The Case of the Man Who Went Down
in a Blaze of Glory
On Thursday, March 21, 1996, at 6:00 p.m., the Major Case Squad was activated to investigate a shooting. Michael H. Sanders, age 27, had been gunned down in his own home by an intruder carrying .40 caliber semi-automatic handgun. The killer had shot down Sanders in the presence of his two sons, ages 6 and 4. The killer then kidnapped Sanders’ girlfriend. Neighbors had seen a man dragging the handcuffed young woman to a car.
The neighbors got a partial license plate of the car, a dark Honda, as it sped off.
The Major Case Squad had barely assembled when Detective Zeb Williams noted that a possible suspect was Russell Earl Bucklew, 27. He was a former boyfriend of the girl who had been kidnapped. He had been stalking her for weeks. She was 21 years old and very attractive.
Her two children, both age 2, were still at the home of Michael H. Sanders, along with his two young sons. The older boy described a man barging into the house, shooting his father, pistol-whipping the girlfriend, and leaving with her. But the boy did not know identity of the intruder.
Michael H. Sanders had been shot four times. One shot went into Michael's chest, through a rib, through a lung, and exited the middle of his back, near his spine. Another shot went into his left buttock and came out near his tailbone. It went from left to right. Another shot went through his arm at his left elbow. Another shot went through the calf of his right leg.
Michael H. Sanders was killed in his own home, a mobile home located in the Hickory Hollow Trailer Court on Pyrite Lane in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri.
A broadcast went out for all law enforcement officers to be looking for the Honda, which was thought to be driven by a murderer, accompanied by his kidnapping victim.
At 10:30 p.m., a young Missouri State Trooper named James Hedrick in Jefferson County heard the dispatch and stationed himself in the median near the Pevely exit of I-55, just south of St. Louis, where he could see the cars going by. Five minutes later, Bucklew’s car flew past. He began following it, radioing for backup.
Inside the car, Russell Earl Bucklew saw that he was being followed by the Highway Patrol. He told his kidnapping victim to sit closer to him, to act like she was his girlfriend.
- Russell Earl Bucklew
More and more patrol cars began joining Hedrick behind Bucklew. They were chasing him at speeds as high as 80 miles per hour.
Other State Troopers drove their cars in front of Bucklew, lights flashing, warning traffic ahead of them to pull out of the way.
Bucklew began talking to his victim about one of his favorite Bon Jovi songs. The lyrics spoke of going down in a "Blaze of Glory" in a gunfight. He told her he would shoot it out with the police, taking as many of them with him as he could.
As police cars from the Highway Patrol and various St. Louis jurisdictions pursued him, Bucklew would point the gun at his hostage’s head, then point it at the officers.
Eventually, the Highway Patrol conducted a "rolling roadblock," where they drove a car on each side of him, plus in front and in back, forcing him to slow his speed and eventually stop. At first they stopped him near the Butler Road exit, but a civilian's van also stopped, thinking the red lights were meant for him. When the van’s driver realized that the police wanted him to move, he drove off, leaving an opening for Bucklew, who slipped away.
Once again, the pursuit continued. They went from I-55 to I-270 and headed west on 270.
At one point, Trooper James Gau was driving exactly parallel to Bucklew's car. Bucklew pointed the gun directly at Gau's face, and Gau swerved away to avoid being shot. This gave Bucklew a chance to veer onto the exit ramp from 270 toward Highway 40. At that point, Trooper Hedrick pulled his car in front of Bucklew and finally forced him to a stop on the exit ramp.
Bucklew's car came to rest with Hedrick's patrol car right in front of him and other patrol cars behind him. Gau's squad car was off to the right. Bucklew was trapped. He tried to ram Hedrick's patrol car, but his Honda was too small to budge it.
Bucklew sat behind the steering wheel of the Honda, brandishing a gun in each hand. He held one gun to the head of his pretty, blonde hostage, and pointed the other gun at the troopers. He pointed it at Trooper Gau. He pointed it at Trooper Hedrick.
Trooper Hedrick got out of his car, and aimed his handgun at Bucklew. From a distance of about eight feet he saw Bucklew aiming at him. Hedrick and Bucklew exchanged fire. Hedrick fired three shots in his first burst, and moved to the right and fired four more shots, keeping them low and to the left to avoid hitting the hostage.
