided him with ample coverage.

I immediately notified the officers monitoring our efforts that we were being held at gunpoint and I provided them with directions to our location.

Dennis shouted, “I’m going to let the dog go,” while the assailant continued demanding we drop our firearms. “You’re surrounded – give it up,” he yelled.

For all we knew, we could’ve been surrounded. We certainly had no idea where the other inmate was. As soon as Ben was released from his leash, he quickly bolted from Dennis’ grasp, lunging for the tree at warp speed. He headed straight beneath it, bounding for his target.

Suddenly, there was a rifle shot, followed by a loud whimpering squeal. Ben pathetically dragged himself back toward his master. It was an extremely emotional sight to witness, not to mention the personal stress on Dennis, who had raised Ben from a young pup. The dog had been a close member of his family from day one.

I made another distress call on the radio, this time advising the units posted nearby that shots had been fired, and the dog had been hit.

It was a highly emotional time for both of us, coupled with a lot of mass confusion from the squad of troopers nearby as to which direction to head to assist us.

Warden Jim Welch radioed that he was flying directly over us at that moment, but by the time the law enforcement officials looked up, the plane was already past us – and a steady stream of officers went the wrong way.

Dennis carefully gathered Ben in his arms, comforting him as best he could.

I continued monitoring the area in front of us, hoping to get a clear view of the assailants while at the same time attempting to get the responding teams headed in the right direction.

I finally advised the confused responders that I’d fire a shot in the air – alerting them to where we were. At the exact moment I touched off the revolver, I heard footsteps coming down the trail directly behind us.

At first I thought it might be the other inmate, but instead it was my boss, Sgt. Bill Allen. He was one of a few men who actually headed the right way.

The instant I fired, he was rounding the bend behind us. I heard him holler, “Jeeso – jeeso – jeeso,” as he frantically patted himself all over and knocked his sunglasses to the ground.

After regaining his composure, he sputtered, “I knew I’d just been shot, and I was looking for the *$#* bullet hole and was wondering why to hell it didn’t hurt.”

Even though plenty of assistance was close by, enough time elapsed to allow the escapees an opportunity to move farther back into the thick woods.

Once we were satisfied the area was safe to move about freely, we helped Dennis carry Ben to his cruiser for a trip to the veterinarian’s office.

Capt. Lamontagne, the officer in charge, re-evaluated the entire situation, especially since shots had been fired and the dog wounded. He realized for the first time these men were indeed armed – a fact that elevated the situation to an even higher level of seriousness.

More than 50 Maine State Police officers, as well as deputies and wardens, gathered along narrow Moody Mountain Road. Everyone was anxious to spring into action as soon as possible. After all, the police dog was regarded as a member of the family.

Once Dennis was en route to the vet, I met with Capt. Lamontagne to brief him about what had just transpired in the brush a short distance away. He was anxious to find out how many firearms these men might be toting and any other relevant facts.

Apparently there had been some talk among a few of the troopers, questioning why Dennis and I hadn’t returned fire after the dog was shot.

The captain stated, “Monday morning quarterbacks are a dime a dozen, John. Don’t pay attention to that type of talk. You both reacted appropriately, especially since you couldn’t see a target to begin with.

“Once you committed to the use of force, you’d make them do the same. So don’t pay any *#* attention to those who are now trying to criticize your actions. They weren’t there – and you were!”

I appreciated his words of wisdom, but until then I wasn’t aware of any controversy regarding our actions, or supposed lack of.

It was obvious the captain was determined to bring this situation to a quick and peaceful conclusion. He surely had his hands full, not to mention a whole lot of responsibility.

Troop Commander Lt. Roger Drake assembled a line of shotgun-toting officers, stationed a few feet apart, along the Moody Mountain Road. An effort to push through the woods to the Muzzy Ridge Road was initiated. The hope was to flush the escapees toward others stationed along the perimeter, or to capture them along the way.

Comically, it was kind of like being involved in an organized deer drive — not that I knew what that was like.

As the lieutenant relayed his instructions to the troops, a shotgun discharged at the far end of the line. Apparently, someone couldn’t remember if the safety of the weapon was on or off. To be sure, the person simply aimed the shotgun into the air and pulled the trigger. It was definitely off, and it scared the bejesus out of those of us in the line.

The lieutenant disgustedly shook his head before ordering the men into the woods. “You guys stay alert and be careful now,” were his parting words.

The effort was uneventful. We marched shoulder-to-shoulder through the swamp and thick woods. We easily could’ve walked right over them and not have known it because the woods were so dense and thick.

Once again, it appeared as if lady luck was on their side.

It was late in the afternoon when everyone emerged from the thick brush, completing the organized drive. Meanwhile, several officers had gone door to door advising folks they should evacuate their homes until these men were apprehended.

There was a real sense of fear in the community as people filed past the command post leaving the area. Many had already armed themselves.

The entire region was quickly cordoned off and officers were positioned close to each other along the road for the night. They were watching and listening for any signs of the wanted men.

Patrols constantly cruised back and forth, hoping to keep the inmates contained. The rest of us were told to go home. The plan was to meet at daybreak at the command center.

I was ready to go. It had been a long and stressful day filled with far more excitement than I ever expected when I left home earlier that morning.

During the night, one officer seated comfortably in his cruiser thought he heard footsteps heading his way. He cautiously removed his firearm, anticipating the unknown.

According to rumors the next morning, his revolver accidentally discharged, blowing the side window out of the police cruiser. The noise he heard turned out to be a cow in a nearby pasture.

