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Bones' discovery may solve a 9-year mystery

The Four Corners area has been puzzled by the disappearance of a suspect in a police officer's 1998 slaying.

June 10, 2007|Jennifer Dobner | Associated Press

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.

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 last week, when a cowboy discovered the remnants of a bulletproof vest, a backpack, pipe bombs, an AK-47, 500 rounds of ammunition and human bones in Cross Canyon, near the Utah-Colorado border.

Sheriff Mike Lacy of San Juan County, Utah, believes they are the remains of the last fugitive, Jason Wayne McVean. 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.

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 ecoterrorists.

On the day of the shooting, Claxton, an officer for just three years, stopped at the local junior high to give his teacher-wife, Sue, a kiss and then hit the road.

Police say Claxton spotted the truck and called for backup. But before anyone arrived, 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.

"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. Still, officers came by the hundreds from 51 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 San Juan River, just east of Bluff, Utah. Bradford had been sent to the river after a local social worker said someone had fired at him.

Mason's body, strapped with explosives, was found that day in a dirt bunker on the south side of the river. He had died from a gunshot wound to the head.

Bradford's shooting forced the evacuation of Bluff's roughly 300 residents. Police posted roadblocks to the north and south and checked every vehicle.

Police tried to smoke out the fugitives, setting fire to tamarisk trees and sagebrush in the river bottoms, while helicopters carrying snipers scanned the area.

The search waned after a few weeks, hampered by jurisdictional squabbles and the sheer difficulty of the task.

Navajo police renewed the search about a month after Claxton's slaying, when a girl said she saw two men in camouflage trying to steal a truck in Montezuma Creek, Utah.

By summer's end, however, McVean and Pilon remained at large. Police conceded they might never be found but kept the case open and vowed to follow any lead.

In October 1999, 11 Navajo deer hunters discovered a 9-millimeter 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 that the bones were Pilon's, and that he had 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," the chief said. A fingerprint check, however, proved the man wasn't McVean.

Lane said he was "99 and nine-tenths" sure that the bones found in Cross Canyon, also near Hovenweep, are McVean's. DNA results should be ready soon. The weapons and ammunition matched those used by Pilon and Mason. A business card inside the backpack was from a company owned by Pilon, Lane said.

Lane said that after the discovery, he visited Sue Claxton, who still lives in Cortez. "I think she's relieved," Lane said. "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.

AP newswoman Jennifer Dobner covered the desert manhunt in 1998-1999 for the Deseret Morning News.

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