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Four Corners returning to normal after killing, manhunt

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Navajo ranchers who drop by the Ismay Trading Post - a rambling complex of adobe, weathered wood and concrete surrounded by junked cars - are more inclined to talk about the lack of rain than the two fugitives purported to be hiding in nearby Cross Canyon.

"Ordinary people . . . I figure they got nothing to worry about," said Eugene Ismay, the 73-year-old owner, who reflected on all the recent commotion as he fixed a truck's flat tire.While he talked, the daily routine at his trading post continued.

Customers wandered in and out to pick up their mail, make phone calls or purchase something from the store's limited inventory - which includes three $7.50 ax handles, a dusty box of 50-cent fly strips and five boxes of yellow cake mix. Tourists on their way to the Anasazi ruins at Hovenweep National Monument drove by without stopping.

It's been nearly a month since Alan Pilon and Jason McVean sped along the remote stretch of road and disappeared into harsh and forbidding desert countryside. For many, life is just about back to normal.

Blackhawk helicopters no longer roar overhead, searching for the two men who, with an accomplice, are believed responsible for a violent crime spree that claimed the life of a police officer and left three sheriff's deputies wounded.

Sheep wander freely along the roadside in the company of a llama. Hovenweep - closed after the fugitives sprayed bullets at a ranger's car as they sped by - reopened for day visits last weekend.

In nearby Bluff, Utah, a picturesque community of about 300 wedged between sandstone cliffs and the San Juan River, tourism is picking up. It was here that Robert Mason, the third gunman, was found dead, apparently of a self-inflicted wound. A local sheriff's deputy also was wounded in Bluff and the town was evacuated.

Although Cortez, Colo., also has largely returned to its routine, there are reminders of its loss: a dead police officer and two wounded deputies.

Residents continue to raise money for slain Officer Dale Claxton's widow and two small children, as well as the families of the two injured deputies. The sign above the local Wendy's reads: "Our Special Thanks to Our Law Enforcement Officers."

Some attitudes, too, have been altered.

"Before, we lived in a community where you could basically go to work in the morning and leave your front door unlocked and not have to worry too much," said Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane. "I think some of that has changed."

The greatest danger may still be to people wearing badges. Lane notes that the two men have basically "shown aggression against law enforcement officers" and have left eyewitnesses to their violence unharmed. But in a town that showed its support by closing down on the day of Claxton's funeral, that's still plenty to worry about.

"The greatest concern is that they will do this somewhere else," said Don Henderson, minister of Cortez's First Assembly of God. "I don't think there's a great concern that they will come back here. If they get in this area, as soon as they show their heads, they're going to be spotted."

The Four Corners area was the frequent backdrop for epic Hollywood westerns. But it is, perhaps, an unlikely location for a modern-day shootout involving camouflage-clad, anti-government fanatics who inexplicably stole a water truck and cut down peace officers with automatic weapons.

Officer Claxton was the first Cortez police officer to die in the line of duty. The few homicides that have occurred here typically involved domestic incidents. It's not an area known for having a large militia or white supremacist presence.

And although they apparently were steeped in anti-government rhetoric and paranoia, in some ways the three men were not obvious candidates for a bloody rampage. Chief Lane said none had been convicted of major crimes; their only records were traffic offenses.

Two of the men - Pilon and Mason - grew up in southwestern Colorado. McVean's family had once lived in Arlington, Texas, but moved to Colorado when he was a teenager.

None had particularly noteworthy work histories. They apparently shared an interest in weapons and disdain for the government.

Pilon had trouble with the IRS and may have attended a local militia group's meeting. But Chief Lane said that investigators have not firmly established that the three were members of any militia.

"We know that they were all survivalist-type people who went out in the mountains or the desert and lived off the land and rations," he said. "They believed that in the year 2000, the world's going to end, and they wanted to be out there. They figured that if they were out in the desert, there'd be fewer people to contend with."

In preparation, the three men apparently had stashed food and supplies in secret locations in the Cross Canyon area, which they frequented.

Although family members were aware of the men's anti-government sentiments, they evidently were not aware of their violent plans. All three families, Lane said, have been cooperative. Mason and McVean's families even had reported them missing before they became suspects in the crime spree.

It began with the theft of a water truck in Ignacio, Colo., on May 28. The next day, Claxton spotted the stolen truck. He was killed when he pulled the truck over just outside of town and the occupants sprayed his patrol car with automatic weapons.

The water truck later was abandoned and the gunmen commandeered a flatbed truck at gunpoint. Two Montezuma County sheriff's deputies were wounded as the trio sped toward their sanctuary.

At an entrance to Hovenweep National Monument, superintendent Art Hutchinson was trying to warn tourists of the danger. He'd gotten word that the running gun battle might be coming his way.

The warning was well-founded. As the flatbed rumbled past, at least 18 shots were fired at Hutchinson, an archaeologist by training who was unarmed but in his ranger uniform. Two bullets struck his car.

The gunmen abandoned the truck a few miles away and evaporated into the rugged terrain of Cross Canyon.

A week later, a man in camouflage clothing was spotted more than 20 miles northwest of Hovenweep in the Bluff. He shot at the state child protective services worker who saw him and later wounded a San Juan County sheriff's deputy. The town was evacuated.

Officers searching the area near the San Juan River found Mason's body. He apparently died of a self-inflicted wound.

There was no sign of McVean and Pilon, who by then were the subject of the largest manhunt the region has ever seen. The two evaded police who were using state-of-the-art technology, helicopter searches and traditional Navajo trackers.

Although law enforcement officials continue to look into possible sightings of the two, active search efforts were recently suspended. Officers are still running down leads and conducting interviews - over 600 so far, including a drunken psychic.

Some people believe that McVean and Pilon have long since fled the area, perhaps down the San Juan River. Another theory is that they are hiding out with people who share their anti-government sentiments. Others are convinced that they are still hiding in the desert wilderness, living off of caches of rations.