The Story of Sheslay Free Mike, an Infamous, Mad, and Murderous Woodsman of the North Country
Michael Oros was the bane of the North Country in the 70s and 80s. He remains as mysterious in death as he was in life
Michael Oros arrived in the wilds of northwest British Columbia in 1972 with a peach-fuzz beard, carrying a bamboo flute. Henry Vance, a First Nation Tahltan man who spent winters caretaking a hunting guide’s cabins and horses in Sheslay, an abandoned Native village and mining settlement, encountered Oros hiking along the trail from Telegraph Creek. When Oros moved into a deserted cabin, Vance suddenly found himself with a neighbor.
In the beginning, Vance and his wife had to take care of the boy as he struggled to stay alive. Over time, however, Vance watched the young man harden and develop woods skills. He also witnessed increasingly spooky, violent behavior from Oros. For instance, once, when Oros showed up asking for dinner, he took offense when Vance asked him to wash his hands. All of sudden, Vance got the feeling that Oros was considering murdering him. Another time he threatened to kill Vance’s wife over a petty dispute over Oros’ dogs.
Years later, after Vance learned that Oros had gone on to commit horrible crimes and murders across the region, Vance said he felt guilty for having helped him.
“Our Tahltan people are helpful people. We help people who are down and out,” Vance said in an interview on a Canadian radio station.
Vance could not have known at the time that he was helping a man who would become known as Sheslay Free Mike—one of the most infamous and mysterious criminals to ever roam the North Country.
“The Missing Link”
At first Oros’ home base was near the headwaters of the Sheslay River, which is a tributary of the massive Taku River watershed that originates in British Columbia and drains into Southeast Alaska. It’s likely that the isolation of living at Sheslay contributed to Oros becoming increasingly feral, paranoid, and delusional. He took to carving trees and buildings with his personal mark, a blazing sun symbol, which signified that he owned the country and everything in it. He roamed deeper into the wilderness, living in a tent and in abandoned structures, illegally hunting and trapping, and occasionally raiding a cabin.
The heart of Oros’ “territory” began more or less in Sheslay and stretched west to Atlin and north to Teslin to encompass more than 30,000 square miles. Much of the area is the Taku Tlingit people’s ancestral home, where many still live today. Stories of Oros’ menacing nature and his cabin raids began to circulate, as did tales of his almost superhuman ability to travel through the woods. He could supposedly snowshoe while hauling a heavy sled at a steady six miles per hour, covering 60 miles a day. He moved like a ghost, most of the time unseen. At other times he would suddenly appear, as if he were conjured. Over time, Oros ran the Teslin Tlingit off their legally owned trapping grounds and claimed them as his own. They could have filed charges, but they declined to talk to the police. Sitka Tlingit cultural bearer Dave Kanosh said that some families moved to Southeast Alaska to get away from Oros.
Canadian police officer Chris Morgan was stationed in Teslin for several years and had encounters with Oros. In a 1985 interview for the Vancouver Sun Newspaper, Morgan called him, “the missing link…the closest thing a man can be to being an animal and the closest thing an animal can be to being a man.”
But he wasn’t always that way. He was born in Oregon in 1952, the only child of a single mother who worked as a petroleum geologist, chemical engineer, and university professor. He never knew his father. Arla Clyatt got to know the boy and his mom in the early 1960s when the two moved to her neighborhood in Lawrence, Kansas. One of Clyatt’s first interactions with the two was taking Michael, whom she described as lonely and shy, to his first day of school because his mom was busy.
In 1968, when Michael was in 10th grade, he became deeply affected by the Vietnam war. He developed a deep hatred for the government and authority in general. Not long after, his mother claimed she sent him away to live with relatives and work horses in Wyoming. Clyatt never saw Michael, or heard his mother talk about him again. Whether Oros actually went to Wyoming is unclear. Either way, he was soon on his own, wandering the country. When he turned 18, he became a draft dodger and began using aliases – he’d use at least 15 during his short life. In Taos, New Mexico, he joined a commune where he got tangled up in drugs and violence, though the details around this part of Oros’ story are unclear. Eventually he fled to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Back to Earther
Vernon Frolick, a Canadian writer and prosecutor, had full access to Oros’ diaries. He published the one book about Oros, entitled “Descent into Madness: Diary of a Killer.” The book describes Oros when he first comes north as a hardcore back to the earther – part of a movement to reconnect with the land that began in the 1950s in response to industrialization and capitalism and, arguably, reached its peak during the early 1970s. Like a lot of young people moving to Alaska in that era, Oros was also looking to escape his past and reinvent himself.
