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Crime & Justice

Details emerge in killing of 2 troopers in Tanana as state mourns

When Alaska State Troopers Sgt. Patrick "Scott" Johnson and trooper Gabriel Rich flew into the village of Tanana Thursday afternoon, they were responding to a report that a resident had threatened a village public safety officer with a gun the night before, the head of troopers said at a news conference in Anchorage on Friday.

Within minutes, both troopers were dead, killed by the man's teenage son, said Col. James Cockrell, director of the Alaska State Troopers. The chain of events appears to have started when the man, Arvin Kangas, 58, became irate over the sale of his sofa, the colonel said.

Johnson, 45, was a veteran on the force, based in Fairbanks his whole 20-year trooper career. He worked three years before that as a North Slope Borough police officer, troopers said.

Rich, 26, spent four years as a North Pole police officer before joining the troopers in 2011. Both were new to the troopers' Fairbanks-based four-person rural unit, joining it Jan. 1. Johnson was the sergeant. They covered 23 villages on and off the road system, from Kaltag to Arctic Village, troopers said.

Troopers were reeling from the shock of two officers killed.

"This will take us a long time to heal," Cockrell said.

Around 2:45 p.m. Thursday, Johnson and Rich arrived by helicopter in Tanana, 130 miles west of Fairbanks, near the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers. The largely Athabascan village is home to about 250 people.

They were looking for Arvin Kangas. Cockrell said Kangas was involved in the earlier confrontation with village public safety officer Mark Haglin.

They found Kangas at his house. As Cockrell told it, there was a struggle in the doorway. All three men ended up inside the home. Haglin was nearby.

Then, Kangas' 19-year-old son, Nathanial Lee Kangas, shot both troopers with a semiautomatic rifle, the colonel said.

Haglin notified troopers around 3:10 p.m. that "we had one trooper dead and potentially another trooper dead. That's all we heard and then the phone went dead," Cockrell said. He didn't know if one of the men was initially still alive.

Tanana Mayor Donna Folger said she was in the village church preparing the body of her 81-year-old aunt for a Friday funeral when the shooting began.

"All of a sudden there was a commotion going on. Somebody (fired) a gun and then a few minutes later we heard a trooper was killed," Folger said Friday. "And it's just devastating. We knew the troopers and we know the men here, the dad and the son. It's just crazy."

Hours later, when more troopers arrived, SWAT teams pressed through the village, she said.

"Some people saw them coming up Front Street and they ran over the bank to get out of their way," Folger said.


The trouble began Wednesday, a day earlier.

Haglin, the VPSO in Tanana, had been called to a domestic dispute involving the elder Kangas that appeared to be a fight about an unpaid bill for Kangas' old sofa, Cockrell said. Kangas left on his ATV and may have been intoxicated, Cockrell said.

By the time Haglin caught up to Arvin Kangas that evening, he had abandoned the four-wheeler for a station wagon. Haglin approached him.

"There was a confrontation," Cockrell said. "Mostly verbal, enough to make the VPSO stand back and tell Arvin to go back to his residence, park his vehicle and don't drive anymore."

But Kangas started driving around the village "at a high rate of speed," Cockrell said. Haglin went to look for Kangas and drove by his home.

"At that time he saw Arvin on the porch of the residence and he was pointing a shotgun at the VPSO as he was driving by the residence," Cockrell said.

VPSOs aren't armed by state policy, but the Legislature recently passed a bill authorizing the state to train them to carry firearms. The bill is awaiting the governor's signature.

The Wednesday confrontation occurred about 8 p.m., the colonel said. The incident triggered Haglin to notify troopers.

Johnson and Rich arrived Thursday afternoon to serve an arrest warrant on the elder Kangas for misdemeanor assault and driving with a revoked license.

His son, Nathanial Kangas, now faces a charge of murder in the first degree for each of the troopers. He also faces a charge of assault in the third degree for actions against Haglin.

