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Rural Alaska

In wake of Alaska State Troopers' deaths, Tanana struggles with grief

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 2, 2014

TANANA -- Less than 12 hours after a local man surrendered to Alaska State Troopers following a three-hour standoff, the tiny village began to awaken from a short night of slumber.

Residents are grieving over the tragedy of Thursday, when two troopers were shot and killed in the line of duty while trying to arrest 58-year-old Arvin Kangas on charges of fourth-degree assault and driving without a valid license. Residents say his son Nathanial "Sach" Kangas fatally shot troopers Sgt. Patrick "Scott" Johnson and Gabriel "Gabe" Rich during the arrest. The 19-year-old has been charged with murdering the two law enforcement officials, but formal charges against the young man were still being prepared Friday afternoon, according to troopers' spokesperson Megan Peters.

Around 9:30 a.m., local village public safety officer vehicles remained in front of the Kangases' home. Yellow caution tape kept onlookers and reporters a good distance away. The house sat empty, with no one but the officers to look out over the frozen Yukon River -- a primary source of subsistence living for the many villages dotted along the banks of the waterway that drains into the Bering Sea on Alaska's western coast -- just outside the modest dwelling's front porch. Small chunks of ice floated lazily along the outer edges of the river's thawing ice.

Tanana, population 238, is located about 2 miles west of the junction of the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, 130 miles west of Alaska's second largest city, Fairbanks. The Interior village has a smattering of modern facilities, including a water-treatment plant that pumps water to the town's homes. Locals call it the "watering hole" despite the building's being equipped with several large solar panels. But besides the plant and the school, the village lacks the luxuries many Americans expect. Tanana does not have paved roads, or megastores and manmade greenbelts -- the latter unneeded as the village is surrounded by miles of Alaska wilderness.

Troopers, some still wearing the majority of their SWAT gear used in a standoff hours prior, carried at least a half-dozen weapons from inside the Kangas home to vehicles waiting outside. One trooper gripped the barrels of several rifles before placing them in a beat-up, gray police van.

Residents slowly emerged from their homes, hopping on ATVs and into pickups. They drove to the general store, which includes a bed and breakfast and post office. Some spoke to one another about Arvin and his son, who, according to villagers, was suffering from mental issues. Others sat alone along the bank of the Yukon. Despite their shared heartache, many said the village would rebound from the tragedy. They said they have no other choice.

‘It will take some healing, but good will prevail’

Charlie Campbell walked past Arvin's Ford Escort, left abandoned on at the intersection of First Avenue and a side street. On the bank of the river, a team of dogs was leashed; they barked as Campbell approached. It was breakfast time.

He was going about his daily routine. "Life doesn't stop," he lamented. Campbell said the most accurate words to describe the mood of the village are "utterly devastated." Tanana was already in the midst of grieving a beloved elder whose funeral went on as planned later in the day.

"Tanana people are tough," he said. "It will take some healing, but good will prevail."

Nathanial seemed like a nice kid who was courteous to people in the village, and Campbell said he'd never expect the teenager to commit murder.

A good friend of Arvin's for "many years," city council member Aaron Kozevnikoff said the father and son now under arrest were a frequent presence in his home. Nathanial would come and visit with his daughters on occasion. The Kangases were always welcome, he said.

Kozevnikoff added that everything had been going well for Nathanial in the two or so years he lived in Tanana. He picked up jobs here and there and could be counted on. But the young man started to have mental health issues. Kozevnikoff recalled conversations with Arvin during which the father of two boys relayed his concerns about the issue.

Arvin had allegedly been trying to get help for Nathanial; he wanted his son to undergo mental evaluations. The mental turmoil caused problems in the household, but Arvin would call Kozevnikoff and talk it through, "rationalize" the issue at hand and discuss solutions.

Still, with Nathanial's alleged outbursts of anger, Kozevnikoff said he believes the young man had the propensity to do something violent. Arvin had started hanging around another local man interested in Alaska Native rights. He and about six others in the village, according to residents, had been raising a stink about land claims, and the need to take back traditional territory.

Arvin's son was brainwashed into this way of thinking, Kozevnikoff said. The combination of idealism and mental problems led to the shooting, he contended.

As Kozevnikoff sat on a bench trying to make some sort of sense out of the killings, an village elder rode up on a four-wheeler and the two men traded emotional comments about Thursday's events. They agreed they were both in shock.

Troopers leave town

Moments before Kozevnikoff rode up to the watering hole located on Airport Road on his silver Schwinn mountain bike, his main means of transportation around the village, troopers had watched as the bodies of two of their own departed in an agency Cessna Caravan.

The officers stood with arms crossed, intently watching the plane round the tarmac before it ascended and disappeared beyond the horizon toward the State Medical Examiner's Office in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, located 281 miles south of the village -- beyond the Alaska Range and North America's highest peak, Mount McKinley.

Small planes have been landing on the tarmac frequently over the past two days. Tanana is accessible only by air and river transportation. The seclusion doesn't mean urban culture does not seep into the community. As women shed tears just outside the town store, a little girl could be heard singing Nickelback's "Rockstar."

As the plane rose off the tarmac and climbed toward a clear blue sky, troopers tilted their necks and followed the fallen troopers along the horizon. VPSO Mark Haglin looked at the ground as the plane took off before turning to watch the ascent. Haglin had called the troopers requesting assistance on Thursday after Arvin allegedly harassed another local over unpaid money for a used couch.

Haglin, like many village public safety officers posted in Alaska's secluded rural towns, is the only law presence in Tanana. VPSOs are unarmed peace officers employed by Native nonprofit corporations with state funding. They deal with volatile situations involving friends, even family.

The law enforcement officials began to pack their gear into additional planes following the departure of the plane carrying Johnson and Rich. Most would return to their posts far from Tanana. Some stayed in the village.

Working hard to heal

As troopers grieved their colleagues, the kids of Tanana went to school. The killings are confusing to many of the youth, as "everyone in the village is family," said Cynthia Erickson, owner of the town's general store and local 4-H organizer. The nationwide youth development nonprofit aims to implement communitywide change starting at an early age. Empowering young people in such a way is Erickson's passion.

"The group has been working for years trying to help heal Tanana and our rural communities, bringing out sensitive issues that are prevalent in both urban and rural Alaska," she said. The state has the unflattering distinction of having a rape rate triple the national average. It also has high rates of suicide and substance abuse.

Erickson said the group was trying to improve the town. After the deaths of two men, what the kids need most are words of love and hope, as well as guidance, she said.

"It's tough on everybody," Erickson said. "Many people are related, or consider each other family. So many aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. We pass by each other on the roads 10 times a day."

To help with the healing process, a member of This Generation Ministries -- which networks with Alaska Native ministries, churches and other religious organizations -- will arrive in town and provide counseling. Most importantly, they'll provide a spiritual outlet, Erickson said.

Florence Folger, a Tanana local, said the village elders will provide a shoulder to cry on. She said the residents will pull themselves up from the bowels of heartbreak and "definitely recover." Folger added the village has the ability to do so on its own, though she thinks the killings never should have occurred.

"It all happened because of a stupid couch," she said through sobs.

At five minutes past 1 in the afternoon, the bell on the town's old wooden church rang. Women wearing kuspuks gathered outside the church located off First Avenue. Church songs emanated from inside the small, old structure as families entered one after another.

"We have to bury our friend today, and now we have this," Folger said.

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