Oros was on a quest for freedom and truth, and the Wild North seemed the perfect place to find it. More than that, he wanted to build a utopic community in the wilderness that would be a sanctuary for those seeking escape from society. He read esoteric books, studied Zen and was obsessed with concepts like trying to grasp “the unseen reality.” He took up with different small groups of hippies, mostly draft dodgers, and lived in primitive cabins. The cold, darkness, and isolation of Fairbanks’ winters was too much for him, though.
In the spring of 1972, he set out for Telegraph Creek in northwest British Columbia. One story goes that he was run out of Telegraph Creek by locals and that’s why he ended up in Sheslay. Another is that he was offered a job helping the same hunting outfitter Henry Vance was working for. Regardless, Sheslay was the place that marked the beginning of his 13-year war with “torture druggers” and “sneak arounds.” It wasn’t long before he became known as “Sheslay Free Mike” or just “Sheslay” and, before long, became the bane of the country.
Hunting “Sneak Arounds”
Oros kept prolific journals documenting his paranoia, delusions, and rage. He’d leave notes or poems posted to trees or cabin doors stating things like “I’m a free man. Let me be!”
In his journals he constantly referenced “torture druggers,” who experimented on and poisoned him, as well as “sneak arounds,” whom he never seemed to catch sight of but who he believed were stalking him. Armed with a .303 rifle, he’d spend a significant portion of many days hunting “sneak arounds.”
Oros also imagined that every time a plane flew overhead it sprayed him and the earth with poisonous chemicals. His hatred of authority figures had deepened to murderous rage, and he constantly wrote in his journals about wanting kill any government officials he might encounter. At the time, the only government employees who spent time in his territory were Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) fishery biologists conducting research annually from April through October.
Lead biologist Paul Kissner worked in the Taku watershed from 1971 to 1990. At first, Kissner told me he and his crew thought Oros was a weird but mostly harmless mountain man. Mike Bethers, a retired king salmon biologist who worked with Kissner, said that changed as they learned more about him.
“The women at camp were especially scared. No one ever saw him, but we were always looking over our shoulders,” Bethers said.
In early summer of 1979, Kissner and crew returned to their research camp on the Nakina River, a tributary of the Taku, and found that Oros had stolen their river boat. From raiding their camp, Oros knew at least some of the crew’s names, and that many of them lived in Juneau. Kissner reported the theft to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and was willing to testify against Oros. Police were well aware of Oros by that time and suspected him in numerous crimes. Now they had an arrest warrant, but they made no move. Locating Oros would be difficult and dangerous, not to mention the charge likely wouldn’t amount to a substantial conviction.
Despite his aversion to civilization, Oros would go into “town” on occasion for short-term work, to stock up on supplies and look for women. He’d do this sometimes in Juneau, where he wasn’t as infamous. The fall after he stole the ADF&G river boat, it appears he went to Juneau and was working with a roadcrew paving the highway. Kissner was still up the Taku, when late one night, a “hippie” with long, sandy-blond hair knocked on his and his wife’s condominium door. Through the door, Kissner’s wife asked the man what he wanted.
“He told her there was a problem with her newspaper and that she needed to let him in,” Kissner said.
He seemed threatening and she retreated to the kitchen to call the police. The man became irate, pounding and demanding to be let in. When a trooper finally arrived, the only sign of the prowler was the semen he left dripping down the window next to the door. Later, upon seeing a photo of Oros, Kissner’s wife guessed it could have been him.
Phil Timpany, a Canadian woodsman, was the only member of Kissner’s fishery crew who ever actually saw Oros. It happened sometime after the fall of 1979, while Oros was being held in custody in Atlin. A cop wanted him to come in and see Oros. Timpany was out in the same country as the madman, and the cop was worried for his safety. The officer told Timpany they suspected Oros of a number of disappearances and murders.
“I asked what do I do if I meet him in the woods? He said don’t ever say goodbye. Basically, just shoot him. The cop was trying to be honest with me,” Timpany told me over the phone.
At the jail, Timpany expected there would be a one-way window or something blocking Oros from seeing him. Instead, the cop took him right in front of Oros.
“I saw him at the store a couple days later and he never took his eyes off me. He was the most wild looking guy, but not in a woodsy way. His eyes were just intense. Like a caged animal. Intense eyes,” Timpany said.
