Martin: ‘My friend Bernie Lawrence’

Bernie Lawrence (Courtesy photo)

Bernie Lawrence (Courtesy photo)

Mohave County and Arizona have lost one of the greatest and most respected men of our time, Bernie Lawrence. Bernie passed away March 8 at his home in Kingman.

I met Bernie in 1972 when I moved to Kingman to start my career in law enforcement. I had just gotten out of the Army and had started working for the Kingman Police Department.

I loved the outdoors – hunting and fishing – and I even learned how to trap predators to make money to survive on.

Wages at KPD were $550 a month, barely enough for a young man and his wife to live on.

My love of the outdoors got me an introduction to Bernie who was considered the best mountain lion trapper in Arizona. Bernie was also a big game guide, and assisted some very well-known sportsmen over the years. As the years went on and Bernie became a fellow law enforcement officer, he primarily worked as a narcotics agent, specializing in finding and hunting down criminals who were bringing in plane loads of marijuana into remote areas of Mohave County.

Over the years I, like many young men in our community, established a relationship with Bernie who was forever a kind, gentle man, who would willingly share his knowledge and stories of his many exploits. Later in life I called him “The man of 1,000 stories!”

It is several of these stories that I want to share. They may or may not be known to others. But they were a couple of stories that Bernie told me about in private that have always stayed with me.

One of them concerned his experience when he was trapping mountain lions. Bernie had a relationship of sorts with the big cats he hunted and trapped. I once asked him how many cats he had trapped in his life and he laughed, smiled and said: “Don you don’t want to know!” I left it at that.

Bernie said that mountains lions were a lot like people, as each had a different personality. He said one lion in particular was a stone cold killer – he killed everything that crossed his path. “When I was tracking him, I’d find dead tweety birds, skunks, deer and even a range cow that he killed but didn’t eat on. He just killed for fun.”

Bernie said that some cats lacked real hunting skills and could only catch skunks – and cattle. “They were just like people in some ways. There were good hunters and there were bad hunters,” he said.

When I asked him if he ever let a lion go that he had trapped, he looked at me and quietly said: “Just one.”

Bernie told me that he had trapped an old male lion that was coming out of the Grand Canyon, through the Hualapai Reservation and making a route all over Mohave County.

“When I walked up to him, he knew what was going to happen.” But then something occurred that had never happened before. “That old lion looked me straight in the eye and we had an exchange of sorts. He told me that if I’d let him go that he would go back to the Canyon and never leave it again.”

“So I told him I’d let him go, but if he ever came out again, I’d kill him.” With that, Lawrence released the lion, which he said never did come back.

Another experience that occurred was when Bernie was working with then Sheriff Dave Rathbone. They had discovered that plane loads of marijuana were being off-loaded at Red Lake at the north end of the Hualapai Valley. The way he told the story made it sound like a script of a well-written television show.

They were on a stake out and much to their surprise learned that not one, but two different criminal organizations had flights coming in on a full moon night.

When Bernie and Rathbone saw a truck with a camper being loaded up with bales of marijuana, they started to pursue it. “The truck ended crashing into a wash,” Bernie said. The driver stayed in the truck, but the passenger jumped out and started running towards the nearby Music Mountains.

Bernie said he told Rathbone he would go get him. With that Bernie grabbed his backpack and he too headed off into the darkness.

Unbeknownst to that man, he was being followed by a man who was legendary when it came to trapping wild animals – and men.

Bernie told me that a couple of days later, he watched the fugitive as he sat on a rock watching the valley below. “He was tired, hungry and didn’t have any water,” Bernie said.

Bernie snuck up behind him and asked the startled man: “You ready to go?”

The man said yes, and Bernie gave him some water. They then walked out of the mountains and back to Antares Road where they were picked up.

I learned that one time Bernie had been on a television show called “What’s My Line.” During the show, three people were briefly interviewed by a panel of celebrities and they had to decide who the person was that was being talked about. Part of the narrative given to the panel included a quote from the Sheriff of Mohave County who said, “Lawrence could track a catfish up the Colorado River!”

As I heard it, Bernie with his soft-spoken voice and knowledge was easily identified as the “real” tracker. There was and probably never will be, anyone like him.

I could go on and on about Bernie – his exploits and how through it all, his love and devotion to his family was always his first priority.

To those of us who were blessed to have had Bernie Lawrence touch our lives. What he taught us are things we’ll never forgot.

The man, the myth, the legend. That was my friend Bernie Lawrence.

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