Shortly after 9 a.m. on May 29, 1998, 45-year-old police officer Dale Claxton drove into Cortez, Colorado. A teletype bulletin had alerted him that the day before, a big white water truck had been stolen near Ignacio, some 65 miles to the east. Claxton realized now that the same truck was driving slowly down County Road 27, just ahead of him. The thieves had blacked out the Overwright Trucking logo on the door, but for some reason had not bothered to remove or change the license plates.
Claxton, a former tire salesman who had joined the force three years before after a religious conversion, radioed headquarters: "That Mack Truck that was reported stolen this morning? I'm behind it." Still, he did not turn on his siren or lights.
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.
One of the fugitives got out of the tanker and approached Ibarra with his rifle aimed and cocked. He told him that he was not going to hurt him, he just wanted to take his flatbed. A shaken Ibarra handed him the keys.
Abandoning the water truck, the fugitives transferred guns and backpacks to the flatbed and headed out of the driveway, back onto County Road 25. Less than ten minutes had passed since the killing. One man was now driving, one rode shotgun, and the third stood in the flatbed with two rifles ready to fire.
A few minutes earlier, Montezuma County sheriff's deputy Jason Bishop had trundled slowly down 25 toward the dump, on the off chance that "the bad guys" (an epithet that would soon become synonymous with "the fugitives") were in the vicinity. Bishop had failed to notice the fresh skid marks leading into the Williamses' driveway. Short of the dump, he turned around, started back west, and passed the driveway once more. Seconds later, the stolen flatbed turned onto 25 behind him.
Bishop had time only to glimpse the fugitives in his rearview mirror before his back window exploded. A bullet caught him in the head. Bishop continued speaking on the radio, but lost control of his car, which glided off the road and crashed into a shed. The bullet wound proved nonfatal, but Bishop would remember nothing more until he woke up in the hospital.
By now the authorities had gotten a fix on the bad guys. Approaching from the north, Cortez deputy Todd Martin pulled his unmarked black Jeep off the left side of County Road 25, then crouched behind it, shotgun in hand. It was a textbook tactical ambush. The flatbed appeared out of nowhere, screaming along at 60 miles an hour. The gunman in back pelted the Jeep with automatic weapons fire. Martin never fired a shot, and as the flatbed passed north, his Jeep no longer served as a safety shield. Whirling in the back of the flatbed, the shooter unloaded another series of shots. A bullet slammed into Martin's biceps, shattering his left arm. The deputy collapsed beside his car. Only the timely arrival of a colleague, who applied direct pressure to the wound, kept Martin from bleeding to death.
Cruisers were now converging on County Road 25, swarming toward the area where Bishop and Martin had been shot. But the law officers' weapons (mostly shotguns) were no match for the deadeye marksman's SKS as he riddled no fewer than seven vehicles. It was later estimated that the terrorist riding the flatbed got off 300 rounds without a cop or sheriff firing a single shot. (It would also be noted, and puzzled over at length, that the gunman fired only at officers in uniform, sparing any number of "civilians" such as Paul Ibarra who had had the bad luck to get caught up in the chase.)
The fugitives regained the intersection with County Road G, hung a lurching left, burst across Highway 160 just before a roadblock could be set up, and barreled down McElmo Canyon. A chase that would last 54 miles was on, though the pursuers were so addled by the assault that the gap between them and the bad guys stretched from half an hour to more than an hour.
Thirty-nine miles into the getaway, just across the Utah line, the flatbed turned off County Road G toward Hovenweep National Monument. The superintendent of the monument, tipped off by radio, foolishly went out on the highway unarmed. As soon as the truck appeared in the distance, a spray of bullets whizzed by him. Diving behind his car, the man was fortunate to emerge unscathed.
At Cahone Lake, the flatbed turned left on an obscure dirt track that leads to Cross Canyon. Two miles on, the road snakes down into a willow- and cottonwood-choked arroyo. And here, at last, the fugitives abandoned their vehicle, after camouflaging it with branches and leaves. The men then set off westward on foot.
