The Bandit of Ballarat

“For 11 months, the Bandit led state and federal officers on a 1500-mile chase through some of the most rugged and inhospitable terrain in America. They had pursued him with helicopters, planes, dogs, trackers, and entire task forces, on horseback, by car and on foot; he had escaped them at every turn by demonstrating incredible feats of physical endurance and wilderness ingenuity. As tales of his exploits mounted, he became a folk hero, an outlaw trickster in the tradition of the Old West.”

-Jason Kersten, The Bandit of Ballarat

The Bandit of Ballarat, George Robert Johnston. (c) Nye County, NV Sheriff

He disappeared, melting into the desert wilderness on foot when a 30 man posse raided his camp with trucks, ATVs and a Black Hawk helicopter carrying a SWAT team.

In another instance, authorities discovered the Bandit’s camp near the base of a 9000-foot mountain. They launched an assault at dawn with a K-9 unit and a SWAT team. They took to a foot chase up the slope following his tracks and came within 50 feet of him, but the Bandit smoked ’em.

He sprinted five miles up and over the mountain and across the valley beyond leaving bewildered law enforcement agents in the dust.

“He never stopped once,” recalled one officer. “We followed him track to track, and he never put two feet together. He never stopped to rest, never sat down, nothing.” Not bad at 50 years old.

Two months later, he once again escaped pursuers by trekking 60 miles through the desolate snow-covered hills of Nevada.

And that’s only part of the remarkable story surrounding the so-called “notorious U.S. fugitive”, the Bandit of Ballarat, George Robert Johnston. There are numerous points to focus on, but I mention it here out of interest in the “physical endurance and wilderness ingenuity” demonstrated by Johnston.

The story was originally published in Men’s Journal (May, 2007). It can be read in full at Jason Kersten’s website or here in PDF format: Bandit of Ballarat.

Banner photo: Panamint Valley by mlhradio on Flickr.

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20 Responses to The Bandit of Ballarat

  1. Nico says:

    Sad, but fascinating story. As someone who appreciates the challenges of wilderness travel and the historic tales and characters of the west, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of support for the Bandit as he constantly stayed one step ahead of the law. It really was like an old wild west bandit somehow stumbled into modern times. To learn that he was likely suffering from a mental illness and was not really a “bad” guy turns the story in a more tragic direction.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  2. eric says:

    Just like Nico said, “Sad, but fascinating story.” I love the law enforcement mentality:” We got a petty thief alone in the desert who has traveled in the general area of a military base. Better assume it’s Osama Bin Laden himself, and call in a effing blackhawk helicopter.” Yeah this guy was pretty good, but the guys chasing him sounded like buffoons to me. They think he’s special forces, but he’s just a Canadian trying to grow some smoke in the desert, so dumb. They should have called Mantracker.

  3. G.E. says:

    Saw this story last night on some “investigative show”. I like George, he’s my hero. I think LE covered themselves in buffoonery and blather. Respect and Peace for George Robert Johnston and his family.

  4. Bubba says:

    Robby lives. 🙂 Biggest hoodwink put on the US government since Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce Indians in the 19th century

  5. tommi Johnston says:

    You guys all rock. It was wretched what happened to Rob, and completely unnecessary had the right people paid attention. Thanx for supporting his memory… that’s means alot to the girls and I.


    • Jack Elliott says:

      Completely unnecessary, indeed. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. I am sorry for your loss. Though I know nothing of your husband but what I have read and what I have seen on television, I have a great amount of respect and admiration for him in numerous ways, and he has taught me a thing or two about the world in which we live. A little bit of Rob lives on in all of us who have commented here. May he rest in peace. His is a story I will not soon forget. Thank you for your comment, tommi.

      • Mary Sojourner says:

        And how about the wholesale genocidal actions of invading Europeans against the Native Americans living here, actions that continue to today – in the snowmaking with wastewater on the sacred San Francisco Peaks, the desecration of ancient Chemehuevi sites by solar power exploration, proposed uranium mining in the meadow the Havasupai know as the Belly of the Mother? You want to talk rape and pillage, we white folks are the champs.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        Genocide, by definition, is wholesale. Your comment is redundant.

        There was no genocide.

        Aside from that fact, most death resulted from infectious diseases, not murder.

