By Ben Winslow
The Deseret Morning News
SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — Pieces of bones found in the desert are revealing new details about the last days of three desperate men who led police on one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history.
"It puts everything to rest," San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy said Tuesday. "After nine years."
A few teeth and some bone fragments found in a canyon have been identified as the remains of Jason Wayne McVean, the last of the fugitives wanted in the notorious 1998 Four Corners manhunt.
"No cause of death has been disclosed by the medical examiner's office at this point," said FBI Special Agent Trent Pedersen.
McVean, 26, was wanted in connection with the murder of Cortez, Colo., police officer Dale Claxton.
Last week, a cowboy was riding his horse through Cross Canyon when he came upon the remains of a bulletproof vest. Nearby was a camouflage backpack. Inside the pack, the sheriff said there were five pipe bombs.
Sheriff's deputies and FBI agents scoured the scene and found a rusted AK-47 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and more survival gear. Lacy said they returned to the scene again and found a few more bone fragments.
"A few more teeth, a vertebrae. There isn't much there, but enough to identify him," the sheriff said.
Once the evidence is finally processed, Pedersen said the FBI will be closing its case on McVean, Alan "Monte" Pilon, and Robert Mason.
"As far as the FBI is concerned, all three have been accounted for," he said Tuesday.
The cowboy, whom Lacy said wishes to remain anonymous, stands to receive a reward of up to $170,000 offered by the FBI and the Cortez Police Department. Details are still being worked out over how much he could get.
"That is something we will address with the rancher who found the remains," Pedersen said. A new timeline
The announcement that McVean's body had been found puts an end to a mystery that has nagged authorities for nine years.
"We figure that all of them were dead within seven days after it started," Lacy said.
In an interview with the Deseret Morning News on Tuesday, the sheriff outlined what he believes were the final days of the three fugitives.
"The one (Mason) that shot my deputy, he died within seven days," Lacy said. "Pilon was dead within the first day or two. McVean died the first day after this started."
On May 29, 1998, authorities said McVean, Pilon and Mason stole a water truck in Colorado.
Cortez Police Officer Dale Claxton stopped the truck, but before he could even unbuckle his seat belt, a camouflage-clad man stepped out and opened fire on the police car. Claxton was shot 29 times.
As they fled across the Colorado-Utah border, the men shot and wounded two Montezuma County sheriff's deputies and then took off into the hot, harsh deserts near Hovenweep. As the days wore on, more than 500 law enforcement officers participated in the manhunt.
"There's a relief because it's over," said Roy Taylor, a former Blanding police officer who participated in the manhunt. "Knowing what happened, knowing that all three of them are deceased, not running around maybe plotting something else." Ready for war
A few days into the manhunt, June 4, 1998, authorities said Mason used a high-powered rifle to take a shot at a Utah state employee from more than a mile away. San Juan County sheriff's deputy Kelly Bradford responded and was shot and wounded.
With pipe bombs surrounding his body, police believe Mason, 26, shot and killed himself. Taylor said he guarded Mason's body until the medical examiner showed up.
"He had a Kevlar helmet, body armor, everything," he told the Deseret Morning News. "They were ready to go to war."
As the months dragged on, it seemed that Pilon and McVean had vanished into the desert. There were numerous "sightings" that would make law enforcement jump. None of them panned out. Theories abound over what the men were planning to do with the water truck. Was it going to be used for a bomb? Was it just for a group of survivalists stashing things in the desert to wait out the apocalypse?
Then in 1999, a group of Navajo hunters stumbled upon a camouflage backpack and a gun. They then found the remains of Pilon. He had a broken ankle and a gunshot wound to the head. It remains a mystery if Pilon, 30, shot himself or someone else killed him.
"I think there's a good possibility all three did theirselves," Taylor said.
Lacy believes Pilon and McVean died quickly. A watch found with McVean's remains had stopped on May 30.
"The first two were dead after a couple of days for sure," the sheriff said. "Mason died seven days later."
Copyright 2007 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Utah remains identified as 1998 cop-killer fugitive