The Iditarod Trail Committee on Friday voted to ban musher Travis Beals from at least the 2017 race while it reviews its rules to better address domestic violence.
Beals was charged four months ago with fourth-degree assault and fifth-degree criminal mischief in a domestic violence case. He also pleaded guilty earlier in 2015 to a criminal mischief charge in a domestic violence case.
Yet the 24-year-old started this year's Iditarod alongside 84 other mushers. He placed 18th and won $16,575. It was his fourth race to Nome.
Andy Baker, president of the Iditarod Trail Committee board of directors, said in an interview Friday the directors determined Beals was no longer "a member of good standing."
Beals cannot race in 2017 and then for "an indefinite period of time thereafter," said a statement from the board. His return to the race will depend "in large part on documentation of successful completion of all court-ordered rehabilitation," it said.
The board of directors will also "immediately" start a process of reviewing and revising the Iditarod's rules and policies to better address domestic violence, the statement said.
"It's a serious issue," Baker said. "We want to have rules in place to cover this kind of stuff for the future, and we take it seriously. We want to be ready."
Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley said the board will form an advisory committee to help with revising race rules. He said he planned to have people associated with the Iditarod on the committee as well as other community members.
"We're making a commitment here, and I think it's a really strong commitment to look outside of ourselves — form an advisory committee with people with other skills and abilities," Hooley said.
Currently, the Iditarod has vague rules when it comes to mushers' personal conduct, leaving much up to the discretion of the Iditarod Trail Committee.
The committee's announcement Friday capped a week of media reports on Beals' criminal record. Alaska journalist Craig Medred first reported the charges on his blog, and several stories followed this week.
Charges against Beals
Hooley said Friday he did not learn of Beals' December 2015 charges until January. He said someone stopped by his office and told his assistant.
Beals was charged with assault in the fourth degree and criminal mischief in the fifth degree.
Beals did not return requests for comment for this story.
According to a charging document signed by an Alaska State Trooper, Beals got into a fight with a woman he was living with in Willow over their dog team training. He took the woman's keys and tried to leave with her truck.
When she opened the door to try and stop him, she was hit by the door of the truck. She went into their cabin and Beals entered through a window. He grabbed the woman in a headlock, picked her up off the couch and pushed her out of the cabin and into the yard. He then threw her belongings into the yard, the charges said.
Beals was arrested and taken to the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility, the charges said. He started the Iditarod less than three months later.
Beals' court records show he is currently in Coordinated Resource Project, or CPR, hearings. The hearings are part of therapeutic court, a special court program to help people with behavioral health issues. Beals' last hearing was Tuesday with another scheduled for next week, according to online court records.
After Hooley found out about the charges in January, he said legal counsel advised him and Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman to "let the judicial system complete its work" and then make decisions based on the outcome.
The December charges weren't the only ones Beals faced last year.
In May 2015, Beals was also charged with fourth-degree assault. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of criminal mischief in the fifth degree.
According to the charging document in the May case, Beals' father called troopers. He reported Beals had mental health issues and Beals had punched holes in the walls of his Seward home, scaring a woman.
The woman told troopers she feared Beals would hurt her. She said she called Beals' parents for help. She said Beals had "hit and hurt her" in the past, but she didn't report those incidents because she thought Beals was struggling with mental health issues. On one occasion, she said Beals broke her arm, according to the charges.
Hooley said he did not find out about the May 2015 case until he was recently contacted by a reporter from the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper.
On Friday, the Iditarod board of directors went into an hourlong executive session to discuss Beals' case, before making the decision to suspend him from the race.
Hooley said in an interview the board decided "it needed to take more immediate action." He said the decision took into account public feedback board members received and discussion between the members.
Asked if he felt the Iditarod had handled the Beals case appropriately, Hooley said given the information and advice they received in January, yes.
But looking back now, he said, "We wish we could have dealt with it sooner."
What this means for the future of the Iditarod remains unclear. Hooley said he didn't know if it meant officials would start looking at mushers' criminal histories. That was one question the advisory committee would likely discuss, he said.
"Obviously we're dealing with this situation now, but we need to be in a better position to deal with similar situations going forward," Hooley said.
Hooley said in in his 23 years with the Iditarod he didn't remember race officials suspending a musher because of domestic violence charges.
In 2007, Healy musher Ramy Brooks was disqualified for hitting his dogs and banned from the competition for another two years. He's never raced the Iditarod again.
Currently, Iditarod rules say no one convicted of a charge of animal abuse or neglect may enter the race. But that's the only criminal charge the rules specifically address.
The rules say the Iditarod Trail Committee can reject race entries from any mushers who do not exemplify the spirit and principles of the committee.
Another rule, approved by the board of directors in April 2015, says from the date a musher signs up for the Iditarod until 45 days after the last entrant completes the event, mushers shall "not make public statements or engage in any public conduct injurious to and in reckless disregard of the best interests of the race" or its sponsors.
Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, mushers' representative on the board of directors, said Friday that until another policy came into place, the board would look at each musher's case individually and decide what action to take.
"We're going to take a little bit of time — a lot of input from a lot of professional-type people — to come up with the best way to handle this that we know how," Gebhardt said. "We obviously don't have the funds that the NFL or the NBA (has) to do what they do, but we're going to do the best we possibly can."
Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser praised the board's decision Friday to suspend Beals from the race and work on a new policy.
"There are ramifications for bad behavior," Buser said.
Buser said in an earlier interview Thursday he confronted Beals during the 2015 Iditarod after hearing rumors of his abusive behavior. He said he told Beals that if he didn't behave right, his career would be over.
"I said, 'If any of this is true, it's in your hands to make or break your career,'" Buser said. "I said, 'You know, nobody else is going to have the guts to tell you you're a scumbag if that's true.'"
Buser said Beals "got really defensive. He got accusatory." But Buser said he hoped after the confrontation he wouldn't hear any more rumors of abuse.
"I wouldn't feel at all uncomfortable if the Iditarod came up with a very, very strong domestic violence policy," Buser said.
Four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King said in an interview Thursday that as "sad and disturbing as domestic abuse is," it's not the Iditarod's place to impose penalties.
"Censure is a pretty big deal and we have a legal system that is supposed to try and find guilt where there is, and then assess penalties," he said.
The Iditarod is not an investigatory organization, he said.
"I think it's tabloid journalism to even be associating the word Iditarod with it," he said of the domestic violence charges. King did not respond to a call for comment Friday on the Iditarod's announcement.
Iditarod musher Katherine Keith and her fiance, Iditarod champion John Baker, launched their initiative "Alaskans Changing Together" in October to address social issues including suicide, alcohol abuse and domestic violence across the state.
Keith said in an interview Friday morning she trusted the board of directors to make the right decision. She said she hoped the Beals situation would not be used to drag individuals involved down, but to increase awareness of domestic violence.
"The key message to me is that no matter what we're struggling with as individuals, there is help for you," she said
Lauree Morton, executive director of Alaska's Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said in an email Friday her council was ready to work with any community group that was committed to ending domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska.
"I appreciate the Iditarod organizers' consideration of domestic violence as the serious crime it is and their willingness to form an advisory committee on the issue is admirable," she said.
She said anyone experiencing domestic violence or seeking information on unhealthy relationships can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit thehotline.org.
Full coverage of the 2016 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
Alaska Dispatch Publishing