End of Utah Manhunt Leaves Questions
By JENNIFER DOBNER
SALT LAKE CITY – For nine years, the question has echoed across the high desert of southeastern Utah, hard against the corner where four states meet.
Where is Jason McVean?
McVean, one of three fugitives who stole a truck and shot and killed a Colorado police officer, was never found despite a search in 1998 that lasted weeks on foot, horseback and from the air in hot, rocky, canyon country.
The question finally was answered last week when the Utah medical examiner’s office matched McVean’s dental records to a partial jawbone found June 5 by a ranch worker tending cows about 25 miles east of Blanding, Utah.
The remains and a cache of survival gear, explosives, ammunition and weapons were discovered in a gully behind a stand of tamarisk trees, about 50 yards from a gravel road that crosses San Juan County.
The cause of death has not been released, but investigators have long believed McVean, like his partners Alan “Monte” Pilon and Robert Mason, committed suicide, probably not long after May 29, 1998.
McVean’s whereabouts are solved, but nothing else recovered with his remains – an AK-47, ammunition, five pipe bombs, four jugs of water, some food and a first-aid kid – explains what the three Colorado men were really planning nine years ago.
Clad in camouflage and bulletproof vests, the trio stole a water truck from Ignacio, Colo., and were rolling through Cortez, Colo., when Officer Dale Claxton saw them. He pulled his patrol car in behind the truck but made no attempt to stop it.
Before other officers could join the pursuit, the truck pulled over and one man with an automatic weapon jumped out, pelting the police car with bullets. Claxton, 45, died with his seat belt still buckled, riddled with 29 bullet wounds.
Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane believes the killer was McVean, based on a description by witnesses.
Lane said there are at least 100 theories about the trio’s scheme – “and all of them sound good to me.”
At the time, some said the men had honed their survivalist skills and were planning to rob a casino or commit acts of ecoterrorism.
As they fled west to Utah, McVean, 26, Pilon, 30, and Mason, 26, waged a gun battle with deputies from Montezuma County, Colo., wounding two, and fired at a worker at Hovenweep National Monument on the Utah-Colorado line.
They dumped the water truck and stole a flatbed, which they later crashed less than five miles from Cross Canyon where McVean’s remains were found.
More than 500 officers from 54 police agencies across the West joined the hunt, scouring the unforgiving rocky canyons and cliffs of the Four Corners region where Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado come together.
“It was summer, it was hot, there were bugs and it was a miserable time with no sleep,” said Grayson Redd, chief deputy of the San Juan County sheriff’s office.
On June 4, six days after the officer’s murder, a sniper, who turned out to be Mason, fired on a social worker eating lunch at Swinging Bridge, just east of Bluff, Utah, on the banks of the San Juan River.
Sent to investigate, San Juan County sheriff’s Deputy Kelly Bradford was shot twice and wounded, prompting police to evacuate Bluff’s 300 residents and bookend the town with road blocks.
Within hours, police found Mason dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a dirt bunker by the river. His body was strapped with pipe bombs.
Police set the river bottoms on fire, hoping to smoke out the remaining two fugitives.
By July 4, no one had been found and the search waned, although police on the Navajo Nation reservation continued foot patrols.
In October 1999, Navajo deer hunters found Pilon’s sun-bleached remains, along with a 9mm handgun and survival gear, 25 miles northeast of Mason’s bunker and about three miles from where McVean’s bones were discovered.
Claxton’s wife, Sue Claxton, still lives in Cortez and the couple’s 20-year-old son recently joined the local police force.
“I think she’s relieved, but we all would have liked to have a person to talk to so we’d get some answers,” Lane said last week.
And the ranch worker whose find ended the mystery? Authorities won’t release his name, but he could receive a reward of up to $150,000 that was posted by the FBI in 1998.