Alaska News

Looting manager puts Kusko 300 in jeopardy

Out an estimated $15,000 and shaken by a manager looting race coffers, the one-time richest, middle-distance sled dog race in the north is scrambling to prepare for the January start of the mushing season.

The Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race from Bethel to Aniak and back is still scheduled for Jan. 16, but the purse won't be set until Dec. 15. It was $100,000 last year, mushing's third largest purse, behind only the three-times longer Iditarod and Yukon Quest International sled dog races.

But a lot has changed since the dog teams took their summer hiatus.

One-time Kusko race manager Staci J. Gillilan was arrested in May on charges that she had been embezzling race funds for almost a year. By then, she'd already been fired after the race's board of directors found out the Kusko had failed to pay the city of Bethel upwards of $20,000 in gaming taxes.

The Kusko raises a big chunk of its budget with the sale of pull tabs. Both the city and the state levy taxes on those games. The race was left liable for taxes Gillilan was supposed to pay but didn't.

Myron Angstman, the Kusko race chairman, said Gillilan is prepared to plead guilty to taking money from the race, and the race is hoping she will pay back some of the missing funds as part of a plea settlement.

"She's agreed to pay restitution as part of her probation,'' said Angstman, himself an attorney. "She's employed. Her husband's employed. They own, as far as we know, two houses.


"We believe that we can show without any question that more than $10,000'' is owed Kusko, Angstman said, and "we believe we can show fairly clearly another $3,000 to $5,000.''

Exactly how much Gillilan will be ordered to pay the race, however, remains up to a judge, and whether she pays back any will eventually be up to the courts. Though the Kusko is hopeful of some restitution, Angstman said, it is possible Gillilan could claim she's indigent and, if true, avoid paying anything.


Either way, the race isn't expecting to get much, if any, money between now and the January start of the event. So, it has taken other actions to try to raise or maintain revenue for the purse.

The company truck was sold. The race insurance was canceled. Administrative obligations were turned over to volunteers, primarily Angstman. And a "buy a mile" program was begun.

For $100, race backers can now buy their own mile of the Kusko trail. Of the 300 miles, 239 remain available.

"The good thing is, it appears we have survived this theft deal'' without any community backlash, Angstman said. Board members, he said, were worried that sponsors and race fans might take what happened as a sign that the board simply wasn't paying attention and turn their back on the race.

That hasn't happened.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm for our race still,'' Angstman said, and an apparent understanding these things happen "especially in rural Alaska, where there is a tendency to trust people.''

Angstman noted the Kusko board had noticed funding shortfalls as far back as the summer of 2007.

"By fall time, it became obvious things weren't going well," he said. "That should have given us reason to look more closely."

Instead, the board simply asked Gillilan for a report.

"She reported (pull-tab) sales weren't going that well,'' Angstman said, "but it turned out they weren't going that bad at all.''


Defending Kusko champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling said he understands and empathizes with the predicament into which the Bethel race fell, but he still isn't sure if he'll be back to defend his title in early 2009.

"I'm hoping to run the Kusko,'' he said Tuesday, "(but) there are the realities of economics in this sport."

Transportation to Bethel and the race entry fee cost about $2,500 last year. Seavey said. He expects that number to go higher this year, even though host-families take care of nearly all a musher's needs once he or she arrives in Bethel.


"If (the purse) is something close to what it was, it would be worth it'' to go, Seavey said. But if it slips much, he might well stay home.

A successful businessman, Seavey is coming off a solid summer of sled-dogging tourists across Alaska glaciers, but he -- like most Alaska tourism operators -- is extremely nervous about next year.

America's economic meltdown is coming at the height of the booking season for Alaska summer tourism. People nervous about the economy now are likely to prove reluctant to make any large, financial commitments to next summer's vacation. Seavey said his family business is adjusting accordingly. He's being a lot more conservative about spending.


Angstman said he expects this wave of economic concern to ripple through all of Alaska's big dog races this year, not just the Kusko.

"I would say all dog racing in Alaska faces a challenge,'' Angstman said. "The economy is a big issue.''

So is the ever-growing cost of participation. It costs tens of thousands to maintain a dog team and now, often as not, thousands more to enter a major race.

"There are a few people doing really well in doing dog mushing,'' Angstman said, and a lot of others struggling with the realization they've developed an extremely expensive hobby. Some are getting out.


"There is a drop off in participation in rural Alaska,'' he said. "The economics of it are certainly magnified in rural Alaska in some ways. Travel is becoming virtually prohibitive.

"... In our area, we don't have many young people taking part anymore. You need a feeder system. It is such a labor-intensive, commitment-intensive sport.''

Though the Kusko is alive for now, and though Angstman expects it to emerge from this latest problem without too much difficulty, he has some serious questions about how long the race survives into the future.

The real problem, he said, could turn out to be something as simple as the changing face of Alaska reflecting the changing face of America where outdoor and recreational sports are to a significant degree giving way to video-game sports.

Find Craig Medred online at or call 257-4588.


Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.