The murder of Dale Claxton and the stunningly violent chase through Cortez launched what was at the time the largest manhunt in the history of the Southwest. Since the fugitives had crossed the border from Colorado to Utah, the FBI got involved. At its height, the dragnet mobilized 500 people from 51 different agencies. They ranged from SWAT teams riding helicopters to Navajo trackers on horseback.
Yet in the end, the search was a colossal exercise in futility.
Like other aficionados of the Southwest, I had been fascinated from the start by the story of the fugitives. I had even toyed with the idea of writing about it, but hesitated because there seemed to be too many loose ends—the men's whereabouts, their motivation. Then, last summer, in a serendipitous and purely accidental find, the eerie saga of the Four Corners Fugitives reached an ambiguous resolution, nine years after the Claxton killing. Last fall, I headed out to Cortez myself to investigate one of the case's unanswered questions, only to wind up at the center of its enduring mystery—with a hand-drawn map to the final clues.
Back in 1998, after the fugitives had vanished into the intricacies of Cross Canyon, it had taken the authorities several days to identify them. They turned out to be locals. Alan "Monte" Pilon, 30, was from Dove Creek, a sleepy hamlet just a few miles north of where the men had ditched the flatbed. Robert Mason and Jason McVean, both 26, lived in Durango. All three took occasional construction jobs, although McVean had considerable expertise as a welder and electronics geek. Mason, fittingly enough, was a skilled mason. The authorities were stunned to discover that none of the three had a criminal record more serious than the odd DUI conviction.
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."
Then, on June 4, nearly a week after the murder, a social worker named Steve Wilcox drove to the Swinging Bridge, a suspension catwalk over the San Juan River three miles east of Bluff, Utah, where he had planned to eat a picnic lunch. He had not yet gotten out of his car when he noticed a pair of combat boots on the bank beside the river. Then, under a nearby Russian olive tree, he saw a man lying prone, his rifle pointed straight at Wilcox's head. The social worker gunned his car and sped off, only to hear a bullet ricochet in the rocks beside his vehicle.
Responding to Wilcox's 911 call, San Juan County sheriff Kelly Bradford drove out to the Swinging Bridge. By now the rifleman had changed his position. Bradford stepped out of his vehicle and had just put on a bulletproof vest when a slug caught him in the shoulder. It was later ascertained that the marksman, whom Bradford never saw, had hit his target from a distance of 280 yards. Then a second bullet caught him in the side. Knocked off his feet, the sheriff managed to crawl to his car.
Within 15 minutes, another officer arrived, launching an intense but cautious search. During the next four hours, several hundred law officers converged on the banks of the San Juan. A little after 5:30 p.m., they discovered the marksman 400 yards from where Bradford was shot, sitting upright in a hastily dug-out trench. He was dead—a suicide, with a bullet hole in his forehead from a close-range shot.
Robert Mason was wearing full camouflage gear and a Kevlar helmet. A 9-mm Glock pistol and a .308-caliber rifle lay beside him, as did three pipe bombs, many rounds of ammunition, and a backpack.
Ten years later, Mason's demise remains deeply puzzling. After ditching the flatbed in Cross Canyon, the fugitive had made his way on foot, heavily laden, nearly 40 miles to the Swinging Bridge without once being spotted. Experts speculated that he may have walked at night down the streambeds of Cross Canyon and Montezuma Creek, then along the San Juan. Having so skillfully escaped detection, why did he fire at the social worker? And why did he commit suicide, rather than go out in the blazing gun battle he seemed so well equipped to launch?
Mason's death worked the manhunt into a frenzy. Assuming that McVean and Pilon must have been hiding nearby, the authorities shifted their search from Cross Canyon to the San Juan River basin. They not only shut down all boating traffic on the river, they evacuated the entire town of Bluff, population 350.
