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Murder charges filed in Port Protection 'float house' death

Austin Baird

Alaska State Troopers have reported a murder in Port Protection, and the state has filed charges against 39-year-old Ronald O'Neil.

Troopers said they found Tracy G. Simpson, 54, dead with "significant facial trauma" and "a small circular injury" on the left side of his torso early Monday morning -- Simpson was in a blue-and-white skiff behind a "float house" owned by O'Neil at the south end of the bay that wraps the length of the town. 

Float houses, by the description of a longtime Port Protection resident, should not be confused with a house boat: instead they are homes built on logs, tied to land and anchored in one place, often as a way to dodge rent and add a sense of mobility. Dozens of the structures line the coast of the small Prince of Wales Island community of Port Protection and there are countless more around Southeast Alaska.

Court filings by the state claim that Dave Pendarvis, also of Port Protection, saw O'Neil staggering from his float house covered in "copious" amounts of blood Sunday night around 8:30 p.m. A troopers report shows that Pendarvis claims O'Neil admitted to him that he killed Simpson by "stomping" him to death. Pendarvis also claimed that he saw the corpse in the back of the float house and subsequently notified authorities.

Pendarvis eventually led Grant Miller, a state trooper based in Klawock, to the scene around 4 a.m. Monday. By the time Pendarvis and Miller arrived, O'Neil allegedly had moved Simpson's body from the float house to the blue-and-white skiff, which he was attempting to drive away. Troopers take that as a sign he was trying to cover his tracks and get away with the body, though O'Neil's attorney says he claims to have been headed to a neighbor's house so he could call troopers himself.

O'Neil told troopers he remembered waking up and stumbling over Simpson's body, but that he could not remember anything else that happened. He was taken into custody by Miller and a couple of other troopers and is now being held in Ketchikan Correctional Center on charges of murder, driving under the influence and tampering with physical evidence. His bail is set at $100,000 and he is likely to appear before a judge to be arraigned Thursday morning. 

A portable breath test administered by troopers allegedly shows that O'Neil's blood alcohol content was found to be 0.113, which is well above the legal limit to operate a boat or any other type of vehicle. O'Neil apparently didn't try to hide his inebriation from troopers: when asked to rate his drunkenness the night of the alleged crime on a scale of 1-to-10, he said he was "an 11" and "Simpson was a two."

Diane Thoben and Sharon Zink, both of the Ketchikan division of the state Public Defender Agency, have been assigned to represent O'Neil. Thoben said that O'Neil's initial plea is "not guilty." The facts of the case remain unclear until an examination of Simpson's body has been completed by medical examiners in Anchorage.

"The one party that could know [what happened] was too drunk to remember anything," said Jack Mason, who has owned the only store in Port Protection for more than 27 years.

Mason -- who said he has previously employed O'Neil, Pendarvis and Simpson at the Trading Post --said the community is in shock at the loss of a good man possibly at the hand of another man he sees as good. 

"Whatever happened, this is a very, very sad thing," Mason said. "The deceased is one of those types of [people that] was there to help you anytime. He's helped everyone at one time or another. And the accused is just as well-liked around here."

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Contact Austin Baird at austin(at)alaskadispatch.com