Crime & Courts

How a chance encounter in downtown Anchorage led to a major break in 5 homicides

The Saturday (Nov. 12) shootout that left an Anchorage police officer wounded and a man wielding a gun linked to five homicides dead was the result of a chance encounter stemming from a report of an unpaid cab fare, according to investigators.

Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley said officer Arn Salao was still recuperating Tuesday (Nov. 15) from gunshot wounds he suffered in the fatal encounter with 40-year-old James Dale Ritchie just after 4:30 a.m. Saturday. Police said Ritchie died at the scene near Fifth Avenue and Cordova Street after Salao and Sgt. Marc Patzke returned fire.

Police Lt. John McKinnon, who oversees APD's homicide and robbery/assault units, said that police were initially responding to a theft call from a cab driver, reporting that a passenger hadn't paid a fare.

That crime, which went unsolved after the encounter with Ritchie, was unrelated to the shootout.

"Mr. Ritchie, we just came upon by happenstance," McKinnon said. "He does not match our description of the person who was in the cab."

[APD: Gun used by suspect in police shooting was also used in 5 Anchorage homicides]

Police spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said in an email that Salao was responding to the skipped cab fare, which occurred near Fourth Avenue and B Street, when he spotted Ritchie. Salao drove up to conduct a field interview with Ritchie, to "see if he heard or saw anything in the area about a guy fleeing from a cab."


Asked about previous reports from APD that the officer was "ambushed," McKinnon said that Salao hadn't done anything to provoke Ritchie before the gunfire began.

"What I can tell you is that the officer was attempting to contact the individual," McKinnon said. "He says 'Sir,' he does not respond; so when he turns on his public-address system, the suspect turns and opens fire."

Police described the officers' response in a statement on the encounter released Tuesday.

"Officer Salao flew out of his vehicle and started to return fire," police wrote. "Sgt. Patzke had arrived on scene as the shooting was occurring. He ran towards the suspect and returned fire, ultimately causing the suspect to fall to the ground over top of Officer Salao. The suspect continued fighting Officer Salao until he was subdued by other officers."

Ritchie had fired six rounds from the weapon — a .357 Colt Python — at Salao, according to Tolley. McKinnon said four rounds struck Salao in the "lower extremities," then moved upward into his midsection. Tolley said one of the shots lodged in Salao's liver.

"The gun was unloaded at this officer," Tolley said.

Police later determined that the gun carried by Ritchie was the same one used in five homicides this summer around Anchorage; an investigation into those cases is continuing.

It wasn't clear how many rounds the officers fired at Ritchie, McKinnon said; police also didn't know Tuesday exactly how many times Ritchie was hit by return fire, pending the results of an autopsy, McKinnon said. There weren't any immediate indications at the scene that Ritchie had been under the influence of drugs or alcohol, McKinnon said.

Tolley said he had visited Salao on Tuesday morning at a local hospital, where he had been moved out of the intensive care unit.

"The officer is a fighter," Tolley said. "He's set to live his life and has a happy outlook."

Salao has been with APD since October of 2011, working as a patrol officer. Patzke has been with the department since 2007, and oversees APD's K-9 Unit.

Salao's shooting comes nearly a month after a similar Oct. 16 attack in Fairbanks that gravely wounded Fairbanks Police Department Sgt. Allen Brandt. A suspect, 29-year-old Anthony George Jenkins-Alexie, was subsequently taken into custody on assault charges — charges that were upgraded to murder when Brandt later died of complications from eye surgery.

Chris Klint

Chris Klint is a former ADN reporter who covered breaking news.