STORIES OF COURAGE & BRAVERY IN ALASKA'S RUGGED COPPER RIVER VALLEY

Citizen's Arrest On The Tok Cutoff In Slana

When There Are Only Three State Troopers In A Place As Large As Ohio, People Have To Step Up

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.

In 1993, Copper Valley people captured a runaway fugitive on a snow machine.  It was a dramatic saga that spanned the entire length of the huge, rolling, wild Copper River Valley of Alaska. 

The story crossed the trackless snowy wilderness and ended at a sagging little lodge that was located out on the Tok Cutoff, the highway leading out of Alaska -- the road to Tok and the Canadian border. 
The overland route from Lake Louise to Slana, Alaska.
Map, Bob Wysong

When the tale was over, the unique and historic role of Alaska's lodges and roadhouses as safety nets -- the lighthouses of the highway -- was clearly on display.

The story began on the morning of November 10th. It was an Alaskan winter Wednesday. On that dark morning, Vernon Bussing, who lived high on the tundra at Gunsight Mountain, on the empty Glenn Highway, 70 miles west of the little central Alaska hub town of Glennallen, looked over at a neighbor's cabin and saw it had been broken into.  The isolated cabin belonged to Bussing's friend, Joe Warren. 

Bussing got ahold of Warren. They realized a rifle must had been stolen. So they called the Troopers, who drove out all the way -- 60 miles in winter -- to Gunsight Mountain to investigate. 

The rifle was, indeed gone. Troopers stopped at neighboring cabins, and personally told other local people (in this day before emails and cell phones) about the break-in. They asked them to keep their eyes open for suspicious travelers.

TRACKING THE CHEVY NOVA
That night, at around 8:30 pm, Troopers got a call. Someone had seen a tan 1977 Chevy Nova in the Eureka area,  between Gunsight and Glennallen.  In this part of Alaska, where the population is so sparse, anything unusual, including an unfamiliar vehicle,  is easy enough to spot. Especially in winter, after the summer tourist season is over. Thinking that the Nova might possibly have been involved in the break-in, Glennallen Trooper Don Pierce drove on out to Eureka.

Near the tiny Tazlina Glacier Lodge on the Glenn, 4 miles from Lake Louise Junction, and over 50 miles from Glennallen, Trooper Pierce spotted the Chevy Nova. When Trooper Pierce put on his siren and lights, the Chevy Nova raced away. Hitting the Lake Louise Road, the dirt access route to the remote recreational lake, the Chevy hurtled along the full 16 miles.  Finally, one of the passengers leaped from the moving car, and Trooper Pierce arrested him.

He was a 27-year old Palmer resident.

There weren't many Troopers stationed in Glennallen, for a region as big as Ohio. But two of the region's other Troopers – Sgt. Greg Tanner and Fish & Wildlife Trooper Brian Stephenson – had followed Trooper Pierce in separate police cars to the scene.

Tanner took over the prisoner, who police said had been involved in the cabin burglary. Troopers Pierce and Stephenson followed the Chevy Nova. A mile later, they saw the car had been driven off the road into the ditch. Its driver had fled  on foot.

The two Troopers followed the footprints through the snow to the end of the Lake Louise Road. They found a place where a snowmachine had been parked. It had been stolen; driven away into the scrub forest. The Troopers believed that the snowmachine, a recent model orange and black longtrack, belonged to Jesse Dicks of Lake Louise. 

By 1993, the manufacture of snowmachines (or, as most Americans called them, "snowmobiles") was changing radically. Up to this point, snowmachines were bulky, unwieldy tin cans. But now, they were dramatically better. Locals were using them to head deeper into the wilds. You could put these new machines into reverse; a great advancement. They had big lights, were easier to steer, had hand warmers  – and you could even open the hood up and cook burritos and hot dogs on the blazing-hot engine. In this new age of technology, the simple snow machine had turned into a multi-purpose technological whiz. 

