J.R. Buchanan: Tracker, ranger


Pat Haley - Contributing columnist



As I write this story, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. While thinking about this great leader, it brought an unusual memory to mind from years ago. It was a sad memory because of the tragic events that had led up to that particular moment in time. It was related to law enforcement.

Police work is more sophisticated today. Police officers user high-tech equipment such as body cameras, facial recognition, GPS applications, and in the case when they are engaged in manhunts, they often used airplanes, helicopters, and infrared cameras.

Years ago, however, criminals on the lam were more frightened of a man named J.R. Buchanan, a native of East Tennessee, more than they were of airplanes and helicopters. He was a non-imposing figure, standing only 5-foot, 8-inches tall, but his unparalleled reputation was known throughout the nation for apprehending the toughest of criminals, and finding the sweetest missing young children.

J.R. was one of the last of a disappearing breed. He was a tracker. When all else failed, law enforcement would call Buchanan, a park ranger in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park Service to track a fugitive, most often on foot, in the rugged mountains of Tennessee. J.R. would walk along the trail searching for signs of clothing, footprints, tire tracks, threads, hair or any shred of evidence he could find.

I had the opportunity to meet with J.R. Buchanan a couple of times while serving as Clinton County Sheriff. He told me there were times in the Tennessee mountains when the brush was so thick, he had to crawl on his belly, following a creek to keep his bearings.

At the time of our meetings J.R. had garnered more than 50 years of tracking missing persons and fugitives in the hills of East Tennessee and elsewhere. He worked closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and was considered to be their leading tracker in cases involving escaped fugitives.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, near the tiny town of Petros, Tennessee, as a foreboding place. It had opened in 1896 after a battle between convicts and coal miners. The prison was encircled by deep forest and rugged mountains. More dangerous than most prisons, it was not a preferred place to be incarcerated.

On June 10, 1977, Buchanan received a telephone call from the FBI. James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., and six other inmates had escaped by climbing over a prison wall and fled into the mountains. J.R. put on his boots and coveralls and began the slow, steady of ascent up the mountain. He first found footprints leading straight up the mountainside, and before long, located a scrap of a prison uniform. Identification of the signs was difficult with seven inmates on the loose.

Fifty-eight hours and eight and one-half miles later, James Earl Ray was found hiding in a makeshift shelter. He was captured and returned to Brushy Mountain Prison.

Buchanan had not spent all of his time tracking convicts. He had found hundreds of lost hikers in the Smokey Mountains over the years, many of them small children who had wandered away from their parents.

In the mid-1980s I invited Buchanan to come to Clinton County to speak at a seminar about fugitive tracking. He told me he had learned tracking from his father and uncle, “a couple of old mountain men who loved to hunt and trap,” as he fondly described them.

He recounted the fact he and the FBI often worked with bloodhounds in the mountains, and how uncanny it was for the dogs to pick up a scent after the humans had lost the track.

“One fall night about midnight I was called to the foot of the Smokies to begin a search for a nine-year old girl who had wandered away from her parents’ campfire,” he once told me. “It was pouring cold rain with sharp lightning and extremely loud thunder.”

J.R. said the parents were in a panic and he did his best to calm them down. The air was wet and the bloodhounds couldn’t pick up a scent. He said she had been wearing a sweater earlier in the day, and after walking about four miles into the brush, Buchanan found a piece or a red sweater on a twig.

“I must have walked for miles and miles,” J.R. said in his thick southern accent. “Then suddenly, just over a small ridge I saw a cabin. I pushed open the old wooden door, and found the little girl lying on an old Army cot fast asleep.”

“That was a pretty sight to see, I can tell you,” he said quietly.

J.R. Buchanan retired the same day Tom T. Hall did, and died on August 3, 2004 at the age of 77.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.

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Pat Haley

Contributing columnist