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The Four Corners Fugitive Search- the Largest Manhunt in Western History

The Area Mapped by the Fugitives

Statements released by police early in the manhunt indicate that the three fugitives had “mapped the area between the Colorado- Utah border all the way to Grand Gulch to the west”. A cursory look at maps of this area and one can be nearly certain that this “mapping” probably stopped in the north just below U.S. Highway 666. Along Highway 666 in the stretch from Monticello, Utah to Cortez, Colorado lie a series of small towns. On both sides of Highway 666 is a band of farm and rangeland from five to ten miles wide on the south and even wider to the north. Although these areas are sparsely inhabited the roads are maintained and well traveled. This band gets wider as one nears the Colorado border and Cortez. The southern border of the “mapped” area can safely be guessed to be State Route 163/262 with the San Juan River roughly paralleling this route from the Utah- Colorado border to Mexican Hat, Utah where the river swings to the northwest and eventually joins the Colorado River at the upper reaches of Lake Powell. Much of the land north of Route 163/262 east of Bluff, Utah is Navajo Indian reservation land and is extensively crisscrossed by roads leading to oil and natural gas wells and Navajo homesteads. West of Bluff most of the land is either state or federal land used extensively for recreation.

Generally speaking, most of the terrain in this locale, although remote, is inhabited by farmers, ranchers and Navajos and is well traveled by locals as well as tourists and those servicing the oil and gas wells.

Assuming the northern and southern borders to be accurate, this creates a nearly square block of land about 50 miles wide by about 45 miles high where the fugitives might have considered, and prepared to hide out. The location where they abandoned the truck and “disappeared” is some of the more remote country they could have chosen. Down the center of this block runs U.S. Route 191, traveling through Monticello, Blanding and into Bluff where it jogs to the west and continues south. For purposes of introducing the region further, I will use Route 191 to cut the block in half north to south, and strike an imaginary line east to west to create four quadrants for discussion.

To summarise each quadrant, to the northwest is the Manti La Sal National Forest, the northeast is dominated by Montezuma Canyon, the southeast by Cross Canyon and the Navajo Reservation (where the fugitives disappeared and were all eventually found), and the southwest by Cedar Mesa. This area the three fugitives mapped, and it is safe to assume were familiar with, is a large area to cover, and an area that affords unlimited possibilities for disappearing if a person had the mind to.

I will begin with a discussion of the quadrant where the fugitives abandoned their escape vehicle, disappeared, and were eventually found dead.

Cross Canyon and the Navajo Reservation

The Cross Canyon area of southeastern Utah is remote and rugged. The area as a whole is not a popular destination for tourists, although occasional footprints and motorcycle or ATV tracks can be found. The main tourist destination in this area is Hovenweep National Monument and its outlying groups of ruins, along the eastern edge. The main roads through Cross canyon and Montezuma canyon do see tourists traveling to and from Hovenweep, Hatch trading post and the surrounding towns. Most tourist travel is limited to these main roads, and more often to the paved roads coming from Cortez or Aneth.

Cross Canyon itself is nearly 20 miles in length, running east to west through Utah, then turning northeast into Colorado paralleling the smaller canyons which empty into it from the west. The head of the canyon reaches to Highway 666; there is a sign on Highway 666 just east of the small town of Dove Creek marking Cross Canyon, although at this location it is nothing more than a small wash. A series of smaller drainages and larger side canyons, most prominently Little Nancy Canyon, Nancy Patterson Canyon (where McVean was found), and Squaw Canyon merge with Cross Canyon from the northeast and drain into Cross Canyon, to the southwest. Another series of drainages enters Cross Canyon on its east side, after it crosses the Colorado border, Cow Canyon and Ruin Canyon being most prominent. Cross Canyon in turn drains westerly into Montezuma Creek, which drains into the San Juan River (Mason was found on the banks of the San Juan River). Between each of the drainages east of Cross Canyon is a high, flat, wooded mesa, such as Tin Cup Mesa (where Pilon was found), Bug Point and Squaw Point, all having access from the north.

To the south of Cross Canyon is Cajon Mesa with Hovenweep National Monument sitting atop it on its eastern edge. Cajon Mesa has a number of smaller, shorter canyons draining northerly into Cross Canyon, but these are nothing like the long, wide canyons to the north.

