Trooper kills armed Fairbanks man; mother found dead

911 CALL: Officers believe woman tried to get help before dying.

November 24, 2009 

An Alaska State Trooper shot and killed a naked, knife-wielding man at a Fairbanks home Tuesday morning after he confronted officers and refused to put down the weapon, according to troopers. Investigators later found the body of his mother inside the home lying next to a phone.

Troopers say the man, Thom Depace Wylie Gruenig, 38, was declared dead at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital shortly after the shooting. Found in the home was his mother, Kathryn L. Gruenig, 66, whose death was being investigated as a homicide, troopers said.

Troopers were summoned to the home off University Avenue and College Road about 7:40 a.m. after getting a 911 call during which dispatchers heard labored breathing but got no answer, according to troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters. A lone trooper, who was not immediately named, knocked on the door with medics standing by.

"The guy comes to the door, confronts the trooper and, you know, he's naked and got a knife in his hand and the trooper backs away and tries to get him to drop the weapon," said Col. Audie Holloway, head of the troopers. "He doesn't. He continues to advance on the trooper and the medics, which are right there close to where the trooper's at, and so the trooper's forced to shoot him."

Christine Lundberg, 58, lives across the street from the home on Hess Avenue. She said she had just taken her granddaughter to school and returned home when she saw a police car.

"Next thing we know, there's a whole bunch of cop cars outside and then there was like a popping noise: Pop, pop, twice," she said. "We stayed inside because there was cop cars everywhere. They had assault rifles and just running around. It was crazy."

Lundberg said the woman and her son live in the brown home but that she didn't know them well. Sometimes she would say hi when she saw Thom walking to the University of Alaska Fairbanks or his mother going to her car, she said.

Neighbor Dover Williams, 59, said the home has always been quiet, and the people living there kept to themselves.

"They have real tall fences around their lot and they've got a lot of the Siberian pea that's grown quite tall, so you never really saw them that much at all," Williams said.

City property records indicate the home belongs to Kathryn Gruenig, assistant to the director at UAF's Institute of Northern Engineering. Thom Gruenig was currently working as a field operations supervisor for the 2010 Census, according to a resume posted on his personal Web site. He has previously worked for the University of Alaska, his resume says.

As medics began trying to save Thom Gruenig, the trooper went inside to find out why 911 was called and found his mother, Holloway said.

Troopers' "working theory" is that she called 911 as she was dying, he said., though he wouldn't say how the woman died. Asked if she was stabbed to death, he said, "Not exactly." Also unclear was why Thom was naked.

"We have no idea," Holloway said. "We don't know if he just happened to be that way or if he was on drugs or crazy, you know, we don't have any clue at this point."

Investigators found a marijuana growing operation in the lower level of the home involving about 30-40 plants. Holloway said investigators didn't yet know if the drugs played a role in the situation.

Court records indicate Thom Gruenig was charged in Fairbanks in 1995 with burglary and second-degree theft. He was convicted on the felony theft charge and has not been charged in a criminal case since. Kathryn Gruenig appeared to have no criminal history.

The officer who fired his weapon was placed on administrative leave for three days, at the end of which his name will be released, troopers said.

It is the third time in less than three weeks troopers have shot someone they say threatened them with a weapon.

Five troopers shot and killed Nora Jean York, 58, at a Mat-Su cabin Nov. 14 after she had been talking about suicide by cop and then raised a shotgun at officers, according to troopers. On Nov. 6, a trooper shot and wounded a man in South Fairbanks after the suspect allegedly failed to yield for a traffic stop and led the officer on a pursuit. The suspect was wounded but survived.

Both the previous shootings remain under investigation.

"There's no rhyme or reason to these events," Holloway said. "They're not connected."

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

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