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Rural Alaska

Caribou crime: The hunt for the hunters

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published October 21, 2009
FIRST OF THREE-PART SERIES: When the Western Arctic caribou herd wandered close to Point Hope in summer 2008, village hunters went out in pursuit of the animals as they have for generations. This hunt turned out like no other. Some caribou were killed and left to rot on the tundra. Alaska State Troopers tipped off to the waste came north to investigate, resulting in charges against eight villagers, who are now due to stand trial Nov. 30. The hunt for the truth of what happened on the tundra has left more questions than answers, as reporter Jill Burke discovered during a visit to the village last month.

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{flv img ="videos/an_plan.jpg" showstop="true" width="250" height="200"}an_plan_count{/flv}In video captured for the cable channel Animal Planet, obtained by Alaska Dispatch, state troopers scour the hills southeast of Point Hope for evidence of the alleged caribou slaughter.
{flv img ="videos/ev_video.jpg" showstop="true" width="250" height="200"}ev_video{/flv} Home video provided to investigators allegedly documents the hunt's aftermath. In this sequence, former teacher Point Hope Kurt Schmidt counts carcasses.
Point Hope resident Ashley Oktollik shows a visitor the subsistence foods in his freezer.
Point Hope elder Elijah Attungana reacts to claims that village hunters wasted caribou.
Point Hope elder Alice Weber on the accusations of wasted meat.

On July 4, 2008, as small-town America was celebrating the nation's birthday with parades and fireworks, word spread quickly through the remote Inupiat village of Point Hope that the Western Arctic caribou herd was passing near. Along the windswept and barren northern coast of the continent, a tradition that predates the Fourth of July by thousands of years was about to unfold. With the report of caribou on the move, most of the area's hunters grabbed their rifles, straddled red, green and blue four-wheelers, and fueled by contagious excitement, paraded southeast toward the hills hoping to collect their share of the first fresh caribou of the year.

Kurt Schmidt, a science teacher in the village, was late getting in on the action, but ventured out five days later, toward the tail end of the herd's migration. As a non-Native hunter with a good job, Schmidt wasn't interested in filling the limit of 15 caribou per day available to federally registered subsistence hunters living on the edge of the nearby unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. He just wanted some caribou meat to supplement his diet.

The wandering herd was thinning in number by the time the teacher made his way along the barrier island beaches of the Chukchi Sea and up into the low, rolling Lisburne Hills. Noting the numerous game trails crisscrossing the area and the caribou droppings left behind, though, Schmidt estimated tens of thousands of caribou -- perhaps 100,000 -- had sauntered through on a meandering journey south toward the coastal village of Kotzebue. This was part of an annual migration that takes an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 caribou across the vast and undeveloped northwest third of the 49th state.

As Schmidt and a school colleague made their way over rocky ridges and down into lichen-filled valleys in pursuit of the herd, they noticed something had gone very wrong with the year's migration. The village hunters were gone, but many dead caribou remained on the tundra. Hungry calves attempted to suckle from unresponsive mothers. Slaughtered caribou, it seemed, were everywhere, attracting bears and wolves to feast. And contrary to the age-old code of killing only enough to eat and treating the dead animals with great respect, it looked like many of these animals had been killed on a whim. A lot of meat had been left on the tundra. Some caribou corpses lay largely untouched, as though somebody had shot them just for the excitement of shooting something.

Angered at the sight, Schmidt spent three days hunting, documenting wasted kills along the way. Once back in Point Hope, he reported what he had seen to Alaska State Troopers. Several days later, a handful of troopers flew to the village to turn the arctic tundra into a crime scene. They were on a hunt -- not for caribou, but for carcasses and clues as to who committed the wasteful killings.

As investigators from as far away as Fairbanks, more than 500 miles to the southeast, scoured the area, tensions between troopers and locals grew quickly. Within a week, troopers managed to spark within the village a sense of injustice at the hands of outsiders. Schmidt, himself a village newcomer, had already gotten sideways with villagers, and questions were soon raised about his true motives for calling authorities to probe hunting practices in the close-knit community. To make matters worse, a video crew from a national cable TV channel followed troopers on the tundra, filming as they investigated and generating suspicions about the state's motivations for the investigation.

