1998 manhunt remains a thriller

Courtesy of Dan Bender/La Plata County Sheriff’s Office/ St. Martin’s Press

Police spotters on canyon ridges watched for fugitives Jason McVean, Alan Pilon and Robert Mason and provided sniper protection for manhunt teams searching the canyon floors in 1998. The fugitives vanished into the Colorado-Utah canyon country shortly after the May 29 murder of Cortez Police Officer Dale Claxton.

By Ted Holteen Herald staff writer

Anyone who lived in the Four Corners in 1998 might not forget May 29 and the ensuing months. Investigative journalist and author Dan Schultz was not one of us then, but few have recollected the story of the largest manhunt in the West since Butch and Sundance with such significance – and maybe even some controversy.

Schultz is the author of Dead Run, a blow-by-blow account of the murder of Cortez Police Officer Dale Claxton and the search for his trio of killers. The pursuit of Jason McVean, Robert Mason and Alan “Monte” Pilon mobilized more than 75 law-enforcement agencies and the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, and captivated the Southwest for the entire summer.

This isn’t a rehashing of those events; it’s a book review. Schultz’ account of Claxton’s murder, the chase around Cortez that wounded two more police officers and the fugitives’ disappearance into the Colorado-Utah canyon country are public record. In the book, Schultz transforms those police logs, newspaper accounts and personal recollections into a gripping page-turner that reads more like a mystery-thriller than a mere retelling.

“I was working in Aspen when McVean’s body was found in 2007,” said Schultz, who divides his time between Aspen and his home in the Midwest. “I thought it might be the subject of a book but not until I really dove into it did I find the mystery – what were these guys up to, what happened to them?”

Schultz tries to answer some of those questions, and in the process steps on toes. His assessment of the investigation and the manhunt as a whole is that it was grossly mismanaged. In particular, he singled out San Juan (Utah) County Sheriff Mike Lacy in particular. He wrote that Lacy’s reluctance to work with other agencies and his over-protection of his territory in Southeast Utah hampered the manhunt from the get-go. But in a recent interview, Schultz was more sympathetic to Lacy’s position.

“I wasn’t trying to be unflattering, but he had a different personality than many others,” Schultz said. “His was a department not prepared for this, and without any warning, you’re overwhelmed with a massive task.”

Schultz lauds several departments for their efforts and skills, notably the Navajo Nation Police and its chief, Leonard Butler, as well as Durango Police Lt. Jim Spratlen and a group of his officers from the Durango department. Spratlen is now Durango’s police chief. He said he has not read the book and would not comment until he does.

The point at which Schultz deviates from the official record is the most compelling, and most insidious, aspect of Dead Run. The official story, based on police statements at the time, is that Mason and Pilon shot themselves within days of Claxton’s murder and their escape into the desert wilderness. But Schultz presents plausible arguments and alternative scenarios about the death of each.

Mason’s demise troubles Schultz the most. Mason’s mother, who doesn’t excuse or deny her son’s actions, has always maintained that he did not shoot himself. Based on records Schultz obtained from the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office of the examination by the now-deceased Dr. Maureen Frikke, Schultz concluded that Mason was shot by someone other than himself by a swinging bridge across the San Juan River outside Bluff, Utah.

“There were so many inconsistencies with the suicide theory,” Schultz said. “As far as events outside the norm, you could excuse one or two, but when you start stacking 10 to 12 different pieces of evidence that suggest it wasn’t a suicide, and when you read the pathology report, it’s very, very clear that Mason did not kill himself.”

A line in the book, taken directly from Frikke’s report, was absent from the official police report: “The gunshot wound to the head had many unusual features which suggested it was not a self-inflicted injury.”

Schultz also challenges the official law-enforcement version of Pilon’s death; police announced the fugitive had shot himself under a tree on Tin Cup Mesa northwest of Cortez, about two miles from where the fugitives abandoned a stolen flatbed truck. But Schultz believes that Mason shot Pilon after he broke his ankle when the two crashed the truck near the entrance to Cross Canyon, the point west of Cortez where the fugitives disappeared into the desert on the day of Claxton’s murder. Because Pilon was physically unable to continue the escape, Schultz speculated that he took sleeping pills and drifted off before his friend shot him in the head. Schultz presents a compelling argument in favor of his scenario.

However he died, one thing all agree on is that McVean was the trio’s ringleader and the triggerman who fired 20 bullets into Claxton while he sat behind the wheel of his patrol car on McElmo Bridge. Schultz introduces evidence that McVean survived for several years in the canyon country and may even have traveled as far as Oregon during that time.

Dead Run includes everything that made the 1998 manhunt a global phenomenon. The case was profiled on “America’s Most Wanted” and other true-crime TV shows for years after the trail went cold and the drama was heightened by a misplaced romanticizing of the fugitives.

“It was an extremely interesting book to write,” Schultz said. “As more and more dimensions opened up – the size of the manhunt, the management – they’re all fascinating characters to me. You had not only the good guy/bad guy lawman/outlaw dichotomy, but also man versus nature in the environment. It’s an amazing survival story.”

ted@durangoherald.com

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