Man gets 10 years in prison for beating death of friend

Zaz Hollander

PALMER -- A 47-year-old Wasilla man who beat his buddy to death in an alcohol-induced stupor behind the Mug-Shot Saloon in Wasilla last fall was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison.

During his sentencing hearing in Palmer Superior Court on Friday, John Martin called 60-year-old Russell Metcalf his best friend -- the guy he wandered the streets with, found places to stay warm in the winter with, drank and fought with.

The two knew each other for 14 years.

"I wish Russell was still kicking," Martin said to Judge Eric Smith. "He didn't want to see me in trouble for this any more than I want to see him in the grave."

Martin last year told Wasilla police he blacked out and didn't know exactly what happened Oct. 1, the night Metcalf died, according to charging documents.

Martin said that night he refused when Metcalf asked for help persuading the Mug-Shot's owner to let them keep the trailer they shared in a vacant lot behind the bar, according to a police affidavit filed with the documents.

He heard someone behind him as he walked back to the trailer, turned, and was hit in the mouth by Metcalf, according to the affidavit. The next thing he remembered, his friend was on the ground and his fist was cocked as if to hit Metcalf again.

Martin repeated that part of the story in the courtroom Friday.

"I asked him, I said, 'What happened, Russell?' " Martin told the judge. "I thought somebody else had beat him up. He's looking pretty bad. He told me, 'Well, I hit you. You hit me back.' "

Martin said he helped Metcalf into the trailer, went to get some water, and found him dead.

He didn't turn himself in, he said, but he encouraged friends to report Metcalf's death.

According to the affidavit, police found Metcalf's body with "substantial trauma to his head" about two days later. Officers spotted Martin nearby and he admitted killing Metcalf. He had tossed his bloody clothes in a Dumpster.

Martin pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Russell's death about two months later, prosecutor Kerry Corliss said.

Martin's criminal history stems from "him getting drunk and not acting well," his court-appointed lawyer Lyle Stohler said. "The unfortunate thing is it has led to regrets and certainly this is the biggest example of that."

During the hearing Smith called the circumstances surrounding Metcalf's death "horribly sad" but also a "horrible crime."

"Mr. Martin's obviously quite repentant, but I think your lawyer's right," the judge said. "The only way you're going to get out of this mess is to quit drinking."

Smith gave Martin the sentence recommended by both attorneys: 14 years, with four suspended and 10 to serve, a little less with good behavior.

Martin asked for the death penalty but noted that it wasn't available in Alaska.

The judge handed down five years of probation on conditions including anger management, alcohol counseling and a mental health evaluation.

He deviated from the prosecutor's request for 10 years of probation based on Martin's extensive criminal record. A state database shows nearly 50 arrests including assaults, theft and disorderly conduct, mostly in Fairbanks or Kenai courts.

Martin was also charged in a 1992 burglary in Washington state for which he received a 10-year extension on his probation, Corliss said.

A friend of both men sat through Friday's hearing, occasionally wiping her eyes.

The woman, who didn't give her name, later said Metcalf surprised Martin when he hit him with a metal-tipped cane that October night. She said Martin was in the best place he could be -- away from alcohol.

She still looked haunted, six months later.