Hollywood hunt
Film producer working to bring Four Corners manhunt to big screen

Hollywood hunt

The San Juan River and its rugged surroundings in southeastern Utah served as the backdrop for the 1998 Four Corners manhunt. Now, Hollywood wants to bring the story to the big screen./ Photo by Missy Votel

Jonathan Romeo - 07/20/2023

It appears that the story of one of the largest and most infamous manhunts to ever occur in the Four Corners region is headed for the big screen.

Recently, a film producer with Zero Gravity Management (which has produced works like “Ozark” and “The Accountant”) purchased the rights to author Dan Schultz’s 2013 book, “Dead Run.” The book was a seminal account of three renegade survivalists who in 1998 led police on a wild chase through the deserts of Utah after a deadly shootout in Cortez.

“I read the book on a whim and couldn’t put it down,” the producer, Ryan Lewis, said. “It just fascinated and terrified me.”

On May 28, 1998, Durango residents Jason McVean and Robert Mason, both 26, and Alan Pilon, 30, of Dove Creek, stole a water truck in Ignacio and were seen the next day driving south on U.S. Highway 491 out of Cortez. Just south of Cortez, the stolen truck was pulled over by Cortez Police Officer Dale Claxton. But before Claxton could even unbuckle his seatbelt, the three men peppered the patrol car with an assault rifle, shooting Claxton 29 times and killing him.

The three men then fled toward Hovenweep National Monument, shooting and injuring several officers along the way. Eventually, they took off on foot over the Colorado border into the Utah backcountry. It kicked off perhaps the largest, wildest, most chaotic manhunt in the area, which wouldn’t be resolved until almost a decade later. 

“It was a circus,” Mike Lacy, who was the San Juan County (UT) Sheriff at the time and one of the lead organizers of the manhunt, said in an interview this week with The Durango Telegraph. “It was just so crazy and unmanageable, and we were lucky more people were not killed.”

After all these years, it was fair to wonder, how the hell has this not been made into a movie? Especially in the age of wildly successful neo-Westerns like “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men” and “3:10 to Yuma.”

As it turns out, the book rights for “Dead Run” were purchased around 2018-19. Lewis said production was gaining steam, but then, you know, the pandemic put a stop to that. Still, he’s adamant Zero Gravity will see the project through.

“I don’t get involved in projects unless I see a path forward, and I care about telling this story,” Lewis said. “Anyone I mention the story to is so fascinated by it. And most people don’t know about it, unless you were in the region at the time.”

Motive unknown

To this day, it’s unclear what Mason, McVean and Pilon were up to, yet there has been no lack of speculation and theories. Here’s what we do know:

All three men were considered anti-government, militia types and self-trained survivalists specifically prepared for the rough desert backcountry. It’s generally believed the men stole the water truck to build a bomb, similar to what Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh did with a rental truck in 1995.

Whether the water truck was indeed going to be converted into a bomb, perhaps targeting Glen Canyon Dam or the Ute Mountain Ute Casino, or was going to be used as an actual water tank in a bunker, is an answer the three men took to the grave. It’s quite possible none of these theories are correct.

“None of the three was rational at the time,” then-Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane (who is now deceased) told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2003. “That’s why we have so many theories. People who are rational are trying to determine what these irrational people were up to.”

Whatever the case, the men’s plan was interrupted when Claxton pulled them over. After killing the 45-year-old policeman, the men took off on dirt roads, encountering and shooting two more police officers, Jason Bishop and Todd Martin.

Bishop, who had been on the force six years, was at home when the call came in that an officer had been shot. He took off for the area in his patrol car, and, once there, looked in his rearview mirror to see the fugitives driving towards him in the truck. They immediately opened fire.

Bishop was taken to the hospital with bullet fragments in the back of his head. A few days later, he was back on the manhunt (Martin also survived). Now 51 and working at a drug-testing facility, Bishop said every now and then the incident crosses his mind.

“I look at it simply: I was in law enforcement and was shot in the line of duty,” he said in an interview with the Telegraph. “But we did lose an officer that day, and I wanted to get back on the manhunt (as soon as possible).”

On the hunt

The shootout was really only just the beginning. The three fugitives evaded police, drove into Hovenweep National Monument and took off on foot into Cross Canyon. Two of the men would never be seen alive again.

A massive manhunt ensued, drawing more than 500 personnel from a number of agencies around the country. Because the incident spanned several jurisdictions in Colorado and Utah, as well as the Navajo Nation, and therefore the FBI, the line of command was complicated and a logistical nightmare.