The father and son are being held at the Fairbanks Correctional Center. They are scheduled for a court hearing Saturday in Fairbanks.

Troopers say they don't know why the teenager opened fire.


The Kangases were from Ruby, a village of about 200 on the south bank of the Yukon River some 60 miles from Tanana.

Ruby Cruger, who manages a bed-and-breakfast in Tanana, said she and cousin Arvin Kangas grew up in Ruby. Kangas worked there as a heavy-equipment operator, she said. In Tanana, he was unemployed, she said.

Cruger described her cousin as a "radical" who wanted to see Alaska Natives take back their land. She said his mood would shift quickly, often unprovoked.

"He just gets mad for nothing. That's just the way he is," she said. "He's been like that for the last two years. He was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. It was just a matter of time."

Nathanial Kangas, who goes by "Sach," revealed similar politics on his Facebook page. In two posts from early April, he talked about Alaska Native sovereignty and vented his frustration.

"How can someone have the power to give up our rights? We are sovereign people," he wrote on April 8.

He said he has lived in Ruby, Kodiak, North Pole, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Galena and Tanana. He attended Service High School on the Hillside for several years, according to the Anchorage School District.

Last year, he trained as a wildlands firefighter and worked for the Bureau of Land Management in August to help fight the Mississippi Fire near Delta Junction, the BLM said.

Folger, the mayor, said Nathanial was well-liked.

"It's just hurtful to try to figure out what the hell happened," she said, her voice breaking. "At the snap of a finger, somebody goes nuts. It's just like a scary movie."


Troopers now have two teams of investigators in Tanana -- one from Fairbanks and one from Anchorage -- and are still collecting evidence, Cockrell said.

Cockrell said it wasn't clear, for instance, how Nathanial Kangas was taken into custody after the shooting.

"We do know that approximately 15 minutes after the shooting we had a report that Nathanial Kangas was in custody in the back of the VPSO patrol vehicle," he said. But he didn't know whether Haglin or someone else arrested the teen.

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Haglin declined to talk about what happened.

After the shooting, Arvin Kangas fled to another house. Additional troopers began pouring into Tanana around 6 p.m. Thursday. There was a standoff, and the crisis negotiation team was involved, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said. Arvin Kangas surrendered to troopers at about 10:25 p.m.


On Friday afternoon, a crowd of about 30 people lined an East Anchorage intersection to watch a procession of law enforcement vehicles escort the van carrying the bodies of the troopers to the State Medical Examiner Office.

"I just felt the need to come honor them," said Patty Krasnansky, an emergency medical technician who brought a tiny American flag. "It's really sad. We work alongside troopers and police and fire and EMS. It's kind of a close community."

In Fairbanks, Lacy Russell, 25, and other former classmates of Rich from Lathrop High planned a Friday night candlelit vigil at the rock in front of the school.

It's tradition for rival high schools to spray-paint each other's rocks before big sporting events, Russell said. But on Friday, it was painted for Rich and another classmate who committed suicide last week.

"We all graduated together, we all grew up together," Russell said. "A lot of classmates played hockey with (Rich) and we've all been friends for years. We all just wanted to get together."

Johnson, who graduated from Tok High, was a champion wrestler. As an eighth grader, he was ranked fourth in the nation for his age and weight class. He went on to be a three-time Alaska regional champion and two-time state champion wrestler from Tok, then competed in college, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

As an adult, he coached high schoolers and recently applied to take over as head coach at West Valley High, the Dispatch story said.

Earlier Friday, Public Safety Commissioner Gary Folger told a crowd of reporters at the police memorial outside the state's new crime lab that the troopers "lost two good men." He asked for prayers and support for their families.

"Please remember that we stand on guard for each of you each and every day," Folger said. "That is who we are and that is what we do."

Reporter Zaz Hollander contributed to this story. Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390. Reach Tegan Hanlon at or 257-4589.


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