Fugitive identified, but cause of death remains a mystery
BLUFF, Utah – Residents of this pioneer outpost are a little nervous about this week’s discovery of a body belonging to a suspected cop killer who disappeared into the desert nearby.
Late Tuesday authorities confirmed that the body was Alan Lamont Pilon, one of three men thought to have killed a Cortez, Colo., police officer 1 years ago.
It was just last summer that 500 law enforcement officers descended on the sandstone bluffs and mesas around the town, scaring off the tourists Bluff’s economy depends on.
Tuesday, as sheriff’s deputies and media helicopters swept into the near-deserted Cross Canyon, locals wondered whether they were facing another round of trouble.
”Bluff was hurt badly and I hope this doesn’t bring it all back,” said Susan Taylor, director of community development and visitor services for San Juan County.
Eleven hunters discovered Pilon’s sun-bleached bones when they stumbled across a bag loaded with supplies just before dark on Halloween. Near the bones, which were still wrapped in camouflage and Kevlar, police found a rifle on a bipod, a 9 mm handgun, seven homemade pipe bombs and survival equipment.
There was enough evidence to convince San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy who the dead man was, even before an autopsy confirmed it.
Pilon and Jason Wayne McVean have been missing since the May 1998 shooting death of police officer Dale Claxton.
”I think most of the law enforcement officers would like to find at least one person alive so we can find out what really happened,” Lacy said.
But he has no plans to mount another search for McVean.
”He’s either dead or long gone,” Lacy said.
It will be difficult for medical examiners to determine a cause of death, since Pilon’s skull was split into several pieces.
Pilon, 32, McVean, 28, and Robert Mason, 26, are accused of shooting Claxton during a routine traffic stop on a bridge southeast of Cortez. Three men driving a stolen water truck opened fire with automatic weapons, hitting Claxton and his cruiser 26 times. The trio wounded two Montezuma County sheriff’s deputies before ditching their stolen pickup truck.
Mason was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot days later near Bluff after he wounded a San Juan County deputy.
A month later, sightings of two men fitting descriptions of Pilon and McVean spurred a massive manhunt that spanned six states, including reports from Wyoming and Kansas that turned out to be false. Officers and Navajo searchers combed the canyons and scrub around the Four Corners region and shut down Bluff for two to three days.
The search scared off some of the 70,000 tourists who come to the remote county each summer. CNN reports in Europe describing the area as a war zone kept foreigners away. And the San Juan River was shut down for days, forcing local white-water rafting companies to cancel dozens of tours.
”The whole mess has done nothing but destroy this town,” said one longtime resident who wouldn’t give her name because she insisted ”opinions matter in a small town.”
Jim Huebner, chief ranger for nearby Hovenweep National Monument, said he got several calls right after the search from people wondering whether it was safe to bring their families in the area.
”We never saw sign of those two guys, except their names kept appearing in the log book, with people writing ‘You haven’t caught us yet.”’
But since then, Huebner said, things have been back to normal and visitation is nearing an all-time high of 40,000 people this year.
”People don’t hear it on TV anymore, so it’s not there,” Taylor said. ”It has to be right in front of the evening news and if not then it doesn’t exist for them.”
Larra Scott, who works at the K & C store and gas station in Bluff, agreed that most visitors don’t remember last summer’s events.
”They’ve been here the last summer and it’s just like normal. Until they see that picture,” Scott said, pointing to an FBI wanted poster of McVean and Pilon posted next to the cash register that warns the duo are armed and very dangerous. ”Then they ask, and we tell them those guys are long gone.”