- Bucklew lived through his shootout with the
- Highway Patrol, only to get the death penalty
Bucklew fired at Hedrick, hitting the rear of Hedrick's car, only inches from where the Trooper stood.
Two of Hedrick's shots hit Russell Earl Bucklew. As Bucklew was struck, the gun he was pointing at his hostage dropped from her head to her leg and discharged, shooting her through her left thigh.
As Hedrick was firing into the car, Trooper James Gau used his shotgun to smash out the front passenger window of Bucklew's car. He pulled the wounded hostage through it to safety.
Cpl. R.S. Johnson of the Highway Patrol pulled Bucklew from the car. He saw the guns fall from Bucklew's hands onto the front seat of the car. The troopers gave Bucklew first aid. In spite of being hit in the head and chest, he lived. In fact, he was released from the hospital just six days later.
At the scene of the car stop, Sgt. W. J. Finnigan removed the metal handcuffs from the hostage’s wrists. Another pair of metal handcuffs was found under the seat of the car.
Both of Bucklew's guns were recovered from the front seat. One was a .40 caliber semi-automatic. The other was a .22 caliber revolver.
- The guns carried by Bucklew at the time of his arrest
Two knifes were recovered from the car: a buck knife in a sheath and a flip knife.
Rubber gloves, duct tape, holsters for the guns, and an extra ammunition clip for the semi-automatic were also recovered from the car.
The hostage was taken to St. John's Hospital in St. Louis, where she was treated and released the next day. In addition to her gunshot wound to the leg, she suffered a black eye, a fractured cheek bone, and a cut to her eye that required stitches.
The hostage, a young woman 21 years of age, was eventually able to tell investigators exactly what had happened. It was terrifying story of a stalker who would not let his victim alone.
Russell Earl Bucklew, age 27 at the time, had been the boyfriend of of the hostage during the year leading up to March, 1996. He had lived with her at her mother's home beginning about April of 1995, before they (Bucklew, the hostage, and her two daughters by a previous marriage) moved into a mobil home together on Silver Springs Road in Cape Girardeau in January of 1996.
Toward the end of February, 1996, the young woman made the mistake of trying to break up with Russell Earl Bucklew. She drove him to his parents' home in Troy, Missouri, a bit west of St. Louis, and dropped him off, telling him she wanted to break up. She then returned to Cape Girardeau, in Southeast Missouri, thinking she was rid of him.
Russell Earl Bucklew had never been violent with her before. She had no idea what was going to happen to her when she began trying to break up with him.
She was working at a ceramics company during this time. On Wednesday evening, March 6, 1996, about a week after her break-up with Russell Earl Bucklew, she came home to her mobil home at about 6:45 p.m. She had her two girls with her, and some groceries she had just bought at the store. When she got home, Russell Earl Bucklew was waiting for her. He grabbed her, ripped her coat, and dragged her to the bedroom. He kept telling her to sit down, but she wouldn't. He then threw her onto the bed, sat on her, and put a butcher knife to her face, cutting her chin. She kept insisting that he leave, and fighting to get him off. Finally, Russell Earl Bucklew went to the front door as if he were going to leave. She was at the door, too. He had once said to her that only a "punk" would hit a woman. While they were at the door, he said, "Now I'm a punk!" With that, he punched her in the face. He then left on foot. She gathered up her children, hurried to her car, and left. She reported the assault to the police that night. She was afraid to go back to her home, so she ended up staying with a friend from work.
That friend from work was Michael H. Sanders. He worked at the ceramics company with her.
At the time she moved in with Michael H. Sanders and his two boys, Michael H. Sanders was just a nice guy from work who was giving her a place to hide. She was afraid of Russell Earl Bucklew at that point. He knew where she lived. He knew where her mother lived. She and Michael H. Sanders were not yet romantically involved when he first gave her a place to hide from Russell Earl Bucklew.
The day after the first assault, on March 7, 1996, Russell Earl Bucklew called the young woman at work and told her that he would be back to kill her kids in front of her, to cut them up while making her watch, and to kill her.
