Alaska News

A PEOPLE IN PERIL: A youth’s despair erupts

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. Part of a series.

PILOT POINT — Sophie Larson was the first to be shot. A bullet slammed into her hand, knocking her off the threewheeler as she and Loren Abyo tried to escape. As she fell, the machine's engine sputtered and died.

Loren ran, but Sophie panicked. She crawled behind the threewheeler in an attempt to hide. But the gunman kept coming.

It was Sunday, July 31, 1983, in Pilot Point, a fishing village of about 70, surrounded by cold, gray ocean and roads to nowhere on the northern coast of the Alaska Peninsula. The day had begun with a bottle of vodka.

That afternoon, some friends from a neighboring village flew into town with a case of whiskey and six cases of beer, as good a reason as any to party. Someone kicked in marijuana, and a couple of guys shared a gram of cocaine. The group of 10 devoured the drugs and drained the last drop of whiskey at the village airstrip, then topped off the party with a bottle of blackberry brandy.

It was a good time. Then suddenly it wasn't. A fight broke out over one of the women. The blows triggered an explosion deep within the darkest abyss of Chris Conners' mind. The 15yearold boy, blinded by cocaine, whiskey and a lifetime of hurt that could never be spoken, stormed off and returned with a gun.

In Pilot Point, it's not unusual for children to grow up knowing how to drink. Loren Abyo, 17, and Chris Conners had been drinking together since Chris was in the fifth grade. Now Loren was running for his life and shouting for Sophie to run, too. He sprinted across the tundra and dove over an embankment just as a bullet grazed his back.

Chris Conners then walked up to 19yearold Sophie, who was crouched behind the threewheeler. He raised a .357caliber revolver, aimed and fired. Later she would remember that the bullet burned as it ripped through her neck.

By the time the last shot was fired hours later, three people were dead, four were wounded and the residents of Pilot Point, who had watched Chris Conners grow up cornered by rampant family alcoholism and severe neglect, were left terrified and perplexed at his sudden surge of madness.

His mother, investigators believe, was the last to die. Evelyn Conners was sleeping off a head full of booze when her son walked into her room. Chris was Evelyn's middle son, the son she never could bring herself to love. He pointed a 10gauge shotgun at her head and squeezed the trigger.

Whatever flipped the switch that day was trivial. The best anyone recalls, Chris tried to kiss Sophie. He thought she wanted him to, but she pushed him away. This was the last rejection he could bear.

Chris was never one to talk about feelings. He never talked about the father who abandoned him. Or the man who killed himself with a bullet through the brain inside his mother's house. Or the way his mother ruined his only hope for a future in the village. After years of burying his emotions, the boy finally broke.

Chris remembers only bits and pieces of what happened that day. Two psychiatrists who examined him believe he was in an alcohol blackout at the time of the murders. Chris recalls a fight at the airstrip and standing over someone, he doesn't know who, with a gun. He remembers firing a shot at a passing threewheeler. And he remembers one of the men he wounded saying: "Chris, what are you going to shoot me for? I never did nothing to you." But he doesn't remember shooting the man. He remembers nothing about killing his mother.

His recollection begins on the plane ride to jail, when he looked down at his hands and saw them cuffed and stained with blood.

It wasn't until months later, when Chris saw photographs of his victims, that he fully understood and believed what he had done. As the tears streamed down his face, his emotional suit of armor began to corrode.

For the first time in his life, Chris wanted to talk. The following story is the result of three days of prison interviews with Chris Conners in St. Cloud, Minn., investigators' transcripts, court documents, witnesses' testimony, psychiatrists' reports and telephone interviews with village residents and officials involved in the case.

AN EARLY OUTCAST

Christopher Conners is the product of a summer fling between his mother and a man from a neighboring village. Chris, a mixture of Aleut, Eskimo and Caucasian blood, was born in a cabin in Pilot Point on Feb. 27, 1968. He was the second of three sons born to Evelyn Conners, all of whom had different fathers.

Chris was 10 when he saw his father for the first time. His father had been in the village and was waiting for a plane out when he and Evelyn ran into each other.

Back home, Evelyn told Chris he could go down to the airstrip and take a look at his father. The boy jumped on his threewheeler and raced off.

The man he saw standing there behind dark, mirrored glasses was tall, broadshouldered and expressionless. He looked at Chris and Chris looked at him. The boy just kept on riding.

Unlike his two brothers, Chris was extremely overweight as a child, which led to teasing by other children.

Janice Ball, president of the Pilot Point Village Council, said Chris seemed like an outcast for as long as she could recall, particularly with respect to his mother. "Evelyn would call Chris all kinds of names not even really treat him as a son," she said.

