Trooper Terrence Shanigan took cover behind a birch tree while his partner, Wildlife Trooper Mark Agnew, covered him from a setback position. Shanigan yelled for the men inside to put down their guns and come outside.
"Fuck you!" came a voice from inside the cabin. The New Jersey accent was unmistakable. "I want a satellite phone and some weed!"
The armed standoff would last an hour. Inside the cabin were a stockpile of stolen guns, a bucket of ammunition, and two young men suspected in a spree of destruction that ended with as many as 25 Matanuska-Susitna Borough cabins burglarized, ransacked and shot full of holes.
The standoff was the climax of a three-week-long adventure that landed two brothers, 21-year-old Benjamin Cross and 23-year-old Jeffrey Indellicati, in the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility facing charges in three states that could net them as much as 40 years behind bars just for their Alaska crimes.
This is the story of two brothers, born of the same mother but adopted by different families. It's the story of a cracked safe robbed of $50,000 in New Jersey, a sex- and drug-fueled tour of Puerto Rico and Texas, and a string of smashed-up cabins in Alaska. It's the story of two brothers from the East Coast living like rap stars on stolen money, and their adventure in the wilds of Alaska.
This is also the story of two Alaska State Troopers who flew, hiked, and canoed through the frozen backcountry to run the brothers down.
It began with a safe
Lisa Dawson had three children. The oldest, Jeffrey, was born in 1986; he was followed soon after by a younger sister, Alexis, and a brother, Benjamin, born in 1988 while the family lived in a homeless shelter in eastern Pennsylvania, across the border from Trenton, N.J.
All three children were adopted by different New Jersey families when they were very young. Jeffrey became Jeff Indellicati, and Benjamin became Ben Cross. The brothers saw each other on Christmas and Easter, playing rough even as small children. Ben laughs when he tells a story about Jeff, then 7, pulling a compound bow and aiming it into his 5-year-old brother's face. Jeff's mom freaked out, and the boys didn't see each other again for a year or two.
In 2008 Ben was 19, living in Florida, and enjoying the girls and the sun. He started breaking into apartments to steal computers and guns, which landed him in jail. When he got out in November 2009, his sister gave him a ride back to New Jersey -- in violation of his parole.Back home, Ben started working for a company that set up safety nets at construction sites, and he got Jeff a job at the same place. Then, on April 9, 2010, a 5-foot-tall safe went missing, stolen from the brothers' employer. The safe was found busted wide open in a wildlife preserve, emptied of $50,000 in cash and $2.3 million in certificates of deposit. New Jersey detectives think Ben and Jeff were the ones who cracked it.
When the police started calling to talk about the cracked safe, the brothers blew out of town. The stolen cash made travel easy. They landed in Puerto Rico, where they partied hard through cities like San Juan and Mayaguez, blowing thousands of dollars on prostitutes, cocaine, and marijuana.
In a sober moment, the brothers decided they didn't want to end up in a Puerto Rican jail. After failing to convince a boat owner to ferry them to Venezuela, the brothers flew first class to Houston, Texas.
It was a night at a strip club near the airport in Houston that Jeff calls the highlight of their trip. The brothers slammed Jagermeister and Patron. Ben wore a sweatshirt with "Jersey Royalty" stamped on the back in fake diamonds. He capped off the evening by going to bed with an exotic dancer from New Jersey.
Sitting in Mat-Su Pretrial wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit and a purple undershirt, Jeff tried to describe a Filipina stripper who climbed to the top of a pole and slid back to the stage, upside-down, in a way so magical that he threw thousands of dollars at her feet.
"She was five three, maybe 120 pounds," he said. "Dark."
So she looked like Shakira?
"No, bigger..." he said, holding out his hands.
Like Christina Aguilera?
"Nah, more like the chick in ‘Fantastic Four.'"
"Yes," Jeff said, smiling. "Like Jessica Alba, but darker."
The pair came to Alaska "to get away," Ben said. He figured Alaska had far fewer cops per square mile than New Jersey or Texas, so they flew to Anchorage and checked into the Arctic Inn Motel near the airport. They bought a van, a full-size blue Ford from the 1980s, and they kept up their strip club habit, though they toned down the high roller act.