Wilderness guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt, a Bluff native, was hosting students from the University of Colorado field school, who were excavating a ruin on Cemetery Hill above town at the time. He got the news of Bradford's shooting at the local convenience store. Dashing home, he yelled to his wife, "Lock the doors!" He loaded some guns of his own, then blurted out, "We've gotta get the kids down from the hill!" By the time he drove his van to the dig, helicopters were circling.
"People were freaking out," Hadenfeldt recalled. "One of my neighbors was waving his gun, screaming, 'They're coming!'"
Jim Hook, who owns Bluff's Recapture Lodge, was another civilian who stayed on. Even as he crammed as many officers as he could into his motel, Hook started an email diary that he sent to friends all over the country. His first entry captured the mood of a town under siege:
There are only about five Bluff people still in town. . . . The air is full of helicopters and spotlights, all the bridges and entrances to town are blocked and guarded. The SWAT teams have set up skirmish lines along the river bottom next to the Lodge and on top of the cliffs and are holding positions until the sun comes up and they can see what has happened.
Inevitably, the various teams of searchers started squabbling with each other. And despite running themselves ragged, none of the officers came up with a single tangible clue as to the whereabouts of Monte Pilon and Jason McVean. After a few days Bluff's citizens returned, but for a full month the manhunt continued to focus on the section of the San Juan River just south of town. The nadir of this mass paranoia came in early July, more than four weeks after Claxton's killing, when several teams attempted to set fire to the underbrush along a six-mile stretch of the river, hoping to burn the fugitives out of their hiding places. The fires fizzled out, managing only to scorch tangles of tamarisk here and there.
Though gradually scaled back, the manhunt continued for more than three months without producing a shred of solid evidence. The failure was deeply demoralizing to the authorities, and especially to the Cortez police department, where Claxton had been a beloved friend to his fellow officers. (His funeral service on June 3 drew more than 2,000 mourners, including the governor of Colorado.) Reward money totaling over $160,000 for each of the two fugitives still at large brought professional bounty hunters out of the woodwork. Both America's Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries aired segments about the Four Corners Fugitives, prompting sightings of McVean and Pilon from Alaska to Mexico to the Eastern seaboard. Author Tony Hillerman was fascinated by the story and wrote a mystery novel, Hunting Badger, based on the killing and manhunt.
Digging into the backgrounds of the fugitives, the FBI and other authorities had found little evidence that McVean, Mason, and Pilon were anything other than racist, rabidly antigovernment crackpots. They concluded that the fugitives were habitual users of hallucinogenic drugs, ranging from marijuana to peyote to crystal meth. Yet McVean evidently possessed a certain charisma. Reed Peterson, who saw McVean as little more than a paranoid freeloader, asked Linda Wallace, McVean's girlfriend, what she found so attractive about this deadbeat. "Oh, you should see Jason with a gun," she answered. "He's got this 50-caliber Browning, and he's real good with it." Wallace went on to praise McVean's skill as a lover: "He's the best," she told Peterson, smirking.
Ben Crowder had been friends with both Mason and McVean since grade school. In his view, "Bob was a good kid. Hard to figure out. Had dark piercing eyes. A lot of people didn't like Bob. My folks loved Jason. Jason would come over to our house and eat, like, all the time. He loved them. He was just a really friendly guy. Bob, though, had . . . Between his eyes and his kind of weird psychotic smile there was something disturbing about him that just set people off."
Another childhood friend of Mason's, Paul Hrvatin, recalled, "He was a really good chess player. Even back in fourth grade he was pretty damn good. But him and a friend of mine from Durango played this game called Squad Leader. Like a war game: strategy and moving troops around. They played that for hours and hours.
"Made a little sense Bob playing that game all the time and being out in the desert, and strategy, and all that. It all clicked."
