Madison County Sheriff Johnny France has hired a personal manager and a New York advertising agency. If screen tests don't flatter him, he wants Clint Eastwood to play his part in a movie about his capture of two mountain men charged with kidnaping and murder.
"If I have the opportunity to reach for the stars," France said, "I would reach for the highest star."
The next scene in the drama's real-life version begins Monday when the first of the pair comes to trial here in a county seat whose scenery and vigilante history recall a Hollywood Western.
In the colonial brick courthouse, circa 1876, jurors will consider the afternoon of last July 15 when two men grabbed Kari Swenson, 23, a member of the U.S. women's biathlon team, as she jogged along a mountain trail near the Big Sky ski area south of Bozeman.
Dan Nichols, 20, and his father, Donald Boone Nichols, 54, are accused of fatally shooting Swenson's friend, Alan Goldstein, and wounding Swenson during a rescue attempt the day after she disappeared. Swenson, chained to a tree, was shot in the chest. A second rescuer ran for help, and the kidnapers fled.
Swenson's mother told a Bozeman, Mont., reporter last summer that the kidnapers had hoped her daughter would warm to a Daniel Boone life style and become the younger man's "mountain woman."
According to his family and friends, the elder Nichols long had dreamed of living off the mountain land. He and his son had spent 12 summers in Montana's back country and began living there continuously in August 1983. After the kidnaping, they eluded police in the wilderness until Dec. 13 when France, dressed in white for camouflage against the snow, interrupted the gaunt, unkempt duo as they cooked over a campfire on a rugged mountainside between Virginia City and Bozeman.
Dan Nichols has pleaded not guilty to charges of homicide, kidnaping and aggravated assault. His trial begins Monday, and his lawyer, Steve Ungar of Bozeman, said he intends to emphasize the young man's mental abilities at the time of the crime. Donald Nichols is to be tried later.
Residents of Virginia City, a virtual museum of the Old West, seem mindful of their heritage as they await the start of a trial that would not have been out of place 100 years ago. The town is touted by historians as the finest collection of 1860s commercial buildings on an original site. A dusty boardwalk runs the length of Main Street's board-and-batten storefronts.
"They used to hang people right across the street," said Nancy Mantymitman, of Bovey Restorations, over coffee at one of three Virginia City saloons.
Alder Gulch, where Virginia City is nestled, made its mark as territorial capital during a gold rush from 1863 to 1875. Riches brought lawlessness, much of it perpetrated by then-Sheriff Henry Plummer. In a cleanup effort, the townsfolk hanged 22 men -- including Plummer.
The outlaws' graves sit above the city on Boot Hill. Near the turnoff for the cemetery, a carved wooden sign reads: "If you like true stories more picturesque than fiction, Virginia City and Alder Creek can furnish them . . . . "
But the town is no stranger to fictional accounts: Portions of "Missouri Breaks" and "Little Big Man" were filmed here.
Local news organizations reported last month that the town was preparing to cash in on an early tourist season that is expected to accompany the trial. Business owners denied plans for hype, however, and city officials denied a permit to an out-of-town entrepreneur who sought to sell mountain-men t-shirts on the courthouse steps.
The shades usually go up on the wax figures in the town's museum section around Memorial Day, followed by the opening of a handful of seasonal Main Street businesses. A few -- such as Bob's Place, a grocery with a bar -- stay open all year. So far, a dozen log cabins in historic Nevada City a mile away are the only facilities being aired out and dusted off early to provide tourist accommodations. Eleven of them are reserved by reporters.
Many residents treated the mention of special trial preparations with disdain. Two men who spent most of last Thursday installing two pay phones next to the Virginia City Cafe were asked whether the additions were for reporters' convenience.
"Yup," said one.
"No," said the other.
Rena Hermann, owner of the Vigilante Gift Shop, said she will not sit in on the trial. But "if things get hot," she said, "maybe I'll sneak over there and take some pictures to show my grandchildren."
The bearded trial judge, 5th District Court Judge Frank Davis, said, "I'm the only one who looks like a mountain man. Those lawyers dressed in three-piece suits look like they're right out of Madison Avenue. The defendant looks like an Eagle Scout going up for his merit badge. And the father looks like he may be a banker."
Davis has issued strict media guidelines forNichols' trial. Besides a gag order on witnesses, lawyers and jurors and a limit of one courtroom television camera, Davis has stipulated a dress code for reporters. "I just don't want television people running around in big blazing blue blazers that say ABC or CBS on them," Davis said. "I don't want this to be a media show."
Nonetheless, a behind-the-scenes media show continues as networks, filmmakers and writers vie for rights to France's story. The sheriff has received nearly 40 offers for television movies and five for feature films, according to his manager, L.D. Stordahl of Tulsa, who estimated the number of authors hoping to write the book at about a dozen.
France is soft-spoken, exuding confidence with "aw-shucks" overtones. He likes Western garb and is best recognized by an off-white cowboy hat or a hand-tooled belt that says "Johnny." Asked why he has enlisted a manager, lawyer and the William Morris Agency, France bristled. "You are among the privileged, lady," he said to a reporter granted a few moments to discuss nontrial matters. "There are too many situations like this that I just don't have time for and needed help with. I needed a buffer."
Would he give up law enforcement for Hollywood? His attorney, Loren Tucker, answered for a stammering France: "Not at the same salary, anyway.