FAIRBANKS -- The National Park Service ended up on trial here Wednesday in what was supposed to be a case against a 70-year-old resident of Central, Alaska, who led a short, but action-packed, high-speed riverboat chase along the Yukon River in September.
From the day that encounter in the remote wilds of Alaska first erupted into a national incident -- the state and the federal government are still in court arguing over who has authority for a river through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve long used for both Alaska and Canadian commerce -- Jim Wilde, the man accused by the Park Service of fleeing and endangering rangers, has protested that all he ever wanted to do was take his boat to the safety of a riverbank before meeting with the government men who wanted to do a "safety inspection."
Before doing this, however, two rangers have testified Wilde said, "You fucking cocksuckers. I'm not stopping." He gunned his boat and headed upriver.
Wilde has said he was aiming for a good place to beach the boat on the shore. Rangers have testified they thought he was fleeing for Canada, more than 100 miles away.
Whichever the case, rangers launched a pursuit. Based on the testimony, it took between a minute and 15 seconds to two minutes and covered a distance between a quarter-mile and a half-mile -- once or twice around your average high school track.
A lot of action transpired in this relatively short time and distance, however.
Ranger Joe Dallemalle pulled his handgun and pointed it at Wilde, who was seated at the steering wheel of his boat. Both Dallemalle and ranger Ben Grodjesk testified that Wilde responded by swerving his boat toward theirs. Dallemalle then decided his handgun wasn't doing enough to intimidate Wilde and his two passengers, so he grabbed a shotgun, ratcheted a shell into the chamber, and took aim at the man.
Legally, in the state of Alaska, Wilde attorney Bill Satterberg noted in court Wednesday, this constitutes the use of "deadly force" which is to be used by law enforcement authorities only in extreme situations. Reading from a Park Service manual, he noted that even that agency says such force is to be used only in situations in which lives are in danger.
So why here? the attorney asked.
"He (Wilde) was a threat to himself, his passengers and the public," Grodjesk said.
Wilde, his 73-year-old wife, Hannelore, and elderly friend Fred Shank were at the time deep in the Yukon-Charley Preserve, a long forgotten back corner of Alaska. Though it was then moose hunting season along the river, one of the busiest times of the year, rangers testified they'd seen only one other boat on the day Wilde's showed up where they were staking out a bend near a place called Slaven's Cabin.
Rifles and handcuffs for 'failure to identify'
Wilde approached the rangers in his boat after they waved at him, but he grew uncooperative when they identified themselves and told him to turn his boat off in midriver, in a current estimated around 6 mph, in order to await their inspection. Then the chase began. The guns were brandished. Wilde beached his boat. The rangers, saying Wilde looked aggressive, jumped him; threatened to Taser him if he didn't start cooperating; handcuffed him; hauled him tens of miles downriver to Circle; and then put him in a car for a long drive to the jail in Fairbanks.
Satterberg wanted to know if this was standard treatment for Yukon-Charley visitors. Grodjesk said no. Satterberg then started asking about what happened near the confluence of the Nation and Yukon rivers in the preserve only weeks before Wilde was arrested. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Cooper objected. He rose from his chair to argue the Nation River had nothing to do with the Wilde case.
Satterberg disagreed. He said what happened on the Nation showed a pattern of behavior by the Park Service that might make the locals unwilling to cooperate. Cooper objected again. "He can't do that," the prosecutor said. Magistrate Judge Scott A. Oravec, however, decided Satterberg could.
Satterberg asked Grodjesk if he'd handcuffed a man near the Nation River in August and then kept him in handcuffs for hours.
"Yes," responded Grodjesk, adding, "I don't recall the time."
And why was the man handcuffed? Satterberg asked.
"I did not know who he was," Grodjesk said. "I attempted to talk to him. He tried to leave."
"Why did you handcuff him again," Satterberg asked.
"Failure to identify himself," Grodjesk said.
"How old was this man?"
"Forty-five, 50," Grodjesk said.
The man was eventually released after a series of satellite phone discussions between Grodjesk, another ranger with him at the time, and ranger headquarters. Satterberg said the man was in handcuffs between two to four hours. Why was the man finally released?
"I was able to identify him," Grodjesk said.
"Did you get called on the carpet (for what happened)?" Satterberg asked.
"No sir, I did not."
This testimony came after a morning in which Cooper withdrew a key part of the government's evidence against Wilde after it was revealed Cooper himself had created it. Since Park Service investigators lacked any "crime scene" photos from the Yukon in September, and because prosecutors didn't much like the photos taken by Wilde's passenger Shank, Cooper arranged for the Park Service to fly him and a ranger to the river in March.
There, using the defense photos as guides, Cooper directed the ranger on how to shoot new and similar photos for the prosecution. The photographer marked the locations from which the photos were taken with GPS coordinates. The GPS information was then sent to a Park Service navigational specialist who was to plot where the rangers first met Wilde, how the chase progressed across the river, and where it ended on the shore.
Only there was a problem, as Satterberg pointed out. The key photo in the series, the one purporting to locate where on the river Wilde's boat would have been, didn't look all that much like the photo Shank took at the time. It appeared to have been taken so as to distort the distance Wilde fled.
Park Service invades Canada
Oravec on Tuesday suggested Cooper's involvement in creating this photo might be grounds for a mistrial. Satterberg said it looked like it would either be that or he would be forced to call Cooper as a witness to explain how the decisions were made on the locations from which to take the photos.
On Wednesday, Cooper withdrew much of the photographic and GPS information the prosecution had filed in the case. And then began the next round of government problems.
After Grodjesk's revelations about handcuffing an Alaskan for refusing to give his name to a federal official, Joel Cusick, a GPS specialist for the Park Service, got on the stand to reveal his agency had invaded Canada.
Cusick had been called to the stand mainly to testify about GPS data that had already been tossed out of the case. In the process, however, he was asked about why the GPS the Park Service had in its boat on the day of the Wilde incident wasn't recording any information. Satterburg said the onboard GPS, which would have shown exactly where the Park Service boat pursuing Wilde went, had been turned off on Sept. 21, 2007, and had remained off since.
Cusick admitted the boat was up the Yukon River well into Canada when that happened. Satterberg, noting the craft was 8 to 10 miles past the border when the GPS tracking was turned off, wondered how much farther the boat might have gone. Dawson City, Yukon Territory, is upstream from the border and famous for its gambling.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.