In the end, eight hunters were accused of either gunning down caribou and leaving the meat behind, or participating in hunts and then failing to make sure all of the edible meat was recovered. Troopers at one point claimed that up to 100 caribou had been killed and left to rot, but questions quickly began to arise about the exact number of the dead, along with the reasons the meat had been abandoned.

Some of the accused hunters claimed they shot caribou that, upon closer inspection, looked to be diseased. Others said some animals were such a mess of bullet wounds that the meat was thoroughly "blood shot," as hunters call it, and unsalvageable.

As the confrontation between villagers and troopers escalated, public opinion among Alaskans -- most of whom live in urban areas -- swung toward the troopers, while the North Slope Borough -- based in the far-north community of Barrow -- came to the defense of the hunters. In a state where the rural-urban divide is ever present, tainted with undertones of racism and fueled by cultural misunderstandings, the dead caribou began to take on an importance beyond their number. Over the past 15 months, as the case has slowly worked its way through the state court system toward a Nov. 30 trial, what happened on the tundra has become the subject of a growing debate.

Among all parties, there is no doubt that at least some caribou were left on the tundra in July 2008. But the persistence of state troopers in trying to hunt down the hunters, the apprehension among Point Hope villagers toward outside forces meddling with the subsistence hunting foundation of their community, and the widespread attention the case received in the media raised the stakes for everyone.

A long and rich hunting history

Point Hope was once one of the largest Inupiat Eskimo settlements in Alaska. It occupied a windswept peninsula along the icy Chukchi Sea in Northwest Alaska, a location ideal for hunting on both ocean and land. Where other tribes were nomadic and forced to move with migrating animals, the people of Point Hope were blessed with a bounty of passing whales, walruses and seals in the waters offshore, and herds of caribou that regularly came near the village just inland.

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The village grew large and strong, ruling over a vast swath of the northwest. Wars were fought and battles won. Some anthropologists estimate Point Hope to have been a community of more than 1,200 people, larger than any other in the Alaska Arctic, when the first Western explorers began probing north of the Bering Strait a few hundred years ago.

These days, Point Hope is smaller, about 700 people, but it continues to draw explorers from across the globe. The place chosen by the ancients for an abundance of wildlife also sits near treasures valuable to the modern world. Climate change and melting sea ice mean new shipping lanes may open just offshore, and beneath the waters, the outer continental shelf is believed to hold billions of barrels of oil. On land, mines lead the way to buried minerals like zinc and lead. And it's explored beneath watchful eyes.

As they have for centuries, the people of Point Hope remain vigilant to dangers outside forces might impose on their way of life. They have reason. More than once their lives have been threatened. In the late 1950s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission proposed experimenting with the use of nuclear technology to create an artificial harbor just 26 miles away. Powerful underwater nuclear bombs would be used to create a shipping harbor to assist the future movement to market of Alaska's rich coal and oil resources. Point Hope would have none of it. Fearing the effects radiation might have on the environment, the community rose up against the U.S. government and stood its ground, even pleading with President John F. Kennedy to halt the project. The resistance worked, and the plan, known as Project Chariot, was suspended. But radiation, Point Hope would later learn, still made its way secretly to the village as part of a U.S. government experiment into how nuclear fallout might affect the environment.

Other changes came more visibly. Television arrived in the 1970s to open a window on the world. Three- and four-wheel offroad vehicles followed, providing easy travel into the surrounding hills to hunt. Threats of coastal erosion caused by Chukchi storm surges, possibly linked to global warming, led to the movement of the village inland, where it consolidated into a neat, neighborhood-like, six-square-mile area, with homes, roads, an airstrip, school, power plant, store and a health clinic.

