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Gunfire in Alaska village delays governor's visit

Jill Burke

Gov. Sean Parnell's plane ride Monday beyond the easy comforts of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, met with an unexpected delay.

Maybe it should have been expected. Or at least predictable. Parnell, governor to all Alaskans, rich and poor, city folk and far-flung rural residents, Native and non-Native, was forced to cancel his visit to Ambler, a riverside community of about 270 people that straddles the Arctic Circle, after a gunman opened fire at the air strip.

Parnell hadn't left the nearby village of Kobuk when news of the gunfire grounded his plans. He'd flown to Kobuk to get acquainted with a hydroelectric power-generation project, and thought he'd swing over to Ambler to shake hands and say hello since he was in the neighborhood, according to spokesperson Sharon Leighow. 

The visit brought Parnell face to face with the struggles rural Alaskans confront every day, struggles he has pledged to ease as a cornerstone of his administration:

• The high cost of power and heat in communities disconnected from the road system and reliant on diesel fuel and home heating oil;

• The plight of Alaska women, children and families, who live in some of the most dangerous places in America. Alaska consistently has the highest rates of rape in the nation. Family violence is a silent epidemic in Alaska, one Parnell has taken on by telling his own story and working to inspire the grassroots "Choose Respect" movement.

"We can, as a state, end this epidemic of violence in one generation," Parnell told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce in February.

A lack of law enforcement in the state's smallest and most-vulnerable communities has long afflicted Alaska. Parnell is not the first governor to take it on, and he’s not likely to be the last.

Ambler is one of the communities in Alaska without a resident Alaska State Trooper, or an unarmed Village Public Safety Officer. Ambler also recently lost its Village Police Officer, according to Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters. That officer was shot at in June. The suspect arrested in the shooting and charged with attempted murder was found hung in his jail cell, presumed to have taken his own life.

On Monday, a trooper happened to be in Ambler investigating an unrelated domestic-violence report, and he was able to deal with the gunman on the day of the governor’s visit. Troopers regularly travel to smaller communities from regional hubs to conduct law enforcement matters. But this visit was intentionally coordinated to sync up with the governor’s trip. “It is not uncommon for us to attempt to help escort the governor and help with logistics,” Peters said.

While the trooper spoke with a woman about the domestic-violence, a "man drove by, then headed to the air field and started firing his weapon," according to the Anchorage Daily News.

By mid afternoon, the alleged gunman, Sean Johnson, was under arrest and scheduled for arraignment in Kotzebue. And Parnell's Ambler visit was back on, according to Leighow.

The Ambler incident was the latest public act of lawlessness in a small western Alaska community. About a week ago in Stebbins, a group of teenagers allegedly stole four-wheelers and taunted a foreman with racially charged threats, forcing a work crew Sunday to pull out of town, temporarily abandoning a $10 million tank-farm project that's nearly finished. A few days later, the company, Anchorage-based STG Inc., returned to finish work on the project.

Stebbins is an island village located just off the Bering Sea coast and southeast of the Gold Rush-era town of Nome.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com