Anchorage homeless seek truth after series of deaths

4 BODIES IN 10 DAYS: Theories exist in camps where some of the deceased were said to spend time.

May 17, 2009 

Anchorage police investigate the scene where a body was discovered submerged in Campbell Creek near Lake Otis Parkway on Saturday.

MARC LESTER / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

At any given time, about 15 people live in the woods of Campbell Creek Park, Mike Turk said Sunday.

He should know. He's one of them.

Turk said he's lived in the park for a decade. So he was there after police arrived Thursday to see the body of a man curled in the fetal position, laying on the ground just south of Laurel Street.

Turk wasn't alarmed. "He probably just passed out and had alcohol poisoning and died in his sleep. That's how I'd like to die," he said.

It was another body in the park -- the one a pair of bicyclists found fewer than 100 yards away from the first -- that has him on alert. That man appeared to be one the regulars, who some of the local homeless referred to as "Papa Smurf." His first name was Dan, they said, but police haven't publicly identified him.

The bodies are among four dead men discovered outdoors in Anchorage in a 10-day span this month, though police say there's no apparent connection among the deaths. The other bodies were found in a tent in a homeless camp off Third Avenue and in the woods along Chester Creek near Sullivan Arena.

Only one of the men has been identified. Police are making sure that the next of kin for the rest of the men have been notified before releasing their names, said police spokesman Dave Parker.

Authorities saw no signs of foul play with the first three bodies, Parker said. They're investigating a laceration to the head of the fourth to see if it was an accidental wound or something more sinister.

The local homeless had some theories Sunday. But mostly they're ready for answers.

Dan Sopcak sat on a log along the Campbell Creek bike trail Sunday afternoon, a short distance from where the latest body was found. He wore a ballcap that said "Alcatraz" and shared cans of Milwaukee's Best from a backpack with his friends.

People liked Papa Smurf. He was quiet. He didn't start fights.

"He was peaceful," said Brandon, a 26-year-old who said he's spent three winters in the park and didn't want to give his last name in case he has any arrest warrants.

Parker said he met the man too.

"I believe I talked to him a week and a half ago, myself," Parker said. "It wasn't anything bad ... I was just doing some scouting for a trail-clearing project."

The park is just east of Lake Otis Parkway and about two blocks south of Tudor Road. If you like sleeping outside, and don't mind the bears, it isn't a bad place to be homeless in Anchorage.

On one side you have the YMCA, Brandon said. The Tudor Road rescue mission on another. There are convenience stores nearby that sell liquor.

It's not clear where the latest dead man lived.

Sopcak said the man they know as "Papa Smurf" sometimes stayed at the rescue mission. Another man said he recently shared a camp with him for a few days.

"I'm pretty sure he's got his own place," Turk said.

Still, he said, Papa Smurf would often come to an area the park regulars call the deck -- a small boardwalk that overlooks the winding creek just upstream from where the bodies were found.

About a dozen people sat there drinking Natural Ice and Miller High Life on Sunday. An argument was brewing, something about race. At one point, Turk stepped in to break things up.

When Papa Smurf drank here, he was standoffish, Turk said. He favored vodka and didn't share his liquor.

Turk wonders if someone attacked the man for refusing to share, but he can't imagine one of the park regulars doing it.

One of the rumors circulating on the deck Sunday was that the man's legs were bound when he was found face down in the creek. But Parker, the police spokesman, said that as far as he knows that's not right. "I don't think that happened at all."

As for a bad batch of homebrew or drugs being responsible for the recent deaths around Anchorage, some of the homeless are skeptical.

"I've heard that there's bad crack going around, but I don't have nobody in this park who does crack," Turk said. "If they did, I'd run them off."

And people don't drink homebrew around here because they don't have to, said David Stobaugh, who lives in the park too and hung out with the others Sunday before taking a nap near the bike trail.

"Nobody buys bootleg booze here," he said. "It's on sale across the street for $8.95 a fifth."

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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