The day after police agencies called off the month-long search for two fugitives in a police killing, Don Bendell was still combing the banks of the San Juan River.
Bendell, 51, just might be the right man for the job.In May, the Coloradan located the body of a lost hiker in the mountains near Colorado Springs, two weeks after law enforcement search and rescue crews abandoned their efforts. An ex-Green Beret, bow hunter, karate school owner and author of a series of books about Chris Colt, a backcountry tracker, Bendell is a student of American Indian culture who describes himself as white on the outside and red on the inside.
"As a kid when my friends were playing cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be the Indians," he said.
Tracking, he said, is part art, part science and can't really be learned from a book.
"It's a painstaking process that you learn through experience," he said. "The other part is that you have to get into the subject's mind. You have to think like they would think."
The fugitives, Alan "Monte" Pilon, 30, and Jason McVean, 26, both from Colorado, have been on the run since May 29 when they allegedly shot and killed a police officer in Cortez, Colo. So far, the men have evaded some 400 police officers. They were last spotted trying to steal a water truck from a Montezuma Creek business one week ago.
Bendell came to Utah on Thursday after getting a call from San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy, who had heard about Bendell's tracking success from a Utah congressman. Since his arrival, Bendell and his horse, Eagle, have spent their days traversing the bluffs and canyons along the river looking for footprints or other signs that Pilon and McVean may have left. A rifle at his side, Bendell packs two handguns, a hunting knife and a lot of knowledge. He carefully picks his way through the sand and over river rocks on the water's edge.
"Somebody stepped here, and here," he says pointing to something that looks like nothing to the untrained eye. "When you don't see a lot of footprints that's a pretty good indication that somebody's hiding their tracks."
The details of a footprint can tell an experienced tracker how long it has been since the print's maker has been through an area, if the ground was wet or dry when the print was made and even if the person being sought has an injury. For example, Bendell said, if someone is favoring one leg, one print will be deeper. Even the color of grass and the way it lies against the ground - or doesn't - can be a sign of foot traffic, he said.
From Bendell's perspective, Pilon and McVean are "stupid, cowardly, wannabe warriors who have read too many issues of Soldier of Fortune," with no respect for the boundaries of society.
But as survivalists, the two know exactly what they are doing.
"They're walking on the sides of their feet or from rock to rock. Maybe even wearing sacks or something over their shoes to distort their prints," Bendell said. He is not surprised the two have remained in southern Utah and thinks the two keep hiding near the Navajo reservation lands because they feel safer.
"There's got to be some Navajos out there who are sympathetic to their anti-government thinking," he said. "I think someone from the reservation may even be helping them, giving them food and information."
In part, that theory comes from some unopened packages of crackers and empty plastic food storage containers Bendell found by some 4-day-old footprints near the river between Montezuma Creek and Aneth, eight miles east. Most likely, the two men are hiding during the day and moving up and down the river during the night. Some footprints have been found on the San Juan's islands and about 2:30 a.m. Friday, Navajo Nation police officers reported hearing the sounds of two men talking and laughing in the river, which seems to support Bendell's thinking.
As for the jurisdictional disputes that essentially ended the search by local officials and left the manhunt up to the federal agencies, Bendell says he is not surprised, although he had no idea officers would clear out of their Montezuma Creek command post so quickly. He believes the search should have been conducted by Navajo Nation police all along because the bulk of the manhunt is being conducted on the reservation and because the Navajos are trained in traditional tracking and survival skills.
"You don't have a plumber take your appendix out, you get a surgeon," he said. Bendell plans to stay in southern Utah until the job is done, even though his karate studio business will suffer without him and he has a new book deadline looming.
"In the military I was trained that you stay until the mission is finished. And if you have disputes, you work them out," he said. "Idiots like this need to be stopped. So I'll stay until I find them. I just hope I go home with a clean gun that hasn't been shot."