Barbara Crowder, Ben's mother, saw certain virtues in McVean. "He was a real spiritual person as far as I'm concerned," she says. "Jason frowned on [his buddies'] excesses with alcohol. He was very intelligent. Which most of those kids that he ran around with were. . . . They really felt cheated. They felt that there wasn't really much left for them. [Jason] certainly had no respect for government. . . . The police in Durango, from a very early age, hassled those kids. They used to play Hacky Sack in a park across from the Durango Herald and those kids were hassled and made to leave the park on the grounds that they were druggies or whatever."
Pilon won less respect among his Dove Creek neighbors, who saw him as an anarchist pothead. Several acquaintances heard him express admiration for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers. Those two criminals, Pilon said, should have been "praised, not punished."
The fundamental mystery about the fugitives is what exactly they were planning when they stole the water truck and started to drive it through Cortez. Dressed in full camo gear and armed to the teeth, they must have been bent on some extreme mission.
A few days after the killing, McVean's own flatbed pickup was discovered parked on Cherry Creek Road, two miles south of Highway 160, midway between Cortez and Durango. This find lent credence to what is still the prevalent theory: that the fugitives planned to use the water truck to rob the Ute Mountain Casino at Towaoc, 12 miles from Cortez. In this scenario, after the robbery the fugitives would have circled south of Mesa Verde on dirt roads, stopped just south of the town of Mancos, ditched the water truck, carried their loot on foot over the high mesa separating Mancos Canyon from Cherry Creek, then fled in McVean's pickup.
Another recurring theory is that the fugitives planned to fill the water truck with explosives and blow up Glen Canyon Dam. A friend who had known McVean since he was 12 years old told reporters that Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang (the seminal novel that hinges on just such an act of ecoterrorism) was McVean's favorite book. "He read it, like, 17 times," the friend said.
As the months passed with no new leads, a mystique began to build around the Four Corners Fugitives. Internet sites quoted members of "citizen militias" around the country as approving of the cop killing, as in the posting of one North Carolina man: "The truth is, those men in Colorado acted exactly the way all true militia should when confronted by enemy troops, especially if or when you are on a training mission."
The notion that McVean and Pilon had outsmarted 500 professional law officers, that they were still out there somewhere, began to gild the fugitives with the romance of outlaw heroes. At the end of the 20th century, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were reborn.
By late May 1999, on the first anniversary of the Claxton murder, some officers thought that by now Pilon and McVean were most likely dead. But the prevailing opinion was that they had survived and were still in hiding, probably together. There was also a persistent suspicion that Pilon and McVean were being regularly resupplied by accomplices from Dove Creek or Durango.
But another five months passed without any new developments in the case. Then, on October 31, 1999, 11 Navajo deer hunters stumbled upon the badly decomposed remains of a man under a pair of gnarled juniper trees on the rim of Tin Cup Mesa, overlooking Cross Canyon. The body was clad in a bulletproof Kevlar vest, but the skull had been blown apart, and predatory animals had dispersed the hand bones. Beside the corpse, the deer hunters found pipe bombs, an empty canteen, a backpack, a helmet, a tent and a tarp, a .308-caliber rifle, and a 9-mm Glock handgun—altogether about one hundred pounds of gear.
It was Monte Pilon. The death site lay less than three miles away from the arroyo bottom where the fugitives had ditched the flatbed truck 17 months before.
Pilon's death was initially ruled a suicide, but the autopsy report revealed details that cast doubt on that verdict. The bullet hole in the skull entered from the top. As the Utah state medical examiner explained, "Top-down [trajectory] is fairly atypical of suicide." Moreover, the autopsy indicated that Pilon, who had a bad leg from a previous injury, had suffered a hairline ankle fracture. Even more tellingly, there were neither food containers nor ammunition clips with the body.
Eventually, most of the experts would conclude that Pilon and McVean had reached the edge of Tin Cup Mesa the evening of their escape. Perhaps Pilon had broken his ankle floundering under his heavy load in the dark across the steep, rocky terrain. Deeming his crippled partner a liability, McVean had probably executed him, then taken his ammunition and food.