Just about everyone was scared of Oros except for an old enigmatic trapper named Gunther Lishy. An ex-Nazi who fought in World War II before being imprisoned in a Russian camp, Lishy immigrated to Canada to live in the woods. He was tough, woods-wise, and apparently dangerous. Timpany, who also had a trapline, treaded lightly around Lishy. He recalled hearing a story of Lishy encountering another trapper on his line. Lishy aimed his gun at the man, and Lishy’s companion, who happened to be a cop, told him to stop. Lishy said something along the lines that he’d killed many men in his life, and one more wouldn’t make a difference.
Supposedly Lishy and Oros only met twice. Once was briefly in the wilds when Lishy took a photo of Oros – it was one of three photos found on the German’s cabin wall after he disappeared. The second was in the late summer of 1981. Lishy, knowing Oros had a cabin and trapline on Hutsigola Lake, got dropped off there by floatplane in late July. Oros was gone. Lishy began building a cabin less than 100 yards from Oros’ cabin.
Lishy’s actions were bizarre. For one, Lishy knew it was illegal to trap the area. Traplines are owned in British Columbia; you can’t go laying steel wherever you please. Second, knowing it was illegal, why would Lishy allow his business to be known by chartering a commercial floatplane? Finally, Lishy was well aware of Oros’ reputation. Why would he build a cabin so close?
One likely explanation could be that Lishy, knowing Oros had run the legal trapline owners out of the area, planned on taking over the fur-rich country for himself. After surviving World War II, the German might have believed that dealing with Oros wouldn’t be that difficult.
On September 10, 1981, pilot Dave Wiebe landed on Hutsigola Lake to pick up Lishy as they had scheduled weeks before. Instead of Lishy, Wiebe was confronted by Oros, who said he’d never heard of the old trapper, let alone seen him. Wiebe’s instinct told him Oros was going to try to kill him, so he played it as cool as he could and got away. He flew to Atlin and immediately contacted RCMP. Police, believing they finally had solid evidence on Oros, immediately mobilized a team. Their plan was to use the arrest warrant from Oros’ 1979 theft of the ADF&G riverboat to pick him up and hold him in jail while they built a murder case against him. When the team arrived at Hutsigola Lake on September 12, Oros was long gone, deep in the wilderness. The officers searched the area and gathered Lishy’s belongings, many of which Oros had tried to hide. They also took Oros’ diaries for evidence. They searched hard but couldn’t find a body.
The Hunt for Sheslay Free Mike
Oros got caught the following March, after he returned to his cabin at Hutsigola for the winter. Oros had spent most of the winter hunting “sneak arounds” and fantasizing about killing an ever-growing list of people. When police flew in, Oros inexplicably went without much of a fight. The only thing that Oros seemed to care about were his dogs; many people have referenced his devotion to them. What happened after Oros was handcuffed is unclear. Officially, he was put on a helicopter and his dogs were later destroyed. There’s another story that out of spite, an officer shot Oros’ favorite dog right in front of him.
Vernon Frolick, the prosecutor who’d later write “Descent into Madness,” worked with police during the investigation. Without Lishy’s body or a confession, and only minor charges, Frolick and police tried to have Oros locked up in a psychiatric hospital. While Oros was deeply disturbed, he was also extremely intelligent and cunning. His diaries are largely freeform madness, but it appeared that he never wrote anything legally incriminating.
By late August, Oros had been acquitted and set free. He roamed all over the lower 48 and Canada. Timpany heard a cop in Atlin claim Oros was being tracked daily during his travels. Around this time, Oros directed the lion’s share of his hatred toward police officers. He wrote in his last diary that focusing his hatred allowed him to “set back and enjoy myself, doing a few things I wanted to do before I died.”
One of those “things” may have been the rape and murder of Cindy Elrod, whose body was found on August 23, 1983, in Juneau. The night before, Elrod had been seen at a bar with a man described as having long, sandy blond hair like Oros, and being within a similar age, height, and weight range. A composite sketch shows a baby-faced man with long hair, parted in the middle the same as Oros’ hair was in pictures. In the course of writing this article, a request for information on Elrod’s case was denied by the Juneau Police Department, as the case is still open. It is unclear whether attempts to notify Alaska and Canadian police about this possible connection have gone anywhere. DNA forensics did not exist when Elrod was murdered. Perhaps, if departments worked together on both sides of the border, her murder could finally be solved.
