I was in Moab the past few weeks; I picked up and read Dead Run: the Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West by Dan Schultz.

Here is one Amazon reviewer’s summary of the events:

The story begins with a stolen water truck on the outskirts of Durango. Water trucks from “Overright Trucking” were borrowed all the time. A brand new truck was missing; it happened. The three men in the cab, however, had a plan. And automatic rifles. They were dressed in camouflage. The next morning in Cortez at McElmo Bridge, Officer Dale Claxton spotted the truck after having read a routine police bulletin about the case.

The white water truck was hard to miss–a four-thousand-gallon tank, New Mexico plates and “Overright Trucking” on the doors. Claxton was filling in for a colleague, who was attending training seminar. At 9:24 a.m., he radioed Cortez police dispatcher that he had spotted the Mack truck.

“Dead Run” breaks down the day-of incident in great detail. All the random vehicles in proximity to Claxton’s slaying are identified. Witnesses who saw Claxton trailing the truck tell their version of events. The perspective of fellow police officers is recounted–and the McElmo Bridge scene comes into full relief. Schultz doesn’t flinch in capturing the violence.

But the hunt has just begun. Schultz breaks down the day-by-day search for the killers and intersperses portraits of the three men–a pair of good friends (Jason McVean and Bobby Mason) and an odd acquaintance (Alan Pilon). None of the men were ever captured by police–though their remains have since been located. Mason was found a few days Claxton’s murder. Mason had wounded another police officer in a shootout. Pilon’s body was found in 1999, though his cause of death remains a mystery (a mystery Shultz explores at length). McVean’s remains were found in 2007, although precisely when McVean perished–and how–is a source of great controversy.

Schultz characterizes the three fugitives as conspiracy theorists who combined right –wing paranoia about the New World Order and UN black helicopters with Edward Abbey ecoterrorist environmentalism. Schultz also described the utter chaos of the manhunt, in which 500 law enforcement people stumbled over each other and failed to find the fugitives.

Police claim all three fugitives committed suicide soon after the start of the manhunt.

I do not have the expertise to judge the forensic evidence, but Schultz, if he is accurate, makes a strong case that one fugitive, Bobby Mason, was murdered, probably by police, that Monte Pilon was murdered by one of the other two fugitives, and that Jason McVean was murdered years after the manhunt by persons unknown, but probably vigilantes.

What were they planning to do with the water truck? Schultz speculates that they were going to try to blow up Glen Canyon Dam, which is widely hated in the Four Corners area.

Schultz respects the Navajos’ tracking ability and is certain that a Navajo tracker saw McVean for years after his supposed date of suicide.

I have spent many months hiking in the areas in which the crime and manhunt occurred. The area is full of mysteries, including the compelled abandonment of the area by the Anasazi around 1290. Tony Hillerman used the manhunt as a background in Hunting Badger, and Bluff as a setting for Thief of Time.

Schultz blames Abbey in part for inspiring these criminals and other ecoterrorists; I don’t know whether this is fair. The Monkey Wrench Gang is eco-pornography; it is what many people would like to do to those who are despoiling the West, but I doubt 99.9999% of its audience would take any violent action. Any deeply held belief can inspire violence in people who are strongly inclined to violence, but usually the belief is not to be blamed.

The Monkey Wrench Gang was going to be made into a movie; it involves an attempt to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam. After 9/11/01 the movie was dropped and will never be made.

As to conspiracy theories; they are funny until they end in catastrophe. I wonder why conspiracy theorists ignore undoubted conspiracies like the Mafia and the narcotraficantes. In my experience, conspiracies are usually attempts to cover up a crime that would embarrass important people: sexual abuse in the church, and, as this books makes a good case, the possible murders of the three fugitives.

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