Alaska News

Iditarod disqualifies former champion Brent Sass after sexual assault allegations

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

Note to readers: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Thursday voted to disqualify a former champion from this year’s event following accusations he sexually assaulted multiple women.

The decision on Brent Sass, 44, came nearly four months after the race received a letter from an official at Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates Alaska on behalf of women who the letter writer said had accused Sass of sexual assault. The unanimous vote by the Iditarod Trail Committee Board also came a week after Alaska Public Media, the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica first asked it about sexual assault allegations against Sass. The news organizations sent the Iditarod additional questions on Wednesday, and other outlets have made inquiries.

Sass denied the accusations in an interview on Tuesday with the newsrooms. “It’s all made up. None of this is true,” he said. “This is because they want to ruin my career.”

The Iditarod Trail Committee Board said its decision was based on the race rulebook’s personal conduct policy, which includes the statement, “Musher conduct that is recklessly injurious to the Iditarod, Iditarod competitors, sponsors or anyone associated with the race is strictly prohibited.” The 2024 event begins on March 2.

Sass on Friday posted a message on social media linking the disqualification to sexual assault allegations.


“You are giving the accusers exactly what they are hoping for and in the end this hurts the actual victims of sexual abuse and the sport of mushing,” he wrote. He did not respond to requests for comment after he was disqualified.

Sass, who won the Iditarod in 2022, was the second competitor to be disqualified this week by the race’s board. It said on Monday it would not allow musher Eddie Burke Jr., who faced a felony domestic violence charge, to compete, but the Iditarod reversed itself Friday after the state Department of Law said it was dropping the case. Burke said on Facebook that he is innocent.

The Planned Parenthood letter about Sass did not provide the names of any accusers. Independently, the newsrooms spoke with two women who said that Sass forced them to have sex within otherwise consensual sexual relationships that took place more than a decade ago. The newsrooms typically do not name people who allege sexual violence unless they choose to be named. The women did not file complaints with the police nor did they file lawsuits against Sass, who has not been charged with a crime.

The news organizations obtained correspondence and conducted interviews indicating the women shared information in the past about the events they are now describing. The accounts these sources provided generally supported what the two women say now.

One of the accusers said that on one occasion, Sass choked her and forced her to have sexual intercourse after she told him no. A different time, she said he forced her to have anal sex. She said on both occasions she was unable to physically stop Sass. Two of the woman’s friends also spoke to the newsrooms and, in separate conversations, said she had told them years prior about Sass having nonconsensual sex with her. The newsrooms also obtained a sworn and notarized statement that the woman prepared saying Sass had twice sexually assaulted her.

The second woman told the news organizations that Sass hit and slapped her during sex without her consent, forced her to perform oral sex on multiple occasions and forced her to have intercourse in one case after she said no. She provided the newsrooms with a letter from the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living dated Dec. 30 stating that in 2015 she had been a client of the Fairbanks domestic violence shelter, which describes itself as a provider of support and advocacy for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and had “identified Brent Sass as her abuser.” The woman also provided three emails sent over a two-year period telling friends and family that Sass had sexually assaulted her.

The first accuser said she didn’t go to the police at the time because she was not thinking clearly, depended on Sass for shelter at his remote dog kennel and worked for him. She said it took her time to realize what happened to her was wrong.

The second accuser said she considered going to the police but had little faith it would do any good. “Our society is highly prone to victim shaming,” she wrote to a family member at the time.

Dog mushing is the official state sport in Alaska, where sexual assault rates are highest in the nation. The Iditarod, a 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, is set to include roughly 40 competitors this year.

[Iditarod reinstates musher Eddie Burke Jr. after state drops assault charges]

The Iditarod and other top sled dog races received the Planned Parenthood letter dated Nov. 2 and signed by Rose O’Hara-Jolley, the organization’s Alaska state director. It said O’Hara-Jolley had been approached by “multiple survivors” alleging sexual assault by Sass over the course of a decade.

