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A Book Runs Through It

Posted on Jul 16, 2012

By Deanne Stillman

Summer is here and so too reading lists of the season. Generally these are compiled by book critics, magazine editors and writers, many of whom are offering their recommendations of new and classic books that have influenced their imaginations, illuminated the human condition or made them laugh out loud. But it’s not often that we learn of books that have motivated people to act, beyond going on a diet, and it’s even more out of the ordinary to hear of three such books at the same time—and how they each played a role in the same public event. 

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Already a fan of one, I learned of these books and their collective impact by way of individuals involved in a modern manhunt. Together, the books comprise their own unlikely summer reading list; the manhunt happened in August 2003 and it was while I was writing about it, first for Rolling Stone and more recently in my new book “Desert Reckoning,” that they came to the fore as a trio. Since then I’ve read and reread these works to learn more about the men who loved them. Two of the men were dead when I found out about the impact of each book in their lives, so the tales therein became that much more important in helping me understand these figures.

The first book on this unlikely summer list is “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti. It’s a Christian thriller about a preacher and reporter who join up to combat evil forces that threaten to overtake a small town. Published in 1986, it’s an ongoing megaseller and was also adapted recently as a Broadway musical called “Dark.” I found out about it when I met reporter Connie Mavrolas and Pastor John Wodetzki, friends of the late Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Stephen Sorensen, whose story I tell in my book. Along with Sorensen, Mavrolas and Wodetzki had formed an accidental trio who had come together in their mutual concern for Lake Los Angeles, the Antelope Valley town where they lived and worked. In their view, it had been overtaken by the dark side, and they believed that their crusade mirrored what was going on in “This Present Darkness.” When the battle reached a fever pitch, the book emboldened them. With Sorensen leading the way, they felt as if they were carrying a cross of goodness across a parched land of demons. Weeks after Sorensen was killed and the man who killed him died in a giant conflagration during the final siege of the manhunt, Mavrolas and Wodetzki recalled a passage from Peretti’s book in which the besieged town was saved by a heavenly fire—a blaze of stars that vanquished evil and swept the place clean. 

The man who cut Sorensen’s life short was Donald Kueck, a dedicated hermit who lived near Lake Los Angeles in a remote outpost called Llano. His story also figures prominently in my book. Kueck had acquired an extensive library during the years that he lived there, including such diverse offerings as “Passages” by Gail Sheehy and a deluxe anniversary edition of Gun Digest. Often he would sit in an old La-Z-Boy that faced the Three Sisters Buttes, ponder the utopia for one that he had assembled from desert flotsam and jetsam, and read and plan. Among his collection, there was one book that he especially favored; this was “Reunions,” a popular work by Dr. Raymond Moody about how to contact the dead. In his final months, Kueck had been trying to reach his son Jello, who had died of a heroin overdose in the old Palace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles before it was refurbished. We do not know whether the attempt was successful, but according to his friends, it was his desire to be with his son that led to the strange and violent incident that took a deputy to the grave—and a week later, Kueck himself, after he had dug his own burial plot on his land.   


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