.:The Ethical Outlaw:.

You might think a man who makes his living illegally scavenging bomb and missile parts from the Navy's Chocolate Mountains target range is an unsavory character. But in those parts, he's the good guy.

By Michael DiGregorio, reprinted from the Los Angeles Times Magazine feature from 12/11/05.

If the Chocolate Mountains were a spine laid sideways, Jacob Ray Taylor—J.R., of course, to those who know him—would be found down in the lumbar.

The mountains trend in a languid southeasterly direction from Riverside County across Imperial County to just this side of the Mexican frontier. They are as remote and gloriously unsettled as California gets, a rolling savannah of spiny scrub trees, badlands, lava fields and the Chocolate Mountain Aeriel Gunnery Range, 456,000 acres set aside for the U.S. Navy, Marines, National Guard, visiting NATO wings and various helicopter detachments.

They are why Taylor's directions to his spread, relayed by cellphone in an Arkansas twang that sways between raspy and sing-songy, include a distracting caveat: "If you see the 'Danger: Bombing Range' signs, you've gone too far."

He and his wife, Lorelei, own 10 acres spilling over with trailers, shotgun shacks, seven dogs, 45 chickens and roosters, even more cats and a cache of spent bullets and bomb fins. To the north is where Patton's Third Army trained in the early 1940s. To the west is where B-29s dropped mock-ups of "Little Boy" and "Fat Man," the atomic bombs destined for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, over the cognac-colored Salton Sea. The thrust of the blades of military choppers on modern-day missions over the Chocolates has been known to bend antennae on the Taylors' property.

Perhaps there's some good reason that J.R. settled here, 62 miles from potable water. To begin with, he's an ex-soldier. A "Mud Marine" who served three tours in Vietnam, one in Lebanon, then a stint with a unit in Colombia, during, he says, "the first drug war there." After leaving what he calls the "black" or covert ops world, he found work with Red Adair, the famed oil field firefighter. "That owed to my knowledge of explosives," Taylor explains.

But eventually he returned to making a living from war, or from the rehearsals for it, scrounging the range for reclaimable bomb and missile metals—primarily aluminum and brass—then selling them to a local yard for as much as $500 a ton.

If the work wasn't exactly legal, it wasn't exactly immoral, either. Scrappers like Taylor who roamed the Chocolates in days gone by respected a code: steering clear when the range was "hot," namely when maneuvers were being conducted, and maintaining a quietly amiable relationship with the military authorities.

"I got along with them," Taylor claims. "But then again, they didn't see me and I didn't see them."

Now the range Taylor long defied is being overrun by what he considers a reckless new generation of outlaws: meth addicts, human traffickers and drug runners, among others. Taylor complains that pirates shake down or kidnap human-cargo loads from range runners and coyotes. That vanloads of illegal immigrants are dumped, left to wander a theater of war, sometimes to die.

And then, the worst of the lot: seekers of ordnance packed with explosives, potential building blocks for would-be terrorists. Figuring out how to secure the material from a live bomb or missile isn't rocket science. And a lot of the stuff that rains down on the Chocolates remains live, with Taylor estimating that 5% to 20% of dropped bombs will fail to go off.

J.R. Taylor sees the bombing range slouching toward anarchy. He aims to do something about it, and so has appointed himself Chocolate Mountains Neighborhood Watch Captain.
"You have to play by the rules," he says.

Behind the wheel of one of his two primer-gray Volkswagen Bugs, Taylor is ascending a hogback of loose shale. At the summit, the wind begins to gust, and he relates what he told one of the ne'er-do-wells: " 'You ain't gonna see me. You're gonna hear one crack at your motor, and it's gonna fly past your feet.' "

Until the early '80s, J.R. and Lorelei lived in Niland, on the Chocolates' west side. It's a town of fewer than 1,500, a maybe mile-long grid of stucco houses, trailers and dry-land vegetable fields. On training days on the range, all of it heaves with aftershocks.

And most days are training days, with jets and choppers from the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station in Arizona, or aircraft carriers in the Pacific bombing and strafing and making a heck of a racket with drops of 500- to 2,000-pound bombs, rockets and missiles, as well as fusillades of cluster-type munitions.

Each type of ordnance has its own unique percussion. For instance, the audio signature of cluster bombs begins with a deep, rumbling thud, not unlike a sonic boom; a series of sharp thunderclaps, maybe a half-dozen, immediately follows. The sound travels upwind from somewhere deep in the Chocolates' broad midsection.

Before you hear the sound, a 900-pound, 92-inch-long cluster bomb (designed for "multiple kills" and "soft target lethality," as the military puts it) will have detonated, releasing hundreds of soda-can or hockey puck-sized submunitions blasting outward at the speed of bullets.