        It’s odd that you include yourself, “we,” in historical events that were for the most part unintentional in the spread of diseases, and also in the murder perpetrated by those people you were not related to other than in the tenuous similarity of skin tone.

        Don’t include me in your unfounded and unreasonable commentary of events none of my family had anything whatsoever to do with.

        Native Americans, to lazily lump many disparate peoples together into a single cohort, also raped and pillaged, and they also murdered their enemies ripping their beating hearts from their chests on sacrificial altars to appease their god(s).

    • Anonymous says:

      Hey Tommi I have been trying desperately to find you on facebook or something, and give you and your girls my sincere condolences!! I really feel sad in my soul over the torment Robby felt and I hope tall believe he is enjoying freedom no living human could possibly imagine and I know he is so proud that you and the girls love him and its sad what happened but I feel he felt he failed y’all but the instant his soul was liberated from his body he no longer had boundaries of time and distance so everything y’all did after his death or after your daughter came to you with a tears in her eyes because she found out what happened a year before to her Dad,, I am certain To Robby already knew you and the girls seen him as the rest of us do as a HERO !!!! Larger than life!!! My heart goes out to y’all and from Texas I send love and respect and would love to chat with you or any of your daughters sometime and I am on Google+ Jerry Jocoy is my name take care and I wish all the blessings and I really think it would be nice to see a change in the law against severe punishment for petty crimes and if possible in Robby’s name or something ,, and. I admire y’all so much and Robby was lucky to have such a loyal family take care ,,sincerely Jerry Don Jocoy.

    • Shaun Morgan says:

      You spoke with such dignity in the documentary Tammi, may God bless you and your girls. RIP Robby.

  6. Jack says:

    For those commenting on the “admirable qualities” of this guy, I take it YOU weren’t the ones having YOUR homes robbed and YOUR sense of security taken away? A thief is a thief. It doesn’t matter who chased this guy or how far he ran, at the end of the day he was nothing but a drug smuggler and thief. I have no empathy or sympathy for him.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      “For those commenting on the “admirable qualities” of this guy, I take it YOU weren’t the ones having YOUR homes robbed and YOUR sense of security taken away?”

      No, I didn’t have any canned food or cassette tapes stolen by Johnston. But even if he had stolen my car it would not lessen my admiration of his physical endurance. I see as separate the many facets of life and believe that there are still admirable qualities to it despite its less than desirable inclusions.

      “nothing but a drug smuggler”

      He was not a drug smuggler. He grew plants in an effort to aid and comfort his cancer stricken wife. He was a husband and father. Perhaps that means nothing to you, but for some it meant the world.

      Would that the plight of humanity be as black and white and clear cut as your comment suggests we should take it. Based on the principle you raise, one should consider George Washington “nothing but” a thief that robbed black Americans of their lives in keeping them in bondage as chattel slaves. This is not to compare Johnston to Washington, but to note the principle upon which your opinion is based.

      I have no problem judging people. And I thank you for your comment. But I wonder if you would really prefer to be measured not by the sum of your behavior, but by your worst act with no consideration of all else you have ever done in your life.

      • B. M. Wells says:

        “I see as separate the many facets of life and believe that there are still admirable qualities to it despite its less than desirable inclusions.” Well said.

        Little in life truly fits the black/ white or good/bad distinction in life. Its a series of shades and degrees. To see it as only one thing or the other shows a lack of perspective and misunderstanding of perception.

        Looking for empathy? Start by understanding the role of perception and importance of perspective in life.

  7. journalpulp says:

    That was really good.

    And so was your last comment.

  8. Dave says:

    Its the same to me as Timothy Treadwell getting eaten by a bear. They both were obviously consumed by there passion, wich in the end killed them. Perhaps they were both mentally ill, perhaps they were not. Its not for us to judge. A thief is a thief regardless. A nature lover who taunted his fate (Treadwell) as GRJ did had it coming. I have respect for them both for what they achieved either way. Nobody knows why? The Barefoot bandit was quite a sensation as well. He survived multiple (stolen) plane crashes but got cornered and gave up. These other guys would never stop because of there anti social dementia until the end. May they R.I.P

  9. Kevin Conlon says:

    I hope his family can get him back to Canada. This man seemed super-human, but he was scared, and alone. Shows what fear can push a person to achieve.

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