Vehicle access into Cross Canyon is for the most part limited to Road 220, also called Squaw Canyon Road, its name in the western end of the canyon, or Cross Canyon Road, its name on the eastern end of the canyon. We will refer to this road as Cross Canyon Road. On the east side it drops in from the mesa top about 500 feet above. On the west the canyon is more easily accessed. The road is flat from the west and even better maintained, the canyon wide and open. This is likely because of the number of oil and gas wells found along the way, ranches, and Navajo homesteads in the area.

It is possible to enter the canyon by vehicle through a number of the smaller side canyons emptying into it, especially from the north. None of these trails are maintained and all require a serious four wheel drive, and plenty of time and patience to navigate. On foot however, some of these trails could be easily traversed and could lead a person either out of the area, or more likely the plan in this case, into even more remote corners where one might never be found.

Springs and flowing wells are abundant, relative to accessible water in other parts of the region, in the Cross Canyon area. Glancing at the topographic maps of the area one quickly notices a number of water sources noted in the canyon bottoms- both flowing wells and springs, as well as on the mesa tops to the north. Isolated water sources of the quality and quantity found in Cross Canyon are not to be found in most other parts of the Four Corners region. The abundant water in this area is reason enough to choose Cross Canyon as a location to disappear.

The fugitives abandoned the stolen flatbed truck at West Cross Canyon Pond, a large body of water for the desert with an impressively steady flow from an underground spring even in mid-summer. To the northeast just four and one half miles is a flowing well with an equally impressive rate of flow. This well, as do many of the others in the area, has a threaded pipe and a hose attached to it for filling of water containers. To the west of the pond just three miles is another flowing well, although this one is not as isolated as the others.

Montezuma Canyon

Montezuma canyon stretches from highway 191 just below Monticello all the way to the San Juan River in the south, about 45 miles in total distance. The drop into the canyon in the north is steep and quick with many switchbacks. As a result the road through most of the rest of the canyon is flat. Because the canyon is so long, covering many different types of terrain, it changes drastically from the one end to the other. The upper reaches of the canyon are narrow with high walls on both sides. Here it is greener, with dense stands of pinion and juniper and pastures and grazing lands. There is more abundant water, found in flowing streams, and thus it is more populated. In the upper reaches there are many residences, farms and small ranches, pastures, orchards and even a winery.

Traveling down the canyon, the scenery becomes drier and less populated. Houses and farms are eventually replaced by oil and gas wells, although there are scattered homesteads to be found all through the country.

Fresh, flowing water is not as abundant in lower reaches of the Montezuma Canyon quadrant as it is in the upper reaches- as it becomes topographically similar to the Cross canyon area where water is found in flowing wells rather than above ground in streams. As with the flowing wells in Cross Canyon, most are found at or near ranches or homesteads.

Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch

Cedar Mesa is one of Utah’s most popular backpacking destinations. Some of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the Southwest region can be found here. Although the Cedar Mesa area is rugged and remote, it is a popular destination for backpackers and hikers year-round. Because of its proximity to other tourist destinations such as Natural Bridges National Monument, Lake Powell, the Valley of the Gods, and Monument Valley, it is also a popular “backroads” drive and sees traffic year-round as well.

Water in the Cedar Mesa quadrant is found in springs and potholes, rarely running above ground for any great distance, if at all. And this can change by year and by season. The canyons here are deep, narrow, and rough. They can be very tough traveling and require visitors to be fit and properly equipped. Grand Gulch, on the western edge of Cedar Mesa, drains into the San Juan River to the south, offering access to a possible escape route. On the eastern side of Cedar Mesa are canyons offering access to the north, into the Manti La Sal National Forest.

Manti La Sal National Forest

The Manti La Sal National Forest, for purposes of this discussion, includes the Dark Canyon Primitive Area and the Dark Canyon Wilderness and borders Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to the northwest and Canyonlands National Park to the north. Although it borders these popular tourist destination, the Manti La Sal region can definitely be considered remote, and if the fugitives had made it here they would have had many options for hiding out and opportunities for survival.

This quadrant is unique from the other three quadrants yet discussed. It is mountainous, generally higher in elevation with the Abajo Mountains reaching over 11,000 feet on the eastern side near the town of Monticello. With the elevation comes a change in vegetation and wildlife- Pinyon pine, Ponderosa pine, and stands of Aspen trees are found here. This quadrant is home to deer, elk, mountain lions and black bear, and many smaller mammals, birds and water foul.

Back to Top
Page 1- Introduction-
Page 2- The Crime- The Sequence of Events
Page 3- Disappearance
Page 4- The High Desert of the Colorado Plateau
Page 5- The Area Mapped by the Fugitives

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