A new book revisits the 1998 Four Corners manhunt

DEAD RUN BY DAN SCHULTZAt times it’s more like a plodding trudge than a “Dead Run,” but that is the title chosen for an uneven, interesting but sometimes wildly speculative account of a notorious event that rocked the Four Corners 15 years ago – “The Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West,” as the subtitle explains.

Sparked by the brutal murder of a Cortez police office who had spotted a stolen water truck just outside of town, the pursuit of and prolonged search for his killers soon became the focus of intense coverage by network and cable TV, along with major newspapers and magazines (giving new meaning to the phrase “mass media”), then almost as quickly faded from the national consciousness as the public’s attention turned to other, more satisfying dramas with tidier conclusions.

Because, ultimately, this was a story without an ending, only the rough outline of an unfinished mystery. And, as this largely unsuccessful attempt at providing a solution demonstrates, it is apparently destined to remain no more than the tale of a violent tantrum involving an unlikely trio of misanthropes with a death wish for society at large.

As one of the reporters who covered the bizarre and bewildering events as they unfolded, I longed for the final piece of the puzzle to be put into place, the piece that would explain everything. But that piece has remained elusive, and Dan Schultz’s book brings us no closer to obtaining it.

Even though the remains of the suspects – Durango residents Jason McVean and Robert Mason, and Alan “Monte” Pilon, a Dove Creek native who was a latecomer to their outspoken hostility toward authority – were all eventually recovered over the next decade, no touted explanation, including the one posited in great detail by Schultz, has ever offered a plausible, even vaguely rational reason for their actions.

The murder of Cortez Patrolman Dale Claxton by the three self-styled “survivalists” set off a massive search effort that lasted for months and, during the first frenetic weeks, involved several hundred cops, most of them volunteers, along with hundreds more Colorado National Guard troops, myriad helicopters equipped with sophisticated electronic gear, search dogs, a few bounty hunters, an occasional psychic and, of all things, a small tank employed by the Navajo police that proved as useless as the visions of the seers.

Although Claxton, a well-liked member of the force and community who had been in law enforcement only a few years, was the only fatality among the outlaws’ victims, three other cops were shot and badly wounded during the course of the initial pursuit. The fugitives’ flight was a confused frantic dash circumventing Cortez during which a second truck – a small flatbed more agile than the lumbering tanker – was carjacked before the desperate gunmen reversed course near the dead-end county landfill road and fled down McElmo Canyon, wielding fully automatic AK- 47s and similar assault-style weapons along the way – badly outgunning law officers, who carried only handguns and shotguns in their vehicles.

With little defense against such overwhelming firepower, police understandably kept a wide margin between themselves and the fleeing killers once the chase down McElmo began and the fugitives were able to abandoned the truck deep inside a remote canyon just over the Utah line and continue their flight on foot, disappearing into the rugged countryside with a few hours’ lead on their pursuers. Only one of them was ever seen alive again, and then only briefly.

Days later, a Utah deputy who was responding to a call from a social worker who had been shot at while lunching along the San Juan River near Bluff, was badly wounded by Mason, and a second pursuit ensued. Mason himself was found dead a few hours later along the bank of the river, with a hole in his head and surrounded by pipe bombs, most likely killed by his own hand.

What was left of Pilon’s body was discovered by deer hunters late afternoon on Halloween Eve 1999, his spooky skeletal remains propped under a juniper tree and his rusted assault weapon lying nearby – either dead by his own hand or having been put out of his misery by a cohort. (Pilon had a lame leg, previously injured in a motorcycle accident, a handicap that apparently was exacerbated by the get-away truck’s plunge into Cross Creek during an attempt to conceal it. It was unlikely he could have traveled far on foot, and his final resting place was, in fact, a jutting promontory overlooking a wide area of Cross Canyon, scant miles away from the brush-covered vehicle.)

McVean’s remains were also discovered only a few miles from the truck in 2007, again purely by chance when a curious cowboy spotted a bit of his armored vest sticking out of the sand along Cross Creek and upon investigating, also found his backpack and a few bones before reporting it to the San Juan County Sheriff ’s Office. McVean, too, appeared to have committed suicide after taking refuge in a hollowed- out orifice along the bank of the creek. His wind-up calendar watch had stopped on the number 30, which would have been the day after the chase began on May 29, 1998.