In some circles, the discovery of Pilon's body came as a thudding anticlimax. Rather than surviving brilliantly in the wilderness for a year, the fugitive had probably died within hours of his flight from the truck—either by his own hand or by McVean's.
Yet in the wake of the Navajo hunters' grisly discovery, the legend of Jason McVean only grew. In September 2000—28 months after the killing—a number of McVean's friends, including Linda Wallace, told the Denver Post that they were pretty sure Jason was still alive. Dubbing the fugitive "the quintessential survivor," the friends told the reporter that McVean "had stockpiled enough supplies in his beloved desert for four people for three years."
As the years passed, however, fewer observers believed that McVean was still hiding in the desert. The romantic theory now in favor—a scenario typical for on-the-run outlaws—had him lounging on a beach in some tropical country, perhaps Mexico.
Then, on June 6, 2007, a little more than nine years after the Claxton killing, a cowboy based out of Blanding, Utah, was riding his horse in Cross Canyon. On a previous jaunt, 61-year-old Eric Bayles had spotted what he thought was a pair of pants discarded in the weeds, but had not bothered to check it out. This time he also saw what he thought was a blanket. He dismounted and picked up the object. It was a bulletproof vest.
Nearby, Bayles discovered an AK-47 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, five pipe bombs, a backpack, and several still-full water bottles. In a mudbank hollow under a low ledge, he came across a scattering of human bones.
An investigating team arrived at the scene and conducted a thorough inventory of the debris. The bones had been so disarticulated by animals that no autopsy could be performed. But the pipe bombs exactly matched those found with Pilon and Mason, as did a certain brand of water filter. The clincher came when the team happened across one of Monte Pilon's business cards. There could be no doubt: At long last, Jason McVean had been found.
For the authorities, it was mortifying to know that McVean had died only 3.2 miles away from Pilon's death site, and only five miles from where the men had ditched the flatbed. During the first week of the search, law officers had probably walked right by both lairs without spotting a clue.
The most provocative piece of evidence the investigating team came across was a windup wristwatch. It had stopped at 6:30, with a date dial indicating the number 30. It was possible that, in the panic of escape, McVean had forgotten to wind his watch. But it seemed more plausible to conclude that, far from surviving for nine years in the outback, McVean was dead by 6:30 p.m. on May 30—the day after the Claxton killing.
Had the three men, then, forged a suicide pact? Or was it simply that each had decided that ending his own life was preferable to being captured by the hated authorities?
The discovery of McVean's remains brought a certain closure to the case, though it probably also meant that no one would ever know what the bad guys' apocalyptic plan was all about. Still fascinated, in October 2007 I headed out to Cortez. The local authorities had long since stopped giving interviews to the press, but an intercession by my longtime friend and wilderness companion Fred Blackburn won me a meeting with the police chief.
Roy Lane, who'd turned 63 the day before we met, seemed an affable, warmhearted man. But as we talked, the pain of conjuring up Claxton's killing clouded his face. "In 41 years in law enforcement, I've never seen anything like it," he said.
"It tore the community apart. Dale was really well liked. It took five or six years for the police department to get well again. We had lots of psychology people, chaplains and the like, come in."
I asked Lane what he thought the bad guys had been planning on May 29, 1998. "At first I believed in the casino-robbing theory," he answered. "But the more I thought about it, the more I thought they were on their way to doing something grand."
During our conversation, the one time Lane's voice rose to anger came when I asked him about the folk-hero status the fugitives had attained. "I don't see how anybody who kills a policeman in cold blood can be a hero to anybody," he said. "And especially in the vile, cowardly way they did it."
At the end of our two-hour meeting, we shook hands. As he rose, Lane said, "I never had nightmares. I just couldn't sleep, just agonizing over losing an officer. The medication I took left me in a fog. Forty-five minutes after Dale was killed, I had to tell [Claxton's wife] Sue and their kids what had happened. Sue took it pretty good. But she collapsed later.
"It's still painful. I never want to have to do that again."