"Christopher could never do anything right, and his mother was always picking on him," is the way another villager put it. "It was just like she treated him like a dog."

No one can say for sure why Evelyn banished Chris from her heart. Some people say they believe she was so hurt by the father she couldn't bring herself to love the son.

Evelyn Conners was a good woman and a hard worker, village people say. She wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone.

But she was a drunk. Chris remembers hiding bottles from her as a child. When she would drink herself sick, he would throw rags over her vomit.

The alcohol seemed to unleash Evelyn's own anger and frustration at a life that hadn't worked out the way she wanted. Chris remembers times when his mother and grandmother were drinking, and hearing his mother sob: "Why would you throw me out when it was 20below zero?' " His grandmother, her head hung, would just say, "I know, I know.' "

Chris and his mother made life hell for each other. That was no secret in the village. Some people talk about the day they saw Chris shouting at his mother, telling her how much he hated her. Others talk about the time Evelyn chewed him out over the CB radio for everyone to hear.

All the drinking, yelling, cursing and slapping became too much. By the time he was 6 years old, Chris refused to live with his mother.

Instead, he lived down the road with his grandparents, Nick and Titianna Meticgoruk. They drank, too, but not nearly as much as his mother. From Chris' perspective, the booze didn't make them mean the way it seemed to with her.

Chris said he didn't mind taking take care of them during their occasional binges. He would lend them a steady shoulder as they staggered off to bed and fix hot soup for their hangovers.

Sometimes the binges would last a week or more. During these times, Chris' grandparents would shout at each other. Chris learned that if he just waited it out, eventually peace would return to the house. Then he could look forward to a month or two of them staying sober.

These were Chris' happiest years. His grandparents would hug him when he got home from school, and ask whether any of the kids had been picking on him. He was his grandfather's favorite.

The old man taught Chris to hunt game and smoke fish, and to tell the difference between husky and wolf tracks in the snow. He took Chris out on his trap line and told the boy stories about his days as a reindeer herder up north. At home at night, Chris would climb into his grandfather's lap with a cup of hot chocolate, and together they would indulge in the adventures of B'rer Rabbit on the Uncle Ben Radio Show.

Early on, Chris decided that when he grew up he would become a commercial fisherman like his grandfather had been. Chris' brother, Alan, would inherit his grandfather's fishing permit because he was the oldest. But grandmother's permit would go to him.

THE GOOD TIMES END

The good times in Chris' life ended abruptly when he was 9, at the tail end of one of his grandfather's binges. Chris was about to fix soup for his grandfather's hangover when he walked into the bedroom and found the old man sitting on the floor clenching his teeth and holding his left side. He tried to hide his pain. He slowly stood up, took a few steps into the hallway, stumbled and fell to the floor.

When the village health aides arrived, they suspected a heart attack or stroke, and loaded him into a plane to Dillingham. Chris and his grandmother flew out later. They arrived at the hospital five minutes after he died.

Inside a brightly lit room of stainless steel and sterilized linens, the old man lay still, tubes still poking from his nose and arms. The boy went numb.

That night, a family friend spent half an hour trying to convince Chris it was OK to cry. But Chris couldn't. He had never seen his grandfather cry.

The drinking began early the day of the funeral. Chris' mother, grandmother and other family and friends were at it by 9 or 10 in the morning, mixing alcohol with tears.

At the funeral, Chris' grandmother sat between the boy and his mother. A priest sang and waved a pot of incense, filling the church with a sweet smoke that made Chris queasy. But it wasn't until later, as men lowered the coffin into its grave, that emotion finally punched through. Chris burst into tears, turned and ran.

Back at home, still dressed in a stiff new suit, he lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. Grieving family and friends returned to the house, and the drinking resumed in the front room. On the other side of a blanket that served as a door, Chris waited for someone to come into his room, hug him and ask him how he was doing. But nobody came.

Soon after the funeral, Evelyn moved in to help take care of her ailing mother. Chris didn't want to be home much after that. People in the village gave him a place to sleep when he needed one. If they questioned why a 9yearold child couldn't bear to be home, they kept it to themselves.

DRUGS AND DRINKING

Six months after his grandfather's death, Chris started smoking marijuana. It made him laugh. Although Chris had been sneaking sips here and there for as long as he could remember, he became a drinker soon thereafter.

The first time Chris drank enough to pass out he was in the fourth grade. He and one of his aunts were in a Ford Capri. Chris helped himself to the large plastic cup of whiskey she placed on the dash, and she was too drunk to notice.

