The water truck stopped on the right shoulder just beyond a bridge over McElmo Creek. Claxton pulled over some 15 feet behind. He radioed, "I'll be out with the truck here." These were his last words.
Out of Claxton's view, a man leapt from the water truck's passenger door. He was wearing a full camouflage outfit and holding an SKS automatic rifle. Without hesitation, he opened fire. A fusillade of 7.62-caliber bullets shattered the windshield and struck Claxton in the head before he could even unholster his gun. The shooter approached the police cruiser and fired another series of shots point-blank through the driver's side window. Twenty-nine rounds in all—and when the killing was done, Claxton slumped sideways in his seat, the top half of his head blown off.
The rifleman jumped back into the water truck, which careened south down County Road 27 at 50 or 60 miles an hour. A mile later, the tanker turned right and raced westward onto County Road 25, paralleling Cortez's Main Street. Word of the killing had now reached Cortez police headquarters, which mobilized every officer on the force and notified the Colorado state patrol and the county sheriff. Cruisers were hurtling all over Cortez, but as yet no law officer had spotted the water truck.
Whatever the three men who had stolen the truck were planning that late spring day ten years ago, their plot had suddenly been aborted. The only mission now was escape.
The fugitives knew the layout of Cortez like their own backyards. They knew that the only exit route lay just ahead, where County Road 25 intersects County Road G. A right turn onto G, a blind dash across Highway 160, and they would be headed down McElmo Canyon toward Utah and the wilderness they had hiked and jeeped for years.
But instead the water truck blasted through the four-way stop at G and powered south on 25. Perhaps in their panic, the trio had failed to recognize the intersection. Now they were heading into a dead end: Just a few miles farther on, 25 terminates in the town dump.
The driver suddenly slammed on the brakes, burning rubber tracks on the asphalt, and turned right into the driveway of a house owned by Robert Williams. At the end of the driveway, they came upon a man named Paul Ibarra, who was gassing up his yellow flatbed lumber truck.