Accidents happen, and this showed just how intense the situation had become.

Another incident involved a prison guard stationed along Muzzy Ridge Road. He had to fend off a tame, yet vicious and protective turkey. The large bird had staked out its territory at a nearby residence and didn’t want the guard sharing the spot.

When the captain made his rounds he found the guard holding a large stick. When the captain pulled alongside the agitated guard to offer him a break, he asked, “What’s the stick for?”

The guard disgustedly sputtered, “You watch that *#*-damned turkey over there.”

Before long, the large domestic bird, by then missing several feathers, lowered its head and charged the sentry standing in the roadway. Another quick beating ensued and a small cloud of white feathers floated through the air. The large bird retreated back across the street … for the moment.

Standing guard in a strange area could be hazardous duty for sure!

Several more police officers, wardens, prison personnel, and their canines arrived to conduct the search the next morning. I once again paired with Trooper Hayden and Maine State Police K9 Skipper.

It was another extremely hot and humid day and more than 100 police officers had assembled. They came from all over, including several from neighboring states, converging on the area at the request of the colonel and governor.

On day two, Hayden, Skipper and I ran yet another hot track across Muzzy Ridge and through the many swamps. We were joined by Maine State Police Sgt. Ron Veilleux and Warden Jim Ross and his canine, as we ran around the hill at a pace that was extremely exhausting to everyone.

In the end, the effort was unsuccessful. We weren’t sure if we were tracking the escapees or possibly following another searcher who had recently passed through the area.

Late in the afternoon, Hayden loaded Skipper into the backseat of his cruiser, ready to call it a day. Skipper was completely exhausted – and so were we.

Skipper blankly stared between the seats, as I climbed into the cruiser. I must’ve done something that he didn’t like, when suddenly the S.O.B. bit the back of my uniform shirt, startling the living hell out of me. What little hell I had left, that is.

“Good boy! Good Boy,” Dennis commenced to praise the beast – as if he was rewarding him for his devious actions.

Sometimes I felt as though Dennis and his dog shared the same cantankerous disposition. I’d shared that sentiment with Dennis many times before on the golf course on our off days.

“That’s gratitude for you, a real friendship,” I thought. But having been around Dennis long before this, I simply knew it was his nature and probably not Skipper’s doing.

The love nip from his dog was no more than that. Soon Skipper sprawled on the backseat, waiting for the next move.

Meanwhile, I sat frozen to the seat not daring to move — much to the delight of my pal Dennis with the warped sense of humor. Maybe Skipper was frustrated about not being able to bite someone and he needed a little relief. Certainly his master wasn’t doing a hell of a lot to help the situation.

Over the next two days — Tuesday and Wednesday — we continued searching and hoping there’d be a fresh sighting.

Wednesday morning, an all-out effort was launched to sweep the entire area with every available officer at the scene, almost 150 of them. It was quite impressive and very thorough – but like the days before, it, too, was unproductive.

In the early afternoon, it began to rain and later thundershowers were predicted to move through the area. Most everybody was soaked.

Capt. Lamontagne invited me for a short ride around the block. “What do you think, John? I think they’ve gotten away from here, don’t you?” he disgustedly stated.

“It kind of looks that way,” I agreed.

We cruised around Levenseller Pond and to the Muzzy Ridge Road, trying to decide where next to search. It was raining much harder.

We met with Maine State Police Commissioner Arthur Stilphen along the way. He was cruising the roads, searching with the rest of the crew, hoping to see this situation end.

“I think we might as well abandon the effort until we get another sighting or a report of a break-in somewhere,” Capt. Rey Lamontagne humbly stated. “I just hope to hell someone doesn’t get hurt in the meantime.”

The captain obviously feared for the safety of his men and the public he served.

I agreed with him. The area had been thoroughly covered. There was little more that could be done without something new to go on. At around 3 p.m., the search was officially terminated.

It was a little after 4 p.m. when I finally returned home, ready for a hot shower and dry clothes. I’d just climbed out of the shower when the phone rang.

It was the captain. “John, You’re not going to believe this but, we just had a house break on the Higgins Hill Road in Morrill. This could be them. When the owners returned to their home, two men bolted out the side door, leaving food cooking on the stove and cigarettes burning in the ashtrays,” he excitedly stated.

“Trooper Reitchel is en route, along with Trooper Hayden and Skipper. You’ve been with this from day one. Do you want to join up with them? If not, I understand,” he politely offered.

“I’ll grab my rain gear and be on my way,” I anxiously responded. So much for resting.

In a torrential downpour, I quickly headed to Morrill, ready to start yet another exciting adventure with my pal, Hayden and his faithful mutt, Skipper.

Skipper was faithful to Hayden, that is – I still had a uniform shirt with teeth marks in it, making me wonder just how faithful Skipper was to the rest of the world.

Stay tuned next time for the exciting conclusion to the Great Moody Mountain Manhunt. What a thrilling adventure it was.

By the end of the day, my faith in Skipper would be completely renewed. I witnessed firsthand what a tremendous asset to law enforcement the dog had become.

Reluctantly, I would’ve said the same for his master, but after hearing him spout, “Good boy! Good Boy, Skipper,” after purposely siccing the dog on me, I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to forgive Dennis yet.

John Ford Sr. is a retired game warden, Waldo County Sheriff and Chief Deputy. The wildlife artist and award-winning columnist lives in Brooks with his wife, Judy. He may be reached at jonnylaw@fairpoint.net.