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Complaints of too few troopers and tales of drug-fueled crime dominate Wasilla meeting

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: January 6, 2017
  • Published January 4, 2017

WASILLA – Despite a high-profile slaying and widespread concern over break-ins and thefts, statistics show Mat-Su's overall crime rate remains roughly unchanged – or even down.

But fewer and fewer Alaska State Troopers patrol an area the size of West Virginia with a still-growing population and a heroin problem like the rest of Alaska, authorities told a crowded town hall on Mat-Su crime Wednesday night in Wasilla.

Karl Soderstrom speaks in favor of treating addiction as an illness while also holding criminals accountable. About 150 people filled a meeting room at the Menard Center in Wasilla for a Public Safety Town Hall Meeting with legislators, law enforcement representatives, citizens’ groups and others on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The event at Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center drew at least 150 Valley residents, many still reeling from the killing of 16-year-old Palmer resident David Grunwald and from a continued barrage of property crimes linked to marijuana, heroin and other drugs.

Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, and Rep.-Elect Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla, convened the session to follow up on a 2013 property crime meeting. Several other Mat-Su legislators or staff members attended.

The lawmakers headed to Juneau this month got an earful about the Valley's dwindling law enforcement presence.

Statistically, crime in the Valley is holding steady according to data provided Wednesday night by local police, troopers and the Palmer District Attorney's Office. Reports of vehicle thefts and burglaries actually dropped between 2015 and 2016.

Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak makes comments during the meeting. About 150 people filled a meeting room at the Menard Center in Wasilla for a Public Safety Town Hall Meeting with legislators, law enforcement representatives, citizens’ groups and others on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

But Wayne Letourneau, who lives near Wasilla up Knik-Goose Bay Road, argued the statistics simply reflect the fact the public has stopped reporting crime because they know there aren't enough troopers to respond.

"The crime rate here has gone exponentially through the roof," Letourneau said. "Your numbers are just crap as far as I'm concerned."

A "flophouse" in his neighborhood draws drug dealers, he said. Emergency dispatchers, however, warned of slow response to separate reports he made of a driver who crashed in front of his house, passed out behind the wheel in the middle of the street and later flipped her car.

"I keep getting the same answer," Letourneau said. "They're too busy. They can't do anything. Now the numbers aren't coming in to you guys because we've given up calling."

Trooper Chuck Withers listens at right. About 150 people filled a meeting room at the Menard Center in Wasilla for a Public Safety Town Hall Meeting with legislators, law enforcement representatives, citizens’ groups and others on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Several troopers — including the agency's director — told the lawmakers they are at historically low levels.

There are now 100 more Anchorage police officers than troopers around Alaska, according to Col. James Cockrell, head of the troopers.

His force is "outmanned" in Mat-Su with one trooper per 2,100 residents in an area the size of West Virginia, Cockrell said, calling that ratio unmatched in the country. Budget cuts eliminated six patrol positions here in the past two years.

Lower priority reports get neglected when there are just six troopers on duty at any time, several troopers said.

"Some of our most serious crimes — home invasions, vehicle thefts, shootings –most are linked to Anchorage," Cockrell said. "We're not only fighting the crime generated in the Mat-Su Valley. What we're finding is spillover from Anchorage is hitting our area very hard."

Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget calls for another $1.2 million in reductions to his agency, he said.

Boroughs like Mat-Su may have to pay for police services or rely on cities to expand existing services, he said, "if they keep cutting our budget the way they have."

Terria Walters of Palmer listens to discussion. About 150 people filled a meeting room at the Menard Center in Wasilla for a Public Safety Town Hall Meeting with legislators, law enforcement representatives, citizens’ groups and others on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle asked the legislators to help pay for a city drug-enforcement officer to help a small, three-person trooper narcotics unit.

Cottle said a shopper's tip about a passed-out driver in a parked car led to a major heroin bust.

"We'll help if you guys help us," he told Neuman and Sullivan-Leonard.

Willow resident Denise Knight asked the lawmakers to regulate pawn stores often used by thieves to move stolen items.

"We enable all of these addicts that are stealing from us by being able to walk into any pawn shop in the Valley and pawn anything," Knight said. "The pawn shops have more rights than the victim does."

Provisions of Senate Bill 91, the crime reform law signed last year, drew criticism from several people. Audience members criticized a part of the bill that eliminates jail time for Class C felons who don't have prior felony records in Alaska.

Grunwald's mother, Edie, asked Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak if the public should send recommendations to the DA's office.

The bill is still in flux and open to review, Kalytiak told the crowd, recommending concerns be directed to the Legislature.

"We haven't heard the last of 91," Neuman said.

About 150 people filled a meeting room at the Menard Center in Wasilla for a Public Safety Town Hall Meeting with legislators, law enforcement representatives, citizens’ groups and others on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Kalytiak joined several law-enforcement representatives telling the crowd that solving the Valley's crime problem would take community support.

A four-person property crimes unit that's several years old drew raves from several in the crowd.

"These guys have kicked butt on crime out here," said Vicki Chaffin Wallner, who founded the Stop Valley Thieves Facebook group. The group warns of crime in neighborhoods and posts pictures of stolen items.

Others talked about neighborhood watches or about basic home safety: Lock your car; don't leave boats or four-wheelers outside; secure sheds and outbuildings.

"We really need to watch out for ourselves," said Belinda Bohanan, a neighborhood watch coordinator for the Valley.

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