Jobs, however, remain scarce, and unemployment high. As in many of Alaska's rural communities, the few people with full-time work are employed by the city, school, borough or village. What other little money there is comes from selling whalebone masks, baleen baskets, carved walrus tusks or handmade traditional clothing, or from government welfare. Although the village is far more dependent on various forms of government support now than it was 50 years ago, the legacy of Project Chariot still hangs over Point Hope in many ways. There is an underlying distrust of government and ongoing fear about the health threats to the food chain from old radioactive contaminants and new industrial pollutants drifting east on the winds from Russia.

Also left behind in the fallout from the fight over Project Chariot is a determination and know-how about the need to speak out to protect the community.

"When they wanted to use atomic bombs to build a harbor, we had to fight for our lives," Mae Hank said during a recent interview in Point Hope. "Over 50 years, we have been fighting for our lives just to keep living the way we want to, just to be subsistence hunters and keep our ocean and our lands clean."

Today Hank keeps a close eye on the companies that venture to the Arctic in search of new resources, and on the state and federal regulators that are supposed to be watchdogs themselves. She is a proud Inupiaq grandmother, a whaler and an environmentalist. And she is a woman who finds herself engaged in a new battle with the representatives of government: Her son, Aqquiluk Hank, is one of the men accused of killing and wasting caribou.

"I know he didn't do it,'' she said. "I know it in my heart, because I always drilled it in him that he is never to waste, period.''

Former Point Hope Mayor Steve Oomittuk describes allegations of the caribou slaughter:{mp3}SteveOomituk_mediareax{/mp3}

State charges the Point Hope eight

In March 2009, eight months into the Point Hope investigation, the state of Alaska still had not solved the mass killings claimed to have taken place, but it had managed to build illegal hunting cases against eight local men. A high school student, two recent school graduates, and five young family men stood accused of violating state hunting regulations. State prosecutors charged the men with what amounted to wasteful hunting -- failing to butcher and collect all of the meat from animals they allegedly shot.

By the time the hunters stood formally accused, Point Hope residents had come up with accusations of their own against the accusers. They argued that the state was trying to attack a subsistence way of life protected under federal law, and they questioned whether wildlife troopers had exaggerated -- even lied -- about the facts of the case.

Former Point Hope teacher Kurt Schmidt's recorded phone call to Alaska State Troopers:{mp3}tip_08-56872CWI{/mp3}

Given a chance to respond to these accusations, troopers declined to comment for this story, as did state Assistant Attorney General Andrew Peterson, who is prosecuting the cases. Both declined comment until the cases are resolved.

Troopers and villagers have been at odds almost since investigators arrived in Point Hope nearly two weeks after the Independence Day hunting began. Authorities told residents they were in town to showcase Alaska's rugged beauty and its wildlife for a documentary, recalled Steve Oomittuk, who was the city mayor until earlier this month. Villagers got suspicious something else might be going on when the troopers and their guests -- a lone cameraman contracted by the cable channel Animal Planet -- headed out into the hills without asking for assistance from area guides. No one could quite figure out why the group was adamant about going solo, Oomittuk said. A few days later, after the troopers and their cameraman returned from a journey into the Lisburne Hills, it became clear the only thing on troopers' minds was solving an unsettling crime.

Kurt Schmidt was one reason troopers showed up in Point Hope. The tall, bearded science teacher was relatively new to the school, but seemed to be settling in. He'd started there in 2007 and appeared to enjoy life in the Bush. Villagers recall that he liked to hunt, sometimes with a falcon, and by all accounts was good at it.

Schmidt did not return calls for this story, but through interviews with villagers and court documents, audio recordings and video recordings obtained by Alaska Dispatch, it's possible to reconstruct his role in tipping troopers off to the caribou case.

More than a week before troopers descended on Point Hope, he'd called them to report what he believed to be the wasteful killings of caribou. He claimed to have photos to prove it. Among Schmidt's photos were pictures of calves suckling their dead mothers, severed caribou heads, and whole, unbutchered carcasses scattered on the tundra. He also videotaped some sites where the animals were left. He told authorities there was one valley with 19 carcasses, only three of them appearing to have been gutted and skinned. In the video, Schmidt narrates as he moves the camera over carcasses, counting them one by one and theorizing that there was no legitimate rationale for the killings.

