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Thousands turn out to honor fallen troopers

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- A steady, muffled drumbeat sounded as the Seattle Police Pipes and Drums opened a memorial ceremony for two Alaska State Troopers killed in the line of duty May 1 in Tanana.

Approximately 4,000 people from across the state gathered in the Carlson Center Saturday afternoon to honor Sgt. Scott Johnson and Gabe Rich, who were slain while responding to a dispute in the Yukon River village.

Col. James Cockrell, director of the Alaska State Troopers, asked the audience not to focus on the selfish and cowardly act that took their lives, but on the way in which two brave and dedicated men served Alaska and their families.

“Focus on the vibrant lives that they lived,” he said.

Law enforcement personnel from across the country joined hundreds of Alaska officers on the Carslon Center floor -- officers from as far away as Washington, Montana, Arizona, even Florida.

The front of the stage was covered with flowers, while an Alaska flag hung in the background. Photographs of Johnson and Rich on the job adorned the stage.

A husband and father remembered

“An amazing dad raised me,” said Hayly Johnson about her father. “He taught me what the world was like and what evil things that it does. He left a lasting impression on everyone that you talk to.”

She said her dad did not like to smile for photographs and that the image of her dad on the stage showed a “sun-is-in-my-face smile.”

Hayly said she has thought about how he might walk her down the aisle someday, but “Our reality has changed.”

She said she will always honor him and the troopers; they are part of her family.

“We have to make the best of every day even if they don’t come home,” Hayly said.

Brandy Johnson, Scott’s widow, spoke of how she met the man who would become her best friend.

“I was a terribly shy girl. He practically was grinning form ear to ear when I enrolled in Tok High School. It was about my second day of school, I think, he asked me out to play basketball with him. This entailed watching him run up and down the court while I sat and watched, sitting in the bleachers,” she said.

Brandy said she thought he was a bit arrogant in high school -- especially when he said the boys’ basketball team was so much better than the girls -- but they reconnected in college and had three children during the 19 years they were married.

She said their oldest daughter was about 3 when Scott returned from an extended trip to Wyoming for K-9 dog training.

“When we met him upon his return at the airport, he got teary-eyed. He did not like leaving to go anywhere after that,” she said.

She said the house grew smaller as their family grew bigger, but Scott could build or fix anything. Building a house together was one of the highlights of their time together.

He worked long hours, and she was jealous “of the black rectangular mistress that he always talked to that came out of his pocket,” Brandy said. He found time for work and for his family and she praised his attitude as a father and husband.

“I found it strange when I went to his office. He was rigid, walked fast like a soldier and talked differently -- because at home he was softer, walked around in sweatpants, and his eyes actually blinked when he would speak,” she said.

He had empathy and compassion for others without regard for personal gain.

“Men of character like my husband make morally correct decisions,” she said.

Brandy said in a second life he would probably have become a Navy SEAL or a helicopter pilot.

“He wanted to do it all. I was looking forward to growing older with him,” she said.

UAF Police Chief Keith Mallard said Johnson was a caring and thoughtful husband and father who enjoyed hunting, fishing and carpentry.

"He was engaged in life, sucking the marrow from every day and that's how he should be remembered," he said.

A proud young trooper

Dusty Johnson, who runs the law enforcement training academy that Rich attended in Fairbanks, said he was a quick learner who did not repeat his mistakes.

He mentioned that Rich met Angie Taylor, his fiancee, when she was a North Pole Fire Department volunteer. After that, he made it a habit to stop by training activities. After she was in a car accident, Rich stepped in to help.

"All of his life had prepared him to be a caring, loving, compassionate father and husband and Gabe loved being a dad," he said.

Dave Rich, father of Gabe, thanked the community and all law enforcement personnel who risk their lives. He said the way the troopers and others have supported his family in the last week has been overwhelming.

“They are genuine, they are honest, they are caring right down to the last person,” said Rich. “And that made me realize why Gabe was so proud to be an Alaska State Trooper.”

Sgt. Josh Moore made reference to a statement made at a court hearing in which the accused shooter said he was sorry.

“When that young man pulled that trigger, he threw a rock into an ocean of blue. He cannot fathom the ripples caused by what he did. His ‘sorry’ means nothing and is downright insulting,” said Moore.

Johnson trained 33 K-9 teams over the years and received 43 letters of commendation.

Sgt. Michael Roberts said that Rich could find humor in everything and looked at the brighter side of life, adding that Rich was one of the stars of the National Geographic show about the troopers.

“I don’t know if he enjoyed the show itself as much as he enjoyed driving” the producer and cameraman around. “The three of them were out of control. And caused me a lot of stress as a supervisor,” he said.

Roberts said Rich was an excellent field training officer.

“He loved people dearly, and he loved to do right by them,” he said.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.


By DERMOT COLE
dermot@alaskadispatch.com