A new book about the Four Corners manhunt gives a detailed account of a surprise shooting rampage in the spring of 1998 that left one officer dead and three others wounded.
The shooting spree triggered a massive search for three survivalist fugitives in the harsh desert outback, that lasted, in varying degrees, for years.
“Dead Run,” by Dan Schultz, is a well-researched play-by-play analysis of the troubling events, personalities and circumstances that culminated in the killing of Cortez police officer Dale Claxton.
What came next further terrified the locals and riveted the nation.
At the height of the search, some 500 local, state and federal police, including the National Guard, swarmed the rugged canyon country for suspects Robert Mason, Jason McVean and Alan “Monte” Pilon.
The multi-year manhunt began with the coldblooded murder of Claxton after he pulled over a stolen industrial water truck on Road 27 south of Cortez. The gang of militia misfits, two from Durango and one from Dove Creek, showed no mercy after one of them snuck up on Claxton’s patrol car and opened fire.
The spectacular chase that followed featured relentless automatic gunfire sprayed from a commandeered getaway truck as the trio escaped down McElmo Canyon and into oblivion.
It continued with sinister sniper attacks near Bluff, Utah, and the suspicious suicides of Mason and Pilon. The carnage finally ended in 2007 with the bleached bones of McVean discovered in Cross Canyon by a cowboy running cattle. But unanswered questions remain and the community is forever tainted by a terrorist attack 15 years ago that is remembered by many as if it happened yesterday.
No detail is left out as “Dead Run” weaves a sad tale of misguided youth and the wake of destruction that evolved from their violent, delusional philosophies.
Schultz has done a good job of delving into the backstory of each fugitive and pieces together a plausible genesis of their intense antigovernment views, which reached beyond the garden variety.
He writes, “McVean’s ideology with its end of modern civilization and leveling of society, clashes between righteous warriors and evil establishment storm troopers, and its call for heroic glory was the ideal stage. ... It was the promise of a battle between good and evil played out in the canyons and deserts of the Four Corners.”
The drama of a complicated and difficult search that ranged from Cortez, to Bluff, Utah, to Lake Powell, Ariz., and beyond will interest locals and newcomers. Desert explorers will recognize the canyons, rivers, mesas and rough conditions of the search area that the fugitives knew well and traveled in frequently before their demise.
Evidence of an unnamed fourth suspect identified and monitored by police is intriguing, but the alleged accomplice also committed suicide.
Bolstering the theory that the fugitives had help, witnesses reported seeing four loaded backpacks in the bed of Mason’s truck at McVean’s home near Durango after the shooting in Cortez, Schultz says. The keys were never found, suggesting a fourth conspirator and a rendezvous.
An undercover operation on Lake Powell in September 1999 was strange, Schultz writes, and involved three reported associates of McVean, one of whom tried to hide the relationship from investigators.
After following a rented houseboat, police witnessed the trio attempting to signal someone with a spotlight late at night on a remote shore as if a meeting was scheduled. Authorities later heard one of the party say they were supposed to meet up with a fourth person, who police believed to be McVean before his body was discovered.
Interagency squabbling and rivalry is highlighted between local law-enforcement agencies, the FBI and Navajo police. Schultz includes interviews implying the search and investigation could have been done better.
But the reporting of poor tactical organization comes across as hollow armchair quarterbacking from someone who was not there. Despite being outgunned by vicious radicals obviously hellbent on killing any cop in their way, law-enforcement bravely confronted them and continuously pursued them through rugged, desert terrain in sweltering conditions.
Schultz explores multiple theories as to what the fugitives’ ultimate plan was before Claxton interrupted it on May 29. Were the lost souls going to start a revolution in the desert? Blow up Glen Canyon dam with the industrial water tanker they stole? Or perhaps rob the Ute Mountain casino armored truck?
Contrary to rumors of an elaborate escape, the bodies of all three fugitives were eventually found, separately, within five miles of an abandoned construction truck they crashed in Cross Canyon on the first day of the manhunt.
Regarding their reported suicides, Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane says, “There were so many of us out there, so many helicopters and so much activity,” they “probably thought, ‘I just can’t get away.’”
Schultz uses a broad brush to draw comparisons of the shootout and manhunt with Wild West lore and regional anti-authority beliefs. But the connection seems misplaced in a modern world and unfairly implies that a bunker mentality is the pervasive attitude in the rural West.
“Its battle lines confounded our allegiance: cops versus outlaws; freedom versus authority; individual versus the system; live-off-the-land survivalists versus high-tech establishment; man against nature. It was a crime that was never fully resolved or understood. Its questions still haunt.”
Jim Mimiaga was a member of the Cortez Journal staff at the time of the shooting and manhunt.