As Schultz accurately points out, a combination of factors worked against this large-scale approach in apprehending the fugitives being successful, including the initial, understandable disorganization of the hunt, the emotional and personalitydriven clashes of competing law-enforcement agencies, the complexities of it extending through the jurisdictions of three different states as well as the Navajo Nation – not to mention the intense heat of summer in an unforgiving desert, which made the searchers’ body armor a major impediment to their endurance and rendered the search dogs ineffectual after short periods of time.

What Schultz fails to acknowledge, since it would completely contradict his theory that the other two fugitives, sans Mason, remained at large, likely with assistance of a sympathetic community – is that the best evidence suggests that they were most probably dead within hours, or a day or two at most, from the time their second truck was discovered, and that much of the attempted tracking, by humans and canines, was in vain.

Instead, he has Pilon obtaining an over-the-counter sleep aid in Dove Creek, McVean roaming for years over the Navajo reservation while the almost-superhuman Navajo trackers come close to nabbing him time and again. In all, it makes what he intends as a serious effort seem bull-headed, an obvious attempt to squeeze a bunch of questionable and disparate reports into something that makes real good sense. It doesn’t.

Schultz’s account, after a lengthy and fairly interesting introductory essay on the role of the romanticized outlaw/killer/ Robin Hood character in the Old West, is painstakingly detailed and obviously involved a huge amount of research, but fails to portray the three fugitives as anything other than maladjusted and unsympathetic sociopaths.

And his explanation of the motive for their shooting spree, shored up by the fancy footwork of some pop psychology, is as unconvincing and convoluted as an old Perry Mason TV mystery.

And this after he cites the principle of Occam’s Razor, which holds that the simplest explanation of a puzzle is almost always right.

Personally, I believe the theft of the water truck, which led to the chance murder of Claxton when he began following it while waiting for back-up, could plausibly be explained by their desire for a means to haul water to a remote compound they wanted to establish in preparation for the impending collapse of organized society, an attitude widely acknowledged that they held. After all, what would be more useful than a means to transport large amounts of life’s most precious fluid to an outpost in the wilds of the Utah wilderness once some Mad Max post-apocalyptic world became a reality?

But Schultz embraces a more far-fetched and fanciful theory that has been bandied about since the vicious shooting spree occurred. He quite adamantly argues that McVean, the apparent leader of the group and an obsessive reader of Edward Abbey’s most famous book, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” was set on blowing up Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. (The main character in the novel hated the dam.)

Schultz maintains they planned to fill the truck with explosives already cached in the desert, then with some sophisticated fuses set off the makeshift bomb – ala Timothy McVeigh’s act of terrorism in Oklahoma City – below the breast of the massive plug that created Lake Powell, ironically named for explorer John Powell, who undoubtedly would see the dam as a horrible violation of a river he revered.

Although Schultz paints a warm and sympathetic portrait of Claxton, it seems almost an obligatory sidebar, as though the slain officer was but a bit player in a drama having universal significance – the age-old struggle between individual freedoms and the social contract that keeps us “civilized.”

To be sure, my perspective of this book is brightly colored by my first-hand experiences as a reporter for the Cortez papers at the time. I, along with some colleagues, wrote about the manhunt almost exclusively for months, churning out thousands of column inches and scores of photographs among us, doing dozens of interviews and taking many trips to wherever “new sightings” were reported. And there is also some difference of opinion concerning local law-enforcement agencies’ roles and effectiveness (although there is probably no dispute when it comes to the FBI being a pain in the ass).

Beyond that, the prose has a rather lifeless, detached quality that makes what was a grim and bloody reality seem like more like a contrived reality show committed to print.

But allowing for some perceived, at least, minor factual errors and a few unfortunate misspellings of names (Bruce Tolzer?!), a lot of work, time and attention went into cataloging these events, something that several people I could name have said for years would be a worthy project. For locals in particular, the book will be a fairly interesting read just for its recounting of events many of us followed firsthand.

And so it is ultimately up to other readers to be convinced whether Schultz has it right, whether the acts of three deranged killers were somehow tied to Western attitudes concerning deep-seated resentment of authority, and whether there is some larger lesson to be taken from what appears at first and even second blush to be a senseless act.

But for me, the insistence that it was all a grand scheme to blow up Glen Canyon Dam (inspired by a work of fiction), along with his affirmation that McVean ran around the backcountry for a couple of years, then returned to within a few miles of his starting point in Cross Canyon, curled himself up in a ball and perished in a hole in the creek bank, makes it all seem a little too implausible.

From June 2013.