Lane had authorized detective Jim Shethar to show me virtually all the records in the department's file. My meeting with Shethar, however, did not get off to a great start. "I'm sick of this case," the detective said as soon as we sat down. "You're the last person I'll talk to." But then his voice softened. "I've had too much sleep disturbance over this. And therapy hasn't helped."
Fifty-seven years old, Shethar has a spiky crew cut and a strong-jawed face. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Bruce Willis. "This was a very complex case," he said, as he unrolled a laminated map on which the department had tagged every pivot point in the chase, from the theft of the water truck near Ignacio through the Cortez shootings to the ditched flatbed in Cross Canyon. "How does law enforcement," he asked rhetorically, "deal with 27 crime scenes spread over 150 miles as the crow flies?
"I think these guys were up to something far more sinister than a robbery," Shethar said, mentioning that Pilon had told a friend he was onto something so big he couldn't talk about it. "They were unknowns, and soon they were going to be known the world over."
Shethar rose from his desk and said, "C'mon, I'll give you the tour." For the next hour, we drove in the detective's cruiser along the backroads of Cortez. At each critical location, we stopped and got out, as Shethar found the 1998 crime scene photo that corresponded to the event. The frantic 20 minutes of pursuit in Cortez came alive for me as they never had reading newspaper clippings.
Toward the end of our "tour," however, Shethar paused longer than he needed to at a stop sign. Hands on the steering wheel, he stared blankly out at the road ahead and said, "You know, the more you do this, the more you go, Why?"
Back in Shethar's office, I was shown reams of documents. "You're lucky to see this stuff," the detective said. "We're going to destroy it all in a few weeks."
"How come?" I asked.
"The case is closed," Shethar said listlessly. "Roy wants all this stuff destroyed."
Among all the documents, the ones that most interested me were four spiral notebooks full of McVean's jottings. Two of them had apparently been started for classes in geology and biology that McVean was taking at a local community college. Judging by the evidence, the future fugitive had been a diligent student, although certain notes—exhaustive compendiums, for instance, of edible plants found in the desert, complete with their Latin names—might be interpreted as homework for a survival mission.
The bulk of the notebooks was filled with obsessive lists, diagrams, and sketched maps. I read through these carefully, galvanized by the remarkable details. Some of the lists, such as a recipe for homemade LSD, could have been the work of any pothead slacker. Others looked far more ominous:Fire bomb: 10 + fuse w/hose
In the notebooks, there were also many detailed, skillfully drawn diagrams of what looked like booby traps and explosive devices. As a welder who loved electronics, McVean evidently knew what he was drawing.
One notebook contained a six-page letter McVean had written to his mother but apparently never sent. It was full of eerily pregnant passages:
I don't like Durango anymore. . . . Ive seen more wildlife killed by these idiots than ever before. . . . These are people that turn there head when you even try to say hello. That is why they are zombies—the walking dead. Ive got to go live in solitaire. . . .
Finally Shethar showed me a single piece of paper that tantalized me more than all the other documents. It was an exquisitely drawn map, marked with 18 dots. I knew at a glance exactly the terrain the map depicted. It covered some of my favorite canyon country in the whole Southwest. (Fred Blackburn had told me that because the law officers weren't outdoor types, they had no idea what wilderness the map charted until they showed it to him.)
Shethar agreed with me that the dots almost certainly marked the fugitives' caches. I could not stop staring at the map. I knew every side canyon McVean had sketched; during the previous decade, I had probably walked right past seven or eight of those dots. Piqued by my interest, Shethar said, "Those caches will be found. But we suspect they're wired to blow up in your face. You don't want to find them."
A strong corroboration of Shethar's cache theory had come in November 2004, six and a half years after the Claxton murder, when a man who lived in the Lake Powell marina town of Bullfrog had discovered a depot of goods under a low ledge, in sand that had apparently eroded out in a flash flood. The site of his find, I saw now, was near one of the 18 dots. When FBI agents finally interviewed the Bullfrog man, he revealed that he had recovered no fewer than 1,900 rounds of .308 cartridges and hundreds of 7.62-caliber bullets and shotgun shells. The man had shot off some 150 shells just for fun and tried to sell the rest. The 7.62 cartridges matched the ones that had killed Claxton.
