And then there were three.
The last major piece of a 9-year-old puzzle fell into place last month with the discovery of the remains of the third fugitive accused in the 1998 slaying of Cortez Patrol Officer Dale Claxton, but many questions remain that may never be answered, Police Chief Roy Lane said in a recent interview with the Free Press.
What were the men up to?
What made them so angry?
Just how did they meet their end?
The bones of Jason McVean, 26 at the time of his disappearance, were collected and identified after a cowboy riding through Cross Canyon in southeast Utah on June 5 unearthed a Kevlar vest partially buried in the sandy soil along a creek bed only a couple miles from where the heavily armed trio of socalled survivalists had abandoned their stolen vehicle and taken off on foot.
Ironically, a statement made by Lane at a 1998 press conference in the week following the rampage proved strikingly prophetic.
Asked why the hundreds of searchers who descended on the Four Corners hadn’t been able to locate the fugitives after several days of intense effort, Lane stressed the ruggedness of the brushy desert landscape:
“The terrain is so bad, so heavy, the canyons so deep you could probably walk within 15 feet of them and never see them,” he said at the time. “If they’re hunkered down out there — which I firmly believe they are — then time is about all that’s going to bring them out, or if somebody knows where they are and comes forward.”
Lane said searchers at the time of the 1998 killing would have passed within 10 yards or so of McVean’s well-concealed body, tucked in a cavity along the creek bank behind some trees.
Barrage of bullets
On May 29, 1998, a series of shockingly violent acts occurred in Cortez that would lead to the largest manhunt in Colorado history. For weeks, more than 500 law-enforcement officers and National Guard troops combed the torrid, rocky terrain along the Colorado/Utah border seeking three fugitives — McVean, Alan Pilon, and Robert Mason, all from the area — who had shot and killed Claxton and seriously wounded two other law officers before disappearing into the honeycombed canyons of Utah.
Claxton had spotted a water truck that had been reported stolen the previous day near Ignacio, Colo., and was following it along County Road 27, waiting for backup, before it voluntarily pulled over just south of the bridge spanning McElmo Creek.
The popular 45-year-old cop, who had been on the force only a few years, stopped behind the tanker but stayed in his vehicle, unaware that one of the three — thought to be McVean — had gotten out of the passenger side until he appeared in front of the patrol car and unleashed a barrage of bullets from an automatic rifle into the windshield, killing Claxton instantly. Just to make sure, the shooter then fired another burst into Claxton’s body through the driver’s side window.
Then the chase was on.
Why that road?
The trio continued south on Road 27, turned west on Road H, then turned south onto a dead-end road curving up to the landfill. Near the top of the hill they found a contractor outside loading an old flatbed Nielsen’s construction truck, and commandeered it.
Their considerable arsenal was packed in duffel bags, which they quickly loaded in the new truck.
Their decision to turn onto the deadend road is one of the lingering mysteries of the episode. The men were apparently familiar with the area, having deliberately taken their stolen water truck along a route that bypassed the truck port of entry. Why head down the dump road?
No one will apparently ever know.
They retraced their path down Road F, shooting two sheriff’s deputies — Jason Bishop and Todd Martin — as they fled. Both men were gravely wounded, but made full recoveries and remain in law enforcement today.
The fugitives passed stunned drivers who had pulled over because for the law-enforcement vehicles, but did not shoot at the civilians. They then turned west onto Road G and fled into McElmo Canyon. Hopelessly outgunned, having seen three of their own fall to the fugitives’ bullets, the police fell back – way back. The scanner crackled with confused and errant reports of a man on foot running through fields south of Cortez, and of a fleeing car heading south into Utah.
Meanwhile, the men gunned their purloined flatbed around the tight turns of the rural road. Until just a few years earlier, few drivers had used the McElmo Canyon route because the pavement stopped at Sand Canyon. From there the road was a stretch of tooth-shaking washboard. Had the road remained in that condition, the fugitives might not have gone very far very fast. But the Montezuma County commissioners had secured a grant to pave the road and the work had been completed.
As McVean, Pilon, and Mason raced toward Utah, then-Montezuma County Sheriff Sherman Kennell procured a Civil Air Patrol plane and attempted to follow the fugitives from the air. For a time he had them in sight. However, the pilot became increasingly nervous when he heard about the crimes the three had already committed and the arsenal they possessed.
When Kennell urged him to fly closer, he balked, lifting to a higher elevation instead. Eventually they lost sight of the truck altogether.