Chris woke up the next morning at a friend's house with a pounding head, unable to remember how the evening had ended. It didn't bother him much; he had learned long ago that hangovers and blackouts were normal.

One night at a friend's house, he wanted to impress a woman who had been flirting with him. She was 26; he was barely 13. He grabbed a bottle of whiskey and chugged it. Ten minutes later he stumbled outside, tripped and passed out with his face in a puddle.

Chris woke up the next morning upstairs, with his clothes gone. Whoever had taken care of him that night had pulled him out of the puddle and tossed his muddy clothes in a heap outside the door. Chris walked home wrapped in a sheet.

As much as Chris was humiliated by his mother's drinking, he was starting to become just like her. She begged him not to. Yet Chris says he occasionally drank with her, beginning at age 13. He says they smoked pot a couple times together, too.

"You know, I think that's what really made her angry at me," said Chris. "I wouldn't listen to her. She would tell me not to drink, and I'd drink anyway. And I believe I drank just to get back at her. That's the way I could get under her skin the most.

"And there was nothing else to do."

"DAD KILLED HIMSELF'

Although Chris said he cared about his mother, he hated the way she was. His resentment carried over to her boyfriends.

Evelyn was with Paul Matsuno back then. Matsuno was an OK guy by Chris' standards, but they still didn't get along. He was a commercial fisherman, partAleut, partJapanese. When he drank, he drank hard, but never raised a hand against the kids.

Chris' 6yearold brother, Guy, was particularly fond of Matsuno. Guy called him "Dad." Chris tried to, but it didn't feel right.

One winter day in 1980, Chris forgot to stop for the mail on his way home from school. Matsuno was angry; he told Chris to go back and get it. Chris refused. An argument ensued in which Chris said words he would later regret. He called Matsuno something like "a dirty Jap," then stormed out of the house. On his way out, he passed his mother. She was slumped in the seat of a snowmachine, woozy from too much booze. He was so furious, he said he could kill Matsuno.

Later that night, after a drunken argument with Evelyn over a snowmachine, Matsuno picked up a hunting rifle and blew his head all over her living room. Chris' brother Guy was there when he did it; he ran from the house in horror. "Dad killed himself in the face," the boy screamed.

Evelyn silently blamed Chris for Matsuno's suicide, although she said nothing. Chris said nothing. Guy said nothing.

Relatives say Evelyn drank harder than ever after that. Chris did, too. Weekend parties were pretty much the same drink, pass out, get up, do it again.

The year after Matsuno's death, Evelyn sold her mother's fishing permit the one that was to have been Chris' inheritance to her new boyfriend, a white man named Bud Reina. She needed the money. Chris saw the permit as his only chance to make something of himself, to follow in his grandfather's footsteps.

He never talked about it.

ANOTHER NEW HOME

The more Evelyn and Chris drank, the less they could stand each other. Sometimes Evelyn would call Chris' aunt and uncle in Port Heiden, John and Annie Christensen, and ask them to take Chris. They were always willing. Invariably, Evelyn was drunk when she made the calls.

The Christensens got along with Chris. Their home was the epitome of family life, with a constant stream of neighbors, children and dogs through the house. The couple was wellrespected in the community. John rarely drank, and Annie, like her parents, didn't drink at all. She didn't even allow alcohol in her house.

Chris continued to sneak out and drink once in a while, and a couple times he got caught. Annie would let him know how much she disapproved and explain why she felt the way she did.

Chris spent two school years with John and Annie. In many ways, the Chris Conners who lived in Port Heiden was a different kid from the one his mother knew. In a stable home, he was polite and helpful around the house, Annie says, chopping wood and helping with chores without having to be asked. Back home, his mother couldn't get him to lift a finger.

"He was just like one of my kids, you know," Annie told investigators after the shootings. "He really behaved well here. . . . He didn't ever show any anger when he was talking to me.

"He always seemed concerned and worried about his mom and her drinking. He'd always call and, you know, check on (the family)."

One time, Annie remembers, Chris wanted to go home for his birthday. When he called the village phone, the person who answered told him his family had moved to Anchorage.

"He even started crying, he was so upset over it," Annie recalled. "It was just like he wasn't important. He didn't know (why) they didn't bother to call him and say they were moving."

Chris spent the last couple of years before the shootings bouncing between Pilot Point, Port Heiden and Anchorage. The winter before the murders, while staying with John and Annie, Chris again wanted to be with his family, this time for Christmas. He called his mother; she said she would pay for his brother Alan's plane ticket, but not his.

