SALT LAKE CITY -- In summer 1998, the Four Corners region of southeastern Utah had the feel of an old western novel, complete with good guys, bad guys, a mystery and a manhunt across the high desert under a blistering sun.In late May that year, a southern Colorado police officer was shot and killed by three camouflage-clad men in a stolen water truck, leading to a search by hundreds of officers in the area where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico come together.
Two of the fugitives were found dead, months and miles apart, in what police believe were suicides.The whereabouts of the third man remained a mystery for nine years _ until this week.
A cowboy riding through Cross Canyon, near the Utah-Colorado border Tuesday, discovered the remnants of a bulletproof vest, a camouflage backpack, pipe bombs, an AK-47, 500 rounds of ammunition and some human bones.Sheriff Mike Lacy of San Juan County, Utah, believes they are the remains of the last fugitive, Jason McVean.And if DNA tests match, authorities can close the book on that part of the case.
"There's still some mystery to it, because we don't know what their plot was, but I can live with that," said Cortez, Colo., Police Chief Roy Lane.It was a Cortez officer, Dale Claxton, 45, who was gunned down while trying to stop the stolen truck.
"Just knowing that they're all found, they've met their maker, there's none of 'em out there _ that brings some closure," Lane said Wednesday.Police still don't know much about the plans of McVean, 26, of Durango, Colo., and his partners Alan "Monte" Pilon, 30, of Dove Creek, Colo., and Robert Matthew Mason, 26, also of Durango.
The water truck was stolen from Ignacio, Colo., but why the trio wanted it and why they were armed for battle with automatic weapons, handguns and explosives remains unknown.
At the time, the rumor mill churned out stories that the three were anti-government survivalists or eco-terrorists."There's 100 theories out there and all of them sound good to me," Lane said.Claxton, an officer for just three years, was known to police dispatchers as Lobo 11. On the day of the shooting, he stopped at the local junior high to give his teacher-wife a kiss and then hit the road.Police say Claxton spotted the truck and called for backup. Before anyone arrived, however, the truck stopped and the killers jumped out and opened fire.
There were 29 bullets in all _ 19 through the windshield and 10 through the driver's side window, Lane recalled. Claxton never took off his seat belt."It was probably one of the most violent things I've ever seen," said Lane, chief of the Cortez department for 26 years.McVean, Pilon and Mason fled northwest, abandoning the water truck and firing a warning shot at a parks worker at Hovenweep National Monument near the Utah-Colorado border.
In summer, the Four Corners desert is unforgiving. Temperatures soar above 100 degrees and the rough, rocky terrain is pitted with canyons and cliffs as high as 200 feet. Hunting for someone is like looking for a needle in a haystack.Still, officers came by the hundreds from 51 different agencies to comb the canyons near Hovenweep and on the reservation of the Navajo Nation.
Tensions rose June 4 after a San Juan County deputy, Kelly Bradford, was injured by a sniper near the banks of the San Juan River, just east of Bluff, Utah.Bradford was sent to the river after a local social worker said someone fired at him while he was eating lunch.Mason's body, strapped with explosives, was found that same day in a dirt bunker on the south side of the river, dead from a gunshot wound to the head.
Bradford's shooting forced the evacuation of Bluff's roughly 300 residents. Police posted road blocks to the north and south, checking every vehicle in case McVean and Pilon tried to sneak away in someone's trunk.Police even tried to smoke out the fugitives, setting fire to tamarisk trees and sagebrush in the river bottoms, while helicopters carrying snipers scanned the area from above.The search waned after a few weeks, hampered by jurisdictional squabbles and the sheer difficulty of the task.Navajo police renewed the search around July 1, a month after Claxton's murder, when a young girl said she saw two men in camouflage trying to steal a truck in a nearby Utah town called Montezuma Creek.
By summer's end, however, McVean and Pilon remained at large and were slipping into the pages of folklore. Police conceded they might never be found but kept the case open and vowed to continue to follow any lead.In October 1999, 11 Navajo deer hunters discovered a 9mm handgun and a cache of survival gear next to a pile of human bones in Squaw Canyon about 25 miles northeast of the bunker where Mason was found.An autopsy determined it was Pilon, who had a broken ankle and died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.After that, leads trickled in but led nowhere, Lane said. Eight months ago, his officers went to Flagstaff, Ariz., to investigate a reported sighting of McVean.
"He was like an identical twin to (McVean) and I was sure we had him," the chief said.
A fingerprint check, however, proved the man wasn't McVean.
Lane said he's "99 and 9/10ths" sure that the bones found in Cross Canyon, also near Hovenweep, Tuesday will be McVean's.
DNA results should be ready in less than a week. The weapons and ammunition matched those used by Pilon and Mason.A business card inside the backpack was from a small Colorado company owned by Pilon, Lane said.
He said he visited Sue Claxton, who still lives in Cortez, Tuesday night."She's doing well," Lane said. "I think she's relieved, but we all would have liked to have a person to talk to so we'd get some answers."Lane recently hired their son, Corbin Claxton, 20, as a patrol officer."He got his mother's blessing," the chief said. "I'm glad to have him."___
AP newswoman Jennifer Dobner covered the desert manhunt in 1998-1999 for the Deseret Morning News.