The FBI lost its best chance to catch the Four Corners fugitives when it relegated to a menial role the law officers who know this rugged land best, the chief of the Navajo Nation police force said late this week.
Police officers from several agencies have spent 14 days scouring canyons or chasing down dubious sightings of Jason Wayne McVean and Alan "Monte" Pilon, suspected of killing Cortez, Colo., police officer Dale Claxton and wounding three other law-enforcement officers."My people were mainly ushered to the rear," Navajo Nation Police Chief Leonard Butler said. "Outsiders are not bothering to find out what the locals know. We essentially were relegated to holding the perimeter and doing other minor details."
SWAT teams from big cities have swarmed into winding canyons and swarmed out 40 minutes later, convinced they'd poked into every crevasse and hiding place, Butler said.
Navajo police know it takes longer than that, he said. Navajo police work slowly and methodically, he said.
"My guys would have stayed for four or five hours. We would have stayed there two or three days. They're thinking that with all those high-tech tools and infrared and air support, they're able to do the job. But it goes back to the basics, basic law-enforcement investigation."
Helicopters are great for observation, but in the deserts and canyons, "All they did was tell the bad guys exactly where we were," he said.
Navajo police officers eight days ago saw someone running in the brush near where suspect Robert Matthew Mason was found dead near Bluff, Utah, apparently by his own Glock 9mm weapon. It might have been a SWAT team member, or it could have been one of the two other suspects, Butler said.
No order was given to pursue the person.
"My officers (and) their families live in that area; they know the caves, the trails, the crevasses," Butler said. "But they weren't able to take any lead role. They just guarded the crime scene where the body was found."
Two months ago, Navajo Nation police tracked a man suspected of killing someone with a pickax just south of the Four Corners area in New Mexico, Butler said.
"Our tactical operations team followed him on foot for a day and three quarters," he said. "He tried to elude us by walking on rocks, on stream beds. They went and tracked him down. He finally said, `I'm tired. I'm tired of you guys being after me.' "
Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane said the SWAT teams are mostly serving as backup, with the local police doing the more methodical searches.
Thursday, the FBI SWAT team from Los Angeles was dressed in camouflage again, carrying high-powered rifles into another canyon. "We're basically just doing reconnaissance," said one. "We're getting an idea of what the land looks like."
If helicopters alert the suspects to what's coming, they also help keep the police from being shot by the high-powered rifles the fugitives are thought to be carrying. The methodical foot patrols may be the best way to turn up the suspects, but it also puts police in the line of fire, some officers noted.
So, dozens of police officers bent on avenging the death of a colleague try to do what isn't coming naturally - be patient, wait out the suspects.
Two weeks after McVean, Pilon and Mason allegedly stole a water truck and began their rampage, police from Oklahoma to California still are shaking their heads, saying things such as: "There's so much land out there"; "There are so many places they could be hiding"; and "They could be anywhere."
Indian police officers say they've detected no sympathy for the fugitives in an area that has its share of anti-government feelings. "They don't want these fugitives loose in their community," said Navajo Nation criminal investigator Sammy Ahkeah.
Like the other law officers, Navajo police are constantly aware that the fugitives seem to be after men in uniform. "I don't think they're after civilians," Ahkeah said.
And they are aware that bullets from the high-powered rifles believed to be carried by the fugitives "can go right through our bulletproof vests," Ahkeah said.
Despite that unease, they also admit to an adrenalin rush. "I want to capture them," said Navajo officer Mario Joe. "They shot a fellow officer."