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Witness: Reporter was rude but not a threat

Patti Epler

A Valley woman who witnessed the incident involving Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller and the editor of Alaska Dispatch on Sunday says the journalist, Tony Hopfinger, did not threaten Miller and that the whole thing should never have escalated into a police matter.

Lolly Symbol says she drove in from Big Lake with her two young sons because she was a staunch Miller supporter and wanted to ask him a question about his stance on gun control.

She said she found the opportunity to speak with Miller when he stuck around after his town hall at Central Middle School and spoke with a few people outside the main room. She says she stood right next to the candidate as the scene that has captured national public attention played out.

Symbol said Miller became angry with an elderly woman who asked him about his military background. "He ended up getting really huffy with her," Symbol said.

She said she got about two words into her question when Hopfinger interrupted her, stuck a small camera in Miller's face and asked him about his work with the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

"I would say Tony was aggressive, and I would say he was rude because he interrupted me, but he didn't do anything wrong and he wasn't posing a threat to Miller," Symbol said.

She said Miller tried to get away from the reporter and in doing so put his hand on her arm and pushed her aside. Her 8-year-old son, Vincent Mahoney, was standing right behind her, and Miller bowled him over in his attempt to get away. "I don't know if [Miller] didn't see him or didn't care, but he didn't say 'excuse me' or 'I'm sorry'. He didn't even turn his head," Symbol said. "He simply did not care at all."

Symbol said after Miller fled, she turned and saw Hopfinger trying to get around the security guards who were blocking his way. "They kept pushing him back. He kept saying, 'I have a right to be here, I have a right to be asking these questions.' Tony would try to walk forward and they would push him back."

Symbol said she did not see Hopfinger push anyone in the time she was watching the confrontation.

Hopfinger has said he did push someone he thought was one of the security guards but only after the man bumped up against him to keep him back.

Other people who called the Dan Fagan radio show but didn't give their full names said the incident happened very fast and that Miller had left the area by the time the pushing took place.

Hopfinger was handcuffed by the security guards and made to wait in a hallway until Anchorage police arrived. A police officer removed the cuffs and declined to accept the "private person's arrest" after interviewing people at the scene.

Other reporters also were physically prevented from moving down the hallway where Hopfinger was being kept. A video shot by Anchorage Daily News reporter Rich Mauer and posted on the newspaper's website shows three guards blocking Mauer and Dispatch reporter Jill Burke from approaching Hopfinger. In the video, Burke repeatedly asks a guard to takes his hands off her.

Anchorage police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker said Monday a report had been written and sent to the city prosecutor's office for review. He did not know when the prosecutor might make a decision on whether to pursue the case further.

Heidi Embley, a spokeswoman for the Anchorage School District, said Monday security cameras were partially installed at the school but were not equipped with recording devices, so no video of the scene is available.

Miller also told national news outlets that the school had required him to hire private security as part of his agreement to use the facility. But Embley said that's not correct -- there is no requirement for private security guards.

The agreement does require anyone using a school facility -- whether it's for a church group or a wedding or any other event -- to have a security plan, she said. That plan needs to include monitors to watch over parking and to be at the doors to make sure people don't bring food or drink into the facility, a standard agreement she provided shows.

Embley said Miller's group was charged $400 to use the school for three hours, which is the same fee that is charged to any non-school group. She said those types of gatherings are considered private events even though they are held at an otherwise public facility because the group is renting the facility for its meeting.

Symbol said because Hopfinger had been handcuffed and detained, she called the jail later that evening and wanted to give a witness statement to police but no one would take her information.

"I do not believe that he did anything wrong," she said. "He was rude and he was aggressive but that's just what the press does. Legally he did not do anything wrong that deserved to be put in cuffs."

"The whole thing just made me sick," she said."I was a big supporter of Joe Miller, I really was. But not anymore."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.