Chris took the news hard. Although there were presents for him under the tree and Annie had fixed a big turkey dinner, Chris spent all of Christmas Day in bed. He finally got up to pick at some leftovers that evening.

RETURN TO PILOT POINT

Chris quit school that spring and returned to Pilot Point to strike out on his own. He landed a job as a deckhand on a fishing boat, and slept wherever he happened to be on the boat, at friends' houses, at his mother's place.

One day Chris got drunk and asked to borrow his mother's pickup truck. Although he was told he couldn't, he took it anyway, and blew the engine driving 40 miles an hour in low gear down the beach. It wasn't much of a truck, but Evelyn depended on it to work her setnet site. The two of them screamed it out in front of several villagers.

About a month before the murders, Chris and Evelyn, drinking as usual, started arguing as usual. Out of nowhere, she said what she had been thinking for three years. "You killed Paul!" she screamed.

"She was crying," Chris says. "I believe that she really believed I killed him. Maybe what I said did have an effect. I'll never know."

Chris became increasingly agitated as the summer progressed, and people in the village started to notice. Janice Ball said Chris seemed restless. Others said Chris was becoming more and more hottempered.

Chris earned $5,000 fishing that summer. He bought a couple of threewheelers one as a gift for his little brother, Guy and blew the rest on cocaine, marijuana and booze. He stayed constantly stoned, and on several occasions drank until he blacked out.

Finally, Evelyn had had it. She kept telling people that her son was out of control. The night before the murders, she told Chris she was thinking of putting him in a reform school.

"At that point," Chris said, "I didn't really care what happened to me. I kept telling myself nobody cares about me. I was mad at everyone. I hated everyone."

THE FINAL REJECTION

When Sophie Larson spurned him the next afternoon, the rejection overwhelmed him. When the years of accumulated anger finally burst through, Chris lashed out at everyone people he cared for, people he hated, people he hardly knew.

According to authorities, the shootings went something like this: After seriously wounding Sophie at the airstrip, Chris took off on his threewheeler and fired a shot at Sonny Greichen, the man who had hired him to work on his boat. At first, Sonny thought it was a prank, that the gun was loaded with blanks, until a bullet came close enough to his head to make his ears ring.

Chris traded the .357 for a 10gauge shotgun, then walked into the bedroom of Bud Reina, the man he believed had swindled his mother out of his fishing permit. He blasted Bud in the neck, but he didn't kill him.

By now, word was getting around on the CB that Chris had gone berserk. James Achayok couldn't have known because he had been out riding his threewheeler. As James' machine rounded the top of a hill, Chris raised the shotgun and fired.

Achayok, age 22, died instantly.

Three pellets from the blast struck the 9yearold boy who sat hidden behind him. It was Chris' little brother, Guy.

Guy jumped from the threewheeler, ran a few yards, crumpled to the ground and died.

A schoolteacher was next. Lance Blackwood was home watching "Falcon Crest" when he heard Bud Reina on the CB calling for help. Blackwood grabbed his .44caliber Magnum, put a handful of bullets in his pocket and headed out the door. As he approached the hill above Evelyn Conners' house, he found James and Guy lying on the ground. He called to them, shook them and tried to get a pulse. Nothing.

He stood over the bodies a long time, not knowing what to do. He finally loaded them into his pickup. As he closed the tailgate, a shotgun pellet struck him in the buttocks, wounding him.

Finally, it was Evelyn's turn.

From a halfmile away, Sonny Greichen watched through binoculars as Chris struggled to load a heavy yellow bundle onto the back of his threewheeler. The bundle kept sliding off. Sonny saw Chris tie it behind his threewheeler and drag it across the tundra out of town.

The troopers found Evelyn's body late that night, about a mile from the village. She had been shot in the head, a yellow sheet tied around her neck and bite marks on her face, neck and chest.

Prosecutor Charles Merriner called the murders among the most brutal and senseless he could imagine.

"A SCARED LITTLE BOY'

Chris was like a cornered animal when first brought to McLaughlin Youth Center to await trial for murder, attempted murder and assault. He was described at the time as unemotional, selfcentered and volatile.

The murders would be easier to understand if he were psychotic. But psychiatrists who examined him found that wasn't the case.

"When I first heard about this murder, I thought, "Oh God, I hope I don't get this case because it was so gruesome,' " said Polly Morrow, who did get the case as an investigator for the public defender agency. "When I went to meet him for the first time I expected someone who was sinister, and he was a scared little boy. I think with so many public defender clients, there's no remorse, no sadness about their crimes. This kid was griefstricken.

"You know the most profound interview I had was with Chris' grandmother, who is now dead. She said to me, "I don't blame Chris for this, I blame Evelyn.' And this is Evelyn's mother who said this."

