A security check in the campground at Centennial Park in East Anchorage erupted into an exchange of gunfire on Wednesday night, leaving two people — including a police officer — with serious injuries, according to police.
Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle said both the officer and the suspect are expected to survive.
Two officers were patrolling the campground just before 8 p.m. when they saw a truck that matched the description of a vehicle that had eluded police on Tuesday, police said in an update Thursday afternoon.
The campground is being used as a sanctioned campground for residents experiencing homelessness following the closure of the mass shelter at Sullivan Arena at the end of June.
Near the truck, the officers saw 32-year-old Iese Gali Jr. and tried to contact him, police said. The officers ordered him to stop, but he ignored commands and began walking toward a nearby minivan, police said.
Gali got into the front passenger seat of the van, where police said the officers tried to physically remove him, police said. He pulled out a firearm during the struggle and shot at the officers, striking one, police said.
“Both officers returned fire and radioed for backup,” police wrote.
One officer was shot, another was uninjured and both shot at the man, Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle said late Wednesday night. The officers shot the man multiple times, Kerle said
Witnesses at the campground provided first aid to the wounded officer and police said responding officers provided aid to Gali until medics arrived.
Gali has been charged with attempted murder, first- and third-degree assault and misconduct involving a weapon. Police said he will be remanded to the Anchorage Correctional Complex once he is released from the hospital.
There was a substantial police presence at the park Wednesday night and witnesses reported hearing a barrage of shots fired.
A large area of the southeast corner of the campground was surrounded in crime scene tape and blocked with police vehicles, where the heaviest police presence was. Officers at the scene walked through the campground Wednesday evening, pausing to talk with campers and ask if their tents were torn by bullets.
Kerle answered questions about the shooting during a news conference late Wednesday night but provided few specifics. The officers who shot the man will be identified in three days per police department policy and have been placed on administrative leave. The Office of Special Prosecutions will conduct an independent review of the use of force.
Witness accounts from people living at the camp and volunteers who were there at the time described a sudden series of gunshots.
“It was like firecrackers,” said Frank Cleveland, who was just about to cook dinner at his campsite, which is north of the area police had blocked off.
Cleveland ran to check on some family members who were camping in an area much closer to the shooting. All were safe, he said.
Michael Baker was camped in his green Subaru Outback when he saw police officers drive up to a campsite just across the lane.
“My windows are fogged up and next thing I heard was gunshots,” he said. “And then I got up and looked out, and the police officer was down and the other officer had the other guy on the ground.”
He said the officer was pointing a gun at the man, who was on the ground next to a van.
“That gunfire, this close. This is not good,” Baker said. “That’s the thing I thought about. ‘Man, what if the bullets start flying over here?’”
At least 40 evidence markers surrounded the van, which had shattered windows and visible bullet holes. It had been removed from the campground by Thursday morning.
Roger Branson, who has been camping at Centennial as a volunteer and running a resource center for people experiencing homelessness, heard a shot from across the campground.
“The first shot, I thought, ‘Well, it’s a bear,’ ” Branson said. “And then the barrage of shots rang out and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got an injured bear.’ And then people started running and screaming.”
In the hours after the shooting, quiet settled over the otherwise often raucous campground as the investigation unfolded. Fires crackled as campers cooked dinner and milled about in the light rain.
In late June, Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration repurposed the campground as a sanctioned area for the unsheltered, directing and busing people there from illegal camps and as it closed the former mass shelter at Sullivan Arena. City officials don’t know exactly how many people are living at Centennial, though they estimate 180 people have consistently stayed there. Volunteers and others on the ground have estimates of well over 200 people. The Bronson administration expects Centennial to remain sanctioned for use by people experiencing homelessness through September or early October.
Over the last 3 1/2 weeks, elected officials, homeless advocates, service providers and community groups have all raised serious concerns over conditions and safety of campers, volunteers and staff. Some have called it a humanitarian crisis.
One of those people is George Martinez, president of the Northeast Community Council. He was at Centennial on Wednesday night holding a meeting with Branson, volunteers and campers when the gunfire began.
“This is devastating,” Martinez said.
Last week, a woman died at the campground of an overdose. On Sunday night, a fight in the campground drew a large police response and resulted in multiple assaults on officers, police said. The campground has drawn frequent police response since it was repurposed at the end of June. By Monday morning, there had been 83 calls for service at the campground, according to data provided by the police department.
Bears, drawn by the smell of food, have ripped into tents of campers, sometimes with people inside. Earlier Wednesday, authorities killed a black bear in the campground after it was suspect of getting into tents — the fifth black bear killed there since late June.