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- The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West
- By: Dan Schultz
- Narrated by: Arthur Morey
- Length: 10 hrs and 34 mins
On a sunny May morning in 1998 in Cortez, Colorado, three desperados in a stolen truck opened fire on the town cop, shooting him 20 times; then they blasted their way past dozens of police cars and disappeared into 10,000 square miles of the harshest wilderness terrain on the North American continent. Self-trained survivalists, the outlaws eluded the most sophisticated law enforcement technology on the planet and a pursuit force that represented more than 75 local, state, and federal police agencies with dozens of SWAT teams, U.S. Army Special Forces....
Sounds like fiction...but it's not! Great Listen!
- By Karen on 04-04-13
A good investigation ruined by conspiracy theories
The McVean case has become a largely forgotten incident of domestic terrorism with surprisingly little information available on the internet, so I was excited to read a book exploring the event. Having finished Dead Run, I feel that Dan Schultz did some first rate investigative work which he promptly ruined with motiveless conspiracy theories, unsupported assumptions and personal fantasy.
To start with the things done correctly, Schultz clearly did his research, reading the original case files (until he was denied access) and interviewing many people associated with the case, including minor players. His narrative account of the crime, when based on actual evidence and not conjecture, is engaging and detailed; allowing one to readily reconstruct the scene in their mind. He also highlighted how law enforcement totally bungled the response and investigation of the incident, with an eye for showing how personal egos and departmental rivalries combined to destroy evidence and open big holes for the fugitives.
The problem with the book is that the author has developed some personal theories about what happened in the later stages of the event, and has presented them as likely scenarios even though they are based on tenuous evidence at best. The author clearly is biased towards these personal interpretations, and emphasizes shaky evidence in support of his ideas while ignoring other facts that directly contradict his stories. Basically he has come up with a theory and is bending the facts to fit it, rather than using the facts to develop a hypothesis. He also does a poor job of explaining what is direct evidence and what is speculation.
There are a number of smaller errors and oversights in the text. Although this may be an issue with the narrator of the audiobook, several times the author refers to ".233 rifles" (there is no such thing, he almost certainly means .223). There are other larger errors that can not be attributed to the narrator, such as an incorrect description of how a pump shotgun works and certain firearms being listed in incorrect calibers which cannot be attributed to typos. Normally I can forgive errors such as these due to the author's inexperience with firearms, but many aspects of this case hinge on details of particular weapons making these inexcusable. It also makes me question what other details that are not so readily verified may also be misinterpreted.
SPOILERS are present in the rest of this review, so stop reading if you don't want later parts of the book revealed.
Schultz's coverage of how hundreds of SWAT police (many uninvited) descended on the manhunt area and generally turned the proceedings into a circus presages today's age of militarized police responses. He also distilled how the desire to "be the one who got the bad guys" led law enforcement leadership, tactical teams and individual officers to disregard proper procedure, destroying evidence and putting lives at risk in the quest for glory. Probably the most pointed example of this is the sheriff's deputy who, upon receiving a report that one of the suspects had fired on a car at a remote picnic site, didn't do the correct and rational procedure of sealing off the area and waiting for reinforcements but instead tried to sneak up on the suspect and managed to get shot twice in the back.
Some of Schultz's speculation and theories are well founded and provide plausible explanations and motives. In particular, his theory that the suspects stole the water truck with the plan to make a Timothy McVeigh inspired car bomb makes far more sense than some of the official explanations, such as that they intended to rob an Indian casino. His surmise that it is extremely unlikely that the three men in the truck were the only participants in whatever plot they were undertaking also seems justified.
Where this book falls apart is in Schultz's interpretation of the deaths of Robert Mason and Jason McVean. Rather than accepting that the men realized that they were in over their heads and committed suicide, Schultz has invented elaborate conspiracy theories where they were killed by hypothetical, unknown assailants for nebulous reasons. Based on the fact presented in his own book, the deaths were probably much more mundane (if such can be said of men who killed themselves after igniting the largest manhunt in the Western US).
