A federal magistrate's decision to convict an elderly Interior Alaska man of criminal charges for confronting National Park Service rangers on the Yukon River last fall did not seem to be sitting well with Fairbanks residents Tuesday. Once more, many of them seemed to be saying, 72-year-old Jim Wilde was getting shafted for daring to stand up and question how the U.S. government does business in the 49th state.
This time the man handing out the punishment was U.S. District Court magistrate Scott Oravec, who ruled that no matter how "unwise" it might have been for Wilde to follow the order of rangers to shut down his a riverboat in the middle of the fast-flowing Yukon, the Central resident was duty-bound to comply. Oravec ruled Wilde guilty of "interfering with a (government) agency function," guilty of "violating a lawful order,'' and guilty, above all, of "operating an unregistered boat."
Wilde's attorney, Bill Satterberg of Fairbanks, had wanted a trial by jury, but saw his client denied that because of the relatively petty nature -- by federal standards -- of the charges.
Satterberg had been of the opinion a jury of Wilde's Interior Alaska peers would have set his client free in a blink, and judging from reactions in Fairbanks, where Wilde was tried in April, he might have been right.
The Fairbanks Daily News Miner put up a five-paragraph story outlining the Oravec ruling on its website shortly after the decision was made public. Within a matter of hours, a string of comments had been published that was far longer than the article itself. Some in the heartland of the Alaska Independence Party seemed on the verge of calling for a second American Revolution.
Antifederalism flares up again in Fairbanks
A commenter using the name "bottomfish" quoted Revolutionary War hero and American President George Washington's warning that "government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servent and a fearful master."
Another commenter, "Tommyguns," got right to the point: "Past time for an Alaska Spring. Throw the !@#$%^& feds out of our beautiful state NOW!"
All this the fallout from an incident that began with two youngish rangers baiting the crusty, old Wilde into stopping his riverboat on the Yukon during moose hunting season last year. The rangers acted as if their boat was disabled and flagged Wilde down. He started to come to their aid until he realized what was up, and then things turned ugly. That was the one thing everyone who testified at Wilde's April trial agreed on.
The rangers told Wilde they wanted to inspect his boat. He launched into a stream of profanity during which "cocksuckers" might have been the mildest word used, according to testimony at the trial. Wilde admitted later that he'd lost his cool and shouldn't have done what he did. Park rangers Joe Dallemolle and Ben Grodjesk were less reconciliatory. They stuck to their story that not only had Wilde fled their riverblock, but then tried to, or at least indicated he might try to, ram and sink their boat.
For this, Wilde had been charged with disorderly conduct. Even Oravec refused to hold for the government on that charge. There just wasn't evidence to support it, he said. The story that came out at trial, in fact, made rangers far more the aggressors than Wilde.
When he veered toward shore -- he said it was to beach the boat to talk to rangers in a safe location; rangers said it was to flee -- rangers gave chase. When Wilde didn't stop as they wanted, Dallemolle pulled his sidearm and pointed it at the old man. When that still didn't get what Dallemolle called "compliance," he grabbed the shotgun and aimed it at Wilde, his 73-year-old wife, Hannelore, and elderly friend Fred Schenk.
Dallemolle said he was going to make sure the old folks didn't flee, though where he thought they might be fleeing was never clear.
The nearest village upriver was Eagle, an isolated community of about 150. Beyond that there is only Canada, which is largely unoccupied until one reaches the community of Dawson City, Yukon Territory, 105 miles upriver from Eagle. Dawson is a booming community of 1,300 along a frontier highway that runs north and west from Whitehorse to Chicken, Alaska, through a land with few human inhabitants.
The country along the road is almost as remote and desolate as the stretch of the Yukon River on which Wilde met rangers who'd seen only one other boat all day, despite being on patrol at the height of the hunting season. And wouldn't you know it, but the second boat they met was some crazy old guy who was going to make a run for it.
Some might consider it a bored ranger's dream; never mind the improbability that a trio of elders well-respected in their community were going to launch some sort of daring escape to Canada. Wilde yelled profanity and took off. The young rangers gave chase.
Wilde went to shore. There, the rangers, pumped up on adrenaline -- they'd already pulled both a handgun and shotgun on the fleeing suspects -- took Wilde down. He was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. Then they took him back to Circle, requiring Wilde's help to navigate the Yukon to get there. There he was loaded into a vehicle at the end of the Steese Highway and driven 160 miles to Fairbanks, where he spent a few days in jail while everyone tried to sort out exactly what had happened.
The story never got any better for anybody after that. Wilde admitted at trial he behaved badly. U.S. Attorney Stephen Cooper got caught trying to phony up some evidence. Hannalore, who grew up in Nazi Germany, compared the behavior of the park rangers to Gestapo thugs she had encountered as a child. Angry Fairbanks residents staged a post-trial rally to protest the Park Service ever being in the state.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska Congressional delegation lashed out at the Park Service. Reasonable people just wished for the whole thing to go away, but it didn't. The arrest was round one, the trial round two, and by Tuesday night it was looking like the verdict was shaping up as round three.
Satterberg would not say whether his client would appeal. Wilde has already spent a lot of money defending himself for what amounted to bad behavior on his part. Oravec's 31-page ruling, which took more than six months for the magistrate to write, suggested that he might have ruled differently had Wilde simply explained to rangers, clearly and without profanity, that he was going to shore to meet with them because it was safer.
But that didn't happen. And the rest is history.
CORRECTION: This story was edited on Oct. 12, 2011 to included the full name of Dawson City and more accurately describe the nature of the road that runs through that community on its way to Alaska.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com