Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West
DEAD RUN is a litany of mistakes. Nobody in it comes out looking good, with perhaps one exception. The whole story starts with a routine traffic stop and ends nine years later with three dead suspects, millions of dollars spent, and a host of lingering questions. It is not a heroic tale, and perhaps the best that can be said for it is that it did not end as horrifically as can be imagined.
It begins in rural Colorado in 1998, when three young men with anti-government political views and a sizable arsenal stole a tanker truck. It is not known exactly what their plan was, although a tanker truck packed full of improvised explosives could do a massive amount of damage to even a hardened target. Unfortunately for them, the theft was noticed, an all-points-bulletin was sent out, and a lone police officer stopped the truck just past a small bridge. The three disaffected youths opened fire on the police car, killing Officer Dale Claxton before he could fire a shot in return.
What happens after that is incredibly well documented in Dan Schultz’s narrative, and to recapitulate it would be to destroy some of its suspense. But in the end, the three gunmen were allowed to walk into the vast blasted deserts of the American Southwest, where they eluded the long reach of the law.
"Schultz is a dogged reporter and has clearly mastered the details of the manhunt."
What Schultz does in DEAD RUN is to create a brutal, unsparing analysis of the decisions that were made --- and not made --- in the manhunt. The search for the three gunmen was, by necessity, both sprawling and multi-jurisdictional. The initial crime took place in the Four Corners region, where four different states and the Navajo Nation share borders. The gunmen escaped into a national park, which brought in the Forest Service and the FBI, and both Colorado and Utah would call out National Guard troops before it was all over. Schultz points out, again and again, that no one was in control of the situation and that lawmen kept stepping over each other’s toes as a result.
The narrative suffers somewhat from a lack of heroic figures on the side of law and order. What Schultz tries to do is counterbalance the ineptitude of law enforcement by throwing light on the criminals. Although he regularly invokes the shades of Butch Cassidy, Clyde Barrow and Billy the Kid, his three fugitives aren’t nearly as interesting or compelling as the ghosts of past outlaws. The gunmen are presented fairly evenhandedly, but they were not romantic figures --- just young, rootless men caught up in video games, illegal drugs, overpowering weaponry, and whackadoodle anti-government conspiracy theories.
Schultz is a dogged reporter and has clearly mastered the details of the manhunt. He offers two conjectures on disparate aspects of the events. The first has to do with the death of one of the fugitives, reported initially as a suicide. Schultz makes a rational, convincing case that the gunman’s death could not have been suicide and that he was done in by persons unknown --- which could have included renegade law enforcement officers.
The second conjecture, though, is a bit harder to swallow. Schultz believes that one of the fugitives had a plan to use the stolen tanker truck to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, which --- if successful --- would have led to widespread downstream devastation and ecological and agricultural catastrophe. The evidence presented for such a plan is scant, and mostly leads to one of the fugitives’ appreciation for a book called THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG, in which a fictional character hopes for the dam’s destruction. While that is a lurid enough picture, it is possible that the fugitives had another target in mind. (One of them, just for example, had received a large tax bill before the initial shooting and may have targeted the Denver IRS office.)
The only person who comes away with any sort of glory or credit in this whole sad episode is the book’s author, who does a fine, precise job of cataloguing all the mistakes that caused the manhunt to be so protracted and expensive. Theodore Roosevelt famously said that it was not the critic who counted, but the man in the arena fighting for a cause. In this case, the arena was simply too large and daunting, and the men in the arena were not able to overcome the disadvantages they were dealt. DEAD RUN is a fine retelling of their noble efforts as well as their manifold failings.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on May 3, 2013