A case of cowboy justice?
Dan Schultz opens his book “Dead Run” with a Western Manifesto, and it gets better from there.
“Dead Run” is the story of a sunny morning in May 1998, in Cortez. Three desperados in a stolen truck opened fire on the town cop, shooting him 20 times. They blasted their way past dozens of police cars and disappeared into 10,000 square miles of the harshest wilderness terrain on the North American continent.
The three self-trained survivalists eluded more than 500 law enforcement officers from 75 agencies, using the world’s most sophisticated technology.
This story has it all: good guys and bad guys clearly defined, posses, cowboys, horses, shootouts, corruption and bungling and bad guys found shot in the head – but not by the police.
“We tend to have this romantic of the outlaw hero – Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy. These were really bad, bad guys,” Schultz said.
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Schultz appears Wednesday evening at The Bookworm of Edwards.
“The Bookworm is my very first appearance and opportunity to talk about the book,” Schultz said.
The last time they were seen alive
“Dead Run” is a story of individualism against technology. Add to that the harshness of the climate and the romanticized notions we have about the West, and the story captures the world’s imagination.
Alan Pilon, Jason Wayne McVean and Robert Mathew Mason were riding in a stolen water truck when Officer Dale Claxton spotted them. He radioed that he would follow them until back-up could arrive, but before it did, the three pulled over. They climbed out and opened fire with an SKS 7.62 assault rifle, shooting Claxton at least 20 times.
When they disappeared into the brutal landscape of the Four Corners area, it was the last time they were seen alive. The first one was found a week after they fled. The second a year and a half later. The third nine years later. All three were shot in the head, but the police didn’t shoot them.
They were self-trained survivalists who had arrayed themselves against hundreds of law enforcement officers.
“During the chase and the investigation, officers were upset that there was this allure attached to these three people. They made public statements decrying this and pointing out that they’re not heroes, they’re murderers,” Schultz said.
A man-hunt like no other
In 2007, Schultz was living out West when McVean’s remains were found, nine years after the murder. A three-paragraph brief in his local paper said it put the matter to rest, except great stories never rest. They’re retold.
He tore out the story and started to poke around. He figured it was a story, but the deeper he got into it the more it kept growing. Now it’s a book, and a good one.
Schultz lets the sweeping story tell itself. Reading his book or talking with him, you won’t be able to discern his opinion on gun bans, the current political hot button issue. But you will know that he’s for the good guys, the police.
“Readers will form their own opinions about how they feel about the characters,” he said.
From the very beginning, with a prologue about a cowboy finding McVean’s remains, Schultz puts you in the West.
“The first chapter captures the culture of the West and how it has influenced our entire national character,” Schultz said.
The chase lasted weeks with hunters on horseback, Native American trackers, helicopters, SWAT teams and police agencies bickering with each other.
“There have been very few manhunts like this anywhere in the country, and certainly not in the West,” Schultz said.
Officers would make their way into canyons when it was 100-plus degrees. The officers from Durango had never been through anything like it and they live there, Schultz said.
“The officers from Florida and other parts of the country must have thought they’d been dropped on the moon,” Schultz said.
Then there’s the mystery. All three of these guys were shot in the head, and not in the same location.
“That asks the question, ‘What happened to these guys?'” Schultz said.
The second bad guy’s body was found by some deer hunters. It was Halloween night, late in the deer season, and they were walking in a line across a mesa toward their camp when they spotted a rifle under a tree. They kept moving and were reluctant to go back and check it out, reasoning that it might be a good way to get shot, since two of the three outlaws were still unaccounted for. Finally, though, they decided to have a look.
They went back at dusk and were poking around with flashlights. They found the rifle, and nearby they spotted a set of boots. Following with their flashlights up from the boots, they saw a body clothed in camouflage. The head was gone, shot completely off. Happy Halloween.
Schultz did dozens of interviews. Talking about it was difficult for some people. Officer Claxton’s wife didn’t want to talk about it, graciously explaining that she’d been through it enough. McVean’s parents politely declined to discuss it.
Dale Claxton’s son talked about it, as did some of the other officers involved in it.
“I grew up in the Midwest, with western TV serials,” Schultz said. “The family would take western driving vacations: Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, stops in Deadwood to look at Wild Bill Hickock’s grave. The West has always held a fascination for me.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.