BLANDING, Utah (AP) - If it weren't for the coyotes, the body of a suspected cop killer who disappeared into the Utah desert might never have been found.
That's the conclusion San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy drew Tuesday as he reconstructed the events that led to the first break in 17 months in a case that has gripped the region. During the summer of 1998 more than 500 officers combed the Four Corners area, looking for two men wanted for killing Cortez, Colo., police officer Dale Claxton. But even the desolate spot below Tin Cup Mesa where the body was found turned up nothing.
Nothing, that is, until just before darkness fell on Halloween. Eleven hunters stumbled across a bag loaded with supplies and started nosing around. A few feet away they uncovered a rifle set up on a bipod and aimed at a dirt road. The road leads to an oil well below the mesa; two homemade pipe bombs sat near the body.
And below the dense juniper branches lay the skeleton Lacy is convinced belonged to Alan Lamont Pilon, the bones still wrapped in camouflage and a bulletproof vest. The wristwatch still was ticking away.
''This is just kind of luck in a sense,'' Lacy said. ''That they would find him after a year and a half on the last day and in the last hour of the deer hunt.''
Pilon and Jason Wayne McVean have been missing since the May 1998 shooting death of Claxton. The Utah State Medical Examiner's office determined Tuesday that the body was not McVean's, but there was difficulty interpreting Pilon's medical records.
A dental records specialist was en route to Utah Tuesday to help identify the body.
Lacy said he is almost certain the body belongs to Pilon, a heavyset man who had broken a leg in a motorcycle accident just a couple of months before the shooting.
''It surprised me he would be able to cover a lot of ground,'' said Lacy, who called Pilon a ''mama's boy'' who was known to be lazy - and who likely fell in with the survivalist McVean because he owed the IRS nearly $3,000 in unpaid taxes.
Lacy's suspicion is furthered by a pair of eyeglasses, similar to those worn by Pilon, found near the body.
What Lacy still doesn't understand is how Pilon ended up dead beneath a bush, 40 miles east of Blanding.
Pilon, 32, McVean, 28, and a third man are accused of shooting Claxton during a routine traffic stop on a bridge southeast of Cortez. Three men driving a stolen water truck opened fire with automatic weapons, hitting Claxton and his cruiser more than two dozen times. Before the trio ditched their stolen pickup they also shot and wounded two Montezuma County sheriff's deputies.
The third suspect, Robert Mason, 26, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot days later about 55 miles away, near Bluff, after he wounded a San Juan County deputy.
Police suspect their latest discovery might have hiked the 2 rocky miles from the abandoned truck and done the same.
The man apparently died lying on his back, his legs crossed as if he was in repose. Beside him sat an empty canteen and backpack loaded with five more pipe bombs, a campstove and cold-weather gear. A helmet - the type SWAT teams wear - rested on top. Two empty soda bottles were inside, along with a portable water filter - unused even though a shallow pond is just over the next rise.
''One of the things that puzzles me is that there was no food, no water, that these guys were not more prepared,'' Lacy said. ''It seems they were less prepared than we thought they were.''
The body was mostly undisturbed, Lacy said, except for a few bones scattered by scavengers. The skull, however, lay in two or three neat pieces - as if shattered by a bullet.
State Medical Examiner Todd Grey said it is unlikely there would have been animals in the area large enough to split a human skull.
A 9 mm pistol lay by the man's side, Lacy said, and a spent cartridge of the same size was buried in damp ground below the remains. On Tuesday he arrived at the trampled spot with a metal detector, hoping to find a slug to match.
But there wasn't much other searching going on, even as some law enforcement officials said it was time to wrap up the case.
Lacy said it's unlikely the third suspect could have survived in the area for so long.
''He's either dead or long gone,'' he said.