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Before Boston, Another Manhunt Captivated the Nation

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In last month’s manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, many analysts – including some on NPR – termed it unprecedented in recent history. Certainly, the search, which effectively shut down much of the Boston area on Friday, was massive in scale.

But writer Dan Schultz says unprecedented is the wrong word.

Schultz is the author of the recent book Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West, which tells the story of another huge manhunt – this one in 1998 – for three criminals who threatened the safety in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. Dozens of law enforcement agencies and hundreds of officers scoured the desert in search of the wanted men, who were never captured.

Schultz says the manhunt was ignited after the brutal murder of a small town police officer outside of Cortez, Colorado. Officer Dale Claxton had pulled over a water tanker that had been reported as stolen - a not unusual crime of opportunity typically carried out by bored teens in the area.

The routine stop ended in Claxton being "executed" at point blank range with an automatic weapon, Schultz says.

Because the murder occurred close to a sheriff's office, near state troopers, and close to a seminar for officers, within minutes dozens of police were on the trail of the suspects. The three fugitives abandoned the water truck and hijacked a flatbed pick-up, shooting their way through town and disabling police cars with "overwhelming firepower." The trio then drove 50 miles into the Utah desert and disappeared into Butch Cassidy's canyons.

Schultz says much in the same way the Boston suspects appear to have "tenuous connections to terrorist groups," so did the Cortez suspects have vague connections to various militia groups. Schultz says they definitely shared a "militia, new world order ideology."

"They almost lived by an outlaw code that police were combatants and civilians were people that they were going to be fighting this guerilla war on behalf of," he says.

Schultz says the case, though closed, still holds many mysteries. Specifically, he wonders, "Why a water tanker?" These trucks get a top speed of 65 mph, so they're not very good for committing a robbery and trying to make a getaway.

"What were these three outlaws up to? We know it was probably something significant," he says. "One of the outlaws before the incident on McElmo Bridge, had bragged to his friends that they were going to be the most famous outlaws in the country, that everybody would know their names."

One theory for the trio's motivation was they wanted to rob a nearby casino, but most police have backed away from that, says Schultz. Another theory is that they intended to blow up one of the major dams on the Colorado River, either Glen Canyon Dam or the Hoover Dam.

Schultz's book explores this latter theory, noting that one fugitive, Jason McVean, was a huge fan of the Edward Abbey book Monkey Ranch Gang. In that story, a group of criminals set out to destroy Glen Canyon Dam. Schultz notes that McVean's friends called the book "his Bible" and police found a copy in his truck filled with margin notes and underlines.

"The best reason for a water truck was to turn it into a bomb, whether it would have been successfully or not would have been unknown, but certainly Dale Claxton inadvertently probably stopped something that could have been very tragic," he says.

All three suspects were later found dead, one after a couple weeks, one after a couple years, and the final suspect nearly a decade later. But like many aspects of the case, Schultz says their deaths were mysterious: all three were shot in the head. In at least two of the cases there is no pathological evidence that the deaths were suicides.

Like the Boston bombing is sure to have, the Four Corners manhunt yielded many changes to police protocol. Schultz says police departments in that area have armed themselves better, after they were so dramatically outgunned by these three. They've also courses and set up protocols for these manhunts and extreme conditions.

Schultz says the police have also taken efforts to prevent police response from "swelling so largely."

"Some of the people in charge at the end said, 'You know, we would have done better if we could have kept it small. We could have hired a couple of cowboys who knew the area and just formed a small posse the Old West way and gone after these guys,'" he says.

Dead Run was published last month by St. Martin’s Press. Schultz, who lived for years in Wausau, Wisconsin, now divides his time between Illinois and Colorado.