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FBI ruse leads to arrest of most-wanted suspect

  • Story Highlights
  • Accused child-molester Edward Eugene Harper detained in Wyoming
  • FBI snipers, investigators headed into wilderness before dawn to catch him
  • Harper skipped court date in 1994 and had been on the lam since
By Jim Spellman
CNN
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WASHAKIE COUNTY, Wyoming (CNN) -- In the predawn darkness the agents switch the federal plates on their vehicles to local Wyoming tags and check they have no other signs showing they are from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

An arrest warrant was issued for Harper after he failed to appear for a court date in 1994.

Edward Eugene Harper is believed to have lived a nomadic lifestyle since fleeing Mississippi.

They want to give the impression that they are fish and wildlife officers, certainly not what they really are -- an elite squad in search of one of the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives.

Their target lives eight miles up a dirt road in the Big Horn mountains of Washakie County -- and he is also not what he seems.

For the past few years Edward Eugene Harper has been tending a flock of sheep in the semi-wilderness of the region. But 15 years ago he failed to turn up for a court appearance in Mississippi on charges he had molested two girls, aged 3 and 8. He'd been on the lam ever since.

Recently the FBI had received a tip on his whereabouts. Video Watch how FBI planned hunt for fugitive »

Snipers spent the night watching the truck with a camper top where Harper, 63, has been sleeping for the past few weeks.

Michael Rankin, assistant special agent in charge at the FBI's Denver, Colorado, field office and leader of the operation to capture Harper, said he wanted to use a ruse to get close to Harper.

"We don't want to alert him or anybody who might be a supporter of his, and we want to get as close to him without somehow raising his antenna that we may be law enforcement and we may be wanting to take him into custody," Rankin said.

"It's an individual that has been a fugitive for almost 15 years, so he certainly doesn't want to go to jail or be put into the system after being on the lam for this length of time."

The locals are used to seeing officers from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and it's one of their men who will make the first contact and perhaps lead Harper to think the accompanying agents are also wildlife officials.

The sun is up now and it is dusty and hot. At the end of the dirt road the FBI has officers working the command and control element, a team of crisis negotiators and investigators who will confirm Harper's identity, and a tactical unit aiming to make the arrest.

FBI sources say they are concerned about another "Ruby Ridge incident." In August 1992, more than 400 members of federal and local law enforcement and the military converged on the Idaho hillside where a white separatist, Randy Weaver, lived in a cabin with his family. By the end of the operation, there had been a 12-day siege and a U.S. marshal, Weaver's wife and his 14-year-old son were dead.

Ruby Ridge became a rallying cry for right-wing militias, and agents do not want this arrest mission spiraling out of control. Harper subscribes to "sovereign citizen" ideology and once claimed to be a member of the Montana Freemen, a group that rejected the authority of the U.S. government, the FBI said.

In the end, the arrest of Harper is nothing like Ruby Ridge. He puts up no resistance, no shots are fired and there is no standoff.

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Harper, now with a heavy beard, shaggy hair and wearing a black patch on his left eye, sits calmly in a government SUV heading back into the system and a county jail in Casper, Wyoming, as authorities begin the process of extraditing him to Mississippi. He has requested a public defender.

"It feels very good that everybody's safe," Rankin said as the teams leave the wilderness to head back to base where they can strike a name off their most wanted list.

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