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Anchorage man charged with killing Valley farmer with machete

Suzanna Caldwell

An Anchorage man who turned himself in to authorities Sunday afternoon is accused of killing an elderly farmer with a machete.

Thomas Cottam Jr., 23, was charged with one count of first-degree murder in the death of 81-year-old Steven Garcia at Garcia's home near Butte, several miles south of Palmer.

According to charging documents, Cottam told police that he was hitchhiking six days ago when he was picked up by Garcia. Garcia offered Cottam a job on his small berry operation, Garcia's Alaska Farm, located off the Old Glenn Highway near the Knik River Bridge.

After a few days, Cottam contacted Garcia and arranged to live and work with him at the farm where Garcia grew strawberries and raspberries.

After staying at the farm for a few days, Cottam told investigators, he came into Garcia's house Sunday and attacked him with a machete. Cottam told investigators he "blacked out" and when he came to, Garcia was on the ground dead and Cottam was holding the weapon.

A police search found Garcia appeared to have several five-inch cuts and stab wounds to multiple parts of his body. A 24-inch machete was found in the living room, as well as a semi-open butterfly knife, both with blood on them.

Following the attack, Cottam left the residence with Garcia's truck and dog and drove to Anchorage, where he contacted one of his friends, charging documents say.

When investigators interviewed the friend, they learned that Cottam had told him he had cut Garcia's throat and stabbed him multiple times before blacking out.

Cottam reportedly told his friend that after he "awoke" from the blackout, he took Garcia's wallet and left the scene because "he had done something bad." And, the charging documents say, Cottam told the friend he took the wallet because Garcia owed him $32 "anyway."

Cottam told the friend he was planning to flee to Kodiak, though the friend insisted that Cottam go to the police. He turned himself in at the Anchorage jail at about 5 p.m. Sunday.

Investigators found Cottam did not have any obvious signs of blood on him and only a few scratches. Cottam told police the scratches were a result of working in Garcia's fields.

Court records show Cottam was charged in 2012 with one count of disorderly conduct for failure to disperse. He had a warrant out for his arrest after failing to appear in court on the charges.

Garcia had been registered as an Alaska Grown farmer since 2002, according to the Alaska Division of Agriculture. Ted Pyrah, owner of Pyrah's Pioneer Peak Farm, said he and his church group often assisted the elderly Garcia at his farm.

Garcia was in ill health, he said, and his small house was a bit of a "junker" at the base of Pioneer Peak. Garcia had plans to build an amphitheater near his home, Pyrah said, but nothing had been done beyond some basic land clearing.

Pyrah said Garcia had a hard time taking care of himself, much less defending himself. He said Garcia didn't appear to have any family living nearby.

"Nobody had any business killing the guy," Pyrah said. "He was just a sweet old man."

 


By SUZANNA CALDWELL
suzanna@alaskadispatch.com