Crime & Courts

Alaska State Troopers K-9 killed near Palmer was 1st to die in line of duty

PALMER — The dog killed during a police pursuit near Palmer early Sunday is the first Alaska State Troopers "K-9" to be killed in the line of duty.

A driver who troopers say sped away from a traffic stop — 25-year-old Palmer resident Almando Abarca — is accused of killing the dog.

Troopers won't release the dog's name until Wednesday because doing so would effectively identity its handler, which would violate a policy to not name any trooper involved in an officer-involved shooting for 72 hours, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said.

But documents filed with criminal charges Monday identify the dog as Helo, named for trooper Tage Toll and pilot Mel Nading, who died in a helicopter crash on a 2013 search and rescue near Talkeetna.

With Sunday's loss, the trooper force now has six dogs, according to troopers Capt. Randy Hahn.

Helo was one of four police dogs around Alaska issued stab- and bulletproof vests, according to news reports. Hahn and Peters couldn't say Monday afternoon whether Helo was wearing a vest during the Sunday incident.

A high-speed pursuit preceded the shooting, authorities say.

A Palmer police officer pulled over Abarca's Geo sedan with four people inside during a traffic stop for having its tail lights out at 5:20 a.m., according to a sworn affidavit filed with charging documents by troopers investigator Andrew Adams. 

The Geo sped off through Palmer, not stopping at stop signs, Adams wrote; another Palmer officer joined the pursuit, which headed south on the Glenn Highway at speeds reaching 90 mph in a 45 mph zone. A trooper joined as the Geo drove down a long driveway near the Glenn-Parks Interchange.

The car crashed into a tree at a slow speed as the driver, later identified as Abarca, got out with a pistol in his hand and fled into the woods, according to the affidavit. A Palmer officer and the trooper, with Helo, pursued on foot.

Abarca "fired all of the rounds in his pistol in the direction of the officers and the K-9," Adams wrote. The dog was shot several times.

The Palmer officer and trooper fired at Abarca, hitting him once in the shoulder, troopers said in an online dispatch Sunday. He was taken to the hospital with a non-life-threatening injury.

Helo, critically injured, died of multiple gunshot wounds at a local veterinary clinic about four hours later.

Abarca was scheduled to make a court appearance in Anchorage Monday on felony charges, including first-degree harming a police dog. He was also charged with third-degree assault and eluding police.

He was jailed on an outstanding $20,000 arrest warrant linked to second-degree burglary charges, troopers said.

A state court database shows Abarca was arrested in January 2014 on burglary charges. The charges apparently stem from an ATM robbery in the first days of that year, according to a story in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

Troopers said Abarca and a friend stole the entire ATM from a pawnshop near Wasilla, according to the story. But then he got his Ford Expedition stuck in the snow and ended up dumping the machine nearby. A trooper wrote in a sworn affidavit that Abarca said he needed money to "take care of his family and pay his parents back for rent," according to the article.

Abarca was enrolled in a state program aimed at probation violators, known as PACE: Probation Accountability with Certain Enforcement. His burglary case included a series of PACE hearings this summer, according to the state database.

It was a PACE warrant he was jailed on Sunday, according to the dispatch.

The last time a troopers police dog was shot was 1998 but the dog survived. That dog was named Tika — and Capt. Hahn was her handler.

Hahn was part of a Special Emergency Reaction Team called out in response to an armed standoff in the Fairbanks area. Someone ambushed two troopers and fired rounds at their patrol cars. The shooter was in the woods. Authorities didn't know his position or whether he was alive or dead. They could send in troopers or they could send Tika, Hahn recalled.

He made what he called the difficult decision that "although I very much valued my dog's life," he would send Tika rather than let people go into that potentially deadly situation.

He heard suspect Dennis Tucker yelling, "Get off me! Get off me!" Hahn said Monday. Then he heard a single gunshot.

"The suspect actually shot her off him," he said.

Tika was hit in the shoulder with a round from a .303-caliber rifle. Hahn spent long minutes of "incredibly tense concern" before learning that his dog had made her way to a road and was packaged up and en route to veterinary care.

The troopers haven't decided whether to replace the dog killed Sunday, Hahn said. That decision will depend on a number of factors, including the handler's preferences.