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Manhunt: A 9-year mystery may be solved

Human bones found in southeastern Utah's canyon-carved desert may solve a major mystery of 1998's notorious Four Corners manhunt. But other riddles — why three Colorado men went on a violent crime spree and how they met their ends — may never be answered.

San Juan County sheriff's deputies believe they have found the remains of Jason McVean, the last of three survivalists wanted in the killing of Dale Claxton, a Cortez, Colo., police officer. All three are dead.

There is only one unfortunate result of "not finding one of them alive," says Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane. "We'll never know exactly what they were up to."

A cowboy riding in Cross Canyon on Tuesday stumbled upon what he thought was a saddle blanket. It turned out to be the remains of a bulletproof vest. Nearby was a camouflage backpack.

"He started digging in there and found the pipe bombs and called us," San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy told the Deseret Morning News on Wednesday.

Deputies and FBI agents responded to the scene and found an AK-47, about 500 rounds of ammunition, five pipe bombs and survival equipment.

"We didn't find as much remains as we'd like to have found," Lacy said. "The coyotes, it looked like, had dragged part of the body off."

Lane traveled from Cortez to Monticello on Wednesday to see the survival gear found with the remains.

"I'm 99 percent and nine-tenths sure it's him, too," the police chief said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News shortly after his return. "No doubt in my mind. It's a good feeling to have it all behind us now."

The human bone fragments were found in a wash about 5 1/2 miles from where the manhunt originated.

"We found a leg and a leg socket that was found 30 yards away. The skull was completely fractured in pieces. We don't know if he'd been shot or what," Lacy said.

DNA tests will confirm if the remains are those of McVean, 26, who was wanted in one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history. Deputies recovered a pair of teeth from the scene.

The manhunt

On May 29, 1998, authorities said McVean; Alan "Monte" Pilon, 30; and Robert Mason, 26, stole a water truck in Colorado. They were pulled over by Claxton. Before the police officer could even unbuckle his seat belt, a camouflage-clad man stepped out of the vehicle and opened fire on him — shooting him 29 times.

As they fled across the Colorado-Utah border, the men wounded two Montezuma County sheriff's deputies.

On June 4, Mason shot at a Utah state employee from more than a mile away with a high-powered rifle. San Juan County sheriff's deputy Kelly Bradford responded and was shot and wounded.

In a makeshift bunker surrounded by pipe bombs, authorities said Mason shot and killed himself.

As the days wore on, the manhunt swelled. As many as 500 officers were involved in the search that lasted more than two months.

"The logistics of having so many officers here and the manhunt," Lane said. "That type of thing was kind of mind-boggling, now that you look back on it."

The manhunt was even part of the plot of a Tony Hillerman novel, "Hunting Badger."

There were numerous "sightings" of the survivalists, and theories abounded about why the heavily armed men stole the water truck. Were they planning to build a bomb? Were they preparing to overthrow the government?

Lacy said it's possible that their plan went downhill after they were pulled over.

"Things fell apart when they shot the police officer in Cortez, and they kind of had to improvise," the sheriff said.

The aftermath

In October 1999, Matthew Tortalita was hunting in Squaw Canyon with his father and nine other people when he stumbled onto a camouflage backpack, a tent and a gun.

"I thought maybe I had walked up on them," he told the Deseret Morning News in 2000, believing that Pilon and McVean were alive and he'd just walked into their lair.

What the hunters found were the remains of Pilon.

Authorities said Pilon had a broken ankle and died of a gunshot wound to the head. One of the remaining mysteries is whether he shot himself or if someone killed him.

"It's always in the back of our mind is, 'What happened?'" said Samson Cowboy, a public safety director for the Navajo police.

While Navajo authorities have been critical in the past of how the manhunt was handled, Cowboy said investigators soon came to believe that McVean was dead after Pilon's body was found.

About 2 1/2 miles away from where Pilon's bones were found, Lacy said, the remains of McVean were found in a wash.

"We went down this same wash for I don't know how many years," he said.

Lane said he met with Claxton's family on Tuesday night after learning of the discovery.

"They seemed to be doing relatively well," the chief said.

Dale Claxton's son, Corbin, recently joined the Cortez Police Department. He was 11 when his father was killed. Now 20 years old, he serves as a patrol officer.

"It's good to have him here," said Lane. "He has a lot of his dad's characteristics."

Deputies and FBI agents will return to the scene to look for more body parts. Lacy said coyotes had scattered the remains quite a distance. The sheriff told the Deseret Morning News he recovered a watch from the remains — a watch that stopped on May 30.

"This happened on the 29th of May. It stopped on the 30th," Lacy said.

"He probably died the day after this started."


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com