It was arguably the worst crime spree ever in Montezuma County, and it led to the greatest manhunt in Colorado history.
And it all began with a stolen vehicle.
On May 28, 1998, someone drove off with a water truck from a construction yard near Ignacio, Colo. The next day, a Cortez patrol officer, Dale Claxton, spied the stolen truck rumbling along County Road 27, just south of Cortez. He radioed for help while following the vehicle, waiting for backup to arrive.
Suddenly the truck pulled over, and so did Claxton. He stayed in his car, but one of the three men inside the truck sprang out with an automatic rifle and shot Claxton dead where he sat. Then the truck took off.
The fugitives fled into the canyonlands on the Utah-Colorado border, but before they left, they shot and critically wounded two more local law officers. Days later, a sheriff ’s deputy in Utah would also be shot and nearly killed by one of the fugitives.
On March 7, experts at a presentation in Cortez made the case that auto theft is a poorly understood crime whose seriousness is frequently overlooked. Speaking to a small group of law officers and reporters, Colorado State Patrol Capt. Mark Mason said stolen cars are often an integral part of other crimes such as kidnappings, drive-by shootings, bank robberies, and drug trafficking. “Stolen cars are a tool,” he said, noting that 97 percent of adult auto-theft offenders are charged with additional offenses.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin agrees.
“Stolen vehicles are often used to commit another crime. We’ve seen that time and time again,” he told the Free Press.
Nowlin is on the board of directors of CATPA, the Colorado Automobile Theft Prevention Authority, created in 2003 under the state Department of Public Safety. CATPA, which provides resources to deter auto theft, support prosecutors, and assist law enforcement, is funded through a $1 fee assessed on each automobile-insurance policy.
The March 7 talk, organized by the Colorado State Patrol, included experts with CATPA and its educational program, Coloradans Against Auto Theft.
Mason, who is part of a regional chapter of an initiative called BATTLE, for Beat Auto Theft Through Law Enforcement, said car theft is a “precursor crime that enables another crime.” He said it’s common for gang members to recruit younger members to steal vehicles and then hand them off to the gangs. Those cars can be used to commit a variety of crimes.
“Sometimes they’ll use one vehicle to smash through the front of a store, then a second to drive up and load up and pull away,” Mason said.
It may not be surprising to hear that juveniles are responsible for a significant portion of auto theft. The reason for that, however, may not be what you expect.
“Organized rings will hire juveniles to steal cars because typically juveniles make it through the court system much easier,” Mason said.
John Henry, a communications consultant with Coloradans Against Auto Theft, agreed. “They target them because they will get a slap on the wrist,” he said.
Mason said the idea that car theft primarily involves kids out for a joy ride is largely mistaken, as the face of auto theft has definitely changed.
That’s illustrated by a recent example from Denver. According to the Denver Post, a gang aptly called the Gutter Punk Crew frequented parking garages in the downtown area over a period of years, stealing items from inside vehicles, or sometimes the vehicles themselves. In October 2017, a Denver grand jury issued a 99-count indictment charging 19 people in the Gutter Punk Crew with a host of crimes going back to November 2015.
The thieves reportedly entered both residential and business parking garages by trailing other cars through the gates, by walking through open doors, or even by ramming barriers. Once inside the secure garages, they would check vehicles’ doors. When they found unlocked cars, they would snatch whatever was inside, or take the whole car.
More than $600,000 worth of vehicles were reportedly stolen, most of them either sold or traded for drugs, Mason said.
He said one crime that car theft facilitates is identity theft. “The thieves take purses, identification and so on from cars.” He said the Department of Motor Vehicles prints two registration cards for owners. The one without an address is supposed to be carried in your vehicle, but often people put it in their car, or they leave other items inside bearing their address – mail, receipts, packages.
Even worse, cars often contain garage- door openers. “If somebody breaks in, now they have your address and can open your garage door, and they can go to your house and steal,” Mason said.
People love their vehicles, spending a great deal of time in them, and often carry a host of items – particularly in rural areas, where a simple trip to the grocery store may involve a trip of 20 miles or more. One thing commonly toted around is a gun.
