Near the end of May, 1998, three men stole a water tanker truck near Cortez, Colorado. Cortez policeman Dale Claxton happened to be the first law enforcement officer to spot the truck. The three men inside wore balaclavas and camouflage. They were also armed to the teeth. When Claxton pulled up beside the truck he was shot 20 times before he could fully draw his weapon.
This started a manhunt involving local law enforcement, FBI agents, reservation police, and national guardsman and wasn’t resolved for years. The three men were survivalists familiar with the desert areas around the four corners area where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet. They were also supporters of a movement exemplified by Timothy McVay. It was their plan to use the water tanker to create an explosion that would have made Oklahoma City seem small.
The three were largely off the radar before the incident. An investigation with unclear leadership eventually identified the three, more from tips from acquaintances than any luck matching fingerprints. One by one they were found dead. One by suicide, though evidence also points to a police assassination. Another either by suicide or from shooting by the third member who went missing for years until a cowboy found his remains.
Dan Schultz’s descriptions of the crime and subsequent manhunt are full of both gory and fascinating detail. In addition to reviewing police reports he interviewed people directly and indirectly involved in the investigation. Most startling are the interviews he did with medical examiners whose findings were sometimes discarded in favor of a more complimentary police version of events. He also delves into the movement that took the men’s natural dislike for police and turned it into a military type assault. Law enforcement was definitely the target, with nearby civilians clearly spared during firefights.
It is vivid reporting, giving the reader a cinema-like reading experience. Using forensic evidence he’s able to trace actions of the killers literally step-by-step. Add that to police interviews and written reports and he’s able to make this an amazingly clear narrative.