Without providing specifics or evidence, the letter called on races to ban Sass from competing.

It is not clear how much of the information that the news organizations subsequently obtained from two women and additional sources may have been in the possession of the Iditarod when its board voted Thursday.

The newsrooms obtained a copy of a Feb. 5 email from an Iditarod lawyer, Mike Grisham, to a dog musher concerned about the Planned Parenthood letter, Emily Rosenblatt, saying the race’s governing board couldn’t speak to allegations involving a racer but adding the following:

“To be clear, this board committee is in no position to be an arbiter of evidence or to decide disputes regarding a musher’s conduct. The Iditarod lacks the resources to conduct such an investigation and process, nor is it an appropriate role for the Iditarod to play.”

The news organizations contacted Iditarod officials on Feb. 15 asking about what they had learned about sexual misconduct allegations against Sass and how they had responded. The officials did not answer the newsrooms’ written questions.

A day later, the Iditarod board issued an email to competitors saying it had been “informed of a number of accusations being made within our community concerning violence and abuse against women.” The email said the board condemned such behavior, was “monitoring the situation closely” and wouldn’t hesitate to act if the situation required it.


Another race, the Bethel-based Kuskokwim 300, asked Sass in December to withdraw from its competition in a letter and provided him with information it had obtained in addition to the Nov. 2 Planned Parenthood letter, and he withdrew, according to documents obtained by the news organizations.

A board member for the Fairbanks-based Yukon Quest Alaska said she resigned after learning about how the race was handling the accusations.

The race’s board president, Mark Weber, told the news organizations the Yukon Quest Alaska was taking the accusations seriously but said he told Sass before the Feb. 3 race start that “with the information we currently have we are not taking any action at this time.”

Sass, in addition to denying the two women’s accounts, stated more broadly in his interview Tuesday: “I have never, ever, ever, ever, ever had nonconsensual sex with anyone. I am a respectful, upstanding human being.”

• • •

In an interview, one of the women who shared her allegations with the newsrooms said she was a young adult when she moved to Alaska to work for Sass as a dog handler. Eventually, they started having sex, she said.

She said they were in a sauna together one time when Sass said he wanted to have sex with her.

“I said, ‘No.’ He pushed me against the wall, put his hand around my throat, choking me,” she said.

Sass proceeded to have sex with her, she said.


Another time, the woman said, she and Sass were having consensual intercourse when he told her he wanted to have anal sex. She said she told him “fuck no” but was unable to stop him.

The woman said she recalled Sass responding that he was going to do it anyway.

“I was, you know, underneath him, so I couldn’t really do much about it,” she said.

In the sworn statement, the woman wrote, “Brent also from time to time, without my consent, would slap me, sometimes in the face, during sex with him.”

The woman provided the news organizations a copy of a journal entry dated during the time she worked for Sass saying he suddenly slapped her in the face while they were having sex.

A friend of the woman who asked not to be named also said the accuser told her that Sass had hit her during sex.

Sass told the newsrooms that he never hit women during sex and denied each specific allegation from the former dog handler.

“None of that happened,” Sass said. “I’m going to flat out deny it. None of it happened. These are personal attacks. People just don’t want me in the sport anymore.”

The former dog handler said she was motivated to write the sworn statement in order to warn others, perhaps young women thinking about working for Sass.

The woman said she did not communicate with Planned Parenthood or the author of the Nov. 2 letter at any point before it was sent out. She said she didn’t learn about the letter until December and wrote her sworn statement in early February.

Hannah Corral, who said she was friends with the alleged victim, said the woman told her more than a decade ago about nonconsensual sex with Sass that the woman said occurred a year or two earlier.

“So she told me some pretty graphic things about some times that he definitely went over the border of consensual in a big way and was violent,” Corral said in an interview Thursday. “And, you know, she would just get very uncomfortable and sad and didn’t really know how to handle it, because she was also working with him still.”


Another one of the victim’s friends, Melanie Richter, told the newsrooms that the former dog handler told her in roughly the same time period that she had experienced nonconsensual sex with Sass in the years before she and Richter met.

“She had mentioned that he was quite aggressive and did not take no for an answer for any of his sexual advances,” Richter said.

“She didn’t have a way to get out of it while it was happening, because now they’re in a remote place,” Richter said. “There’s essentially no one, and he is her source of housing, food and income in the middle of Alaska, where she didn’t really have anybody else. And so she was just trapped at the time.”

• • •

The second woman who shared her allegations with the newsrooms also said she spent time in a consensual relationship with Sass and said he forced her to engage in sex acts to which she didn’t consent.

“I was actively saying, ‘Stop,’” she said in an interview, describing an encounter in which she said Sass forced her to have anal sex.

She also said that Sass physically abused her without her consent during sex.


The woman once described the relationship in a 2016 email to a family member. She provided a copy to the newsrooms.

In the email, the woman told her relative that Sass during sex “choked, hit, bit and otherwise caused me a lot of physical pain, all without prior consent, or any discussion on these activities.”

The woman also wrote: “When the day came that I was brave enough and in enough pain to say ‘no’ and ‘stop’ multiple times he completely ignored me. On multiple occasions, he forced me to perform oral sex.”

She told the relative that she didn’t think reporting Sass to the police would do any good.

“Why don’t I take legal action?” the woman wrote. “I’ve thought about it. Rape is extremely difficult to prove, and our society is highly prone to victim shaming. I have little faith the result would be positive for me. I struggle with the fact that he is a quasi-public figure with a sunshiney, heroic reputation. I do want people to know the truth, but it’s not a truth that people want to hear, or are likely to accept.”

The woman also provided the letter from the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, which she said she visited to ask for resources for sexual assault victims.

The woman said she was in contact with the Planned Parenthood letter writer about Sass six years ago but was unaware of the organization’s Nov. 2 letter until after it was sent.

Sass denied the second woman’s allegations when presented with her statements to the newsrooms and a description of her 2016 email and the shelter’s letter.

“I didn’t do anything,” Sass said.

“I am being tore apart by this,” he added, “because of these false accusations.”

“The mental abuse that’s happening to me right now is outrageous,” he said.

The second woman told a relative in the 2016 email that Sass warned her that “if I said anything to anyone in Fairbanks that was bad about him he would ruin me.”

Sass said Tuesday he never threatened anyone.

“If they felt that way,” Sass said, “I would tell them, ‘Tell somebody.’ If they felt that way, I would be talking it out. I would never tell anyone to hide it or just not say anything.”

• • •

The Planned Parenthood letter to officials at top races followed an allegation of sexual assault that reached the Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee in early October, according to a document that the race gave the newsrooms labeled “Factual Statement on Brent Sass.”

Sass said a fellow musher, who serves on the board for another race, the Knik 200, first told him about the Planned Parenthood letter. Sass said he knew the Planned Parenthood official, O’Hara-Jolley, as a friend whom he’d hung out with and encountered at races.

“This totally came out of the blue,” he said of O’Hara-Jolley’s letter.

He said copies of the letter went to all sled dog races where he’d registered as a competitor and also made their way into the hands of his sponsors.

Sass said he immediately began phoning race managers.

“I called everybody and just said: ‘Hey, these accusations are out there. They are completely false.’”

Sass said he hired an attorney, who sent a letter to O’Hara-Jolley.

The message was that O’Hara-Jolley “needed to shut up. That was the bottom line of the cease and desist,” Sass told the newsrooms.

O’Hara-Jolley declined the news organizations’ request for comment.

The K300 asked Sass to voluntarily withdraw from the 2024 event in a letter from race director Paul Basile on Dec. 12.

“Our organization does not have the capacity nor the desire to conduct an investigation of such matters. But while we can’t prove or disprove the allegations made against you, we feel that to dismiss them entirely would be irresponsible,” Basile wrote to Sass.

He wrote that one longtime volunteer told the race she would “have nothing to do” with it if Sass participated this year.

