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Nearly a year later, village still reeling from deadly snowmachine crash

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 8, 2017

AMBLER — November snow falling along the Kobuk River signals the start of a long winter in the Northwest Arctic, but the changing landscape is no comfort to Cherissa Johnson, 22.

"I'm afraid to see what this winter's going to bring," she says with hesitation in her voice.

Cherissa was the passenger on the back of her cousin's snowmachine when it collided with another machine on the winter trail between the villages of Ambler and Shungnak on Feb. 11 of last year. Her cousin, Isabel Griest, 24, died.

And for many Ambler residents, the return of winter dredges up painful memories of the crash, underscoring the division that's deepened in the community over the last 11 months as the case remains open and unresolved. In a village like this, unfinished business is never among strangers — but neighbors you must face day after day.

For Johnson, winter means knowing she'll soon be traveling the same trails, perhaps passing the man whose snowmachine crashed into theirs that night.

Off to play basketball

The evening of the crash, the two young women, both from Ambler, had been heading to Shungnak to play basketball and raise money to cover the funeral costs for two elders from that village.

"I talked to her before she left," Isa's aunt, Ila Griepentrog, said. "She came bouncing into the post office. She was so happy and so bubbly that day because she was going to go up to Shungnak to play basketball. She walks in and she goes, 'Hi, Auntie!' On her way out the door, real happy, 'Bye, Auntie, I love you!' That was our last interaction."

Griepentrog, the village postmaster, finished work and went home, cooked dinner for her family, cleaned up and went to bed. Just as she was falling asleep, she got a call from her daughter.

"It's Isa," her daughter said. There was trouble.

A former health aide, Griepentrog hopped onto the family snowmachine and made a beeline for the health clinic.

"I went all the way back to the trauma room. When I saw Isa, she was all bloody. There was blood coming out of her ears, her nose, her mouth," she remembers. "That's when I knew it would take a miracle for her to come out of this one."

Griepentrog has vivid memories of squeezing the ventilation bag while the emergency medical crew that responded spread her ribs and inserted a chest tube. She especially remembers the sound.

That night is deeply etched into Johnson's memory, too.

Over the phone just hours after it happened, she described being out on the trail with Griest about 11 miles from Ambler and about 17 miles from Shungnak, and seeing a snowmachine coming in the opposite direction. Ambler resident Frank Downey, 65, was the driver.

"Our snowmachine skis locked and they must have gone head to head. When it all happened, I flew over both of them," Johnson said. "It happened so fast. I was hurt. It was my neck because we hit so hard, but I didn't really care at that point because I was still alive."

Griest was in the snow, bleeding from her head, throwing up, seizing, and unconscious, Johnson said. Neither woman had a VHF radio, but Johnson patted her cousin down and found her cellphone. Alone, with the nearest towns miles away and no reception in the low country, she decided to run to Plane Crash, a local landmark on higher ground, where she might get cell service. Just after she set off, she saw lights coming down the trail. She turned back, desperately flagging down the passing travelers, who ended up radioing the village on their VHF.

'Really bad'

"It was so bad. I was screaming. I was hollering that I needed help. I just wanted to save my friend's life. I kept talking to her just to keep her alive," she said.

Johnson said she and Griest were sober at the time of the crash but maintained that Downey was not. He was mumbling and smelled like alcohol, she said.

"After Frank woke up, he was trying to leave us there. He said, 'Give me my sno-go key, I need to go home,'" she said. "It was really bad."

Johnson said she wouldn't help him leave. On top of that, both snowmachines had been rendered inoperable by the crash.

Johnson wrapped her cousin in the warmest clothes she could find, shielded her from the wind, and sat by the trail with Griest's head in her lap, waiting for health aides to arrive.

"This is my first time ever witnessing something like this," she said of that night. "That's why I did my best. I did what I could. There was nothing else I could have done."

The radio call was picked up by residents in both Ambler and Shungnak. Ambler's city council cut short its meeting around 7:30 that night when it received word. The communities mobilized and hit the trail. Help began trickling in from both directions.

According to responders, Downey's family towed his snowmachine back to the village that night and took him back to his house. Griest was loaded onto a sled and rushed to the village clinic. She and her family arrived about 9 p.m., and she was immediately given emergency treatment. The medevac plane arrived a few hours later to transport Isa to a hospital in Anchorage. According to responders, although Downey had a head wound, he didn't come to the clinic for treatment until after Isa was medevaced out of the village. At that time, his blood was drawn for an alcohol level check, by then several hours after the crash. He was then transported out of town for treatment on a second medevac flight, which left in the wee hours of the following morning.

Court of public opinion

Whether or not Downey was intoxicated at the time of the accident has not been confirmed. When contacted by phone later in the year, Downey was visiting acquaintances in a different village. He said he'd rather not talk about what happened, but acknowledged it had been incredibly hard to remain in town.

With fewer than 300 residents, Ambler is the kind of village where you can't avoid seeing people — at the store, at the post office, out on the roads and trails.

Downey has faced the court of public opinion since the accident and he fears being ostracized. Griest's sister, Sandra, said the passage of time doesn't make it easier to share the village with the person she believes is responsible for her sister's death.

"It doesn't get easier. It just gets harder, especially for the kids," Sandra said. "At first, it's like you don't even want to go out yourself. You know they're there all the time. It's a small village."

Isa had two children, now ages 5 and 6, with her boyfriend Byron Lee. They are now in her mother's custody, following Lee's suicide in April.

Their relationship wasn't always perfect, Griepentrog says, but they were good partners and loving parents.

Another death

"They were always doing things together, going out and getting wood, going out and picking berries," she said. "You know, they had their ups and downs but they were always working together, always making sure the kids were provided for. Isa would work cleaning up for people or picking berries when school was coming up to make money so she could get her kids clothes."

During the school year, Isa worked alongside her mother as a cook in the school cafeteria, making meals for the students.

"After Isa passed, Byron was so hurt that Isa was taken away. He was so hurt and so angry. He made threats to Frank Downey. He went on a drinking spree after Isa died," Griepentrog said. "It finally got to him and he couldn't take it anymore so he shot himself two months to the day from Isa's passing. That's how the children ended up with my sister."

Now, everyone in the family helps take care of them.

"I sent the kids out for pizza (earlier) because (the girl) said she missed her mom. So, I put my cleaning and my cooking aside and just sat and held her for a couple hours. Poor kids. They don't have their mom when they're sick or when they have to go see the doctor," Griepentrog says. "They don't have their mom or their dad."

As the months pass, the sorrow of the family and the entire community grows, she says. That's why Griest's family is calling for answers.

Alaska State Troopers are in charge of conducting the investigation into what happened that February night. Since then, troopers have provided only minimal information on the circumstances of the crash and have declined to answer many questions about their investigation, which they say is still open.

To date, no charges have been filed and no report has been forwarded to the district attorney's office.

Plus, some community members question the week-long delay in law enforcement's response to the initial crash. Troopers traveling from Kotzebue, some 130 miles away, arrived on Feb. 18, citing at least two days of delay due to "poor weather." Griepentrog says that doesn't make sense to her, as she remembers the two morning and two evening flights into the community arriving on schedule each day. Troopers did not provide any additional information.

The results of both Downey's and Greist's blood-alcohol test have not been publicly released by troopers.

Furthermore, concerns have been voiced that Downey's snowmachine was moved by his family or friends from the accident site before the investigation began, while Isa's was left on the trail for several days.

'So maddening'

Many community members, like Griepentrog, feel law enforcement has not communicated with them, leaving everyone feeling left in the dark and frustrated.

However, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters wrote in an email that "we have had multiple conversations regarding the case."

"This is so maddening, with the troopers dragging their feet," Griepentrog says. "The DA is not pressuring the troopers to get it going, I think. Do they pick and choose who they prosecute? I mean, look at the guy who bumped the Iditarod musher. Just because that was under the spotlight, he got his day fast. And they're keeping us hanging, wondering. What gives?"

"Are they going to just let it go?" Isa's sister Sandra asks.

Repercussions of eroding trust between villagers and law enforcement often linger. In villages, where delayed response times and feelings of disconnectedness are not uncommon, a jarring event like the crash can deepen the divide.

In the months since the accident, Griepentrog and other family members have held walks through town and drunk-driving awareness events.

Supporters of both Downey and Griest have gone on the VHF, sometimes late at night, to hash out their arguments over the airwaves.

Griepentrog made shirts that say, "Justice for Isa." Friends put up posters around town. Other community members tried to take them down.

"Justice wasn't served," Griepentrog says. "I want to see charges. I want to see him go to court. The courts can decide if he's guilty or not. I just want them to do something."

Every day, there are physical reminders of what happened.

For example, Griepentrog remembers the day Griest's body was flown back from Anchorage, where she died in the hospital, never having regained consciousness.

"In a village, when someone is coming home for the last time, everybody goes up to the airport. On the way from the airport to my sister's house, they drove past Frank's house. Outside of his house in plain view was his snowmachine," Griepentrog says. "And it wasn't covered up before they brought Isa home. We all went past it."

Shady Grove Oliver is a freelance reporter for the Arctic Sounder based in the Northwest Arctic and the North Slope.