During his last years, Oros’ rambling journals showed he believed that an elite paramilitary unit would helicopter into the area to hunt him down. This prediction became a reality in March of 1985 after Frank and Eileen Hase arrived at their cabin on Teslin Lake and found that Oros had looted and destroyed it. He had taken everything of value, including their wedding rings. He left the partially butchered remains of a cow moose inside – clumps of hair and rotting blood were splattered on walls and soaked into the floorboards.
The Hases, rightfully worried for their lives, snow machined back to Teslin and reported the break-in to the police. A RCMP reconnaissance flight was sent out and when the pilot found Oros hauling a sled through the snowy wilderness, the madman fired on the plane. Teslin police contacted the Emergency Response Team and, literally overnight, a team of RCMP’s most elite officers were mobilized.
Two of the men on the ERT were close friends Mike Buday and Garry Rodgers, both of whom dealt with Oros in 1982 while he was in custody in Terrace and, afterward, while he was waiting for his trial. Buday was a larger-than-life character. One night, after having a few drinks and showing up at Rodgers’ house, he decided to use his chainsaw to cut the door rather than be rude by knocking. In “Descent into Madness,” Frolick wrote that when Oros was detained in 1982 and tore apart his jail cell, officers went and fetched Buday, who was off duty and drinking at a bar, to subdue him. Buday was more than just a muscled-up drinker, though. When Oros was waiting for his trial in 1982, he slept on a police station bench when the weather was bad. If anyone tried to mess with him, Buday put a stop to it.
While members of the ERT were on their way north, Oros slept on Big Island in Teslin Lake, the burial place of a Tlingit shaman. There had long been a belief circulating around Oros, especially with Tlingit people, that he was not human. They believed he was the physical manifestation of the Kóoshdaa Káa, an evil spirit that preys upon and possesses the lost, turning them into a reflection of itself. The Kóoshdaa Káa is a shapeshifting monster associated with madness, disappearances, and wildness. The Kóoshdaa Káa can be linked to the wild man of the woods archetype in that it lures its victims into the “wilderness,” turns them insane, and causes them to lose their humanity. To this day, many people who were involved with Oros believe this, including Rodgers. Some also believe that Oros, by sleeping at the burial site on Big Island, woke the spirit of the shaman—one of the most important functions of a Tlingit shaman was to battle the Kóoshdaa Káa.
Oros knew police would be coming for him. He could have escaped into the wilderness, but instead he chose to wait for them. His journals indicate his belief that his war with the real and imagined world was about to end in “the big shootout.”
On the morning of March 19, Rodgers, Buday and the rest of the ERT flew into Teslin Lake. Rodgers and Buday, armed with M-16s, along with a sharpshooter, made up one of the units. Their unit was dropped in front of Oros, while another was dropped behind him. While Rodgers and Buday were hiding in deep snow, hoping to intercept Oros as he snowshoed toward them, the mad trapper disappeared in the brush. Unseen, he circled around and snuck up on Rodgers and Buday. Oros fatally shot Buday through the back of the neck with his .303 rifle and then turned to Rodgers. Forty-four yards separated the two men.
Rodgers says that he believes he and Buday had some higher power with them that day. The moment after Buday was shot, Rodgers had an out-of-body experience, like he was watching the events happen from above. He says he looked down on Oros as the man worked his rifle’s bolt, took aim, and pulled the trigger. Then Rodgers watched himself raise his M-16 and shoot. His bullet went through Oros’ forehead, killing him instantly. Examination of Oros’ rifle afterward showed that the firing pin had worked and dented the primer but hadn’t ignited the powder. Rodgers should have been killed.
Lishy’s remains were found a year and a half later, when a constable from Teslin flew into Hutsigola Lake and stumbled on the German’s scattered bones. There was a bullet hole through the right scapula. Forensics showed Lishy had been shot in the back with a bullet matching a .303 cartridge.
With Oros dead, a wave of relief washed over the region. Forty years later, much of the land he once roamed is still wild (though there is a massive mining operation planned for the region.) Oros has been pretty much forgotten except for by those who were affected by him directly. He remains as cryptic in death as he was in life. People who dealt with him still lower their voices when they talk about Sheslay Free Mike—if they speak of him at all.
Bjorn Dihle is a lifelong Southeast Alaskan. His most recent book is A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears.