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Small-town murder: A death in Talkeetna still makes no sense

Craig Medred

1123-talkeetna1More than a few people living in the neighborhood along Cummings Road and Mercedes Drive north of the small town of Talkeetna knew that the world of one-time hunting guide Sam Clark was coming apart this fall.

Dirk Fast, a neighbor who worked as a longshoreman in Anchorage 115 miles to the south, was one of them. He tried to help. It was the kind of thing Fast was prone to do. It cost him his life.

On a Friday night at the end of October in the bar at the Latitude 62 restaurant near the heart of the community of about 800, Clark shot Fast dead. No one will probably ever know for sure why. The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. When it starts misfiring, no mechanic can really, truly diagnose what is going on inside.

It was a festive night before the shooting. New England singer and songwriter Cheryl Wheeler was in town to perform a concert at the restaurant. Her show was sold out. The people there were shocked to hear the explosive bang of a handgun coming from the adjacent bar shortly after 9 p.m.

Court documents state what is known factually about the shooting: Samuel E. Clark, 40, and Fast, 53, were at a table discussing the former's difficulties in trying to move south to Missouri for work. Clark had driven to the Alaska border only to be denied entry to Canada because of a past drunk driving charge. Everyone seems to agree on this part of the story.

What happened next is somewhat more in doubt.

"Clark indicated that during the conversation, Fast began ‘getting fidgety' and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, rubbed his leg and raised his shirt up," according to an affidavit filed in court by Alaska State Trooper Tony Wegrzyn. "Clark indicated he thought that Fast was attempting to pull a weapon,"

Wegrzyn got a somewhat different version of the story from Latitude bartender Ruby Fortner.

"Fortner stated that Clark came into the bar, ordered an iced tea and sat at the table near the end of the bar. Shortly thereafter, Fortner observed Fast get up from his seat at the bar, walk over to Clark and engage Clark in what she described as a ‘friendly conversation,'" according to his affidavit. "After approximately 15 minutes, she heard a gunshot.''

Troopers and various witnesses to what took place after the shooting say Clark then made a comment to Fortner to the effect that Fast had "killed his family,'' or "the f... killed my family.''

But Fast hadn't killed anyone. Whatever killing had gone on before that night, those most familiar with Clark believe, had happened in the dark reaches of Clark's mind. His grasp on reality, they said, had been spiraling out of control for a year.

"Everybody knew he was depressed last winter," said neighbor Mike Sterling, who lived just down the road from Clark and Fast on East Cummings. "Everybody worked to do things to get him outside."

Neighbors tried to help Clark deal with the darkness

Fast was the ringleader. He understood what the dying light and shortening days of the early Alaska winter can do to a man. He'd grown up in the North, and many are the tales of men who hole up in a cabin in the dark only to go crazy. Better to be out and moving.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, as the mental health professionals call it, can prove difficult for mentally well-adjusted Alaskans. Psychiatrists warn that a variation on SAD can seriously affect those already suffering from some sort of bipolar disorder.

"Dirk enlisted him in little chores and things like that," Sterling said. Sterling, a national educator of the year award winner, tried to encourage Clark to stay active with his art.

"I knew he was a carver," Sterling said. "So I took a big old piece of soapstone over to him. He carved a beautiful bear out of it. Billy had him doing things, too."

Billy is longtime Alaska guide Billy Fitzgerald. He had previously employed Clark as an assistant guide and once hired Clark to help on the Discovery reality show "Out of the Wild -- The Alaska Experiment." Fitzgerald did not want to talk about Clark or the shooting. Both Clark and Fast were his friends. The tragedy, he said, hits too close to home in too many ways. A lot of others in the small community feel the same way.

"I can't stop thinking about it," said Jerome Longo, another neighbor who knew both men. "(Sam) had left town. He was on his way to Missouri. He got turned around. He came back and bought a couple guns.

"I know no one saw this coming, but he (Clark) personally had called the cops a week before and told them he was thinking about killing people."

Some in Talkeetna say Clark had drawn up a hit list. This could not be confirmed. Troopers are still investigating the case.

Public defender John Richard in Palmer, who is representing Clark, said he still hasn't been able to find out if the reports about Clark calling troopers are true.


"We don't even have a police report yet," he said.

That hasn't, however, stopped folks in Talkeetna from talking about who was on Clark's "hit list," and whether the shooting of Fast might have been prevented.

"To the best of my knowledge, I was not on the list," said neighbor Yukon Don Tanner, a Matanuska Telephone Association safety investigator who lived three houses away from Fast. "Dirk was my friend. He was a good neighbor."

The men often went to the Fairview Inn in town to enjoy a beer and conversation. Tanner tells funny stories about some of their antics there.

Tanner, however, also has a close friend who is a trooper, and he questions whether the authorities really could have done anything. If they rushed to arrest everyone acting odd in Talkeetna, Tanner said, they'd be arresting a lot of of people. Tanner's trooper friend observed, he said, "we get calls like this every week."

"Our system," attorney Richard said, "isn't really set up to deal with mental health issues."

Not before they happen. Not after. Richards believes all indications are that Clark, to put it bluntly, went crazy. He's not sure how his defense will handle that in court.

"Alaska doesn't really have an insanity plea," Richards said.

The insane go to jail just like everyone else. The Alaska Division of Corrections, Richards noted, says 34 percent of the people under its control suffer from mental health problems.

Could intervention have kept Clark from falling down the ‘rabbit hole'?

There have been some efforts to deal with this problem in the past. The state in 2004 established what is called the "Coordinated Resources Project" to spot misdemeanor defendants with mental health disorders.

"The Coordinated Resources Project (CRP) is a voluntary ‘therapeutic' or ‘problem-solving' court (that)...hears cases involving individuals diagnosed with mental disabilities who are charged with misdemeanor offenses and focuses on their treatment and rehabilitation," the state court website says. The mental health court, Richard said, was supposed to help spot people with problems such as Clark's "so they don't end up like this. I just don't know that (Clark) has ever come to the attention of the court system."

He has now. He sits behind bars at the Mat-Su Pretrial facility charged with first-degree murder while residents of Talkeetna mourn Fast, a man about whom no one has ever voiced an unkind word. Neighbors can only wonder how this could be.

"(Sam) was much better this summer," Sterling said. "He worked all summer. He got better. It's hard to imagine (this)." And yet it happened.

"Sam apparently called the troopers several times in the weeks before the shooting," Sterling said. "He told them he'd already killed some people and was afraid he'd do more. ... The dilemma is, ‘What do you do?'

"There is the fundamental question."

"It's a rabbit hole," Longo said. "Dirk was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He may have just said the wrong word."

There is no telling what triggers people to act once they stop thinking rationally. Troopers reported that when they stopped Clark shortly after the shooting they found him wearing a shoulder holster. It was empty, but a handgun and a rifle were in his car.

He made no effort to resist arrest.

Some in Talkeetna now believe that they know what Clark meant to say as he was leaving the bar: By killing Fast, he'd killed his own family.

But there is really no telling what goes on in someone's mind when it stops working normally.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.