The Troopers looked for the missing snowmachine and its trail until 1:30 in the morning, before giving up.

The rustic Slana, Alaska log cabin U.S. post office. 
The next day, Troopers came up with a possible identification of the man they thought had ridden into the night on the snowmobile. They thought he was a 34-year old Anchorage resident.

Up to this point, the Troopers had relied on the loose local network of the initial handful of Eureka-to-Gunsight Mountain residents, and on word of mouth for help. Now Sgt. Tanner turned to the big gun: KCAM Radio. In these days before smart phones, computers, emails and texts, everybody listened to KCAM, which was broadcast out of Glennallen. There were isolated cabins all over the Copper Valley without phones. But everybody had a radio. And everybody tuned in.

If you wanted to know what was happening locally, you really had to listen to the radio.  So Sgt. Tanner called in to KCAM a physical description of the runaway from the Trooper files. And KCAM agreed to broadcast the information on the radio immediately, uncharacteristically breaking into regular non-news programming.

DUFFY'S ROADHOUSE
Over 120 road miles away, far across the taiga and tundra from Lake Louise, there was a scrappy little place known as Duffy's Roadhouse. Bill Schrank, a retired Alaska State Trooper, worked there as the cook for his sister, Thelma. It was the next day, Thursday, and Bill was busy with his routine morning chores. Duffy's was a one-story, roughly-built restaurant and liquor store on Tok Cutoff. Accessible to the small cabins and homes in the immediate vicinity, which were tucked away in the permafrost-plagued black spruce forests, Duffy's was a glowing beacon of warmth and companionship for the lonely homesteaders of nearby Slana.

Slana – which had once been an important Ahtna Athabascan camp – was now America's very last legal homesteading community. When homesteading ended in Alaska in 1986, 800 pieces of Slana land had been staked. But poor soil, isolation and below-zero temperatures drove off 70% of Slana's hopefuls. Only the most rugged 100 homesteaders got patents to their land.

Duffy's was like a home away from home for the lonely Slana homesteaders.  And Bill Schrank lent a welcome, friendly place for these hearty, solitary people to sit and chat. Gabby and companionable, Bill offered a comforting sense of belonging. People straggled in to Bill's lunch counter at Duffy's to eat a burger and fries.  To drink coffee. To gossip and talk about their wood gathering, their winter food situation, their broken-down generators, their non-existent love lives, and their rambling thoughts about their neighbors, their boots, and the fate of the universe.  When the friendly welcome at Duffy's wore somewhat thin, people shifted gears, and mosied on over to the nearby Midway Store, a little washeteria and grocery store down in a gully, 2 miles south of Duffy's. And, at Midway, they'd start all over again, sitting around, eating candy bars and chips, drinking pop -- and chatting with whoever might come by to do the laundry -- the folks who, like them, were seeking  shelter from the loneliness of their isolated cabins far off across the swamps. 

A stranger had come into Duffy's that morning for breakfast. The man had been shooting the breeze with another customer, Ray Alex of Slana. "I was back doing paperwork, and stuff," said Bill Schrank, later. "The guy's telling Ray how he'd driven this snowmachine for six hours, all the way from Lake Louise." 

This was a noteworthy achievement. Nobody drove snowmachines from Lake Louise, cross-country to Slana. And the admission by this unknown person was a mistake. "Ray got into his pickup. He was going to leave and go down to Midway," said Bill Schrank. And as he was fiddling with the dials in his car, that was when Ray heard the bulletin from KCAM on the radio "And he goes," said Bill Schrank, 'Darn!' You know. Because they described him to a T. 'Darn."" And then Ray Alex said to himself, 'That's the guy sitting up there at Duffy's!'"

Ray Alex arrived at Midway Store. He told Christine Wilcox, the owner's wife, that he had to use her phone to call the Troopers in Glennallen 80 miles away.  "We'll try to get somebody out there as soon as we can," they told Ray Alex. "See if you can hold him. Take Gene Wilcox with you."