None of that compelled the Taylors to quit Niland; it's not a whole lot more peaceful where they ended up. "We just wanted to get away from everything and everybody," says J.R. "I could see Niland's future: the dingalings, the druggies, the sleaze. No thank you."

Since relocating to the opposite side of the Chocolates they've collected an ever-expanding fleet of beefed-up four-wheel-drive vehicles, the most recent addition being a late '90s Chevy Suburban, which J.R. says was abandoned by a "wet runner." While Lorelei prefers to ramble aboard a Quad-Runner ATV, J.R.'s regular drives are the pair of Bugs, which intentionally lack tops or windshields. In lieu of a rear seat, each has a steel basin about the size of a large chest or desk for loading bomb fins—the wind-correcting tail kits that improve delivery accuracy—and spent rounds of ammo regularly shot into the surplus tanks and other ersatz military targets scattered around the range. By virtue of their precision grade and relative lightness, there's long been a busy market for salvaged bomb and missile metals. Reflexively, for a generation or more, scrappers have combed the Chocolates as if they were a post-apocalypse gold field. Officials with the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station, which oversees the range, won't comment on any illegal activity that might take place on the range or on military efforts to combat it. They have no public comment about Taylor, either. A spokesman would say only: "The range is secured by military police."

In the old days, Taylor's scrapping shift was from midnight to 3 a.m., and this was purposeful: He worked in the wee hours so as not "to get in the way."

"I was the only one I ever knew who ran the range at night, save for Christmas. The key was I liked the night." And while others tended toward big rigs, such as burly pickup trucks pulling trailers, Taylor preferred a smaller footprint, and the nimbleness it afforded. "Cut-down VW Bugs. I've had as many as 18 sets of tail fins in one."

As for his operating principle, in his scrapping heyday it was more gut than strategic. "I have no rhyme or reason in how I do this. If it hits me, I just go." He never took to spirits or drugs and that, coupled with steady nerves, might help explain his longevity. In fact, he has all appendages intact.

Being shot by other scrappers, suffering shrapnel wounds and burns from exploding fuel-air bombs—all that Taylor accepted "as part of the territory." But he didn't take unnecessary risks, attentive to Rule No. 1: "Never interrupt a military exercise to scrap."

The newcomers don't know from rules. They're as likely to scrap, or smuggle, when it's hot as not. "You can't pay me to go in there," Taylor says. "Would you go into a minefield?"

What sane person would? Taylor calls the whole lot of them powerfully stupid. Worse, their kind of commerce has raised the profile for everyone, and now the Chocolates have the attention of military police, Border Patrol agents and the rest of the Department of Homeland Security.

A fistful of remote passes that seam the Chocolates are used by those who traffic predominantly in illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. As a way to reduce the fees they pay to smugglers, some immigrants carry marijuana and methamphetamine in backpacks when crossing the range. Larger loads, meth in the hundreds of pounds, pot in the thousands, move through the Chocolates in other conveyances, predominantly late-model Chevy Suburbans and built-up Dodge Power Ram four-wheel-drive pickups.

No matter what they're transporting or pilfering, the amateurs aren't welcome, at least not by Taylor, the ethical outlaw. "They've changed the whole program," he says, and not for the good.

So J.R. canvasses his backyard nearly every day, protecting his homestead. Recent eye surgery forced him to cut down on this workload, but when he is out scrapping, he's always on the lookout for the breakers of the rules. To that end, he claims to have run off more than a few brazen "coyotes and wet runners." At the same time, he says, he passes on the makes and descriptions of out-of-place vehicles to federal agents.

"Those wet and drug runners, they don't have much for brains," Taylor says, straining to be heard over the exhaust of the VW. "Every once in a while you get an idiot who doesn't know any better and wanders over this way." Abandoned vehicles litter most of the passes through the range, which has come to resemble something akin to a pick-a-part salvage yard for the more enterprising range runner or coyote. He points out a bullet-riddled green Chevy pickup that is mired in a sandy wash, absent its tires and wheels. "They're mine," Taylor grins. Taylor describes the alleged gunplay as necessary, an act of self-defense. He doesn't exactly back-pedal from rumors that he dropped a meth cook or two, or more. "They used this range to cook drugs. I turned it over. Put five men in the ground. I had one come up from the bottom of a bomb crater with a rifle. He went away."

Is he serious? Certainly—it's a central element of the J.R. Taylor mystique. "Some people see the law as black and white, right and wrong," he says. "Some people see it as black/white with a gray stripe down the middle. That's where I drive. That's the world I navigate."