Later that same day, on March 7, 1996, she got an ex parte order of protection from a judge, ordering Russell Earl Bucklew to stay away from her. It warned him not to abuse, threaten to abuse, molest or disturb her. It ordered him not to enter upon the premises of her home or place of work.
Authorities could never locate Russell Earl Bucklew to serve him with the order of protection. He had disappeared off the face of the earth.
But his former girlfriend was still afraid to go back to her mobil home on Silver Springs Road. She kept on working at the ceramics company, and staying with Michael H. Sanders.
On Thursday, March 14, 1997, Russell Earl Bucklew attacked her again. She had come back to her mobil home on Silver Springs Road to get some of her things. She had her two daughters waiting in the car while she ran in to get the stuff. It was about 6:00 p.m. While she was in the mobil home packing dishes in the kitchen, Russell Earl Bucklew burst into the mobil home, slamming the door. He began talking to her. When she turned her back on him, he grabbed her from behind in a choke hold. She struggled with him, but he choked her into unconsciousness. When she woke up, he had tied her hands with black plastic cables, and had chained her to the bed in the bedroom with metal dog chains. He also cut off her shirt with a knife. At some point she got loose from the dog chains, and tried to run to the next-door-neighbor's for help. Topless, with her hands still bound by plastic ties, she kicked at the neighbor's trailer, trying to get their attention. But Russell Earl Bucklew caught up with her. She struggled with him, but he punched her and dragged her back to the mobil home by her hair. When he got her to the concrete steps of her mobil home, he banged her head over and over against the concrete steps, until she once again lost consciousness. Her two daughters were still in her car at that point. When she awoke, she was back in the bed, once again chained with dog chains. He brought the children into the house. He tried to force her to have sex with him, but she refused, saying she would die first. Eventually, she began pretending she would still consider being his girlfriend if he would just let her go. She claimed that one of her little girls was sick and needed medicine. Finally, he unfastened her. He had a .22 caliber sawed-off rifle, which he pointed at her. He took it with them as he and she and the two girls drove to a pharmacy and got medicine for the little girl. The young woman convinced Bucklew that she would drop the charges against him and they could start over again. She dropped him off at the mobil home and he let her leave with the girls. She told him she would meet him at a gas station near St. Louis on March 21, 1996. He was supposed to call her grandfather to let her know what time to meet him there.
She reported this March 14, 1996 assault to the police the next morning. A warrant for Bucklew's arrest was issued with a $100,000 bond. She agreed with the police that if she heard from Bucklew, or if he called her grandfather as planned, she would let them know so they could arrest him.
At this point, the young woman was afraid for her life.
She was still staying with Michael H. Sanders and his two boys. She believed Russell Earl Bucklew would never find her there.
Just in case, though, her father loaned her a shotgun. She kept it in the closet of the bedroom at Michael H. Sanders' home. One day during this time, Michael Sanders took it outside to try to unload it, but it accidently went off. They put it back into the closet with the empty shell still in its chamber.
Sometime during the time after she'd moved in with Michael Sanders, between March 7, 1996 and March 21, 1996, she and Michael Sanders fell in love. Things seemed to be going well for her. She and Michael Sanders were a couple, and his two boys got along well with her two girls.
The only problem was that the police had still not been able to find Russell Earl Bucklew.
On that last fatal day, Thursday, March 21, 1996, the young woman had spent the afternoon running errands. She had been unaware that Russell Earl Bucklew had been following her most of the afternoon, driving a car he had stolen from his sister-in-law near Troy, Missouri, carrying two guns, two knifes, two sets of handcuffs, duct tape, and lots of extra ammunition.
The young woman returned home to Michael H. Sanders' mobil home a little bit before 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 21, 1996. Michael Sanders met her as she drove up, and the two of them went inside with the four children, ages 6, 4, 2 and 2. They locked the door.
A few minutes later, Russell Earl Bucklew was at the door. Michael Sanders looked out the kitchen window and saw him, and Michael and the young woman hurried to the bedroom to get the shotgun, trying to herd the children back to the bedroom with them.
Unknown to the young woman, the six-year-old boy, thinking he was being helpful, unlocked the door, assuming the person at the door was a friend of his Daddy's.
Michael, the young woman, and all four children ended up in the bedroom at the end of the narrow hallway of the mobil home.