In that moment, I recalled another passage from McVean's six-page letter to his mother:
I hope Jesus is quick, or the Revolution, or what ever is going to happen. . . . Ive been burying food over in Lake Powell, So far only a hundred lbs. of Spagetti noodle & hunting ammo. Noodles have been known to stay good for 100 yrs, if stored properly.
Now Shethar told me about what he called the "master bunker." "The FBI grilled some of Mason and McVean's Durango friends," he said. "But they came on too heavy. They got nothing out of them. Three months later, we came back with a single CBI guy. Those friends were happy to talk to us.
"Mason and McVean described the bunker as having a thousand-foot rise at the back, a great view out front, and it was in the middle of rocks as big as houses." That description, I recognized at once, fit only one of the 18 dots—but it fit it perfectly.
"Have any law officers gone out to search for the caches?" I asked.
"Nope. They talked about it. They wanted to use ground-penetrating radar. But if you have to search an area only as large as a football field, radar's worthless." What Shethar didn't add seemed to hang unspoken in the air: The wilderness that the map depicted was simply too daunting for the FBI.
In that instant, I knew where I was going to spend my next few days.
I rounded up my two favorite canyon-prowling partners, wilderness guide Hadenfeldt out of Bluff and Greg Child from Castle Valley, near Moab. Once I had showed them the map, which Shethar had let me photocopy, they were as intrigued as I was. At dawn on October 29, we started backpacking from an obscure roadhead toward the deep chasm that might just enfold the master bunker.
We did not, of course, entertain wild hopes of solving the puzzle of the Four Corners Fugitives in a single outing. We considered it entirely likely that we would find nothing. Shethar had cautioned me, "You've got to remember, Robert Mason was a good mason. If one of those dots is the main bunker, it's gonna be so well camouflaged, you'll never find it. The only hope is if the drainage cuts loose and exposes it."
By mid-morning, we had reached the rim of the canyon, where we would set up camp. After dropping our packs, we scrambled down a bush-filled tributary ravine. We rounded several bends, until we saw the boulder field in the distance.
On separate forays, all three of us had hiked this stretch of the main canyon before. We had each passed by the boulder field without giving it a second glance. The fugitives, I realized, had seen the world in a way that Child, Hadenfeldt, and I could scarcely fathom. For us, this canyon, smack in the middle of a wilderness we knew well, was a landscape of wonder where we sought out the vestiges of the Anasazi—a bighorn sheep graved on a cliff wall here, a mud-and-stone granary tucked on a remote ledge there. For McVean, Pilon, and Mason, the canyon was a place to hide, weapons in hand, hatred searing their brains like crystal meth as they prepared to greet the Apocalypse.
For several hours, we attempted to comb the boulder field's countless nooks and crannies. I slithered down a ten-foot chimney between two gargantuan lumps of sandstone, then crawled on hands and knees along the dim shelf beneath the rocks, sifting dirt through my fingers. After emerging from my burrow, I caught sight of Child far above me, metal detector clutched in his right hand, as he swept the surface where the boulders abutted the sheer cliff that rose to the sky. He looked like a caricature of a treasure hunter scoping a Civil War battlefield.
Many hours later, as the sun set over nameless cliffs in the distance, Child, Hadenfeldt, and I sat on our rimrock shelf and gazed into the canyon. We had come prepared for wintry nights, but Indian summer had seized southeast Utah and would not let go. In shirtsleeves and sandals, we lounged in the blissful torpor that rewards a day of all-out effort.
