The hunt for Navajo Sam
Leo Lyyjoki was, for the most part, a gentle, quiet man who helped friends cut firewood and enjoyed watching elk graze near his high-mountain camp.
But in the summer and fall of 1982, Lyyjoki — aka Navajo Sam — became a national sensation for robbing people of food on a backcountry trail near Telluride.
“A scraggly mountain man, wild-eyed and brandishing a lever-action rifle, is afoot in the San Juan Mountains, robbing hikers and eluding a posse of sheriffs,” said one Daily Sentinel story that July Adding to his legend, Lyyjoki disappeared into the hills above Placerville late the same year. Despite the fact there was a warrant for his arrest, he was never recaptured.
Articles about Navajo Sam were published from California to the East Coast, and he briefly became a folk hero. There were drinks named for him, and a folk song was recorded about him. A float in his honor made it into a Norwood parade, and one Western novelist modeled a character after him.
Two Grand Junction doctors were among Navajo Sam’s victims on the trail to Navajo Lake in Dolores County. So were a couple of college students from Durango.
But even his victims said they never felt threatened by Lyyjoki, although he carried pearl-handled pistols, a rifle and a bandolier of ammunition. They said he seemed more interested in haranguing them about government corruption and evil corporations than assaulting them.
Leo Lyyjoki was born in northern Wisconsin in 1931, the son of Finnish immigrants. He quit school at 14 and spent his early life logging in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Two divorces cost him most of his logging equipment and his home, and left him bitter, mistrusting any government entity.
He and a friend moved to Colorado in 1975. He was living near Placerville when Art Goodtimes, now a San Miguel county commissioner, moved to the area in the late 1970s.
Lyyjoki befriended the newcomer and his young family, Goodtimes said last week. He helped Goodtimes cut and gather firewood.
At some point, he reportedly worked on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and acquired the nickname, Navajo Sam.
By the early 1980s, Lyyjoki was living in the San Juan National Forest in what he called a “hooch:” a wood-frame structure covered with plastic.
“I went to visit him in the mountains several times, and we usually talked about politics,” Goodtimes said. “I used to take food up to him.”
Lyyjoki spent the winter of 1981-82 in his “hooch” near timberline, but it was tough on him. He lost a lot of weight, dropping well below his normal 200 pounds. And he suffered from severe arthritis.
That may be why he didn’t show up in Placerville in early July 1982, as other friends expected. They worried he had been injured or killed. At first they refused to believe he robbed anyone.
“I can’t see him stealing from people, and then telling them he was Navajo Sam when he knew that would just attract the law to him,” a friend named Elbert Short told me at the time.
As a young journalist working for The Sentinel, I was one of a number of reporters who went searching for Navajo Sam, hiking the trail where his robberies had been committed.
I didn’t encounter the backcountry bandit, but I did speak to several hikers who, like me, were hoping to meet him.
But Sam wasn’t spotted again until September, despite searches by the Dolores County sheriff and Lyyjoki’s friends. Then two hikers from Texas ran into him. This time, there was no robbery. The pair talked with him and gave him food.
As hunting season approached, Forest Service officials worried about an encounter between Sam and hunters with their own weapons.
They learned that Lyyjoki was camping near Woods Lake, in San Miguel County, and set a trap.
Two Forest Service investigators and two San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office deputies visited the lake, dressed casually.
They found Lyyjoki and said they were scouting the area to hunt. They admired his weapons and one asked if he could examine Lyyjoki’s rifle.
When Lyyjoki handed the gun to the man, he was quickly arrested.
He spent 19 days in jail before being released on Nov. 2, 1982. A Dolores County judge dismissed charges of aggravated robbery and felony menacing, saying prosecutors had failed to show probable cause to hold him.
Lyyjoki returned to Placerville with friends, but a deputy Dolores County district attorney refiled the charges in district court a few days later.
Nancy Lofholm, then a reporter with a Telluride newspaper, (she later worked for The Daily Sentinel and The Denver Post) conducted a very brief interview with Lyyjoki in Placerville just after charges were refiled.
“I remember he smelled really bad and was dirty,” Lofholm recalled last week. “He had on his bandolier of bullets and carried his rifle.”
But Lofholm panicked Lyyjoki with one of her first questions: What did he think about charges being refiled?
“He didn’t say a word. He just grabbed his stuff and he went up the mountainside like a mountain goat,” she said.
That was the last anybody admitted seeing of Lyyjoki in southwestern Colorado, although some friends later hinted that he had been helped out of state.
Lofholm did a follow-up article for The Sentinel six years later. In it, Goodtimes and others reported Lyyjoki had returned to Wisconsin, but they declined to say exactly where.
An online document showed him living with a brother in northern Wisconsin in 1997. But he soon returned to the Southwest, this time to New Mexico.
Goodtimes said he visited Lyyjoki several times at his trailer home in Tres Piedras, New Mexico, near Taos, where, surprisingly, he worked as a security guard for some large property owners.
He died in Tres Piedras in October 2010, at the age of 79. An obituary listed him only as Leo Lyyjoki. Navajo Sam was not mentioned.
Information for this article came from The Daily Sentinel, the Museum of the West, My Heritage.com, and from Art Goodtimes and Nancy Lofholm.