In Mason's death at swinging bridge, Schultz asserts that some sort of covert, omniscient, police team was able to sneak around all of the other SWAT teams cordoning off the area, avoid being spotted by a helicopter, and then repeatedly kick Mason in the groin and head so he would be knocked out, whereupon then shot him through the mouth with a silenced pistol. Schultz's main evidence for this is a lack of powder burns around Mason's mouth, fragments of plastic and bullet jacket in Mason's mouth, the contortion of Mason's body and bruises on Mason's inner thighs, plus the fact that Mason didn't flee the scene between shooting at the motorist and the SWAT response. I find none of this evidence compelling. As Schultz had speculated earlier in the book, the swinging bridge was probably a preselected rendezvous point in case the plot failed, so Mason probably hung around the site after shooting at the motorist because he didn't have anywhere else to go. Mason had spent seven days evading capture in extremely rough terrain, so bruising, even in relatively well protected areas, wouldn't be unusual. Firearms spray a target with powder residue from several yards away, so if the lack of powder residue is considered significant it would also disqualify another person shooting him at close range. Jacket separation is a well known phenomenon from hollow-point bullets, particularly of that period, so finding a fragment of bullet jacket embedded in Mason's tongue is not unexpected. It is known that Mason's body was manipulated by SWAT officers and a bomb squad after he was found dead, which probably explains the unusual contortions of his body and foreign matter in his mouth. Finally, why would police need to covertly kill Mason and then cover it up as a suicide? He was a fugitive on the run from killing a police officer, was well armed and believed to prefer death to prison, and had just shot another LEO. Police had authorization to engage him with lethal force, so why would they try to hide that he was killed by an officer? Rather, it seems the simplest explanation is the most likely: Mason was waiting to be picked up at swinging bridge when he was surprised by a motorist stopping for lunch and shot at the man in a panic. He fled to some dense vegetation, and when a sheriff's deputy showed up attempted to kill that man. With the arrival of multiple SWAT teams and low flying helicopters he realized that the game was up and shot himself rather than risk being maimed and captured in a gunfight.
The case Schultz makes for Jason McVean is even more bizarre, and based on yet more tenuous evidence. Based on the testimony of a local Navajo tracker, some fragmentary police reports, and what was found with McVean's remains, Schultz believes McVean lived in the desert for several years after the manhunt and even traveled to California and Oregon before being assassinated by mysterious individuals a few miles from the abandoned getaway truck! The core of this argument is the tracker's story of following McVean's footprints on multiple occasions for several years after the manhunt ended. Earlier in the book this argument was already undermined when it was noted that trackers could follow the three men because the prints of their boots were indistinguishable from other military and police type boots! Also, this tracker usually found "McVean's" prints in company with other individuals (highly unusual for a lone fugitive in the desert!) and never actually saw the person who made them. Basically, there is no actual evidence to this claim, just a "fish story." The police reports consist of people calling in reporting people who look like McVean. McVean was a white male of average height, average weight, with long blond hair and a chiselled face. Every town in the western US has several such individuals, and it's not surprising that concerned citizens would report a few lookalikes. Police also had acquaintances of McVean under surveillance after the incident, and several of them rented a boat on lake Powell and were flashing lights at the shore at night. To me that just sounds like a group of friends going cruising on a lake for vacation, and using flashlights to see at night. The "evidence" from McVean's body is similarly slim. Forensic investigators suggested the bones found were from an individual between 30 and 40 years old from McVean's discovery site. While Schultz puts a lot of weight on this finding, suggesting it means McVean must have lived at least four years after the manhunt, he neglects to mention that these aging estimates are dependent on how complete the bones are, and McVean's bones were fragmentary and heavily weathered. The author also notes that McVean's .45 caliber pistol was missing. there are a number of points were McVean could have lost the pistol, particularly as he was likely riding in the back of a flatbed truck over dozens of miles of rough road. Finally, Schultz believes McVean must have had contact with the outside world because he was found without rations but with fast food ketchup packets in his backpack. What Schultz doesn't know is that many backpackers like to carry like the little fast food condiment packets because they don't want to carry the weight and bulk of a bottle of ketchup in their pack, but still want to liven up their camping food. Again, Schultz walks right over the obvious conclusion in favor of a conspiracy. to me it seems more likely that McVean became separated from Pilon and Mason early in the manhunt and was pinned down by police activity in Montezuma Canyon. Once he depleted his rations, unable to reach a cache for more food, and knowing that he could not reach the rendezvous at swinging bridge McVean killed himself to avoid capture.
Overall, I think Schultz as done a good job of digging up the facts in a case that has been largely forgotten, and is good a recognizing that the "official" account of the case is full of contradictions and ambiguities. What he lacks is the discipline to evaluate the credibility of information and uses his theories to shape how he interprets evidence, rather than using the evidence to build his theory. In several instances these theories are contradicted by solid evidence cited elsewhere in the book. Overall I would say that this book may be worth reading with reservations if you have interest in the case, domestic terrorism in the US, or are looking for a good example of police mismanagement and bungling. The reader does need to be skeptical of the author's viewpoint, and must be prepared to challenge the Schultz's interpretation and speculation. If you are interested in authors who carefully interpret evidence and produce solid conclusions without falling into sensationalism and conspiracy theory you should probably pass.
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