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Friends remember troopers killed in the line of duty

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
Alaska Department of Public Safety / Alaska Dispatch illustration

Alaska State Troopers Gabriel "Gabe" Rich and Sgt. Patrick "Scott" Johnson were both passionate about their jobs and deeply connected to their communities as well.

Rich was a former hockey and football player who was passionate about the outdoors, his family and making people laugh. Johnson, who grew up in Tok, was a standout wrestler turned inspirational coach, a "by-the-book" law enforcement officer who cared deeply about the job, his friends and his family.

Both men were killed Thursday responding to an incident in the small Interior Alaska village of Tanana. The suspect, 19-year-old Nathanial Kangas, has been taken into police custody and will be arraigned in Fairbanks Saturday. The bodies of troopers Rich and Johnson were taken to the state medical examiner's office Friday. No date has been set for a memorial service. To date, 16 troopers have been killed in the line of duty in Alaska.

Scott Johnson: Teaching teens to believe in themselves

Sgt. Johnson was the kind of guy who didn't do anything half-heartedly, according to friend and former wrestling co-coach Walt Armstrong.

Armstrong now serves as the activities director at North Pole High School, a small bedroom community outside of Fairbanks. Johnson worked at the school as an assistant wrestling coach from 1996 until 1999, Armstrong said.

But before Johnson came to North Pole, his wrestling reputation preceded him. He'd been wrestling since he was 5 years old, according to Missy Poeschel, activities director at West Valley High School in Fairbanks. In eighth grade, Johnson represented Team Alaska at Western Regional Wrestling Championships in Idaho, placing first for his age and weight class. That ranked him fourth in the nation at that time, she said.

Johnson went on to be a three-time Alaska regional champion and two-time state champion wrestler from Tok. After graduating from Tok High School in 1987, he competed at Southern Oregon University. But after placing third in the nation, Johnson sacrificed his final year of collegiate eligibility to take a job in Barrow as a North Slope Borough Police officer.

"He'd proven he was tough on the mat, he'd represented his school well," Armstrong said. "He said 'I have nothing to prove. I don't need to go out there to get a better trophy.'"

With that, Johnson headed to Barrow to work for borough police and coach wrestling. In 1993, he began his career with the Alaska State Troopers and moved to Fairbanks, where he would spend his entire 20-year trooper career.

When Armstrong heard that Johnson was in Fairbanks, he immediately considered him as a possible assistant in the fledgling wrestling program at North Pole, which was rebuilding. Johnson's passion for the sport showed as the team won regionals in 1998 and never placed lower than sixth at the state tournament under his tenure.

"He had that personality where he just drew kids in," Armstrong said. "He was a great teacher, so confident, so accomplished, but so humble about what he did."

The students who wrestled under him saw him as a role model. Armstrong said several wrestlers who were coached by Johnson went on to become Alaska State Troopers themselves.

"He touched a lot of lives," Armstrong said.

Just last year he began coaching again, serving as an assistant at West Valley High School, Poeschel said. He had recently applied to take over as the squad's head coach. He just wanted to give back, she said.

"He expected a lot of (his wrestlers), but he believed in them, and instilled the kids to believe in themselves," she said. "He was just great."

During his time as a trooper, Johnson had several duties, including a patrol trooper, field-training officer, canine officer, instructor and supervisor of the Fairbanks area narcotics team before serving as a rural unit sergeant. He is survived by his parents, siblings, wife and three daughters, ages 16, 14 and 12.

Gabe Rich: A protector with a sense of humor

Friends say Gabe Rich, 26, was destined to become a trooper long before he joined the ranks. He was his friend's protector, the "mature one" according to longtime friend Charlie Britt. A muscular, strong man and an avid outdoorsman, Britt said whenever they were snowmachining or traveling in the backcountry, Rich had the sense to make sure everyone stayed safe.

"He always prepared for everything that he did," Britt said from Fairbanks Friday.

For example, Britt described a time Rich literally carried him out of a "sketchy hospital" in Mexico after Britt had been hit by a taxi while standing on a street corner. Rich showed up first and cared for his longtime friend -- they'd known each other since they started playing hockey together when they were 5 -- while on vacation in Cancun following high school graduation in 2006. When the hospital tried to con the guys for money, Rich threw the scraped-up Britt over his shoulder and took him back to the resort to receive proper medical attention.

"He got us out of trouble," Britt said. "He was always the greatest guy you could possibly imagine."

He was also a dynamic storyteller with a great sense of humor. Friend and fellow Lathrop High School grad John Thies, the son of Howie Thies, founder of the Arctic Man ski-and-snowmachine race, said he last saw Rich at the race in the HooDoo Mountains, where he was working as a trooper.

Thies said in a meeting with troopers before the race -- known for its rowdy, party-like atmosphere -- Rich tried to bring some levity by cracking a few jokes. "Meeting with troopers is always a serious thing, but he tried to lighten it up," Thies said. "He always brought a smile to people's faces."

Britt agreed.

"If you were having a bad day, you could count on Gabe to cheer you up and make you laugh," Britt said.

They both agreed that Rich was destined to be in law enforcement from an early age. According to troopers, Rich spent four years as a patrol officer with the North Pole Police Department before joining the troopers in 2011. His time in the Interior Rural Unit was set to end soon -- Rich was set to work for the Alaska Wildlife Troopers in Juneau effective June 1.

Rich is survived by his parents, fiancée, and 1-year-old son. Rich was also in the process of adopting his fiancée's 8-year-old son.

According to troopers, two Wells Fargo bank accounts have been set up to support Johnson and Rich’s families. All funds donated will go to the families. Sergeant Scott Johnson Memorial Fund’s account number is 6157331387. Trooper Gabe Rich Memorial Fund’s account number is 6157331379.

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