Content warning: This article includes descriptions of murder and suicide.
At about 9:24 a.m. on May 29, 1998, Officer Dale Claxton with the Cortez Police Department radioed the words: “Behind Mack truck reported stolen; south in County Road 27 approximately one-half mile from McElmo Bridge.”
The water tanker truck had been stolen from an oil field brine disposal facility near Ignacio on the night of May 27. Claxton followed the 2½-ton tanker to the bridge. When it pulled over, so did he. The truck stopped on the bridge just south of the eastern end of town, but before Claxton could even unbuckle his seat belt, a figure in camouflage exited the truck, took aim at Claxton through the windshield of his patrol car, and discharged a modified fully-automatic AK-47 at the vehicle in two bursts. The gunman then moved to the passenger side door and unleashed a final barrage of bullets.
In total, Claxton was shot 29 times, the attack taking him entirely by surprise. His service revolver was still snapped in its holster as he died.
As the gunman and his two partners sped off in the tanker they sparked a manhunt that has been described as the largest in the history of the Southwest — mobilizing more than 75 law-enforcement agencies and the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. Despite the magnitude of the event, key details remain shrouded in mystery, and the only people with answers are long dead, and the explanations for how they died are less than compelling.
EscapeAfter shooting Dale Claxton, the three fugitives fled in the water tanker, driving it to Road F, south and west of where they killed the officer. At this point, even if officers did not know who exactly they were, Jason McVean and Robert Mason, both of Durango, and Alan “Monte” Pilon of Dove Creek, were under heavy pursuit. They abandoned the water tanker and stole a black Ford flatbed pickup truck from Nielson’s Inc., a construction company, pulling a gun on, but not shooting, the owners of the vehicle. They then doubled back the way they came.
Along the way, the trio encountered and shot Montezuma County sheriff’s deputies Jason Bishop, who was grazed in the head, and Todd Martin, who was shot in the left arm and right knee. Both officers survived their injuries. One of the three fugitives stood on the back of the truck and shot at officers and patrol cars as the others remained in the cab.
The flatbed truck managed to elude the police and avoided several roadblocks as it took off down Road G, crossing what was then U.S. Route 666 (now 491), before heading for the Utah border. Just after crossing the state line, the fugitives abandoned the tuck near Hovenweep National Monument, fleeing on foot into Cross Canyon and disappearing into the desert. Two of them would never be seen alive again.
About 160 officers, representing almost all of the police departments, sheriff’s offices, and other law enforcement agencies of the Four Corners, searched a 10-square-mile area north of Hovenweep that day. The ground search was suspended at nightfall, and the FBI assisted with nighttime search equipment while Colorado Governor Roy Romer dispatched a National Guard helicopter unit to the area. Even more agencies joined the manhunt over the next few days.
Accounts vary, but some assessments, including that of author Dan Schultz in his book, “Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West,” offer details and a blow-by-blow account of the events. In the book, Schultz characterizes the investigation and search for the fugitives as grossly mismanaged, citing a lack of clear leadership during the manhunt. In the book, Schultz singles out San Juan (Utah) County Sheriff Mike Lacy as being reluctant to work with other agencies, such as the Navajo Nation Police, to bring the Four Corners Fugitives to justice.
Whatever the case, the next big break in the case didn’t come until June 4.
Robert MasonNearly a week after the death of Dale Claxton, a social worker named Steve Wilcox stopped along the San Juan River to eat lunch near a spot called Singing Bridge, just east of Bluff, Utah. Before Wilcox could get out of his car, though, he noticed a figure in camouflage aiming at him with a sniper rifle. Flooring the gas pedal to get away, he was shot at twice but escaped and called authorities as soon as he was within range of cell service.
San Juan County sheriff’s deputy Kelly Bradford was dispatched from Bluff to investigate the attack. After meeting Wilcox and learning what happened, he went to where Wilcox was shot at, expecting to be able to get a drop on the gunman. The gunman, later identified as Robert Mason, had moved from the spot he’d been at, though, and a high caliber shot ripped through Bradford’s shoulder before he knew he had been sighted.
He was shot a second time in the back as he struggled to crawl away from the sniper’s line of sight, but managed to get most of the way back to his patrol car. At that time, his cousin Mike Bradford, who was a Blanding police officer, arrived and helped him into a car before driving him to a point where he could be loaded into an ambulance. (Kelly Bradford later recovered from his wounds.) Mike Bradford then returned to the scene of the shooting, joined by his chief Mike Halliday and, shortly after, more people from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and a SWAT team from Pueblo, Colorado.
As the officers crept along the river, they eventually came across Mason’s body, in a makeshift bunker, along with three pipe bombs. His rifle had been discarded haphazardly several feet away. According to the police, Mason had shot himself by placing a Glock 9mm in his mouth and pulling the trigger. However, both “Dead Run” and the Salt Lake Tribune have called this account into question.