Michael Sanders had the shotgun in his hands. He and his girlfriend moved to the doorway of the bedroom. Two of the four children were near the doorway, too.
As soon as Michael H. Sanders stepped into the hallway, Russell Earl Bucklew, a gun in each hand, opened fire. He shot Michael Sanders four times. Michael Sanders fell into the extra bedroom to his right, which was being used as a storage room. The shotgun went off as he fell to the floor, blowing a hole in the wall, back in the direction of his bedroom. Michael Sanders, bleeding, was still conscious at that point.
Russell Earl Bucklew had been advancing down the hallway as he repeatedly shot Michael Sanders. When he got to the doorway of the spare bedroom, he pointed the gun down at the head of Michael Sanders. Michael said, "I'm down man, I'm cool, I'm down." The young woman pushed herself in front of the gun and begged Russell Earl Bucklew not to shoot Mike again.
Russell Earl Bucklew then grabbed the girl and dragged her down the hall to the kitchen. In the kitchen, he pistol-whipped her upon the side of her face, then handcuffed her. He dragged her from the house.
Outside, he pushed her into his sister-in-law's car, a dark gray Honda, and he drove away with her.
As he was taking her away, he put the gun to her head and made her perform a sex act upon him. He said he would kill her if she didn't. He acted happy that he had killed Michael Sanders. He told her that from where he'd shot Mike, Mike would bleed to death before any ambulance could get there. He said, "I killed your [explicative] boyfriend, and his kid, too." (The six-year-old boy had been in the line of fire right behind his father as his father was being shot, but unknown to Bucklew had not been hit.)
Russell Earl Bucklew drove around Cape Girardeau County for approximately two to three hours. At one point, he stopped the car in a rural area near Agate Lane and raped his hostage. During that time, she was convinced he intended to kill her, too. He had her handcuffed with metal handcuffs, and he also used gray duct-tape. He would alternate having her handcuffed or having her hands taped with the duct-tape. He would point the gun at her part of the time, and always kept both guns handy.
Eventually, he got to Interstate I-55, which goes up toward St. Louis from Cape Girardeau, and they headed north.
At one point during the trip north, Russell Earl Bucklew stopped for gas at a convenience store near the Festus exit. When he went inside to pay, he left the hostage handcuffed to the steering wheel, warning her that if she tried to honk the horn or get away, he would shoot the people in the convenience store, and kill her, too. She believed him and did nothing to attract attention.
Near the Pevely exit, south of St. Louis, Trooper Hedrick began following them. Bucklew saw that he was being followed by the Highway Patrol. He told the young woman to sit near him and act like she was his girlfriend. He began talking to her about going down in a "Blaze of Glory" like his favorite Bon Jovi song, in a gunfight with the police, taking as many of them with him as he could.
As the police cars were following him, he would point the gun at the girl’s head, and point it at the troopers.
The young woman was certain she was going to die.
When the troopers finally got Bucklew pulled over, he held the .22 to her head as he pointed the other gun at Trooper Headrick. As Bucklew and Headrick exchanged fire, Bucklew’s hand holding the .22 dropped and the gun discharged, shooting her through her left thigh.
Suddenly the window next to her shattered, and Trooper James Gau was pulling her to safety.
In addition to a detailed statement from the surviving hostage, the Major Case Squad also gathered other evidence and testimony of importance.
A neighbor of Michael Sanders reported that on the evening Michael Sanders died, she heard a knock at her own door. She went to the door, and Russell Earl Bucklew was there. He held one hand under his coat as he spoke to her. He asked her if a blonde girl lived nearby, and she told him that a girl of that description had just moved next door recently. Bucklew left. A few minutes later she heard the gunshots. Her adult son then saw Russell Earl Bucklew leaving with the handcuffed blonde, and he and his mother got the license plate of the car as it drove off.
Evan Todd Garrison, a firearms expert with the Missouri Highway Patrol, confirmed that the two expended slugs collected at Michael Sanders' mobile home were definitely fired from the .40 caliber handgun in Bucklew's possession at the time he was arrested. He also confirmed that the four ejected brass shell casings collected at Michael Sanders' mobile home were all fired from the .40 caliber handgun in Bucklew's possession at the time he was arrested.