During his initial call to Alaska State Trooper Eric Lorring, Schmidt gave directions to what he claimed to be the scene. He told Lorring the alleged waste, especially when done in the name of subsistence hunting, "ticked" him off, according to a taped recording of the conversation reviewed by Alaska Dispatch.

"There is one valley in particular where there is 19 dead caribou,'' Schmidt told Lorring in the call. "Three of them have been cut on. One of them had been gutted -- it looked like it had been gutted and skinned, but all four leg quarters were there."

Schmidt added: "The rest of them are out in the valley, and there's little calves running around standing next to their dead mothers."

Even if the shots were accidental, Schmidt said to Lorring, he believed there's no way any hunters could have missed seeing the dead caribou in the valley. "It's definitely negligence, or intentional," he said.

Lorring told Schmidt that enforcing game laws on subsistence hunters in the Bush can be a "touchy subject." "There's a lot of people out there that say that they don't waste, they use everything and so and so forth," Lorring said. "So, you know, this is just to reinforce the thing that says, 'Hey no, you know look people do this. And it's not people that come from out of state, it's not people that come from Anchorage, it's local use.'"

During the nearly 15-minute call, Schmidt offered Lorring pictures and video that, he claimed, proved the large-scale waste, including the powerful images of dead cow caribou and their doomed calves that would come to symbolize the almost primal emotions of the case. The teacher clearly understood the public impact of the images.

"It's a statement that stands on its own. There's a calf standing next a dead cow, in the background there is another dead cow. You know it's pretty obvious what's going on," he said. "And then I have got pictures of piles of caribou. You don't even need a citation next to it to say what those pictures are of. It's pretty obvious."

"Most definitely I would like to get those,'' Lorring replied.

Still, Schmidt warned, it would be tough to get convictions. He suggested that if village hunters believed their subsistence hunting privileges were at risk, it might get their attention. Lorring agreed that getting people to talk would be a challenge, adding that it might be a good idea for troopers to head to Point Hope to "rattle some cages." Lorring also talked about the possibility of cash awards for tips leading to convictions.

Whatever happened, Schmidt said, he wanted to remain anonymous, worried that if his name got out, he "might get shot." While he laughs slightly during the comment, it's hard to gauge the seriousness of Schmidt's fear, if any, in making the remark.

But Schmidt did have a rocky past with locals, of which he makes no mention in the call to Lorring; nor does he mention the troubles he had in a previous village where he'd taught. The teacher came to Point Hope about two years ago after leaving the village of Anaktuvuk Pass. Oomittuk and a Native Village of Point Hope executive director say Schmidt had been pressured to leave town, and a former colleague of his confirm's he was involuntarily transferred to Point Hope from Anaktuvuk Pass. This contentious past would later cause some Point Hope villagers to wonder whether Schmidt had it out for hunters in the Bush.

The Anaktuvuk baggage wasn't Schmidt's only problem. In summer 2008, he was also expecting a child, but was on the outs with the mother-to-be -- the Alaska Native daughter of a prominent Point Hope Episcopal priest, according to state court records filed during the couple's heated custody battle. Although the couple has since reconciled, court records show Schmidt at times felt threatened by people with ties to the mother. He claimed people pointed guns at him, and that he was a frequent victim of petty crime. The harassment didn't stop, he claimed, until after he made the woman's father, the priest, aware of the situation.

Courtesy Alaska State Troopers

As for claims that Schmidt might have tipped troopers out of vengeance related to the strife in his personal life, a former Point Hope teaching colleague of his, Marlene Beam, doesn't think so. While he may have had a habit of rubbing some people the wrong way, she says he was a good teacher. If Schmidt felt moved to alert law enforcement, Beam believed he did it because he really thought there was something wrong with what he saw on the tundra.