“Rates of sexual assault, sexual abuse and rape in our region are the highest in the nation,” Basile wrote. “Rape is obviously a serious issue anywhere, but it is an especially serious and sensitive issue here, where so many are survivors of sexual violence.”

Sass replied two days later, Dec. 14, asking the K300 organizers to reconsider. He said the sport’s premier sled dog race, the Iditarod, had “conducted a three-week investigation” and closed its inquiry “due to insufficient information.” The Iditarod, when asked by the news organizations to address Sass’ assertion, said the race does not comment about its processes for reviewing allegations.

In his letter to the K300, Sass wrote of the request for him to withdraw: “I understand the importance of community and the need to have their support but the K300 had the ability to change the narrative, to do something, anything to protect one of the sport’s most well known and competitive mushers.”

He told the board he would withdraw if the board decided, upon further consideration, it still wanted him to do so.

The K300′s statement said the board continued to gather information. On Dec. 21, the board voted to uphold its earlier decision asking Sass to withdraw, the document said. He did not compete.

• • •

Another premier sled dog race, the Yukon Quest Alaska, made a different decision after receiving the Nov. 2 Planned Parenthood letter.

The race, which Sass won in 2015, 2019 and 2020, was originally 1,000 miles and crossed the border between Alaska and Canada. It fractured in 2022 when American and Canadian organizers disagreed over rule changes. The two organizations now run shorter, separate races.

Sass said Weber, the Yukon Quest Alaska board president, told him after the Planned Parenthood letter that the board was not investigating.

“‘We stand by you Brent,’ is basically what his statement was,” Sass said. “‘We stand by you and we’re not going to pursue this in any way.’”

Weber confirmed he told Sass the board was not taking action but denied Sass’ claims that he voiced support for Sass or was dismissive toward the allegations.

Yukon Quest Alaska board member Jodi Bailey said she resigned on Nov. 17 because the race did not investigate the accusations.

“I was told that this might be bad for Brent and we needed to try and keep this quiet,” said Bailey, a Quest and Iditarod veteran. She said the person who told her that was Weber.

He denied making the statement to Bailey.

“The only position I had was that this was a serious allegation and that it was tragic no matter what the truth because people(’s) lives are going to be affected forever,” Weber wrote in an email. “I did not want our board to be involved in the ‘spreading’ of the allegation because we had no facts.”

Sass was allowed to compete in the Yukon Quest Alaska and on Feb. 5 won first place, receiving $7,500 among other prizes.

• • •

After obtaining copies of the Planned Parenthood letter, the Daily News, Alaska Public Media and ProPublica contacted people including some of Sass’ female former dog handlers, who were identified through social media and archived pages of Sass’ kennel website.

One woman declined to comment. Two said they had never had sex with Sass. Another wrote in a direct message, “I have had a very good experience being a handler for Brent, and I’ve never felt unsafe or anything like that around him.”

On Friday, his kennel’s Instagram page carried a letter that Sass had addressed to the Iditarod. The letter is undated, but the wording suggests it was written after the race board asked him to voluntarily withdraw last week but prior to his Iditarod disqualification on Thursday.

“I cannot afford to back out,” Sass wrote in the letter. “I have way too many sponsors, family and friends that have supported my kennel and my career this season. Let alone the 120,000+ fans that are eagerly waiting to watch me race in this year’s Iditarod.”

On Wednesday, with Sass still in the race, Iditarod chief executive Rob Urbach responded to a second set of emailed questions from the news organizations with a statement:

“We take all allegations of misconduct involving mushers, staff, volunteers and other community members seriously,” he wrote. “The Iditarod has processes in place to review allegations and act accordingly, but we do not comment on our processes and will provide a statement if and when any actions are taken.”

The next day, Sass was removed from the race.

• • •

Kyle Hopkins is a reporter and editor for the Anchorage Daily News. Casey Grove is a reporter, editor and host for Alaska Public Media. Reach them at and