Yellowstone National Park is one of the most renowned and visited places in the United States. Established in 1872, the massive park was the introduction to America’s Greatest Idea. Nearly a century and a half later, the preserve still lives up to the hype. Yellowstone encapsulates some of this nation’s most stunning scenery, from geothermal geysers like the famous Old Faithful to the breathtaking Beartooth Mountains to the thundering waterfalls and canyons found throughout the park. There’s no shortage of places to explore either: at 3,472 square miles, Yellowstone is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Add in some of the greatest wildlife viewing opportunities in North America, and it’s no wonder that Yellowstone is near or at the top of many travelers’ bucket lists.
Old Faithful. My own photo.
As a popular tourist attraction, Yellowstone has been covered in thousands upon thousands of blogs. Most of these follow the beaten path, from Old Faithful to Grand Prismatic to Mammoth Hot Springs. Sure, all of these spots are worth a visit and a hike. But to me, the most fascinating part of Yellowstone lies far from the hordes of tour buses and retirees in RVs, in a nearly untouched part of the park. Considering its reputation, that’s probably a good thing; today we’ll be exploring Yellowstone’s Kill Zone.
The Kill Zone, also commonly referred to as the Zone of Death, is much less ominous than its name implies. In fact, it probably looks much like the rest of the park, and no unusual happenings have been reported there – yet. Rather, the kill zone has gained infamy from a combination of geographical anomalies and legal loopholes. First exposed by professor Brian Kalt in 2005, the Kill Zone is the only place in the country where you can commit any felony – (including murder) freely admit to it, and still get off scot-free. Here’s how it works:
The vast majority of Yellowstone is situated in the state of Wyoming. However, the northernmost and westernmost parts of the park cross the border into Montana and Idaho. These areas are remote and extremely sparsely populated: Less than 20 live on the Montana side, and exactly 0 people live in the 50-square mile sliver of the park in Idaho. It’s this uninhabited Idaho portion that has been dubbed the Kill Zone or Zone of Death, and it’s all because of a single line of text in the Constitution.
Yellowstone’s boundaries in red, Kill Zone in black
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution gives all Americans the right to a fair and speedy trial. The key clause we’ll be looking at is called the Vicinage Clause: it states that the accused has a right to an impartial jury, from the state and district where the crime occurred. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, here’s the problem: when Yellowstone was created, the entire park was placed in the federal district of Wyoming, including the parts in Montana and Idaho. This is the only case of a federal district crossing state lines, and causes serious problems for a would-be prosecutor in the Zone of Death.
To illustrate the problem, let’s look at a hypothetical scenario: a man kills his friend in the Idaho portion of the park. Once the authorities catch the man and charge him with murder, the next step would be to assemble a jury for the trial. This jury must meet two requirements: They must live in Idaho (to meet the state requirement of the Vicinage Clause), and they must live within Yellowstone’s boundary (to meet the clause’s district requirement). Remember how I mentioned that no one lives in this area? That means that it is impossible to assemble an impartial jury, and therefore impossible to try the man for his crime. Theoretically, all charges must be dismissed and the man will walk free.
Of course, there are a variety of factors that make pulling off the perfect crime in the Kill Zone nearly impossible. First, any crimes must occur solely within the Zone. This means no kidnapping anyone and bringing them into the zone, no planning a murder in advance (you could be charged with conspiracy to commit in another state/district), and no transporting illegal weapons across the park boundary or state border. Second, the crime must only consist of felonies – certain misdemeanors do not require a jury, and a judge still has the power to issue rulings over the Kill Zone). Third, of course, is the extreme remoteness of the Zone. The only sign of civilization within the area is a single rough gravel road that clips its southeastern corner; beyond that there are only a few primitive hiking trails. Still, if you can avoid these pitfalls, it seems that you could truly get away with murder in this tiny patch of paradise.
Two trails cut across. Note the tiny line for the lone road in the bottom right corner.
The legal loopholes that allow for the existence of the Kill Zone have actually been put to the test before. In 2005, shortly after Kalt introduced the idea of the Zone of Death to the world, a hunter illegally shot an elk within the Montana portion of Yellowstone. The hunter used Kalt’s argument in his defense hearing, demanding a jury consisting of people living in the state of Montana and the district of Wyoming. This would have been possible but very difficult – with less than 20 people who met these qualifications, finding a full impartial jury would have been quite the task! Unfortunately, the court dismissed the argument, and the hunter took a plea deal rather than appealing the ruling. As a result, there is still no legal precedent regarding the Kill Zone.
The Zone has stirred several artists’ creative imaginations since its discovery. In 2008, C.J. Box wrote the novel Free Fire about a series of murders within the Kill Zone. Box went out of his way to detail the legal loopholes within his book, going so far as to consult Professor Kalt as he wrote. Then, in 2016, the Canadian horror movie Population Zero made its debut, chronicling the investigation of a murder within the Kill Zone. Luckily, the Zone has not drawn the attention of anyone with more sinister designs, and the area remains quiet – for the time being.
Poster for Population Zero, 2016
Despite all the media attention, one group seems to be oblivious to the dangers of the Zone – Congress. Despite Kalt’s repeated pleas to fix the loophole (he claims it would be as simple as changing a single line of text to redraw Wyoming’s federal district), the Zone remains open. So, by all means, go to Yellowstone for your vacation of a lifetime. Just make sure your feet are firmly planted in Wyoming the entire time!