An eyewitness recounts the trauma of the shooting
By Gail Binkly
Editor’s note: This interview with an eyewitness to the shooting of Cortez Police Officer Dale Claxton was conducted in 2000 but never published until now. The witness at the time asked that her identity be kept secret, so we are honoring her wish since she has not publicly come forward about the incident.
Unsolved mysteries: The discovery of the remains of Jason McVean leaves many questions
One warm, sunny morning, a Cortez woman decided to leave for work a little early.
That simple decision resulted in her becoming a key witness to one of the most bizarre and horrifying events ever to happen in the Four Corners – the murder of Cortez Patrol Officer Dale Claxton on May 29, 1998. It also marked the start of an emotional ordeal that she says is not over even now.
The woman has asked not to be named, partly because she still fears possible retaliation from friends of those accused in the murder, and partly because she doesn’t want people to think she is seeking publicity.
Claxton’s slaying and the subsequent shootings of two Montezuma County sheriff’s officers, both of whom recovered, led to the largest manhunt ever in the arid, sun-soaked canyons of the Four Corners. Three area men known to harbor anti-government sentiments – Bob Mason, Jason McVean, and Alan Pilon – were charged with the shootings, but they escaped into the wilderness west of Cortez.
Mason turned up dead near Bluff, Utah, six days after the Claxton murder. He had apparently killed himself after shooting at and wounding a San Juan County sheriff’s deputy.
Pilon’s remains were found Oct. 31, 1999, by Navajo deer-hunters in the desert along the Utah-Colorado border. He, too, had apparently shot himself, police say.
Note: McVean’s remains were found June 5, 2007.
The morning of May 29, 1998, around 9:30, the Cortez woman was driving north on County Road 27 just south of Cortez, thinking only about the work day ahead.
Near the McElmo Creek Bridge, she noticed the man in the pickup in front of her pulling over. Not sure what was happening, she pulled over too.
She heard loud popping sounds. “I couldn’t figure out what in hell was happening,” she said. “I thought it was firecrackers. I didn’t think too much at first until I saw the guy with the gun, shooting.”
Claxton had been tailing a water truck reported stolen in La Plata County the previous day. He had called for backup when the truck’s driver pulled over voluntarily and a man got out of the passenger side.
The man, believed by police to have been McVean, strode up to Claxton’s patrol car and poured dozens of rounds from a fully automatic rifle into Claxton, shooting him through the windshield and driver’s side window.
Meanwhile, the woman struggled to make sense of the surreal events.
“It was like, ‘My God, what’s going on?’” the witness recounted. “When the man went off the road in front of me and parked, that’s when I could see the guy shooting. It’s like I’m having a real bad nightmare in the middle of the day. Nothing’s making sense.
“I’m thinking, ‘What happened to the guy in front of me unless they shot him? Why are they shooting people? – and now they’re going to shoot me and I don’t even know why.’ ”
She said the man with the gun was the only one who got out of the water truck, while two other men waited inside it. She said she saw them clearly – police have the right suspects, she believes – and they saw her as well as the only other eyewitness, the man in the pickup.
“He was 10, 20 feet from (the shooter),” she said. “And the pickup was right in front of me.”
Stunned and utterly terrified, she waited to die.
“People don’t understand the fear you feel,” she said. “It is just unreal.”
She was sure they’d kill her next. Instead, the shooter got back in the truck and the trio – who throughout the rampage harmed no civilians – drove past her and on south. Shortly after, they would steal an old flatbed formerly owned by Nielsen’s, a construction company, and flee west in it, wounding sheriff’s officers Todd Martin and Jason Bishop during the chase.
The woman grabbed her cell phone and tried to call 911, but in her panic she couldn’t remember to press the “send” button and the calls didn’t go through. Her failure would cause her enormous guilt.
Cortez Patrol Officer Vern Rucker was the first officer on the scene. On his radio she heard the dispatcher saying that two more officers were down.
“I thought, ‘If I’d only called 911, if I’d only warned them in time,’ ” she said. “I never felt so awful in my life.”
Worst of all, she said, was being unable to help Claxton, who had died instantly from the multiple gunshots. When other people arrived, she couldn’t at first understand why they weren’t tending to him.
“I was yelling at them and screaming, ‘Why isn’t there anybody over there helping him?’ ” Later she would wonder, “Why did you put me here, God, if I couldn’t do anything?” She had no answer.
She remembers walking to Claxton’s patrol car, noticing that his red lights were not on, and seeing his body.
“That’s when I totally went blind,” she said. “I thought I was passing out.”
An EMT led her away from the car. She remembers stepping on the empty shells scattered across the pavement.
“It was awful,” she said. “I just didn’t want to touch them, to touch anything that had been used to kill him.”
Somehow she managed to go on to work, but she could think of nothing but the killing. Not knowing that the fugitives had switched vehicles, she didn’t understand why police were searching for a yellow Nielsen’s truck instead of a white water truck.
An FBI agent and a sheriff’s officer later interviewed her and pressed her on the subject of the vehicle she’d seen. The FBI agent asked whether she might have confused the pickup in front of her with the fugitives’ truck.
“I asked him, ‘Where are you from?’ and he said, ‘New York City.’ I was really rude. I said, ‘Maybe women in New York City don’t know the difference between a [water] truck and a pickup, but I do.’ ”
But police corroborated her account of the three men being in a water truck originally. Why they had stolen it remains a mystery.
For the witness, the ensuing weeks and months brought little but emotional torment. She suffered constant fear that the fugitives would return to kill her.
“You don’t want to leave your house,” she said. “You’re constantly looking around and thinking they’re going to be there. When you drive up my driveway, there’s a hill, and I’d think, ‘They could be up there,’ and every step you don’t know if you’re going to make it to the door.”
‘A loving feeling’
She lost her job because she was too emotionally unglued to concentrate.
She suffered bouts of temporary blindness, when she couldn’t recognize her friends except by their voices. Over and over, she struggled to make sense of what had happened.
“You carry that guilt that you’re alive and he’s not,” she said. “You ask, ‘Why? Why?’ to everything. Why didn’t they kill me and the other guy that saw it? I was sitting right there in broad daylight.
“And why did they have to kill him [Claxton]? Why did they shoot him so many times? Two years later, and I still can’t make any sense of it.”
Only after the discovery of Pilon’s body on Oct. 31, 1999, did she begin to feel normal again, she said.
“That was like a turning point,” she said. “Before that, it was like it had just happened and I couldn’t get any distance from it. After that, it seemed like there was hope they were going to find the other one, too.”
Her ordeal had a few consolations. She developed a great appreciation for police officers and the work they do. And she came to have a heightened sense of the preciousness of life.
“In the midst of all that, you have such a loving feeling,” she said. “You’re full of love for people – all the cops, my counselors, everybody.”
At one time she was unable to bring herself even to drive across the bridge where Claxton was killed. Now, on occasion, she goes there to sit and meditate.
“”I stop there once in a while,” she said. “Sometimes I can stay and be almost peaceful with it. It’s like Dale’s telling me, ‘It’s OK.’”