When Bucklew was medically ready to be released from the hospital, he agreed to be interviewed by Sgt. Van Riehl, of the Missouri Highway Patrol. It was videotaped. During the interview, Bucklew made several admissions:
(1) Bucklew admitted he had assaulted his former girlfriend on March 6, 1996. He said he had come by earlier in the day and found Michael Sanders at her home picking up a guitar. He pulled a knife on Mike and told him to stay away from his girlfriend or he would kill him.
(2) Bucklew admitted that he assaulted the girl again on March 14, 1996;
(3) Bucklew admitted that he started following her on March 21, 1996 as she was running errands, and followed her to the Hickory Hollow mobil home park;
(4) Bucklew admitted he went into the house with a gun in each hand, but claimed he was just intending to scare them;
(5) Bucklew admitted shooting Michael H. Sanders, but claimed it was self-defense in that he only shot Sanders since Sanders pulled the shotgun on him;
(6) Bucklew admitted pistol-whipping his former girlfriend, but claimed she came with him voluntarily, after he hit her;
(7) Bucklew admitted having sexual intercourse with her after they drove off, but claimed it was totally consensual, obscenely bragging that it was the best sex they ever had;
(8) Bucklew admitted that his plan was to "go out like a gunslinger" in a gunfight with the troopers.
The sister-in-law of Russell Earl Bucklew was located by investigators. She told them that during the time from when the young woman took Russell Earl Bucklew to Troy, Missouri, until March 21, 1996, he had been living with her family most of the time. She had not been aware that a warrant was out for his arrest. On March 21, 1996, he had disappeared with her son's car, the Honda, and with her husband's guns. He left a note for her on a paper plate that said: "Car will be at Mom & Dad's Tomorrow; Please Don't call the law."
Three months after the murder, while Russell Earl Bucklew was in the Cape Girardeau County facing these charges, he got access to a telephone and called the mother of his hostage. He asked her the whereabouts of her daughter, and told the young woman’s mother that the girl should not have cheated on him. The girl’s mother told him, "You don't kill for any reason." He said, "I do. I did. And I will." The girl’s mother told him that she wanted to watch him "fry." He answered that he wanted to watch her fry, too.
Shortly after making that telephone call, after being in custody for three months, Russell Earl Bucklew escaped from the county jail by hiding in a trash bag in a trash barrel carried outside by a trustee at the jail.
He escaped on June 17, 1996. After escaping, he stole a truck from a nearby driveway. As police combed the area looking for him, his former girlfriend once again went into hiding from him. Her mother moved to a motel, afraid to stay in her own home.
Many people in law enforcement thought that Bucklew would leave the area and try to get away completely. The stalking victim and her mother knew better. He would be coming after them.
On June 19, 1996, the hostage’s mother returned briefly to her home, intending to simply pick up a few things to take to the motel. Russell Earl Bucklew was still not yet in custody, and she was afraid to stay at her home. She had a policeman walk through the house before she entered. She and her boyfriend, a stroke victim, had been at home about 45 minutes when she walked past the pantry. As she went by, the door flew open and Russell Earl Bucklew lunged out and hit her on the head with a hammer. She screamed. Her boyfriend came running. Bucklew wielded a knife in one hand and a hammer in the other. He hit her boyfriend four times on the head with the hammer. Eventually, both she and her boyfriend managed to escape through the back door and run to a neighbor's house.
Bucklew ran off, got into his stolen truck, and took off. Deputy Richard Walker of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department spotted the stolen truck about thirty minutes later and pulled him over. Bucklew jumped out of the truck. He appeared to be getting ready to run. Walker pointed a shotgun at him, pumped it, and told him to put up his hands and get down, or he would shoot him.
Bucklew, apparently having changed his mind about going down in a "Blaze of Glory," gave up without further incident.
The mother of Michael H. Sanders confirmed for investigators that her son was a single parent, who had been raising his sons, ages 6 and 4, by himself. She had gone by the home of Michael H. Sanders four days before the killing and had met her son’s new girlfriend for the first time. Her son had seemed happy. The children seemed happy. She had a favorable first impression of the new girlfriend. The future for her son looked bright. Four days later she got the call that he was dead.