They spent $5,000 at an outdoor store in Anchorage, buying backpacks and everything else they thought they'd need out in the woods -- so much gear they tipped the cleaning lady $50 to clear all the boxes out of their Motel room.
The brothers also started asking around about anybody who might have a remote cabin for rent. Ben said they found an old guy named Buzz who agreed to rent them his cabin in Skwentna: $1,500 for 45 days. So in late April the brothers paid Rust's Flying Service to take them and Buzz out to Skwentna, about 65 miles northwest of Anchorage. After they landed on the lake in front of the cabin, Buzz got them settled in and then flew back to Anchorage with the pilot, leaving Ben and Jeff alone in the roadless and remote Alaska backcountry.
A trail of destruction
About a week after Ben and Jeff landed in Skwentna, the Alaska State Troopers started getting phone calls about vandalized cabins and frequent gunfire. On April 28 Trooper Terrence Shanigan and Wildlife Trooper Mark Agnew flew an A-Star helicopter out to Skwentna to investigate the damage. Shanigan is a longtime Alaskan who has been hunting and fishing in the Skwentna area since the 1970s, and Agnew, a pilot, knows the area well and serves on the troopers' Special Emergency Reaction Team -- the trooper equivalent of SWAT.
Shanigan said when he and Agnew reached the vandalized cabins they found an "overwhelming" and "malicious" amount of destruction. Stone countertops had been smashed with hammers, four wheelers had been ridden until they got stuck in the woods and were abandoned, and TVs and computers had been shot. In fact, the inside of many of the cabins had been shot up with pistols, shotguns and rifles.
"It's almost beyond comprehension how any individual could have such hate and disdain for others," Shanigan said.
When Anchorage resident John Witte flew out to his Skwentna cabin on April 28, he was surprised to see spent brass shells carpeting the floor. That's strange, he thought.
Then he noticed the bullet holes.
The brothers had used the inside of Witte's weekend getaway as a shooting range, tearing up the walls, the couch, and the TVs and computer with a .44 and a shotgun. Two of Witte's trophies, the mounted heads of a Dall sheep and a Sitka black-tailed deer, had been shot clear off the wall and were lying on the floor, surrounded by spent shells.
Witte said he felt "completely violated."
"You also wonder what kind of guys have such a complete void of civility," he said. "(They're) bad guys, man."
Witte said his cabin suffered $10,000 to $15,000 in damage -- but the spree had an impact beyond physical destruction. The brothers terrorized remote Skwentna, he said; for the days they were running wild, the community huddled together in their cabins, afraid.
Shanigan said the total area of destruction was a rough circle with a diameter of about 10 miles. The troopers know of at least 15 cabins that were broken into, and because some homeowners haven't been out to their land yet Shanigan figures the total number could be closer to 20 or 25.After flying around to the rampaged cabins to take pictures and gather evidence, Shanigan and Agnew told local lodge and cabin owners to call the troopers if they heard more gunfire. They didn't have to wait long.
On April 29 Shanigan got a call from two lodge owners who said they were hearing a lot of gunfire. By this point troopers had found the brothers' van, but still didn't know their names.
Agnew and Shanigan didn't want the brothers to know they were coming, which ruled out the noisy helicopter. So on Friday, April 30, Agnew flew a two-seater Super Cub bush plane through snow and rain to a private gravel landing strip in Skwentna. The two troopers then hiked about 45 minutes through the snowy woods, wearing bulletproof vests and packing AR-15s and their duty handguns, until they got to an aluminum canoe a local lodge owner had stashed for them.
Skwentna had fresh snow and the temperature was in the mid-30s when the troopers put on life jackets and launched the canoe. They paddled through the frigid water for another 45 minutes and then slid the canoe across 15 feet of ice to reach the shore. After a short hike along the shoreline and up into the woods, the troopers spotted the cabin -- picturesque in a small clearing surrounded by birch and cottonwood trees. The lake was just barely visible through the trees.
The cabin where Ben and Jeff were staying was a small log A-frame on stilts, standing about 10 feet off the ground for protection from flooding and bears. The troopers could hear the brothers inside the cabin, and a look through a window revealed that their suspects were armed. Shanagin stood about 40 feet from the cabin, peeking around the cover of a birch tree. Agnew was back another 20 feet. They were ready.
