Wasilla man killed in police chase earned mention in 'Into the Wild'

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Gordon Samel, the suspected drunken driver killed Sunday night in an officer-initiated shooting, lived a complicated life.

Samel, described by relatives as a big-hearted outdoorsman who struggled with bipolar disorder, had a 30-year criminal history and was under court orders not to drink following a September driving under the influence arrest, court records show.

The 52-year-old from Wasilla also played a small but pivotal role in a piece of Alaska history: He was the moose hunter who in 1992 found the body of Christopher McCandless, the ill-fated 24-year-old wanderer immortalized in author Jon Krakauer's 1996 nonfiction bestseller "Into the Wild."

Samel's death came at the end of a brief but chaotic police chase that came to a stop near the Wasilla Sears, north of the Parks Highway.

An Alaska State Trooper and a Wasilla police officer opened fire on his white Chevrolet pickup just after 9 p.m. Sunday at the intersection of East Whispering Woods Drive and Seward Meridian Parkway, troopers said in a statement issued Monday.

Thirty minutes earlier, someone had reported Samel as a possible drunken driver, troopers said. A trooper came up and knocked on his truck, but he drove off, heading the wrong way up the Parks Highway before turning onto side streets and ending up on Whispering Woods. The truck spun in a circle when it got to Seward Meridian.

Hemmed in by patrol cars, Samel put his pickup in reverse and drove directly toward a Wasilla police officer approaching on foot, according to the statement.

A trooper and the officer fired at the pickup, killing Samel and injuring an adult male passenger who was treated and released for an arm wound, troopers said.

Troopers plan to release the names of the trooper and police officer on Wednesday, but otherwise no new information is expected, spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said Tuesday.

Relatives described Samel as a gifted mechanic and body man with two adult children, a son and a daughter.

Samel's mother, Roberta Lincoln, said her son was well-liked, hardworking and "very Alaskan" in his love of camping, hunting and fishing but prone to strange behavior if he didn't take his bipolar medications.

Lincoln wondered if Samel was off his meds rather than drinking on Sunday night. The family has many questions about what happened that night, she said.

Lincoln wondered why the trooper and officer shot at the truck instead of using a Tazer on her son or trying to shoot out his tires.

"I'm sure he was probably trying to get away but not run over somebody," she said. "He would never do that."

At the time of his death, Samel was still under court-ordered sentencing conditions for a DUI arrest in September.

After picking up two hitchhikers on Sept. 23, Samel crashed into a ditch at the intersection of Palmer and Wasilla-Fishhook roads on Sept. 23, according to a sworn affidavit from troopers Sgt. Daniel Cox.

Palmer District Court Judge William Estelle ordered Samel to pay a $1,500 fine and serve 30 days in jail, credited to time already served, according to the Dec. 20 sentencing document. Along with ordering him not to drink, the judge revoked his license for 90 days and said he had to use an Ignition Interlock Device -- a breath sample is needed before starting the vehicle -- for six months.

Samel was also participating in a court program for defendants with a diagnosed mental illness, according to documents in the DUI case file.

Samel's brother, Steve Samel, said Tuesday that his bipolar disorder gave Gordon "issues his entire life, but in between he was a real asset to the family."

The family has only received limited information about the shooting, he said. A trooper, citing an ongoing investigation, wouldn't say how far away the pickup was from the officer and the medical examiner refused to tell him how many times his brother was shot.

Gordon Samel was no stranger to law enforcement, with a criminal history dating back to 1983, according to a state database that lists 19 arrests under his name, with convictions or plea agreements on charges of reckless driving, assault, drug possession, theft, criminal mischief. He pleaded no contest to a prior DUI charge in 1994.

Troopers in 2001 said Samel went on a cocaine-fueled rampage in a Wasilla neighborhood, ranting about killing all the cats in the world, throwing garbage cans and rocks, and partially setting afire a two-story home after pouring gasoline on it.

Back in 1992, Samel's sometimes crooked path brought him to a brush with history.

Samel was one of three moose hunters who came across McCandless, dead for two and a half weeks, in a remote area near Denali National Park and Preserve after a failed attempt to survive the winter in a 1940s-era Fairbanks city bus.

It was Samel who found McCandless' body, as he told the Daily News that same year. The story is also told in a chapter of "Into the Wild."

The trio of hunters -- "contumacious Alaskans with a special fondness for driving motor vehicles where motor vehicles aren't really designed to be driven," as Krakauer puts it -- forded the fast-moving Teklanika River in their trucks, then dynamited a series of beaver dams to clear the flooded trail ahead for their ATVs.

When the hunting party got to the bus, they encountered a spooked couple from Anchorage too upset by a chilling SOS note and "the overpowering odor of decay" to get any closer, according to an account in the book.

"Samel steeled himself to take a look," Krakauer wrote. Peering inside a window, he saw a Remington rifle, a box of shells, paperback books, torn jeans, an expensive backpack and a blue sleeping bag that appeared to have something inside it.

"'I stood on a stump,'" Samel says, as related by Krakauer, "'reached through a back window, and gave the bag a shake. There was definitely something in it, but whatever it was didn't weigh much. It wasn't until I walked around to the other side and saw a head sticking out that I knew for certain what it was.'"

Samel wanted to get the body out of there immediately, his brother said Tuesday. But others at the bus disagreed. Another hunter got help and the assorted groups waited for troopers.

"He was kind of proud of the fact that maybe he helped somehow but it wasn't a turning point for him or anything," Steve Samel said. "He hunted and fished a lot."

A state investigation into Sunday's shooting continues.

At its conclusion, a report forwarded from the Alaska Bureau of Investigation to the state's Office of Special Prosecutions will be used to determine whether the use of deadly force was justified.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 352-6705.