He's guiding the VW through expanses of sandy flats that climb into gravelly volcanic hills. Showy flowers bloom on diminutive fishhook, claret cup and beavertail cactus. Thrashers and shrikes and a phainopepla flit from tall, sinewy ocotillo stalks to thickets of mesquite. We share the wild earthen avenues with roadrunners and prairie falcons.

Just when it seems the bombing range is magically shape-shifting into a wilderness preserve, the VW rolls by an intact bomb. Taylor doesn't stop. He gives the 7 1/2 -foot-long, 500-pound MK-82 the same regard others would a Happy Meal discarded on the side of Interstate 10, continuing up and down gullies and over more cacti and blooming annuals than at a Home Depot garden section.

"I hardly get out of second gear," he says. In this watchdog business, "you have to have the patience of Job."

His self-declared war on wickedness in the Chocolates has earned Taylor a few enemies—though not, perhaps, among the authorities. One Border Patrol agent, who works undercover and asks not to be named, doesn't condemn Taylor's low-plains law when it comes to drug runners and people smugglers. "Well, if they want to roll through his area, that's the price they're going to pay."

As for all the talk, including Taylor's, about his resorting to terminating some interlopers, the agent does something of a dance around the answer. "How is someone, a surviving family member, going to reach out to authorities if their son was involved in smuggling? Those people are basically invisible."

Downey Holcomb, for one, isn't impressed with J.R. Taylor. He complains that Taylor "thinks he owns all of that out there," looking toward the range from the confines of the old Airstream trailer he shares with girlfriend Jesse. "I told him, 'You don't own this sucker.' "

The trigger-nerved Taylor shoots back that it's the likes of Holcomb who are the problem. And Holcomb's attraction to the Chocolates does seem to verge on fatal. "When I hear the jets or the cluster bombs, I know it's time to get up and go to work," he says. The convulsions that rock Niland act like a factory whistle, more often than not drawing him to what's known as Cluster Heaven, arguably the most lethal impact area on the range.

A few years ago, he recalls, he was riding shotgun when a former partner lost a leg to an unexploded cluster submunition; it blew up under their truck. He then tells the tale of another fellow who was completely eviscerated by a cluster bomb unit. "All they found of him was his lower leg and a boot up in a tree."

During a pursuit last winter involving U.S. Marine Corps range patrolmen, Holcomb says his load of water-heater-sized cluster bomb bellies shifted violently, and a couple thousand pounds worth of raw-edged metal came careening through the cab. Declares Randy Boirum, a former scrapping partner and longtime friend: "He was lucky not to be decapitated."

On one rather hectic day on the range, Boirum and Holcomb decide to make an audacious run for Cluster Heaven. Their transportation is a borrowed two-wheel-drive pickup that was abandoned and winched off the range by a friend. The windshield is spider-webbed, the radiator hisses and the ignition has been punched out. Tearing toward Iris Wash, a 3-mile-wide cleave in the Chocolates' up-sloping north end, the route follows a series of barely there trails. On the approach to Cluster Heaven, Holcomb notes that the British Royal Air Force has just dropped, which is good, at least in one sense, because it's "always the British whose cluster bombs fall everywhere but on target." On the other hand, there's the danger of potential encounters with wayward cluster munitions.

Binoculars bring the impact area into sharp relief: Hundreds of large silver casks lie spread across the mountains, catching the afternoon sun. More immediately threatening is the specter of two Apache attack helicopters circling overhead like hammerhead sharks. The pickup is stashed beneath a smoke tree, and the two scrappers pull a tarp over the windshield and roof to defeat the sun's reflection. The glint would betray their presence.

They locate negligible shade beside a creosote bush. About 20 yards away looms a ghostly column of shot-up Vietnam-era tanks, their turrets blown akimbo. Shards of twisted bomb fins and shrapnel lie half-buried in every direction. The Apaches finally disengage and fly off.

Back in the pickup, and after half a mile, Holcomb lands the thing in a sand trap. The pickup overheats. Cluster Heaven is elusive. They'll try for it another day, and maybe J.R. Taylor will be watching.

Says Taylor of Holcomb: "He's not worth the bullet." Holcomb's retort: "I've been doing this long enough. When it's my time to go, it's my time to go."

A local who knows both men, Mike Aleksick, Niland's longtime fire chief, explains that in the Chocolates, no matter which side of the law you claim to be on, it's all the same: a mystery.

"When you choose to live out in the middle of nowhere, who knows you? Or what you did before you found your way out there? And who's going to know what you're up to?"

© Michael DiGregorio, 2005-06. All rights reserved.