Tracker Undaunted by Yearlong Hunt for 2 Utah Survivalists
Oliver Coho has never met Alan Lamont Pilon or Jason Wayne McVean, but he knows a lot about them.
For the better part of a year, the Navajo policeman has been tracking the two accused killers of a Cortez, Colo., officer through the canyons, creek beds and caves of southeastern Utah.
Coho knows Pilon wears military boots--size 13 wide. He knows the two men got new boots last year when they learned they were being followed. One of them smokes Marlboro Lights. And he knows McVean drinks too much.
“We haven’t seen them, but we know they’re still there,” said Coho, his face sun-bronzed from his excursions into the wilderness. The clues tell him so.
Officer Dale Claxton was on routine patrol, if there is such a thing, when he stumbled upon three men in a stolen water truck on May 29, 1998, on a bridge southeast of Cortez. The trio opened fire with automatic weapons, hitting Claxton and his patrol car with 26 shots before the officer could even unbuckle his seat belt.
During an ensuing chase and shootout, two Montezuma County sheriff’s deputies were wounded. Suspect Robert Mason killed himself days later near Bluff, Utah, after he wounded a San Juan County, Utah, deputy.
Authorities almost immediately identified McVean, Pilon and Mason as the suspects, and found that the three men were survivalists. A major search in Colorado and southeastern Utah, including the FBI, police, and sheriff’s deputies on horseback and in helicopters, turned up no sign of the two surviving suspects. At the height of the search in early June, more than 500 searchers from 51 agencies joined the effort.
Police searched their homes and found anti-government literature protesting tactics used by the Internal Revenue Service, and a book on “monkey-wrenching,” the sabotage of facilities in an effort to save the environment.
Police Chief Roy Lane said Cortez, hundreds of miles from the state capital, is a haven for anti-government groups--"people who don’t like taxes, who won’t put license plates on their cars, who don’t believe in drivers’ licenses. But we’ve never had any violence before.”
Police also found maps with circles, indicating caves along Montezuma Creek, places to hide out and stash food. Police learned that the suspects had been going into the area for two or three years, with only enough food for a week.
“They aren’t novices. They know what they’re doing,” Lane said.
The memorial on the bridge for Claxton is simple. “Officer Dale Claxton. Lobo 11 [his police call sign]. May 29, 1998.”
An evergreen planted nearby is hung with bows and a rosary. A white cross marks the spot. A toy bunny in a basket reminds people of the four children and the widow he left behind. There is also a wreath with gold-painted pine cones and an angel, reminding the survivors that the town has not forgotten.
So far, more than $40,000 has been raised to help Sue Claxton pay off her $86,000 mortgage, and she still drops by the police department.
“She knows we still consider her family,” Lane said.
More than 20 sightings of the two suspects have been reported in the last year, and police have responded to every one of them.
Although the pair were identified by a witness as having robbed a restaurant in remote Wyoming on Wednesday, authorities said Friday that they had caught two other suspects in the theft of $500 from a restaurant in South Pass City, Wyo.
In January, Coho shouldered his backpack--loaded with fruit, a few sandwiches, plenty of water and his guns--and walked four miles through the snow after yet another sighting.
Coho grew up in Ramah, N.M., and learned his tracking skills herding sheep.
The Utah terrain with rolling scrub, hills and washes where he now lives in a trailer about 45 miles west of Cortez, near where the four corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet, reminds him a lot of the place he grew up.
“It’s rugged, and there are a lot of caves here,” he said.
Coho also knows the area north of town where the two men are believed to have spent the winter. For the last five years, he has gone there to find wood.
“I’ve seen the places they walked. I’ve seen their footprints,” he said. The fact that their footprints have changed tells him that they’re getting help from the outside.
Others in the Navajo nation have reported strange vehicles in the area, and one man recently said he saw Pilon and McVean with a group of men drinking beer.
Coho knows he’s getting close. Two months ago two men in a van threatened a girl who reported seeing the pair.
Other townspeople also have reported seeing the fugitives. The canyons have eyes.
“I know they’re here,” Coho said softly.
Others aren’t so sure. Some believe the pair died trying to hide. Others claim the duo fled the area and holed up in Montana or Idaho with anti-government sympathizers.
George Cuckie, 41, a construction worker who moved to Cortez from a Denver suburb to get away from the rat race, said there are a lot of anti-government sympathizers around Cortez who would help the fugitives.
“It’s inconceivable that those two men could stay out that long without some outside help. A lot of the sightings are probably pranks to keep law enforcement officers off track,” he said.
Jogging past Claxton’s memorial, Cuckie said police are doing everything they can to apprehend the suspected killers. He said residents are frustrated that the two men have eluded capture for so long, but he said he understands the difficulties.
“The place to where they escaped is a pretty desolate area,” he said. “I hope that good will prevail and that these people will be brought in to face the consequences.”
Lane is also convinced the two men are still in caves around Cortez, and vows that they will be captured eventually.
“There’s no doubt in my mind they’re still in the Four Corners, and no doubt in my mind they’re getting help. They can go without food for a while, but had to get dry shoes. They had help to do that.”
Lane said there are a lot of parallels between McVean, Pilon and Eric Rudolph, the anti-abortionist suspected in clinic bombings who has eluded authorities in the wilds of North Carolina for a year.
“I think we’re going to see more people doing this to avoid arrest,” Lane said.
“Rudolph has succeeded. McVean and Pilon have succeeded. There will be others who think they can elude the police,” he said.
“We’ll get them at some point. They’re the ones living in the elements. It’s easier for us to wait them out than for them to wait us out,” Lane said. “Time is on our side.”