Unfortunately, a lot of people fail to lock their trucks, cars, and SUVs, perhaps believing the odds are slim that anyone will target that particular vehicle. In rural areas such as the Four Corners, where crime is lower than in metropolitan areas and rural homes are far apart, people feel freer to leave doors unlocked.
But burglaries and thefts are common in Southwest Colorado, and that includes thefts from vehicles.
Mason said guns are frequently stolen. “You’d be amazed how many people leave guns in their cars. So now the thieves have a tool to commit other crimes.”
And apparently some gun owners never learn, he recounted, like one gullible guy who left his car unlocked with a pistol inside. It was stolen, so he replaced it with another. . . but he still didn’t lock the car. So, inevitably it seemed, the second handgun was also taken, presumably by the same thief.
“It’s tough to get people to change their lifestyle,” admitted Henry. “It’s pushing uphill. They’re accustomed to living with their cars unlocked [in rural areas].”
People may have the idea that their vehicle won’t be targeted if it isn’t a newer model. But no automobile is safe, not even an old clunker, Nowlin said. “That’s a great vehicle to use to go break into a house,” he said.
Nowlin is something of an expert on auto theft himself. Before he was sheriff, he helped start a regional task force called the Southwest Auto Theft Team. As an investigator with the State Patrol, he was part of an investigation into stolen cement trucks that had been taken from Arizona and wound up at the Cortez business of a former county commissioner, Larrie Rule.
Rule denied knowing the trucks had been stolen and was not charged, but a New Mexico man was arrested.
Nowlin told the Free Press vehicle theft is a serious issue. “It is a problem here, and always has been. It rises, and it does decline when we break up those rings that are stealing cars. It’s on the rise again anew and it’s going to continue, mainly because cars are such easy targets.”
An average of 358 vehicles were stolen every week in Colorado in 2017, the majority along the Front Range. However, car theft is increasing sharply in Southwest Colorado.
According to the March 7 presentation, there were 261 such thefts in the region in 2015, 305 in 2016, and 388 in 2017. That’s a jump of 27 percent just from 2016 to ’17. “We want to address this increase now,” Mason said.
One of the easiest ways to take a car, of course, is if it’s sitting at the curb running with no one inside. That’s what is known as a “puffer,” referring to the exhaust coming from the tailpipe.
Nowlin said early this year, the Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Office participated in a statewide anti-puffer campaign. Winter months are the most common time to find puffers, as people start their cold cars, then leave them running with the keys in the ignition to warm up. Even though it’s both risky and illegal to leave a running vehicle unattended, it’s a common practice. Most often, people do it outside their homes, but they do it in other places as well.
“People leave their car running at the post office, or a convenience store, or even at the gas station,” Nowlin said. “Sometimes they even leave kids in the car. You might as well put a sign on it that says ‘take me’.”
The goal of the anti-puffer campaign is to educate people about the dangers of leaving a running car unattended. “Every time we do this, I get a rash of people complaining about us writing tickets and that’s not what we’re doing at all,” Nowlin said. Instead, officers will leave a note on the car. “We’re trying to spread the word that this is a perfect opportunity [for a thief].”
Right after the local anti-puffer campaign got going this year, its necessity was made clear. On Jan. 28, a driver left a Chevy Suburban idling on Chestnut Street in Cortez, and, in just a few minutes, alert thieves had hopped in and driven it away. The vehicle was later spotted at a gas station in Dolores. Two men got out and walked away, eluding capture.
According to an incident report from the sheriff ’s office, the vehicle’s license plates had been swapped for fake ones and a number of commercial containers of cannabis were inside the Suburban. “We’ve had several vehicles taken just like that,” Nowlin said, adding, “You’re putting other people’s lives in jeopardy when you let your car be stolen. Because, when [the thieves] are spotted, what do they try and do? Run.
“There’s some liability for car owners that could be there. Think about it.
“We’ve had several law-enforcement officers killed just because of stolen vehicles. It’s not a victimless crime and not a simple property crime. It’s not people just wanting a joyride, not a bit.”
Mason said in an incident in Longmont several years ago, a man left his car running while he went into a 7-Eleven. “A bad guy jumped in and took off.” During the ensuing spree, the thief committed two other carjackings. A state trooper setting out stop sticks to halt the fleeing suspect was hit and badly injured.
