Updated June 20, 2007
Jason Wayne McVean
The great Southwest manhunt of 1998 came to a quiet close on June 10, 2007.
The Great Southwest Manhunt of 1998 came to an end on June 10, 2007, not with blazing gunfire, but when a solitary cowboy got off his horse, walked over and tugged on what he thought might be a saddle blanket, partially buried in the soil of southeast Utah. He found what over 500 officers from 75 law-enforcement agencies, the FBI and National Guard units, using helicopters search dogs and Navajo trackers, could not find nine years earlier.
When the cowboy, Eric Bayles, of Blanding, Utah, pulled the material out of the dirt, it turned out to be a bulletproof vest. Further searching revealed a backpack. He saw some things in the backpack and noticed some other items, also mostly buried, that caused him immediately to contact the San Juan County, Utah, sheriff's office.
Teams of deputies and police officers searched the area and found a rusted AK-47 rifle with magazines holding about 500 rounds of ammunition, five pipe bombs, several bottles with water still in them, some survival food, a jacket, a hat, camouflage gear, amber-colored glasses, a watch that stopped at 6:35 on May 30, 1998 and most importantly, parts of a human skeleton including pieces of a skull and a jawbone with teeth.
The remains turned out to be those of Jason Wayne McVean, one of three fugitives sought for the murder of Cortez, Colo. Police Officer Dale Claxton. McVean's fellow fugitives, Alan "Monte" Pilon and Robert Mason, died – apparently by their own hands – soon after the search for them began on May 29, 1998.
The case began when Officer Claxton pulled a stolen water truck over at 9:25 on the morning of May 29, 1998. Before he could get out of his cruiser, one or maybe two of the men in the cab of the water truck got out, raced back and pumped up to 50 rounds into Claxton and his vehicle.
A short time after that three men, later identified as McVean, Pilon and Mason, commandeered at gunpoint a flatbed pickup truck from an employee of a Cortez contractor. As they drove the pickup out of the contractor's yard, two of the men were in the pickup cab and one was standing on the bed.
Several police, sheriff's vehicles and a state patrol cruiser were converging on the area. Over the next few minutes, the alleged murderers shot and wounded two officers, shot at a half-dozen other officers and disabled several law enforcement vehicles in a wild, intense shooting spree. An estimated 500 rounds were fired by the fugitives.
In the confusion caused by the wounding of the two officers, the damage done to law enforcement vehicles and a traffic tie-up at a nearby intersection with U. S. highway 160, the fugitives got away. The murder of Claxton and the disappearance of the three suspects touched off one of the greatest manhunts in the history of the Southwest.
The fugitives drove out of Colorado and into a remote area in eastern Utah. There, they attempted to hide the stolen pickup with branches cut from nearby trees. Subsequently, at least two of them walked down Cross Creek towards the San Juan River. The third, Monte Pilon, suffered an ankle injury and crawled into hiding under a juniper less than two miles from the abandoned flatbed where he died, a probable suicide.
A week after Officer Claxton's murder, near the small town of Bluff, Utah, Mason shot and wounded a San Juan County, Utah, deputy sheriff. When dozens of law enforcement officers surrounded the brushy area where Mason was hidden, he allegedly turned a pistol on himself and committed suicide. Pipe bombs were found with his body.
In the weeks that followed, with no sighting of either Pilon or McVean and with local law enforcement budgets exhausted by the intensity and duration of the search, the case remained "open but largely inactive."
Seventeen months later, not far from where the stolen pickup was abandoned and on a bluff where he had a good view of one of the county roads while alive, Pilon's body was found by 11 Navajo men who were deer hunting. The remains were so far back under the thick branches of a juniper, that investigators had to cut the tree down before they could be gathered up and sent to a forensic laboratory.
It was reported that the 11 hunters divided the $162,500 reward. The discovery of Pilon's body and a like reward on McVean's head sparked new interest in the case. McVean was now the only fugitive/suspect at large. That attention soon dissipated in the absence of substantive information, a situation that remained in effect through the years until the dramatic discovery by Mr. Bayles.
With the finding of McVean, all of the law enforcement officials involved in the case expressed relief and satisfaction. People throughout the area indicated feelings of closure. Officer Claxton's widow cried from relief when she was told that McVean's status was no longer in doubt. Just three weeks earlier with his mother's full approval, the Claxton's son joined the Cortez Police Department as a rookie officer.
For those who have followed the case from the beginning, there are several nagging questions: Why did McVean, Pilon and Mason steal the water truck? Why did they turn a relatively minor crime of theft into a capital crime of murder of a police officer? Did McVean and Pilon kill themselves?
Were they going to use the water truck, in some way, to rob the Ute Mountain gambling casino south of Cortez? Were they going to fill the truck's water tank with explosives for an "Oklahoma City type" bombing? Were they going to store potable water for use in the back country? There is no way to answer these and other questions.
Rewards totaling $162,500 are believed still to be in effect. If so, Eric Bayles, the 61 year-old cowboy who herded cattle in that area for 40 years, stands to collect the reward money. "No need to quit [my job]," he was reported to have said. "Money is just money."
With the case closed, all that remains to be done is to determine, if possible, the cause of McVean's death. Suicide appears most likely.