“That was one hell of a manhunt, and one hell of a mess,” Jim Spratlen, who was then SWAT Commander for the Durango Police Department, said. “And yeah, you could make one hell of a movie out of it.”

Despite the extraordinary law enforcement response, the three men eluded police for days. However, on June 4, a social worker eating lunch along the San Juan River near Bluff spotted a man in camouflage, who promptly opened fire and hit the worker.

The first officer to respond, San Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy Kelly Bradford, was shot multiple times. Moments later, the full cavalry arrived. As they approached the gunman, they found Mason in a makeshift bunker stocked with weapons, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Many skeptics of the official story challenge that Mason shot himself. An autopsy reported that the wound did not appear to be self-inflicted. There were also signs of blunt force trauma, including bruises to the groin and a blow to the head. And, no gunpowder residue was detected on Mason’s mouth or hands, leading many to conclude he was killed by police.

Searching for closure

Over the next several weeks, law enforcement scoured southeastern Utah, enduring sweltering heat, rugged terrain, and long, sleepless days. The search itself turned into a spectacle, Lacy said. Every day, personnel unfamiliar with the area got lost, people submitted false sightings, media from all over the world arrived, and, of course, there was interagency fighting. Even rogue bounty hunters got in on the action.

“We just had a bunch of nuts show up,” Lacy said. “I was putting out fires all the time.”

Despite law enforcement’s best efforts, the trail went cold for the next 17 months. One of the main reasons is the sheer vastness and complexity of the backcountry and canyons of southeastern Utah. Lacy, for instance, searched an area and was about 30 yards from where the last body was eventually found, years later.

“If I took five steps to one side, I probably would have found him,” Lacy said. “(The search) was frustrating, but the area down here is so massive; it’s unreal. I can see where a guy can hide, and no one would find him for a long period of time.”

Indeed, the next big break didn’t come until Oct. 30, 1999, when Navajo hunters found a body underneath a tree with a backpack and rifle southwest of Blanding, Utah, near Tin Cup Mesa, a few miles west of where the fugitives abandoned their truck.

The body was eventually identified as Pilon who died from a gunshot to the head. It’s believed that Pilon died not long after the manhunt started. Whether he shot himself, or was killed by his compatriots or by unknown assailants, remains up for debate.

That left one remaining fugitive, McVean, who was considered the ringleader of the group. It wasn’t until 2007, nine years after the shooting, that a rancher happened upon McVean’s remains in Cross Canyon, along with an AK-47 and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Authorities believe that he, too, shot himself a few days after the manhunt started. Again, some claim McVean was killed in an act of frontier justice.

Spratlen, though, said subsequent investigations revealed the men had a pact that they would either fight to the death or take their own lives rather than be caught.

“I was very thankful when it ended,” Spratlen, who is now emergency manager for Montezuma County, said. “The entire ordeal was crazy. But at the end of the day, Claxton stopped and foiled their plan, and we pinned them and forced them into their plan of self-termination.”

Lights, camera, action

Schultz was living in Aspen when he saw a small blurb in the newspaper about the discovery of McVean’s body. He was immediately enthralled by the story of the manhunt and set about writing his book.

Schultz said it’s a no-brainer to translate the Four Corners manhunt to film, with all its obvious entertainment value – the mystery of the outlaws’ plans, the police shooting, the chase, and the chaos of the manhunt itself.

In many ways, Schultz said the story is just as relevant today (and the book still sells well, he said). “The militia movement that has become more open today existed back then,” he said. “A lot of those same thought patterns were just simmering and have come forward today.”

Post-pandemic, Lewis was making headway on production. And then another setback hit with the writers strike (which, as of this writing, is ongoing). Whether the manhunt will be made into a movie or series is yet to be determined, but Lewis and Zero Gravity are making a strong push.

“We have to get it right first on the page, then the rest of the pieces of the puzzle will come together,” he said. “But this is definitely a story that grabs people’s attention, and now it’s my job to visualize how it becomes something that ends up on screen.”

When asked who he would like to portray him on screen, Lacy, who was defeated in 2010 after four terms in office, said, “No clue, don’t care.” But he does hope he is consulted for the movie and that the movie captures the landscape of Utah, one of the most formidable elements in the entire ordeal.

“These three, they could have gone forever and never have been found,” Lacy said. “It was definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in.”