Still, according to Beam, Schmidt had a history of bouncing around, never staying in a single community for more than a year or two. "It seemed Kurt got into trouble wherever he was," she said.

Beam, who now works as the assistant principal at the school, said Schmidt was not asked to return to his Point Hope job this year, but was offered a teaching position in another community. The North Slope Borough School District did not respond to questions about why Schmidt was turned away from both Anaktuvuk Pass and Point Hope, saying its human resources director was unavailable.

Troopers and TV cameraman come to Point Hope

Five days after the first conversation with Schmidt, troopers from Nome, Kotzebue and Fairbanks landed on Point Hope's gravel airstrip. Weather had prevented them from arriving sooner. Now they were in a hurry to get to the crime scene. Armed with shotguns, packing metal detectors, and with a reality TV filmmaker in tow, the gang followed the trails southeast of Cape Thompson to the alleged kill sites Schmidt had reported. There they knelt over carcasses in search of answers. Were the animals shot? If so, with what sort of weapon? Why were so many allowed to go to waste?

Jill Buke photo
Village of Point Hope

On video, the investigation unfolds a little like an episode of the popular TV show "CSI" -- even one of the troopers in the video jokes about the investigation being like the crime scene drama, albeit a lot colder and windier. The filmmaker from Animal Planet captures much of the initial probing on the tundra and even asks troopers to do some retakes for the camera. Alaska Dispatch obtained nearly two hours of the show's raw footage, which defense attorneys and state prosecutors are now studying in preparation of the trial.

"Describe the scene as though you were a tour guide," the cameraman prompts at one point.

"We are in a typical arctic ridge top," one of the investigators says to the camera. "Not much vegetation. We have musk ox, caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, fox. It's just an awesome ecosystem."

With cameras rolling, troopers explain why they believe the meat of nearby caribou was likely wasted. Meat salvaged by humans has clean cuts in the skin and clean slices where legs, brisket and other parts had been removed. But if a bear, wolf or other predators are scavenging the remains, the trooper tells Animal Planet, the torn flesh would have rough edges, joints would have raveled tendons, and the hides -- instead of flat and neat -- would be turned inside out.

As the team looked over caribou body parts and picked up gum wrappers and shell casings, the cable TV cameraman asked a trooper for his theory of what happened: "These people aren't killing for food? They're just killing caribou recklessly?"

"It would appear that the intent is to kill the caribou and leave them, and that's what the evidence shows," the trooper says.

Eventually, at one kill site, troopers determine that six caribou were killed and then dragged together. Though at least one carcass looks to have been trimmed of meat by humans, the troopers conclude most of the meat at the scene was wasted. Using their metal detectors, they search for bullets in the carcasses and locate shell casings at several different sites. They also gather soda cans, gum wrappers, socks, a shirt, hat, a watch and knives at the various scenes. All are placed in plastic bags.

Troopers spent three days in the mountains outside Point Hope. When they returned to the village, they promptly informed the mayor they had disturbing news. They asked him to call a meeting with village elders. At that meeting, troopers showed pictures of the dead caribou, including the young suckling their dead mothers. The elders cried. Troopers promised to keep things quiet, Oomittuk said in an interview last month, and asked for help in finding those responsible.

Villagers, however, were already questioning the images they were being shown. Some believed many of the pictures were of the same caribou from different angles, furthering suspicions about whether dozens of dead animals were actually found, Oomittuk said.

"We wanted to see those 60 to 65 animals," he said. "Who could do such a thing? Who in our community would kill 60 to 70 animals and leave them out there?" Villagers wanted to go look at the scene. Troopers wouldn't immediately allow it, Oomittuk said, so the community launched its own investigation. Members of the Native Village of Point Hope headed into the mountains on four-wheelers, while the North Slope Borough brought in a search-and-rescue helicopter to capture an aerial view. People had prepared themselves to find slaughtered animals all over the place, Oomittuk said. When they didn't, they were shocked.