For some reason, ex-Troopers were attracted to Slana. It was a tiny, desperately poor  settlement, but two former Troopers lived there.  Bill Schrank of Duffy's had been a Trooper for 8 years. Gene Wilcox, who moved to Slana with his wife in 1988 to run the Midway Store, was also a former Alaska State Trooper. Gene had served in law enforcement for over 13 years.

So that November day in 1993, the little stretch of the Tok Cutoff in Slana, Alaska was not the right place to be if you happened to be on the run from the law.

Sgt Tanner, down in Glennallen,  told Ray and Gene over the phone at Midway that the man was armed and dangerous. "Every indication was he was very determined not to be captured," the Sergeant warned. 

As Gene Wilcox and Ray Alex drove on back to Duffy's, Bill Schrank had moved on with his morning chores and was now busy shoveling a path through the snow to the fuel tanks, for the fuel truck.

"I'm out shoveling snow, and I've got no idea this is going on," Bill said later. "I got back inside, and Ray comes up and said, 'You got your gun?' And he said, 'There's a guy out on the pay phone out front that the Troopers are looking for. They said they want us to hold him. Hold him at gunpoint, if you have to'."  

THE PAY PHONE
The "pay phone" Ray had seen the man using out front at Duffy's was operated by Copper Valley Telephone Cooperative. It was attached to the log wall between the bar and restaurant doors. The little phone represented the emergency phone system of the day. Many Alaska lodges had a system like this. The phone was out there to help travelers or locals who might need help on this empty stretch of road. At that time, the Copper Valley had a number of pay phones in lonely stretches all along the road system. Some were outside of various lodge doors, such as Duffy's or Paxson Lodge. Some phones were on posts, standing out on the highway. 

Bill Schrank couldn't believe that Sgt. Tanner had actually mentioned using guns. So he  called Trooper dispatch in Glennallen to check. "I called Linda at the Troopers, and I said, 'What's going on'? She told me, and she said, 'Be careful.' And I said, 'No problem.' I guess they figured -- with myself and Gene -- we wouldn't have a problem."

Meanwhile, the man was still standing outside in the cold, on the phone.  Ray Alex, and the two former Troopers -- Gene Wilcox and Bill Schrank -- made up a plan of what to do next. "The three of us had a huddle," said Bill. "He was still on the pay phone."

Their solution was direct and simple. Grab him. The outdoor phone was between the doors. One of the doors came out of the bar. The other came out of the cafe. Greg Wilcox and Bill Schrank marched outside through each door, and swooped in on the suspect. "Gene took him from the left side, while he was talking. I took him from the right side. And basically, we just snatched him off the telephone. I happened to have a pair of handcuffs that I keep here. I cuffed him, and searched him. We took him to the back room, and sat him in a chair, and waited for the Troopers. He wasn't going anywhere."

It's a long, long way to Slana from Glennallen Trooper headquarters even in summer. But in winter, it's even longer. In big cities in the "Lower 48', there's a goal of a 7 to 10 minute emergency response time. But in the Copper River Valley, emergency or Trooper response time can easily run two hours or more -- just to get to a car wreck, medical incident, or scene of violence. For locals along the route, these runs were especially harrowing. The ambulance or Trooper would trundle on by.Then hours and hours later, would scurry on back, sirens still blazing. It was never quick. There was no such thing as "rapid response" in the Copper River Valley.

That November, the wait for the Troopers lasted quite a while. Due to the warm weather that winter, the roads were unusually icy and it  took the Glennallen Troopers even longer than usual to drive to Slana to pick up the suspect.

The Slana incident was not typical. But, in this huge territory, it was like deputizing the citizenry in an emergency back in the days of the Wild West.