"Alaska State Troopers!" Shanigan shouted. "Come on out!"
A tense standoff, a pair of arrests
As soon as the brothers knew the troopers were outside they strapped up, grabbing guns they'd stolen from Skwentna cabins and peering nervously out the window. Ben spotted sunlight reflecting off the window of a cabin across the lake and thought it was a sniper's scope, so they were too scared to jump out a back window and run. Ben pulled from a bottle of Canadian Mist whiskey as he yelled demands and negotiations to the troopers.
"I had two (assault rifles) pointed at my head," he said. "I wasn't going out there sober."
The standoff lasted about an hour: two men with guns inside the cabin, and two men with guns outside. Finally, Ben and Jeff agreed to come out with their hands up, and they walked down the cabin's front staircase. The standoff was over.
With the brothers in cuffs, the troopers searched the cabin. Ben said there were 22 stolen guns inside, and a five-gallon bucket full of assault rifle ammunition to boot.
The troopers called in a helicopter for a pick-up and then settled in to wait. Shanigan said the brothers were friendly and clean cut, and athletic-looking enough to pass for military. They even dozed off a few times.
The brothers questioned the troopers about beaver fever and whether they should have boiled water before they drank it, and on what kinds of birds were good to eat. They were unnerved by the appearance of a small white ermine, Shanigan said, and they kicked their feet at the curious weasel to keep it away.
The cabin had a grass lawn, a lucky break for the brothers since they sat on it for four hours. When the copter arrived, Ben and Jeff were escorted on board, flanked by trooper escorts.
The brothers' Alaska adventure had come to an end.
No regrets -- just a plan
Speaking through two panes of glass at Mat-Su Pretrial, neither of the brothers showed much in the way of regret. They're both good-looking guys, charismatic and funny, and still excited about the wild ride they took across the country.
Ben remembers breaking into one lodge and finding a stuffed moose and a well-stocked medicine cabinet inside. He said he took eight big Percocet and four or five Oxycontin -- a pretty decent amount of synthetic heroin.
"I threw up on the moose," he said.
Still, their current situation obviously leaves a lot to be desired. They don't know how to contact their families. They don't trust the idea of a public defender. On Thursday a grand jury indicted the brothers on seven felony charges: two counts of burglary, one count of criminal mischief, and four counts of theft.
Ben knows what he did is painful and upsetting for his family. It keeps him up some nights.
He wants to tell them that if he could go back and change things, he would.
"The only thing that hurts me right now is that (Jeff's) parents don't love me anymore," Ben said.
While Ben likes the idea of comforting his family with kind words, though, it doesn't seem like he would actually change any of the decisions that landed him in the yellow uniform of the Palmer jail.
"It was all worth it," Ben said. "It was worth 50 years of my life."
What really scares Ben is being apart from his older brother. He's afraid they'll be separated, placed in different prisons.
"As long as I can see him every day," Ben said, "I'm good."
Even in jail, the brothers haven't stopped scheming. Ben said they buried the CDs from the safe out in the Skwentna wilderness, so somewhere in those woods is a Teton backpack a few feet deep in the dirt. The brothers packed the documents in freezer bags and tore the zippers off the backpack so it'd be invisible to metal detectors. Ben said he and Jeff used a GPS unit to find the coordinates of the spot, memorize them, and then smashed the unit apart. He figures if they can get out of jail and get back to the spot, they'll be golden. Ben said he'd pay $100,000 to anybody who'd bail him out.
(There's at least one flaw in that plan, according Dan Inman, a detective for the Hamilton Township Police Department who worked the New Jersey case. The CDs are worth the paper they're printed on, but no more. The owners canceled them as soon as the safe was stolen, Inham said, and you can't really turn a CD in for cash anyway.)
And if the charges lead to convictions and long prison sentences?
"In 25 years I'll be 58, and maybe I'll go on another run," Jeff said.
Meanwhile, homeowners in Skwentna are trying to repair and clean their ravaged cabins -- and law enforcement officials in at least three states are still shaking their heads in disbelief.
"You can't even make this up. It's going to be a movie some day," said Inman, the New Jersey detective. "George Clooney's playing me."
Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.