A rural Alaska man was sentenced in Kotzebue Monday to 30 years in prison for shooting a police officer during an attempted importation of alcohol into the dry village of Buckland during the summer of 2013.
Gary Ballot, 48, was charged with attempted murder for the shooting that occurred on July 26, 2013. According to accounts by the Alaska State Troopers and affidavits in the case, Ballot had been heading to a wedding at a campsite 15 miles north of the dry community of Buckland when the incident occurred. The boat was coming from Kotzebue, a “damp” village, meaning that all alcohol coming into Kotzebue has to go through the city-owned liquor store and distribution center.
Instead of going to the wedding, Ballot instead headed toward Buckland, a predominantly Iñupiat Eskimo village of 416 on the west bank of the river of the same name, about 75 miles southeast of Kotzebue. In 1982, Buckland voted to make itself a local-option community and ban the importation of alcohol.
Passengers on the boat said that Ballot was drunk. The white Carolina skiff docked and alcohol was unloaded -- a total of 7.5 liters of distilled spirits, around 19 gallons of malt beverage and 5.25 liters of wine.
Village police officers (VPOs) confronted them, having been tipped off that a boat with alcohol onboard would be arriving. VPO Lorin Geary told Ballot that he would be arrested, but Ballot refused and grabbed a rifle from a compartment. A witness told troopers she thought Ballot was going to shoot her and others on the river bank, and she began running. She said that while she fled, she saw Ballot cock a round, point the rifle at Geary, and shoot the officer. Whether Ballot shot the officer as he approached, or during a struggle on the boat, was a source of contention throughout Monday’s sentencing hearing.
Ballot then tried to start his boat and leave while Geary still had hold of him. With his partner moaning on the deck, Officer Murphy grabbed the man and tried to handcuff him. Ballot wrestled away from Murphy and headed toward town. The mayor of Buckland, who was rushing to the scene, tackled Ballot, who was arrested.
In September, Ballot plead guilty to attempted murder, felony importation of alcohol, and assault three in a plea deal.
Victim, defendant address the court
On Monday, Geary spoke first from Seattle, where he continues to receive medical treatment for his injuries. Geary said that Ballot was an “OK guy in the community,” and had volunteered for search and rescue teams. But when intoxicated, he was “completely different.”
Once Ballot sobered up, “he said he was sorry,” Geary said. “I told him: 'You need help.' ” He recommended the court impose the maximum sentence available in the plea deal.
Geary has had five surgeries and is receiving treatment at the University of Washington, where doctors are attempting to construct a new elbow for him from a cadaver; Geary's was shattered by gunfire. There’s only a slight chance that he will be able to use his arm again, Geary testified. More surgery scheduled for next month in Anchorage to remove bullet shards that remain lodged in Geary's lower abdomen.
“I just want to go forward with my life and continue to recuperate and heal,” he said.
Assistant Attorney General Gustaf Olson argued that the charge was the most serious type of attempted murder because Ballot tried to kill a peace officer. “That conduct is extremely serious.”
Olson pointed to several court cases in the 1990s in which Ballot was charged with discharging a firearm while intoxicated on two separate occasions, one in the presence of a police officer, the other during a burglary. He argued that Ballot had gone through the rehabilitation process to please the court, not out of a real desire to change.
Olson played audio of the incident, in which a skiff engine is audible, to demonstrate that Ballot attempted to flee. He showed images of Geary’s coat, which Sgt. Kid Chan of the Alaska State Troopers' investigations unit testified showed that the firearm had been discharged from roughly 30 inches away, not during a hand-to-hand struggle, as Ballot claimed had occurred.
Ballot had also caused fear to the other community members at the river that day, Olson said.
Olson said the “state asks that the court send a strong message to this community,” that “local law enforcements have jobs to do.”
Defense attorney Angela Greene argued that Geary had impaired judgment and had not intended to kill Geary that day. He could have fired all the bullets in the rifle, but didn’t, Greene said. The importation of the alcohol was not planned, she argued, but he “got into the (alcohol) and started drinking and that’s when his judgment went off.”
Greene called Bethel psychologist Dr. Lorin Bradbury, who testified that if Ballot abstained from alcohol, he would be a good candidate to rehabilitation. Bradbury diagnosed Ballot with “alcohol-use disorder,” previously classified as alcohol dependence. “Every time he drank," Bradbury said, "he was putting himself at risk.”
Greene also called Ballot’s father, Joseph Ballot, who testified that Gary had a great love for his family and children. When Gary’s wife died, several years before, it devastated him, said Joseph, a pastor. While Joseph was undergoing training to become a minister, he said he had warned Gary that the devil would try to disrupt their lives. “It’s Satan against me,” Joseph said to the court. “The trouble that he’s in, that’s the influence.”
When asked by Greene what he thought of Gary’s possible sentence, Joseph replied “I leave him simply at the mercy of the court system. That’s all I can say.”
Olson countered that Ballot’s plea deal in September, in which he plead guilty to attempted murder, meant that the shooting was intentional.
After the sides closed their arguments, Ballot addressed the court. “First I’d say sorry to Lorin and his family. What I did to him shouldn’t have happened,” Ballot said. “I did grab the gun,” Ballot acknowledged, but the incident “could have been avoided” if Geary had not jumped onto the boat to confront him. “I had no intention” of shooting Geary.
After hours of testimony and arguments, Judge Paul Roetman gave Ballot the maximum sentence available under the plea deal. “This is not an accidental shooting,” Roetman said. “This case is essentially an importation that went very, very bad.”
Geary is alive “by the grace of God,” after getting shot at close range, Roetman said. His sentence was fashioned not to send a message to the community, but to deter Ballot from reoffending.
Ballot was sentenced to 28.5 years for attempted murder, 1 year for assault three, and 6 months and $10,000 for importation. He was also sentenced with 20 years of suspended jail time, which, if he is arrested again, will bring him back to jail. Ballot will be eligible for parole after serving 20 years. He has the right to appeal.