In “Dead Run,” Dan Schultz looks back over the last fifteen years at a sensational crime that began with the brutal murder of a small-town cop at McElmo Bridge and he lays out his case that the trio of men had their sights set on blowing up one of two dams, either the Glen Canyon or the Hoover.
“Dead Run” is a gripping true-crime account, well told by an award-winning reporter and former Aspen resident who thoroughly researched the series of harrowing events and pieced together one of the largest multi-state, multi-agency manhunts in recent history.
The story isn’t conjecture-free, but Schultz’ case is convincing. He tries hard to sharpen the distinction between fact and fiction in this 15-year-old case. His efforts to document what happened—and why—are compelling. At times, Schultz seems a bit overly enamored with the dam explosion scenario and how much one of the three outlaws revered George Hayduke (the fictional ex-Green Beret Vietnam vet who is the star of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang”) and the eco-terrorism that the novel espoused.
The story begins with a stolen water truck on the outskirts of Durango. Water trucks from “Overright Trucking” were borrowed all the time. Nobody was too alarmed—even the owner, Mike Overright. 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. That morning, Claxton had dropped his son off at school for his last day of sixth grade. He had dropped in at the middle school across town to visit his wife, who taught seventh grade and then resumed patrol. 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 after 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 controversy.
Schultz’s description of the inter-agency police work is, to put it mildly, discomforting. The idea that three men could escape into the desert and elude the efforts of 500-plus officers (representing more than 50 law enforcement agencies) seems like something out of an improbable movie. But it happened. The three were survivalists who no doubt had planned for such a scenario, but Schultz details how egos, politics, borders, boundaries and lack of leadership added to the lack of coordination. He also underscores the idea that the three men could have relied on help from sympathizers. The three men were hardly alone in their anti-government views.
It is “unlikely,” Schultz concludes that the men were despondent on their run “from loneliness and isolation. Right from the start, the possibility that the suspects received assistance from a broad group of sympathizers frustrated efforts to tighten the search area around a recent sighting.”
For the most part, Schultz’ approach is matter-of-fact. He readily concedes that nobody knows for sure what the three men were planning (although he clearly has drawn his own conclusions).
But Schultz lays out the facts as he seems them and draws a reasonable conclusion that a “sinister plot” was underway. The manhunt that began in Cortez happened well before the heightened security sensibilities of 9-11 but three years after the attack in Oklahoma City.
Schultz makes a strong case that Officer Dale Claxton’s seemingly routine stop of a tanker truck near McElmo Bridge may have led a series of major embarrassments for law enforcement but it also put a stop to a potentially devastating attack that would have significantly altered the landscape and caused widespread devastation—devastation of “unspeakable proportions”—downstream from the dam.