On April 4, 1997, a jury found Bucklew guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, burglary, forcible rape and armed criminal action.
In the penalty phase of his closing argument to the jury, Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle urged the jury to impose the death penalty:
"It’s a cardinal principle of law, a cardinal principle of justice, that the punishment should fit the crime. This crime was the ultimate crime. The first degree murder of Michael Sanders. It would be hard to imagine a more premeditated murder than you had in this case. A case where a man equipped himself, as you’ve seen, with two guns, at least 34 bullets, two knives, two sets of handcuffs, duct tape, rubber gloves, drove an hour and half to the scene of the crime, waited another 30 minutes putting the final touches to the plan, and then went in and executed a man in his own home in front of his own children in front of the woman he loved. And then kidnapped and raped and terrorized the woman. This is the ultimate crime and it deserves the ultimate punishment. The punishment should fit the crime. I’m asking you by your verdict . . . to say to jilted ex-boyfriends who are comtemplating stalking and killing their ex-girlfriend and the girlfriend’s new boyfriend that if you carry out a plan like that, you will get the death penalty."
* * *
"As long as this man breathes a breath of air he is a danger to other human beings . . . He’s already shown that he has a willingness and a capability to track down and terrorize and traumatize and hurt whomever he happens to be mad at at that particular time. And he has shown that like some homicidal and bloodthirsty Energizer Bunny he just keeps on coming. You can shoot him, you can jail him, you can lock him up, but he’ll just keep on coming with any weapon at his disposal, whether it’s a gun, a knife or a hammer. He just keeps on coming, wanting to cause hurt to whomever he’s mad at at that time."
* * *
"There’s a song that goes, ‘I’m a six-gun lover. I’m a candle in the wind. Yeah, I’m a wanted man." And that song ends, ‘I’m going down in a blaze of glory.’ And that’s what this man saw himself as. As a six-gun lover who was going down in a blaze of glory. A wanted man who was going down in a blaze of glory. That’s how he saw himself. He didn’t see himself as a father to his son. And he didn’t see himself as a responsible person who cared about or thought about anybody other than his selfish miserable self."
* * *
"Michael Sanders has been dead now for over a year. In the last moments of his life he was trying to protect the young woman he had fallen in love with. He was trying to protect his home. He was trying to protect his children. He had shooed and shushed those children to a bedroom behind him trying to get them to an area where they would be safe. He was thinking of his children in the last moments of his life. . . . Michael Sanders was trying to give sanctuary to a friend from work with whom he had fallen in love and with whom he was looking forward to a life together. He was trying to help someone in the last moments of his life. He was in the sanctity of his own home with the children he loved and with the woman he had fallen in love with. And the last moments of his life, because of this man, ended up being looking at this man over the end of a gun barrel as this man was shooting him again and again and again and again. The last moments of the life of Michael Sanders had to be intense paid as he felt a shot hitting him in the chest and go out his back, as he felt a shot hit him in the buttock and go out near his tail bone, as he felt a shot hitting in the right leg, as he felt a shot hitting in his elbow and arm. He had to be feeling intense pain. The last moments of his life were falling to the ground and losing his dignity by begging for his own life when Russell Bucklew stood over him pointing a gun down at him . . . The last moments of his life would have been then hearing Russell Bucklew dragging [his girlfriend] into the kitchen, pistol-whipping her, and handcuffing her, and knowing that he had failed in protecting his girlfriend. That in the last moments of his life he had failed in trying to save her from this dangerous evil man. The last moments of his life were hearing her screams and hearing the screams of her little children as the blood was flowing out of his body. And you saw from the bloodstains that the last moments of his life would have been crawling, trying to go out of that room while the blood was pouring from his body."
"What Russell Bucklew wanted was to go out in a blaze of glory. All Michael Sanders wanted to do was create a happy home for his children and [his girlfriend] and her children. And it’s ironic that Michael Sanders ended up being the one going out in a blaze of glory -- unwanted glory for him."
On May 19, 1997, Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley followed the recommendation of the jury and sentenced Bucklew to death for the first degree murder, plus 30 years each for the kidnapping, burglary and rape, all to run consecutively, plus five years for the armed criminal action.
Bucklew’s convictions have been affirmed by the Missouri Supreme Court. He awaits an execution date.