A cloud of dust
Forty miles west of Cortez, at Hovenweep National Monument, manager Art Hutchinson got a call on his cell phone (the remote monument had no land line) about the uproar in Cortez. He thought the fugitives might be planning to turn off the McElmo Road toward Hovenweep. If he could get there first and block the turn with his National Park Service truck, he thought, they’d be forced to head toward Aneth, Utah, and police might be able to form a roadblock.
Hutchinson leaped into his vehicle and sped toward the monument’s entrance. He passed a car full of tourists, sightseeing serenely in the summer heat, and told them to stay in the monument. It must have sounded crazy – killers here among the placid Anasazi ruins? But the tourists obeyed. Hutchinson turned left onto Road 10 and rattled toward the intersection with CR G.
Before he was even close, however, he spied a dust cloud coming fast from the other direction. Hutchinson swerved into the ditch as the vehicle passed; he heard the crackle of gunfire, and bullets peppering his truck. Then the men were gone. Shakily he climbed out and examined the vehicle. There were two bullet holes in the hood, but nowhere else.
As Hutchinson called in his sighting, the fugitives were whirling the clumsy flatbed around the 180-degree curves of an even bumpier road that turns west off Road 10 and plunges into a broad valley.
The driver gunned the flatbed down the road about a half-mile, then turned onto a rutted dirt ribbon leading into Cross Canyon. The men pulled into the thick brush along a shallow creek and hidl the flatbed in the bramble.
What happened then is mostly conjecture. Police believe Pilon and McVean left together while Mason went in another direction, but tracks were inconclusive. The men left hordes of ammo and weapons in the truck, but took plenty more with them. Then they vanished into the wilderness.
A surreal atmosphere descended on the city of Cortez and the entire Four Corners region. The day of the shooting, area schools were locked down until it was determined that the fugitives had fled. Law officers stopped vehicles traveling on the highways, often making startled tourists exit their seats while police made sure the fugitives weren’t hiding in their RVs.
Hundreds of officers from different agencies poured into the area. Helicopters chattered through the air, lending a war-zone feeling to the normally placid days of summer.
Despite the massive effort, which included heat-detecting instruments (useless in the blazing heat, which persisted all night) and dogs trained to sniff out humans both dead and alive, not a word was heard of any of the three until June 4.
That day, Mason, was spied by a social worker who was having lunch by the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah. Mason fired a shot towards the worker, who fled and called police. Deputy Kelly Bradford of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, first on the scene, was shot in the back and shoulder, but was not seriously injured.
Law officers found Mason’s body lying next to three pipe bombs in the brush. He had an apparently selfinflicted bullet wound in his forehead. A Glock handgun (the suicide weapon) was by his side, along with a .308-caliber rifle. Mason’s body was still encased in a Kevlar vest. His legs had been badly chafed from wading a long distance in the river.
The media and police frenzy continued for another week, marked by other bizarre incidents:
• The town of Bluff was evacuated as officers searched for the other two fugitives.
• There were reports — in hindsight, clearly false — that officers one night had heard the remaining two fugitives “talking, giggling and splashing around” in the San Juan River, but couldn’t see well enough to apprehend them. A 9-year-old girl claimed she’d seen the pair examining a water truck along the river near Montezuma Creek.
• Bounty hunters began arriving from around the country, claiming special skills would enable them to find the missing pair, but left without success.
• San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacey talked of using aerial fire bombs to burn the brush away from the river, but the Forest Service would not give him permission in the height of wildfire season.
• A young man from Telluride floated onto the river in a raft and was nabbed by police. He said he’d hoped to encounter the fugitives and talk them into surrendering.
No trace of Pilon or McVean could be found, and eventually the search ended.
Nine years later, the discovery of McVean’s remains has brought official closure to the case, but the questions persist.
What did the three man, described as anti-government gun fanatics, have in mind before their plan was derailed by Claxton?
“I think there were probably only three people that ever knew, and they’re all dead,” Lane said. “That’s why I thought it was really important to find one alive, but there was no guarantee that we would have found anything out if we had.
“I used to think that they were after money to finance something bigger, but I don’t know now. I’ve thought so much about it and I have no idea what they were doing.”
Still, a few pieces of evidence suggest the trio did have a grander scheme in mind than a shooting spree.
Soon after news of the shootings was reported, McVean’s former girlfriend contacted law enforcement and said he’d called her the day before and told her to keep an eye on her TV because “something big” was about to happen. (It was this tip that led to the suspects being identified.)
And McVean’s pickup, stocked with camping gear, was found parked along Cherry Creek Road between Durango and Cortez — in the opposite direction they were heading when the rampage was sparked.
