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Troopers suspect propane huffing in death of Alakanuk teen

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 8, 2014

A teenager found dead in a shipping container Friday night in the Western Alaska village of Alakanuk is believed to have died as a result of huffing propane gas to get high, Alaska State Troopers and the village police chief said Monday.

Friday marked the second chaotic night in a row in Alakanuk, and inhalant abuse appears to be a factor, village police Chief Troy Beans said.

At 10:46 p.m. Friday, a village police officer found Theodore "Teddy" Hanson, 18, unresponsive on the floor of a Conex shipping container along with about 30 propane bottles, some of which had their plugs removed, troopers said. He was pronounced dead at the Alakanuk clinic.

"It's suspected huffing," trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said Monday. The state medical examiner will conduct an autopsy to confirm exactly what killed Hanson, she said. There's no evidence of foul play, troopers said.

Huffing used to be a significant problem in rural Alaska, but inhalant abuse has been dropping since 1995, according to a 2013 state public health bulletin that was prompted by a death that year.

Young people seeking a quick high inhale a variety of products: fumes from glue or gasoline, propane and butane gases, and the aerosol from products like whipped cream, computer cleaning products and vegetable oil sprays, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These items are easy to obtain and often the first substance to be abused by young people, public health authorities say.

They may feel euphoric and light-headed, and can also experience delusions and hallucinations. But there can be long-term consequences including brain damage, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, and bone marrow damage, the federal agency says. Inhalants can cut off oxygen flow to the brain.

Even a single session of huffing highly concentrated amounts can cause "sudden sniffing death" -- heart failure in an otherwise healthy young person, the national institute says.

Nationwide, there are as many as 200 inhalant-related fatalities a year, according to health authorities.

Alakanuk, on the lower Yukon River about 160 miles northwest of Bethel, is a dry village that is home to about 675 people. But alcohol is a problem there. Bootleggers bring booze in or people make their own, Beans, the police chief, said.

Hanson lived a subsistence village life, fishing for salmon, hunting seal and moose, his mother, Viva Johnson, said. He liked to make people laugh and had lots of friends. She'd have to call around to find him, she said.

Hanson wasn't enrolled at the Alakanuk school this year or last, though, according to Alex Russin, the Lower Yukon School District superintendent.

Beans said Hanson was a good kid who didn't cause trouble -- until right before his death.

On Thursday night, the day before the body was found, Beans said, he was escorting two intoxicated teenagers home. He was sidetracked by Hanson, who was stopping people on four-wheelers and snowmachines "and basically harassing them," the chief said.

When the police chief confronted Hanson, he said, the young man seemed high on something that wasn't alcohol. He suspects the young man was already huffing.

"I just asked him politely to get on home," Beans said. Instead, Hanson reacted violently and tried to come after him, he said. Beans said he already had his hands full with the other teens so he directed Hanson to take himself home.

Around 8 p.m. Friday, someone saw Hanson with those teens, troopers said. Aged 16 and 17, they were friends of Hanson's, Beans said. Police are not releasing their names.

Later, one of those teens assaulted the city administrator, James Blowe, who was out walking his dog, Beans said. That teenager jumped on the city official and "tried to take him down," Beans said.

The attack came out of nowhere, and those teens appeared high, not drunk like the day before, Beans said. The city administrator kicked the teenager in the mouth to defend himself and the teens ran off, the chief said.

It was snowing hard by then. A village police officer was trying to find the teens and followed footprints in the snow to the storage container on school district property. A padlock was broken off, Beans said.

Inside was Hanson, motionless, his lips already blue, the chief said.

Troopers based in Emmonak couldn't get to the village Friday night because of the snowstorm. One flew in on a commercial flight Saturday when the weather cleared.

The other teens denied huffing with Hanson that night but admitted they had huffed in the past, Beans said.

Huffing propane is not common, he said.

"This is very, very, very rare," Beans said.

Just over a year ago, in October 2013, a man died from huffing propane in another Western Alaska village. Troopers said at the time that Joshua Evan, 31 of Tuntutuliak, was found dead on top of a propane tank near the dock in that Kuskokwim River village.

That death prompted epidemiologists with the Alaska Division of Public Health to examine the prevalence of huffing based on self-reports and hospital admissions. Overall, the rate of inhalant abuse among students at regular high schools had dropped steadily between 1995 and 2013, the November "Huffing in Alaska" bulletin said. But among boys, there was a slight uptick last year.

Epidemiologists also examined rates for kids who might be more vulnerable. In 2011, the only year that comparisons for different types of schools were available, just 7 percent of students at traditional high schools reported huffing at least once, but 18 percent of those at an alternative school and 28 percent of those attending high school while incarcerated had tried it, according to the report.

Girls 15 or younger and boys 18 or older were most likely to try it, according to the self-reports.

Inhalant abuse also puts about 30 Alaskans a year into the hospital, which is probably an undercount, the bulletin said.

Parents who suspect inhalant abuse should look for hidden rags or clothes, or empty containers of the kinds of products that can be abused, according to the Mayo Clinic. Confusion, lack of coordination, slurred speech, a chemical smell and paint smears also may be warning signs, according to the clinic's list.

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