According to the autopsy report of Maureen Frickke, assistant state medical examiner, “The gunshot wound to the head had many unusual features, which would suggest that it was not a self-inflicted injury.” The official story also ignores Frickke’s details of blunt force trauma to Mason’s thighs and mouth — consistent with two kicks to the groin and a blow to the head — and Frickke’s note that neither his mouth nor the hand with which he supposedly held the pistol had more than trace amounts of gunpowder residue on them.
Combined with the odd angle at which police found Mason’s head, and the absence of a shell casing from the fatal shot (which may have been silenced — officers in the immediate vicinity never heard it), it seems more likely that Mason was murdered and his body was quickly repositioned to make it look like a suicide.
Other details were not released to the public at the time, Schultz points out, and include officers finding two sets of tracks headed west from where Mason was found. A helicopter pilot also noticed two men moving to the west of the body.
Monte PilonAfter the death of Robert Mason, the trail went cold for 17 months — until a group of Navajo hunters found a headless body in a state of advanced decomposition on Halloween eve of 1999. The body was positioned sitting cross-legged underneath a tree near a backpack and rifle. The site near Tin Cup Mesa was only a few miles west of where the trio of fugitives crashed and abandoned the flatbed truck.
When San Juan County Sheriff’s Department and FBI officials searched the scene, they found fragments of the skull nearby and enough evidence to positively identify the dead man as Monte Pilon. The evidence also quickly pointed to a cause of death: a shot to the head.
As with Robert Mason, police concluded that Pilon had shot himself with the Glock pistol found next to him. And again, this explanation for how he died doesn’t fit with the reported details of the crime scene and subsequent autopsy.
Efforts to reconstruct Pilon’s skull, including one by University of Utah forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak, indicate that the bullet moved through the head from front to back, right to left, and up to down. While this isn’t an impossible angle to shoot oneself at, it’s improbable, and also significantly different from the classic image of putting a gun to one’s temple. It is consistent, however, with the angle a bullet would have traveled if it was fired by someone standing above Pilon.
It’s also worth noting that when police searched Pilon and his backpack, they found seven pipe bombs, two empty coke bottles, a water filter, clothing, and gear. But he was lacking water and ammunition. The pistol was empty and the rifle only had the one live round in its chamber.
To some, it seems reasonable to conclude that Pilon was murdered not long after he and his compatriots abandoned the truck — and that the other two took some of his supplies with them.
Case closed?Jason McVean, who authorities believe was the gunman responsible for killing Claxton, remained missing until cowboy Eric Bayles found a sun-bleached skeleton in Cross Canyon on June 5, 2007 — just over nine years after the crimes that had set the three fugitives on the run. He was found with a bulletproof vest, an AK-47, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, one of Monte Pilon’s business cards, a first-aid kit, and a camouflage backpack. His remains were found near a cache of supplies behind a stand of tamarisk trees about 50 yards from a gravel road.
Sheriff Mike Lacy told the Moab Times-Independent that McVean had likely died of self-inflicted wounds only a day after fleeing from the site of the crashed truck near Hovenweep. As evidence, he cited a watch found on McVean’s remains, which had stopped on the 30th.
“We can’t be sure if it was May 30 or June 30 or whenever, but I believe he was dead on May 30,” Lacy said.
What authorities didn’t find at the scene were answers to lingering questions about the crimes McVean, Pilon, and Mason committed before they died.
For instance, it’s unclear what their purpose was in stealing the water tanker truck in Ignacio. Theories abound, though, and one suggests that they were going to transform it into a bomb the same way Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh did with a Ryder rental truck — perhaps to destroy Glen Canyon Dam. Another posits that the trio was going to use it as a war wagon or battering ram to rob the Ute Mountain Casino south of Cortez. Yet another assumes that they planned to use it as what it is — they’d drive the tanker out into the desert where they planned to hide and survive in case the world ended in the year 2000.
“None of the three was rational at the time. That’s why we have so many theories. People who are rational are trying to determine what these irrational people were up to,” Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane told the Tribune.
The three men were described by authorities as anti-government, Armageddon-fearing survivalists. Pilon, in particular, was linked to the Four Corners Patriots, which Southern Poverty Law Center spokesman Mark Potok described to The Durango Herald at the time as a “viciously racist and anti-Semitic” underground militia linked to the Christian Identity religion. When police searched his residence and childhood bedroom, they found guns galore and excerpts from “The Anarchist Cookbook,” which instructs on how to make explosives.
Jim Strode, commander of the New Mexico Militia at the time, told the Herald he did not know any of the suspects, but they all appeared to be excellent survivalists.
“They’re pros,” he said. “They’ve probably been practicing battleism for many years.”
In addition to questions about whether they shot themselves or were murdered, its unclear what exactly the timeline of their deaths was, or whether they had help from others. Though there was never enough evidence to convict any of them, investigators tracked people thought to be assisting the fugitives.
If one believes that Mason was killed by two people, who were they? Furthermore, according to Schultz, there were reported sightings of McVean across the West, including in California and Oregon (where an ex-girlfriend lived), in the time between his disappearance and the discovery of his body.
Unfortunately, any answers likely to be found were probably lost with the deaths of Mason, Pilon, and McVean.