There's a Section of Yellowstone Where You Can Get Away with Murder

The blood is still drying on Clay McCann's hands when he walks into a remote ranger station, slides a warm gun across the desk, and informs the ranger that he's just killed four campers.

"Do you want me to call a lawyer?" the alarmed ranger asks.

"I am a lawyer," McCann says.

So begins C. J. Box's 2007 thriller Free Fire, the seventh in a book series about a Wyoming game warden. The novel's plot spins on the premise that in an uninhabited, 50-square-mile portion of Yellowstone National Park, you can legally get away with murder.

The book's premise originates from a 14-page article called "The Perfect Crime" by Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt. The article describes a judicial no-man's land in the Idaho part of Yellowstone, where a person can commit a crime and get off scot-free due to sloppy jurisdictional boundaries.

In 2004, Kalt was weeks away from becoming a father. Before the baby arrived, he wanted to churn out one last article to stay on track for tenure. He was researching obscure jurisdictional gray areas when he found a reference to the unusual jurisdiction of Yellowstone National Park. Like all national parks, Yellowstone is federal land. Portions of it fall in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, but Congress placed the entire park in Wyoming's federal district. It's the only federal court district in the country that crosses state lines.

Such trivia would scarcely summon a yawn from a layperson, but to a constitutional lawyer like Kalt, it was a flapping red flag. Kalt knew that Article III of the Constitution requires federal criminal trials to be held in the state in which the crime was committed. And the Sixth Amendment entitles a federal criminal defendant to a trial by jurors living in the state and district where the crime was committed. But if someone committed a crime in the uninhabited Idaho portion of Yellowstone, Kalt surmised, it would be impossible to form a jury. And being federal land, the state would have no jurisdiction. Here was a clear constitutional provision enabling criminal immunity in 50 square miles of America's oldest national park.

"The more I dug into it, the more interested I got," Kalt told me recently when I called him at his office in East Lansing. "People have this fascination with uncovering a loophole for the perfect crime. There are a lot of different approaches to it. But in terms of geography, there's just this one spot."

Kalt cranked out the paper in two weeks—before his wife gave birth—and the Georgetown Law Journal agreed to publish it in 2005. But Kalt worried his paper might inspire someone to schedule a trip to Yellowstone with the person they liked least. So before it came out, he sent copies to the Department of Justice, the US attorney in Wyoming, and the House and Senate judiciary committees. He hoped they would close the loophole before he broadcasted it to the world. It would be a simple fix, Kalt wrote, for Congress to divide Yellowstone into three federal districts—the Idaho portion going to Idaho, the Montana portion to Montana, and the Wyoming portion to Wyoming. He even drafted the legislation language. It was three lines long.

But Kalt barely got a response. From what he did hear, it seemed no one intended to do a thing. "I naïvely thought that once Congress found out about this, they'd think it was a problem worth fixing and they'd fix it," he told me. "But nothing happens in Washington just because it's a good idea."

When Free Fire came out, the publisher brought Kalt to Wyoming to speak at some publicity events. After one talk, someone suggested they drive out to the Idaho portion of the park to take some pictures. It's a beautiful area, by all accounts—an untrampled wilderness of lodgepole pines, grizzly bears, and waterfalls. But Kalt had no interest in tempting fate.

"I'm not going there for a million dollars," he said. "Not until this is fixed and probably not even then. The irony gods would have a field day with that one."

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