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Murder trial of Port Protection man begins with jury selection

Austin Baird

JUNEAU -- A jury of residents from around Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska will be responsible for making sense of an evening last August that left one man dead and another accused of murder in Port Protection, a sleepy fishing community at the northern tip of the island.

The deceased is 54-year-old Tracy Simpson, who was found bloodied the night of Aug. 7, 2011. Authorities have accused Ronald O'Neil, then 39, in the death. O'Neil has pleaded not guilty.

Jury selection was under way in Craig on Monday, and O'Neil's trial is expected to span the better part of the next two weeks.

Whatever comes from the trial, residents of the community with a year-round population of around 50 remain unsettled by the fatal chain of events that apparently started with Simpson and O'Neil drinking at O'Neil's float house.

Float houses are built on logs, tied to land and anchored in one place, often as a way to dodge rent and leave open the option of mobility, according to one resident. A dozen or so of the structures line the community.

"It's paradise here when the weather's nice," said Jack Mason, owner of Port Protection's only store. "People who live here are friendly and nice, and we're not used to having this kind of problem."

Mason said both men at the center of the case worked for him over the years in jobs ranging from day-to-day store activities to rebuilding after a fire devastated his operation to helping out on the dock.

"All we know is that two good people are involved in what happened, and that it shouldn't have been this way," Mason said.

Dave Pendarvis, also of Port Protection, went to O'Neil's house sometime around 8:30 p.m. the night of Simpson's death to pass along a message that O'Neil's girlfriend was ready to be picked up from the dock, according to court documents. Pendarvis told troopers that he saw O'Neil exit the house staggering around covered with a "copious" amount of presumed blood while Simpson was unresponsive on the floor, cool to the touch and also covered in blood.

Pendarvis said O'Neil confided that Simpson was dead from "stomping," the documents say.

Law enforcement officers deluged the area, arriving by boat and plane from Anchorage, Juneau and Klawock.

Seven Alaska State Troopers showed up to investigate. Klawock-based troopers were reportedly the first to make it on scene, and Pendarvis took Trooper Grant Miller to O'Neil's house by boat shortly before 4 a.m.

Miller reports that O'Neil was leaving in a skiff with a similar boat in tow that held Simpson's body.

O'Neil stopped and cooperated, and Miller says he even said something to the effect that "he must have killed" Simpson, the documents say.

Miller also claims that O'Neil responded to a request to rate his drunkenness on a scale of 1-to-10 by saying he was "an 11" and "Simpson was a two." A portable breath test found O'Neil's blood alcohol content was 0.113, well above the legal limit to operate any type of vehicle in Alaska.

Court documents say that Simpson had "significant facial trauma" and "a small circular injury" on the left side of his torso.

Prosecutors say O'Neil knew his conduct was "substantially certain to cause death or serious physical injury," and they also say that by moving the body that O'Neil was trying to cover his tracks. Stephen West, the district attorney prosecuting the case for the state, also seeks charges of tampering with physical evidence and driving under the influence.

A conviction for second-degree murder would result in a sentence of 10 to 99 years in prison. Tampering is a Class C felony that carries a sentence of one to five years, and driving under the influence could be classified a few different ways.

Stephen West, the district attorney prosecuting the case for the state, declined comment.

Dianne Thoben and Sharon Zink of the Ketchikan Public Defender Agency represent O'Neil.

Thoben said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that events around the death have been misinterpreted. She said O'Neil has said he was acting in self-defense all along. She said the state's claim that Simpson's death was caused by stomping will be proven incorrect over the course of the trial.

Thoben plans to bring Dr. Todd Cameron Grey, a medical examiner from Utah, to corroborate O'Neil's side of the story.

"Grey will testify that medical evidence does not support the state's theory that Mr. Simpson's death was caused by Mr. O'Neil stomping on Mr. Simpson's head," a court filing reads. "Grey will also testify that asphyxia was not the cause of death."

To the question of why O'Neil was taking Simpson's body from the scene, Thoben said he was trying to make it to a neighbor's house where he could call 911 and report the death himself.

"This is an interesting, fact-heavy case," Thoben said. "Once the jury sorts through all the evidence, they'll see it's not as simple as it appears."

Simpson's death is the first of the type in the community that anyone can remember, said Joe Gil, a fisherman and 30-year resident.

"It was out of character for both guys," said Gil, who was away the night of the commotion. "They were friends, but everyone thinks they got started (drinking) a little too early and didn't have any lunch."

"It's a loss for everyone."


By AUSTIN BAIRD
Associated Press