“Why park your pickup back up on Cherry Creek if everything you’re going to do is this way — it’s a long way to get back to,” Lane said. “That indicates to me that maybe they were going to get money, hide out for a while and then do whatever they were going to do.”
Not long before the shootings, a New Mexico casino was robbed using a truck that was crashed into the lobby of the building. Although the fugitives weren’t involved, it may have given them the idea of pulling a similar job at the Ute Mountain Casino near Towaoc.
“Or maybe they were going to blow something up” using the water truck as a bomb, Lane speculated.
“There’s no doubt in my mind they had some grand plan,” he said, possibly destroying a power plant, a dam such as Glen Canyon or another government facility.
“I’ve always felt that because Dale stopped them, he probably saved lives,” Lane said. “Whatever their plan was, it was foiled when he contacted them.”
Also among the questions likely to remain unanswered, Lane said, is why the men reacted with such lethal force upon being spotted in the stolen vehicle.
“Stealing a water truck isn’t a major crime any more,” he said, “and why they would use so much violence — it just amazes me.”
One notable fact about the entire episode is the fugitives shot only at police, Lane said, other than Hovenweep’s Hutchinson.
“They never showed any violence toward anybody but law enforcement or government vehicles or employees.”
There were two eyewitnesses to Claxton’s murder who stopped within yards of the scene, Lane noted, yet no attempt to harm them was made. “They never pointed a weapon at either one of them — never threatened them.”
When the men commandeered the flatbed truck at gunpoint, they likewise did not harm the employee who was loading it. “They just told him to get back in the house, they were taking the pickup,” he said.
Contrary to one theory, Lane now believes each of the suspects committed suicide.
It had been suggested that Pilon and McVean were traveling together when Pilon wasn’t able to continue because of a bad leg. Then McVean shot him, either with Pilon’s consent or not, and travelled on. (Pilon’s skull had been pierced with a bullet, but no clip nor ammunition for the 9mm Glock located next to his remains was found, and his rifle was on a rocky ledge several yards away, along with a backpack and pipe bombs.)
Pilon had taken refuge under a tree on Tin Cup Mesa. He was dressed in combat gear in the 100-plus-degree heat and had run out of water after traveling only a couple miles.
“I think they each individually took their own lives — I don’t think one of them killed another,” Lane said. “My thinking is that they probably made a pact of some kind in the beginning that they wouldn’t be taken alive.
“Now, as you look at the sequence of where the bodies were, I would think Pilon was first [to die], McVean was the second and Mason lived the longest.”
Mason and McVean, both of Durango, had been friends since childhood, and Pilon, who was raised in Dove Creek, was apparently drawn to them by their common antagonism toward the federal government. Although none of them had other close friends, acquaintances said they believed society was descending into chaos, and they planned to survive in the desert during the final days.
Still, Lane said, he is puzzled as to “what made them so angry they would do something like that.”
Pilon owed $1,500 to the IRS, but it hardly seems enough to prompt a murderous rage.
‘Like his dad’
Lane said he believes the carnage had one positive result — a renewed appreciation of the perils involved in law enforcement, even in a town that has little major crime.
“As tragic as it was, it brought the community together,” he said. “The day of Dale’s funeral, the town closed down and people were watching [the funeral procession] from the sidewalks.”
Claxton’s son Corbin, a young teenager at that time, recently joined the Cortez Police as a patrol officer.
“About two years ago Corbin started coming around and asked me what he’d have to do to get a job here,” Lane said. After graduating from the police academy, Corbin applied for an opening and did well in the testing.
“Sue [Corbin’s mother and Dale’s widow] and I talked about it and I told her, ‘If you’re not OK with it, we probably won’t do it.'”
Understandably, he said, she had qualms, but supported her son’s desire. “He has a lot of his dad’s mannerisms — he’s a lot like his dad,” Lane said.
Hearing a gunshot
A wind-up calendar wristwatch with a “30” in the date window was among the items recovered from McVean’s final hiding place.
“It appeared to have just run down,” Lane said, “and the significance of that is that it was on the 30th, the night after Dale was killed, and the Benallys, [a family] who live right around the corner from where McVean was found, reported [hearing] a single gunshot to us that night between six and six-thirty.”
Why did McVean, reported to be the strongest of the three, kill himself so early in the search while Mason pressed on to Utah?
“Probably there were so many of us out there — so many helicopters and so much activity that he thought, ‘I just can’t get away’,” Lane said, “so he holed up there and thought maybe they’d go away, but they didn’t.”
But why did the fugitives decide to quietly shoot themselves instead of going out in a blaze of glory, killing as many officers as possible? Did they ultimately have pangs of conscience?
The answer, along with the three men, apparently died in the desert.