Morrow said she believes if someone had intervened earlier, Chris never would have done what he did. She was so moved by her work with him, she left the agency to pursue a master's degree in social work.

The turning point in Chris' attitude came after he was shown photographs of his victims. "I didn't want to accept the fact that I did it," he said. "I knew they were dead, but I didn't want to believe it. After (I saw) those pictures of what I did, I knew I needed somebody to talk to."

After that, psychiatrists and counselors started seeing drastic changes. Later evaluations described him as bright, articulate, sensitive and extremely distraught over what he had done.

Psychologist Jon Burke told the court Chris had lived most of his life overwhelmed. In jail, he was finally safe, safe because he didn't have to worry about people being abusive. Only now could he let down his defenses.

Psychiatrist Irvin Rothrock, who originally examined Chris on behalf of the prosecution and found him "cold," was later called to testify for the defense. "I would say he's one of the more favorable people I've seen," he told the court, "more favorable in terms of potential rehabilitation."

Along with these changes came nightmares. Chris would see himself flipping through those pictures, the bodies of his mother, little brother and James. He would wake up in a cold sweat, and be afraid to go back to sleep for fear the images would return.

At one point, he broke plastic off the light fixture in his cell and slashed a wrist and forearm deep enough to require stitches and leave a trail of scars. During court hearings, Chris threw up as a pathologist summarized autopsy reports.

Before Chris' case could go to trial, the court had to decide whether to try him as a juvenile or an adult. Chris was 15 at the time of the shooting. If he were to remain in the juvenile system, he would be free by his 20th birthday.

Chris' public defenders fought hard to keep the case in juvenile court. They were convinced that he was a "salvageable" human being. Just removing him from his home environment had produced remarkable changes; with extensive counseling, they argued, Chris could turn his life around and pose no threat to society.

Because of the seriousness of the charges, Superior Court Judge Seaborn Buckalew decided Chris should be tried as an adult. That meant he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The case never went to trial. Instead, Chris pleaded no contest to the charges against him. At his sentencing, Judge Buckalew considered Chris' relationship with his mother and the role of alcohol and neglect. The judge considered the theory that Chris was so drugged he didn't know what he was doing. Buckalew thought, too, about Sophie Larson, hospitalized with bouts of paralysis for months after the shootings. And he thought about those who died.

Despite prosecution pleas that Chris remain behind bars for the rest of his life, Buckalew was persuaded that Chris could be rehabilitated. He gave the boy 55 years to serve.

PAROLE IN 2001?

It has been more than four years since the shootings. Chris is imprisoned in St. Cloud, Minn., but may be returned to Alaska when the new prison in Seward opens. He will be eligible for parole in 2001. Chris said he hopes to get a college education while he is locked up so he can make something of himself once he is free.

Until then, home is a 6by9foot cell with a bed, television, nightstand, fan, toilet and sink. Chris starts each day with a cigarette and a cold shower. He shuffles through his daily routine trying not to think too much. When he does think about what has happened, he becomes intense.

Chris has written to his victims' survivors and those he wounded to say how sorry he is. He doesn't expect them to accept his apology. His older brother, Alan, lost his entire family that night. Chris doesn't expect to ever hear from him again.

"They say time heals all wounds. But I don't think time will heal theirs," Chris said.

He said he plans to sell the shares he holds in his Native corporation, put the money in a savings account to accumulate interest, then give money to those he hurt to help pay medical bills. It's something he said he needs to do to be right with himself.

"To tell you the truth, I will never know why I did what I did. I still have a hard time dealing with it. It's going to be with me all my life. There's no escape from it. Ever."

CIRCLE NEVER ENDS

Back in Pilot Point, the tragedies continue.

Three years after the Conners murders, a volley of shotgun blasts left a 6yearold boy dead and his stepmother shot in the face. There had been drinking and an argument. The dead boy's 16yearold brother was charged with the crime.

Loren Abyo, the boy who ran from Chris' bullets at the airstrip four years ago, is dead. He drowned three days after his 21st birthday. He and some friends were drinking on a boat. Loren got tossed off the boat. Nobody on board could swim. His friends just watched him wash out to sea. The man who threw him overboard was convicted of negligent homicide.

"It's just like you're at a dead end or a circle that you never reach the end of," says Janice Ball, one of several people in Pilot Point who don't drink at all. "You just see it happening over and over.

“After all we’ve been through. . . . You know, you would think they would learn or something. But the drinking just goes on.”

Debra McKinney

Debra McKinney is an Alaska writer and former longtime feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News.

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