WE HAVE PEOPLE. 
THAT'S ALL WE HAVE
Sgt. Greg Tanner, a few days later, praised fast-thinking local people in a lengthy interview in the Copper River Country Journal. "It's a delicate situation," Tanner acknowledged, "for the Troopers to ask someone to do that. It's good to see, when we have our Troopers scattered out thin, we have people. That's all we have." 

The Copper River Country Journal reached everyone, for hundreds of miles around. It was mailed, free, to all the people at Gunsight, Eureka, Glennallen, and up in Slana, as well as all places in between.  Sgt. Tanner described how the saga unfolded. First with a neighbor, watching out for another neighbor's cabin. Then the call from the Eureka area about a suspicious car. And the way that KCAM broadcast the bulletin of a futive on the run immediately, breaking into its regular programming instead of watiing for the 12 o'clock news. Followed by Ray Alex, sitting at Duffy's and turning on the car radio, and then calling the Troopers. And finally, the successful citizens' arrest by former Troopers Wilcox and Schrank, in spite of personal danger.

Gene Wilcox, of Midway, was modest about his participation. "All we did was just offer assistance. There wasn't anything more than that," he said. "It was the element of surprise. He didn't recognize us. He just had no idea who we were." Besides, Gene added, "I think community participation and aiding the Troopers is very important. I think they've got a good detachment down there. They need public support."

If you're running a 24-hour gas station, 7 days a week, you need an actual staff. Ideally over 6 or 7 staff members. But the state rarely allowed  the little Glennallen contingent more than 3 or 4 Troopers. Even though the total number of road miles, and possible directions, through rugged dangerous territory was not paralleled anywhere else in Alaska. Glennallen is a small community. But it's linked to roads headed to Canada, to Fairbanks, to Denali Park, to Valdez, Kennicott, Palmer, Wasilla and Anchorage. The roads splay out of Glennallen like nowhere else along the highways, other than the much larger town of Fairbanks. 

Just that August in 1993, only a few months before the arrest at Duffy's Roadhouse, Sgt. Tanner had discussed the severe staffing and logistical problems that local Troopers faced. In a wide-ranging interview with the Copper River Country Journal, the Sergeant had pointed out there were only three Troopers in the entire region – and they recently had to add Valdez to the service area. And Valdez was over 130 miles away -- through a high mountain pass.  

Glennallen's sergeant  told the Journal, "We're having lots of accidents. I see a marked increase in single vehicle rollovers, which is directly accountable to less enforcement out there. It doesn't matter whether a person's driving too fast, or whether a person's just tired. When they see Troopers on the road they pay more attention."  

Tanner said the Glennallen division was down in staff members to two Troopers and a Sergeant. He said, "This summer, the division lost Trooper Jeff Babcock. The Valdez Trooper position was also lost  -- which affects local Trooper coverage because the Valdez Troopers used to cover the Edgerton Highway. Now the Glennallen Troopers have had to add the Edgerton Highway, and Valdez, to their beat."

"It's not that they've taken the Troopers from us on purpose," added Tanner. "It's that we've had a great number of Troopers retire. There are big waves of Troopers coming up to retirement age at the same time." Meanwhile, it had been several years since there was a Trooper Academy at Sitka, Alaska, specifically to train Troopers. Local people would have to wait for the 3-month Academy to run its course, and then for the newly trained Troopers to gain experience on a city beat. The sergeant said it would be until spring when another Trooper would be sent to the Copper Valley.


OVER 100 MILES AWAY
Meanwhile, said Tanner, "I see a marked increase in our highway accidents. A lot of those are not getting the Trooper response. If there's only one on duty and he's in Paxson, and we have a motor vehicle rollover in Eureka where there's a minor injury – then oftentimes, the Trooper will not even respond. He's over 100 miles away, and he's the only one on duty; he can't get there. The person is left there to do his own police report. Often this causes problems with insurance companies." Plus, Trooper's couldn't write up press releases on accident they don't cover.

Tanner said that the same day a 12-year old girl died the month before in a well-publicized rollover that summer of 1993,  there were two other rollovers the same morning in the patrol area that the Troopers couldn't respond to. 