As Child pointed out, the dot on the map was ambiguous: It might just as well mark a site on the rim as a cache or bunker hidden in the depths of the canyon. The next morning, then, the three of us walked along the east rim. By my reckoning, the dot on the map might be only about a mile away. But rim-walking has its own delights, so we dawdled, scanning the ground for traces of the Anasazi. A handful of corrugated gray potsherds lay scattered across a sandy shelf, the pieces of a cooking pot, we knew by style, that had been coiled and fired between 900 and 1300 a.d.
Yet once again, after hours of searching and metal-detecting, we found no trace of the fugitives. We returned to camp for a late lunch. Then I decided to set off along the western rim of the side canyon.
The afternoon sun bathed the cliffs with soft autumnal light and turned a giant cottonwood in the canyon bottom into a blazing torch of yellow leaves. After an hour, I reached the cliff edge directly above the boulder field where we had worn ourselves out poking around the day before. I was either on, or opposite, or 800 feet above McVean's dot. I took my pack off, sat down on the slickrock rim, and ruminated.
It was hard to get around the conclusion that Jason McVean, Monte Pilon, and Robert Mason were anything more than cold-blooded cop killers. Yet even I had succumbed, in some sense, to the romance of the bad guys. Why else did I feel disappointment upon learning that Mason and McVean had committed suicide within a week of their evil deed, and that McVean very likely had executed Pilon? It would have made such a better story had they stuck it out and survived.
What was it about the West that turned outlaws into heroes? One of the first of them to be shamelessly romanticized was William H. Bonney, Billy the Kid—at least as ruthless and sociopathic a killer as Jason McVean. Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, the thugs at the O.K. Corral—how could we turn Butch Cassidy and Sundance into Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow into Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty?
While thinking about these things, I was scanning the opposite cliff with my binoculars. A passage from McVean's letter to his mother echoed in my head:
So, if anything happens in the future, ex. of War, over the New World order. . . I don't want you in the City, I'll be prepared enough for you to escape & live in the desert. And its not such a bad life. The Anasazi knew how to live. Because they respected nature & therefore themselves.
Across from me loomed a fin of rock that jutted out like a stranded peninsula off the main mesa, guarded from below by sheer 300-foot cliffs on all sides. That morning, as we had walked the east rim, Child had spotted a pair of crude structures on the opposite, northern, side of the peninsula, on a ledge a hundred feet below the summit hoodoos. They looked utterly inaccessible.
Now, searching with my binocs, I found what I was looking for. A single ledge on the south-facing precipice, three-quarters of the way up, gave the only possible access to the stranded peninsula. To reach those furtive dwellings, one would have had to crawl along the ledge. And there, where it pinched down to its narrowest bend, the ancients had built a stone barrier. Child, Hadenfeldt, and I had discovered dozens of these barriers, which I called "stopper walls," and even crawled past a few, with the void only inches away. Their purpose was obvious: If invaders tried to breach the defenses of a place like this peninsula, the stopper wall made them sitting ducks for bow-and-arrow attack, or even for flung stones or a hearty shove.
After 1250 a.d., beleaguered by drought, deforestation, famine, and perhaps visionary prophecies from their shamans, the Anasazi who inhabited the Four Corners had felt, just like the fugitives with their forebodings over the millennium, that the world was coming to an end. The dwellings and granaries they had so precariously built were bunkers, survivalist hideouts against the enemy (other Anasazi, equally driven to the edge) who would risk their own lives to steal the precious corn and kill its guardians.
For the Four Corners Anasazi, just before 1300 a.d., the world as they knew it was indeed coming to an end. The ones who survived the terrible time abandoned their homeland in which they had dwelt for millennia, migrated south and east, and reinvented themselves as Puebloans at Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and along the Rio Grande.
The Four Corners Fugitives, surrounded by neighbors they regarded as the enemy, had planned and maybe built survivalist refuges every bit as "out there" as the Anasazi structures on the peninsula. But they failed to reinvent themselves here, in a world more conducive to their dreams. In an instantaneous spasm of rage, they had killed a cop in Cortez. Whatever messianic vision had wafted over their pot and peyote trances, it had vanished with the bullets they had fired into their own brains.