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Mason was a good athlete in excellent condition. McVean, tall and skinny, had hippie-length hair and a scraggly beard. They'd been friends since grade school, but Pilon, who was overweight and had a bad ankle, had joined their circle only in the previous year or two.

It soon became clear that McVean was not only the ringleader of the trio, but the gunman who had killed Dale Claxton and shot Todd Martin and Jason Bishop from the back of the flatbed. When the police raided the Durango Air Park trailer that the trio had used as a kind of headquarters, they discovered munitions that amounted to, according to an FBI investigator, "a mini bomb factory," and a trove of provocative documents, all in McVean's hand: lists of food, gear, weapons, and explosives; notes and letters; skillfully drawn designs for what looked like booby traps; cryptic sketches of sites—and a hand-drawn map with 18 dots inked onto it.

According to Robert Draper, who researched the fugitives for a 2000 GQ article, Mason and McVean regularly loaded up a truck with crates, plastic bags, and a small arsenal of guns and explosives and drove at night out of Durango into their favorite wilderness—the vast and rugged canyonlands of southeast Utah. They told friends they were looking for potsherds and arrowheads but would return days later with just a few fragmentary artifacts, or even with nothing. Sometimes they would bring along an outsider, then, without explanation, test him with "exercises"—waterless "death marches," smokeless fire-building, digging up and reburying caches of food and gear, and the like.

Later their wilderness games included Pilon. Reed Peterson, who at the time of the Claxton killing shared a Durango duplex with McVean and his girlfriend, says, "Jason would go out and hide somewhere in the desert. It was Bob and Monte's job to go out and find him. They'd been doing this for years."

For the first six days of the manhunt, law enforcement focused on Cross Canyon but came up empty. "It was a royal clusterf—," says Cortez native and ex-BLM ranger Fred Blackburn. "They had way too many people out there, and most of them didn't have a clue about wilderness. It's a miracle they didn't end up shooting each other."

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