"It's a big, big problem," he had said. "it just shows how much we need a Trooper presence out on our highways. We need enforcement out here." But, in those days before the snow machine incident at Duffy's, the Troopers told the public that, in spite of the urgency of the problems and the hundreds of miles of roads in the area, no solutions seemed to be at hand. And no new Troopers were expected to come and help out. "They have no place to give us a Trooper from. People get real frustrated with this local office. Property crimes are not investigated as thoroughly as they would be with a bigger staff. It does put extra stress on the Troopers."

That interview with the sergeant was in August. And now it was November, and the situation was so dire that private citizens were having to step in and make arrests to take up the slack. After the citizens'  arrest in Slana, the sergeant now had the job of explaining the situation. 

He told the Copper River Country Journal that he considered Wilcox, Schrank and Alex to be extraordinarily brave – especially considering the fact that there was a shotgun and a .22 on Feyko's stolen snowmboile, which was parked right next to the outdoor pay phone. 

Both Gene Wilcox, of Midway Store, and Sgt Tanner agreed that the Alaska State Troopers wouldn't ask just anyone to make such a dramatic arrest.

"I would not have asked someone to hold them at gunpoint, had it not been two former Troopers," said Tanner. 

Bill Schrank was matter-of-fact. "It was always my philosophy to put yourself in a  position of superior strength, so they don't even think about fighting you."

JUST A REVOLVING DOOR
Gene Wilcox agreed that experience counted. "We've done it before. For a Trooper, it would be routine," he said. "I wouldn't advise people to get involved to that degree, but I think the support, the observation, the reporting is very necessary. It is necessary for someone who observed something to contact the Troopers immediately, and to offer support in testimony. Ray's observations and reporting were the key to it, in my opinion."

Like everyone in the Copper Valley, Gene Wilcox understood exactly how difficult it was for the local Alaska State Troopers. He said, "The key thing the public must remember is there's very few Troopers for such a large, vast area. And that response time takes a little longer out here because  of road conditions. It's necessary for people to be understanding, That even though their needs are very important – and the Troopers appreciate that – response time is sometimes hindered because of other priorities. They're understaffed. In a lot of cases, they're just overworked. It's just a revolving door. There's no end ot it. It's crucial now, more than ever, to support the guys. They're under much more stress than in the past. Things have changed in Alaska."

In spite of the success, Sgt. Tanner was wary about encouraging this type of extreme measure. Normally, said Tanner, the Troopers were happy if they could enlist the help of people who could just keep an eye on a suspect. Under most circumstances, that would be adequate, he said.

Actually, though, roadhouses and lodges -- located as they were on exit routes throughout the state --  tended to have contact with fugitives and other criminals, he said.

Bill Schrank agreed. His sister, Thelma. once had to to stall two people in a stolen plane. In another incident, he said, there had been a bank robbery in Tok, up the road. The bank robber entered Duffy's and gave his briefcase full of money to the person beyond the counter, and asked to have it put in the back room. 

"Burgers and burglars are our specialty," Bill Schrank said.

Copyrighted by Copper River Country Journal, 1991-2017. All rights reserved. 

Share this post

Post a comment

Write us at ncountry@gci.net! Bearfoot Travel Magazines/Copper River Country Journal, Gakona, Alaska

:ambivalent:
:angry:
:confused:
:content:
:cool:
:crazy:
:cry:
:embarrassed:
:footinmouth:
:frown:
:gasp:
:grin:
:heart:
:hearteyes:
:innocent:
:kiss:
:laughing:
:minifrown:
:minismile:
:moneymouth:
:naughty:
:nerd:
:notamused:
:sarcastic:
:sealed:
:sick:
:slant:
:smile:
:thumbsdown:
:thumbsup:
:wink:
:yuck:
:yum:

Next Post
Newer Post
Previous Post
Older Post