HELENA, Mont. -- The explosion and fire that destroyed a trailer where the bodies of two fugitive killers were found was apparently sparked when a bullet pierced a propane tank as the suspects sprayed gunfire at authorities.
The two bodies were positively identified Tuesday as Steven Miller, 34, and John 'Doc' Whitus Jr., 36, California prison fugitives sought in an intense five-day manhunt after a wild shootout with lawmen, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Chuck O'Reilly said.
The sheriff said that as much as $64,000 in currency, apparently stolen from a Cabin Creek, Colo., couple the pair of fugitives is suspected of killing, also was destroyed in the fire.
O'Reilly said it appeared that the men were spraying high-caliber, semi-automatic weapon fire through the walls of the trailer house, apparently trying to hit law enforcement officers closing in on them.
An explosion and fire erupted, he said, when one of the fugitives' shots hit a small propane gas tank they had hauled inside the trailer from an outside deck. Another shot hit an electric panel controlling an electric furnace.
Pathologists said one of the men died before the fire started in the trailer house, but there was not enough left of his body to determine whether he committed suicide. They said an autopsy determined that the second man died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The bodies were removed from the charred site at Holter Lake near Wolf Creek Sunday but were not positively identified until Tuesday.
Miller and Whitus escaped from the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, Calif., 14 months ago. Each had been convicted of two murders in California. One of Miller's 1975 murder vicitms was Ontario, Calif., police officer Richard Hyche.
The two escapees were also being hunted for the April 23 murders of Grace Kuamoo, 73, and Russell Schwartzmiller, 48, with whom they stayed in Colorado after their escape.
The sheriff said there would be no further search for a mystery woman who was seen with the men during a four-hour gun battle with law enforcement officers April 27. O'Reilly said he believes she was murdered in the mountains April 29 by her companions.
Miller's mother, Judy Bartley of Fontana, Calif., said she was not surprised that her son died rather than face capture because her son hated prison so much.
'He said if he ever got out and had his freedom ... he'd never go back,' Bartley said. 'I'm at peace and he's at peace. He doesn't have to look over his shoulder any more.'
Bartley, 60, said her son began to get into trouble after she and her former husband split up. Miller skipped school and spent a lot of time in institutions.
'Nothing satisfied him. He was a loner. He has been a loner all his life.'
The sheriff said the FBI has been following up on information obtained on at least two long-distance telephone calls that originated from the trailer house during the fire.
Reporters saw a display of a number of firearms and ammunition, gold jewelry and items recovered from the fugitives' campsite and from the burned trailer house where the men died.
A German shepherd puppy that had accompanied the two fugitives and that escaped the fire may be trained as a police dog, O'Reilly said.