Copyright Salt Lake Tribune May 4, 2003

It's easy to love the outlaw myth. Since Robin Hood defied the tyranny of King John and the local sheriff, colorful characters who lived outside the law have stolen our hearts and imaginations. Unfortunately, the noble outlaw is mostly a myth. The most notorious Western felons, such as Jesse James, were cold-blooded killers, and Billy the Kid makes today's nastiest street punk look like a cupcake.

The men who rode Utah's outlaw trail were a cut above your typical Western gunslinger. Consider Willard Erastus Christiansen, who was born in Ephraim in 1864 and became the Last of the Bandit Riders.

Like most Mormon farm boys, Christiansen didn't like farming, but he only took to the wrong side of the law when the town bully tried to steal his girl. He beat the bully's head until it felt soft and inaccurately feared he had killed him. The bully's brother Moroni started yelling for the marshal. Christiansen hit the road for Brown's Hole, a famous resort on the Outlaw Trail that ran from Canada to Mexico, with major stopovers in Wyoming and Utah's badlands.

Christiansen went to work for Jim Warren, a rancher whose "main business was hunting horses and cattle that didn't happen to be branded."

After learning his trade on the ranges where Wyoming, Colorado and Utah came together -- "Rustling was natural in this kind of country" -- Christiansen bought a ranch at Diamond Mountain. At his first showdown, he put a bullet through Polito, a Mexican gunslinger who had stolen his horse -- "This stuff about 'em being sneaks and cowards ain't so," he recalled -- and then rode 20 miles to get a doctor. Polito stayed at Willie's ranch while he recovered.

Along the trail Christiansen became Matt Warner, horse trader and stock raider, gunfighter, railroad and bank robber, highwayman, convict, justice of the peace and writer. Christiansen's older sister Tennie married Tom McCarty, which didn't help him keep on the straight and narrow. Doc McCarty's boys -- Tom, Bill and George - - started Utah's outlaw tradition from their ranches near the La Sal Mountains.

Warner's criminal career started with a staged "fake" holdup with Elza Lay and picked up momentum with a robbery in St. Johns, Ariz. A posse almost caught Warner and his partner, who only escaped using "a trick that was practiced regular by cowboy outlaws in them days" -- leaving fresh horses along their escape route. "It worked nearly every time."

Between 1889 and 1892, Warner's career heated up. He robbed banks in Denver, Telluride, and Roslyn, Wash., of some $71,000, about $1.35 million in today's cash.

The law imprisoned Warner after he killed two men in self- defense in Vernal. Gov. Heber Wells became intrigued with his case and pardoned him in 1900. Warner swore to go straight and apparently arranged a meeting with his pal Butch Cassidy and Wells, who concluded Cassidy wasn't wanted for anything in Utah and didn't need pardoning.

Warner became Carbonville's justice of the peace and ran for sheriff of Carbon County on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. Historian David Norman noted he would have been elected had he run as Matt Warner, but nobody had heard of Willard Christiansen.

"Warner won the love of all Carbon County, except the lawyers and stuffed shirts," E Clampus Vitus memorialized. "He was strictly a man of the people."

Warner's classic memoir, "Last of the Bandit Riders," appeared in (of all places) Cosmopolitan magazine in 1938, and he died soon after. He left out the best parts of the story to protect his old comrades and publicly insisted Butch Cassidy died in Argentina. But did he? Thereby hangs a tale.