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'Alaska Marshals' track down Last Frontier fugitives in reality TV special

Ben Anderson
Courtesy Discovery Channel

The life of a U.S. Marshal isn’t always the most exciting. Oftentimes, it means days in a courtroom, monitoring those accused of federal crimes, keeping order and escorting prisoners to and from prison transport vehicles. It’s been said that for pilots and law enforcement officials, their jobs consist largely of hours of boredom intermixed with moments of sheer terror.

So maybe “Alaska Marshals,” a one-off special set to air Tuesday night on Discovery Channel, is a bit of an odd choice for TV. Especially given the seemingly never-ending glut of reality TV that has pervaded Alaska since Sarah Palin thrust the state into the national spotlight.

Apparently, the Alaska reality-TV market hasn’t been saturated yet.

The new hour-long special highlights the role of Marshals outside of the courtroom, where they often track down offenders with outstanding warrants, often through lengthy stakeouts.

According to Deputy U.S. Marshal Rochelle Liedike, who operates out of Anchorage with a team of other U.S. Marshals and has 16 years experience under her belt, the footage for the show was compiled over several months during the winter of 2011-2012.

That means the special took stakeouts and investigations that sometime lasted hours, days or weeks and compressed them into a commercial-friendly 45 minutes.

Liedike said that the Marshals’ jobs definitely vary from day to day.

“It depends on the assignment we have,” Liedike said on Friday. “Every day our mission could be completely different. Like today, we’re doing more in court, and not as much fugitive apprehension like we like to do.”

Not that those court days can't have their moments of excitement, too: earlier this year, it was some of the same U.S. Marshals featured in the show who took down accused kidnapper and killer Israel Keyes when he managed to break his leg irons and tried to flee the courtroom. Keyes managed to jump into the spectator area of the courtroom before being surrounded, pinned down, and hit with a taser. Only the courthouse's closed-circuit system captured that escape attempt, though.

Occasionally, the job can also mean traveling to some of the states far-flung locations, and one of the U.S. Marshals’ ongoing assignments is tracking down sex offenders who have failed to register or who have outstanding warrants, which Liedike describes as a “huge initiative” for the marshals service. In the special, she and another marshal travel to Bethel to track down one such offender.

“A lot of our fugitive investigations lead us into rural areas, like my case in Bethel,” she said. “It’s typical that we would be requested to come out, go into the villages and work with state troopers a lot.”

Of course, the show comes replete with the breathy, intimidating narration that seems to accompany every reality program set in the Last Frontier. The narrator calls Alaska “the perfect place to hide from the law,” and refers to Bethel as a “desolate outpost” in the Alaska wilderness.

“Hundreds of fugitives per year hide out in Alaska, thinking they can escape justice,” the narrator says ominously in the opening sequence of the show.

That much, Liedike said, is true.

“That’s actually probably quite accurate, “ she said. “We have a lot of what we call collateral lead requests that come up from down south, asking for help finding people they think might have come to Alaska. (Criminals) think it’s this huge vast endless forest that they can come up and disappear in. They think this is somewhere that they think they can come and hide.”

So is it fun to watch? That depends: the marshals themselves are a likeable enough, if decidedly businesslike, bunch. Liedike said that several marshals, operating out of the U.S. District Courthouse in Anchorage, were uncertain about having their jobs documented for public consumption.

“Amongst the deputies that were going to be being followed, we were originally like ‘oh no, heck no, we don’t want a camera in our face’,” Liedike said.

One of the marshals who seems to take particularly well to the cameras is Kevin Guinn, the most experienced marshal on the team, according to Liedike, and one of the most initially unsure about the cameras.

Guinn often briefs the team on their assignments before they head out, and has a folksy personality that you might not expect from the stoic guy you could see standing watch in a federal courtroom.

“We got our guy, I’m a happy pig,” Guinn says after they finally manage to track down an offender named Bobby Thompson -- who they repeatedly try to capture during the course of the show, missing him each time. “You can’t beat that with a stick.”

The best part of the show is right before the takedowns, when multiple marshal vehicles sit around a suspect’s vehicle or residence, and a handy computer graphic demonstrates the way the many vehicles will cut off avenues of escape.

Does “Alaska Marshals” represent the tipping point for Alaska’s reality TV? Probably not, and Liedike says she can see the appeal, especially since Sarah Palin’s meteoric rise to national fame as the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate.

“That’s what first started it,” Liedike said of Palin. “We’ve gotten several requests to do shows up here. There’s a lot of interest about Alaska, and there’s always interest in doing law enforcement shows.”

This appears to the be the last you’ll see of “Alaska Marshals” though, which faces competition from another, longer-running Alaska law-enforcement reality show in “Alaska State Troopers,” and another program documenting U.S. Marshals on the hunt for fugitives, “Manhunters.”

But at least we learned one thing -- there may actually be such a thing as too much reality TV, even in Alaska.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com