And on Feb. 5 of this year, a sheriff ’s deputy in El Paso County, Colo., was killed and two other deputies, a Colorado Springs police officer, and a civilian were injured in a shootout related to auto theft. According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, a member of that region’s BATTLE task force contacted an auto-theft suspect at an apartment complex. The 19-year-old began shooting, and a gun battle ensued that left the suspect dead. The danger isn’t limited to being shot or run over. At the March 7 briefing, Capt. Adrian Driscoll of the State Patrol said he knew a Southwest Colorado resident whose trailer was stolen and taken to Pagosa Springs. Officers managed to track it down, but the thief set it on fire to destroy the evidence, not realizing there were 5,000 rounds of ammunition inside it. “We thought we were being fired upon,” Driscoll said.
The number of vehicle thefts in the region remains small compared to the Denver area. In 2017, Montrose County had 100 reported thefts, followed by La Plata County with 58, Delta County (31) and Montezuma County with 23.
Still, Nowlin urges people to keep in mind what a hassle it would be to have their car or truck suddenly vanish.
“Besides your home, your vehicle is probably the No. 1 or 2 most important thing you have,” he said. “When it gets stolen you will feel the effect. It can cost you money, your job, transportation to school and work or other events.”
The theft of tool trailers, or heavy equipment such as skid steers or combines, also would be devastating to construction workers, contractors, or farmers.
Nowlin said large-implement and vehicle auctions often include stolen vehicles, but he hasn’t seen as many of them in the local area as he used to. “There was one out by Egnar where I got three stolen vehicles. Thieves send them to out-of-the-way places.”
While prosecutors are beginning to recognize the gravity of auto theft, Mason said there remains room for improvement. When an offender is charged with several crimes related to a car theft, often that charge is plea-bargained away in favor of other crimes.
But, he said, “you get better sentencing enhancements if an offender has two or three auto-theft convictions. So we’re trying to get the word out to district attorneys.”
How likely is it that a stolen vehicle will be returned?
Mason said in 2017, 87 percent of cars stolen in Colorado were returned, well above the national average. But in Southwest Colorado, the rate was just 73 percent, perhaps because of the proximity of state borders that make it easy to move to another jurisdiction. And the recovery rate for trailers was only 49 percent.
Often, stolen cars are used in crimes, then taken to remote areas and burned, Nowlin said. Even if you do get the car back, it may be unnerving to learn how it’s been used. “Am I going to find out there was somebody’s body found in the trunk of my car?” Nowlin asked.
Nowlin said, furthermore, if you left the keys in your vehicle, an insurance company may balk at compensating you the full amount if it was stolen.
Also, many people may not carry comprehensive insurance, especially if they don’t have a lot of money to begin with. Those people can be especially hard-hit by car theft.
“A single mom may be only carrying liability,” said Henry at the briefing. “Maybe she has an older car. It’s taken and comes back in pieces. What does she do then? That’s why it’s important to get her and others like her to harden that car.”
Hardening a car means making it more difficult to break into or steal.
Nowlin says newer vehicles have antitheft devices, but older ones may not. But there are devices called kill switches that can be purchased for $100 to $500 apiece and used in any vehicle. “I have them in all our [sheriff ’s] vehicles,” he said. The devices can be removed when you sell your car and transferred to your new one.
Even if you can’t afford such a device or don’t want one, there is a simpler solution. “Don’t leave valuables in your car,” Nowlin said. “Lock your car and take the keys.”
The owners of the stolen water truck that set off the chain of events in 1998 that led to the death of Officer Claxton, he added, had left the keys in it.
Vehicles most stolen in Southwest Colo.
- Ford F series pickup
- Chevy Silverado pickup
- Dodge Ram pickup
- GMC Sierra pickup
- Chevy Trailblazer SUV
The following are from experts and from the website lockdownyourcar.org:
- Never leave your car running unattended.
- Lock your doors every single time.
- Consider installing a kill switch.
- Always park in well-lit areas.
- Don’t keep a spare set of keys in the car.
- Put a tongue lock on trailers.
- Put gifts and all valuables in the trunk or otherwise hidden.
- Buy comprehensive insurance that covers stolen vehicles.
- Report suspicious activity to a non-emergency police line.