On Aug. 2, 2008, nearly one month after the hunt began, a borough search and rescue helicopter loaded with wildlife management staff, the mayor's office, local hunters and a representative from the Native Village of Point Hope conducted a three-hour flyover of the area. Observers on board located only seven to nine wasted animals, a count similar to that returned by the village search team. The local searchers reasoned that if seven or so animals were still intact in the field, the rest of the carcasses troopers claimed to have found should be there, too. Village leaders admit they were troubled by what they found, but it didn't appear to be the massive slaughter troopers were making it out to be.

"Based on our findings and those of the North Slope Borough, there was no evidence of a massacre," Oomittuk wrote in his final report about local investigations.

Still, the North Slope Borough Wildlife Department notes that while its helicopter was out for just a few hours, the trooper investigation lasted days and covered far more ground than the helicopter, with limited fuel, could reach.

Even so, villagers wondered, where were the dozens of other dead caribou? And why were they once again being so quickly blamed?

Unfair blame is something local hunters have experienced before, as recently as just a few years ago, Oomittuk said. In 2006, when five musk ox -- three cows and two bulls -- were illegally killed close to Point Hope, a shadow of blame was cast on the community, he said. As it turned out, however, that kill didn't involve local Native hunters at all. Instead, what was then billed as the biggest unlawful slaughter of its kind turned out to be the work of non-Native maintenance worker at the school. Ken Hamby was found guilty of the kill and of wanton waste. He lost his hunting license for three years, was fined $2,500, and served a week in jail.

Jill Burke photo
A polar bear skin dries in the sun
Point Hope massacre splashed across the news

Just a few weeks after the meeting between Alaska State Troopers and villagers, Alaskans heard the news. Troopers sent out a press release on July 28, 2008, claiming they had uncovered by far the state's worst case of hunters blatantly wasting meat. Troopers said they located 120 carcasses during their investigation, of which meat from at least 60 caribou was either partially or fully wasted. But they hinted that they suspected many more animals had been left to rot. Estimates soared as high as 100 in interviews with some media, but troopers said they couldn't prove those numbers because decomposition and scavengers had claimed the remains.

By the time the press release went out -- nearly three weeks after the first hunts in early July -- troopers already had five suspects. A few weeks later, through the help of a former Point Hope resident anxious to avoid jail time in an unrelated case, they managed to gather three more names. But it would take until March 2009 -- a full eight months after the hunt -- for state prosecutors to file charges.

The eight defendants charged then were part of two separate hunting parties. None was directly accused of the "caribou massacre" troopers had gone to great lengths to solve. Instead, they were charged with playing a role in the overall carnage that offended Schmidt and brought investigators to the scene.

Gone from the case were claims of 60 to 100 dead caribou. Charging documents listed 37 wasted or partially wasted caribou in 25 different locations where dozens of people had been hunting. The worst single kill site? Six dead animals that had been dragged to a central location.

Troopers offered no findings of a valley littered with dozens and dozens of dead caribou, as first reported by Schmidt. And if they'd found the valley of death, they weren't talking about it. By that point, however, it mattered little.

Alaskans had heard for months that a reckless group of hunters from one of the most historic and legendary hunting villages in the state had committed a mass slaughter. The carnage initially reported by troopers was etched in many people's minds. For the people of Point Hope, the reputation of their community was on the line. The tribal leadership swiftly came to the aid of the accused hunters, calling the charges "a direct attack on our subsistence and way of life." The North Slope Borough agreed to spend $56,000 to help the men clear their names.

Overnight, battle lines were drawn across the urban-rural divide, but state prosecutors were not going to back down. Convinced a wrong had occurred, they pressed forward, while Point Hope readied itself to stand and fight. Hateful e-mails and phone calls flooded into the city, Oomittuk said. And community leaders, he added, felt sad: sad that mistakes had been made during the hunt. Sad that in searching for those who behaved badly, the state had somehow blamed their entire community. Sad that the situation would only get worse for everyone as the case dragged through the court system.

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