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Mount Marathon cancels junior race, but kids run anyway

Thu, 2019-07-18 12:35

Junior runners race the Mount Marathon junior course, despite the cancellation of the race, July 4, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

SEWARD — It was Adrianna Proffitt’s final year to run the Mount Marathon junior race, and she was ready to rock it. She did everything she could to prepare herself, from training hard in the weeks before the race to showing discipline the night before it.

“We went to bed early. I missed the fireworks,” she said. “Then I got to the start and I heard them say, ‘It’s canceled.’ My heart dropped.

"I took off my gaiters and was going back to my room and I heard, ‘They’re getting ready to start.’ ”

The rebellion was on, and the force was with it.

Undeterred by air-quality index numbers that prompted organizers to cancel the junior race for the first time since its creation in 1964, about 80 boys and girls ran the race anyway, to the cheers of thousands of spectators.

They had no official clock and the downtown finish line was barricaded, but they were able to run around the official finish line and into the finish chute, where race officials welcomed them with water to drink and running hoses to cool off with.

Sebastian Szweda Mittelstadt, 17, won the race in an unofficial time of 29 minutes, 19 seconds. “That’s a PR for me,” he said.

Like Proffitt, Szweda Mittelstadt was motivated to run because it’s his last year as a junior. Next year, they’ll both be 18 and eligible for the senior race, which goes all the way to the top of the 3,022-foot peak that stands guard over Seward.

Thursday morning brought clear, blue skies and very little smoke from the Swan Lake wildfire. It was warm, but not hot.

“It was perfect,” Szweda Mittelstadt said. “Best it’s been all year.”

It was the worst for Mikey Connelly of Eagle River.

Connelly won last year’s race in 26:56, the fastest time in years. He immediately set his sights on Bill Spencer’s decades-old record of 24:30, and has spent the last year preparing for Thursday’s race. At the recent Bird Ridge run, he finished fourth, beating many men who are top-20 Mount Marathon runners.

When Connelly heard Thursday morning that the race had been canceled, he was deflated. Disappointment consumed him. By the time he heard kids were running anyway, he was too emotionally defeated to race.

“I’d been training for this since August,” Connelly said. “It was like I built a house and someone lit it on fire."

Szweda Mittelstadt said there was little doubt that he would run, cancellation or not. When race officials called off the junior race about an hour before it was due to start, he was among a number of runners who carried on with their race plans.

“OK, we’ll take a group up the mountain and have some fun,” Sweda Mittelstadt said. “Everyone was cheering, so it felt like a real race.”

It was a real race. Szweda Mittelstadt and Ali Papillon, a 14-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, dueled for much of the race, which goes halfway up the mountain and back.

They traded the lead up and down the mountain, with Papillon reaching the turnaround point first. He took a spill on the steep downhill but got back up and caught Szweda Mittelstadt shortly after the race left the mountain.

Szweda Mittelstadt won the race on the road, passing Papillon when the race hit the final stretch a couple of blocks from the finish line. Papillon didn’t wear a watch so he didn’t know his time.

Noelle Spencer won the girls race. Race fans are familiar with her name if not with her — she’s the daughter of Bill Spencer, who owned the senior men’s record for 43 years and set the still-standing junior record in 1973.

Race officials made the decision to cancel the junior race on Thursday morning after a sensor downtown showed an air quality index of 172, "which is categorized as ‘unhealthy,' " the race website said.

A barricade is erected at the Mount Marathon finish line after some junior racers chose to run the course anyway despite the cancellation of the junior race on Thursday, July 4, 2019. (Beth Bragg / ADN)

Race officials had set the acceptable air quality index at 100, "which would be categorized as ‘unhealthy for sensitive populations,' " according to the race website.

Data came from air quality sensor located downtown and provided by the Department of Environmental Conservation. A slight haze hung over Seward beneath blue skies Thursday morning.

Junior runners do the Mount Marathon junior course, despite the cancellation of the race, July 4, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

This year’s junior race will go down in the record book as a canceled event, but those who ran anyway know otherwise.

Proffitt, a Cook Inlet Conference ski champion for Chugiak High, wore a red, white and blue ensemble appropriate for the Fourth of July. When she first heard the race was canceled, “I felt defeated.”

Then she got back into race mode — and Mount Marathon mode.

“It’s the spirit of the race, and it was out there today." Proffitt said. “Everyone was so supportive. We were having fun and enjoying the mountain on the 4th.”

Correction: An early version of this story misspelled the name of the unofficial junior boys winner, Sebastian Szweda Mittelstadt.

1 person dead, 2 injured after house fire in Anchorage

Thu, 2019-07-18 12:16

A fire at a home on the 5300 block of Tudor Top Circle, off Lake Otis Parkway, early Thursday morning, July 18, 2019, killed one person and sent two others to the hospital. (Madeline McGee / ADN)

One person is dead and two more are hurt after an early morning house fire in Anchorage on Thursday.

Firefighters arrived at the home on the 5300 block of Tudortop Circle, off Lake Otis Parkway, around 3:25 a.m., Anchorage Fire Marshal Cleo Hill said.

By that time, the roof and deck were on fire, Hill said.

Nineteen firefighting units responded to the scene and brought the blaze under control at 4:50 a.m. The two people who were injured were taken to a hospital.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation, Hill said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Letter: Weather Service wrong on records

Thu, 2019-07-18 12:02

As much as I both admire and appreciate the National Weather Service and its dedicated personnel, there is a bureaucratic component to the so-called records for Anchorage. First but not least nor last is the fact that there is no continuous record at the Anchorage International Airport.

There have been at least two locations for the station at the airport, (one of which now is not even at the airport — it’s up on Sand Lake Road, 4,000 feet at least from where it was from the 1950s to the 1980s, when it moved. I suspect it was moved around after the 1964 earthquake as well. For the record, the original Anchorage station was in the Ship Creek area. It was then moved to the Delaney Park Strip (which was the airfield in its day). Then it was moved to Merrill Filed and lastly, in the early 1950s, to the airport. All those previous locations were certified official NWS stations by their days’ standards, and when you round numbers off those standards, they are as good as today’s. The central and most representative of Anchorage continues to be Merrill Field (which continues to have a certified officially reporting station). It’s just that the NWS has chosen to fixate on their current location, which is a bust of the so-called direct comparisons.

By real-world standards, we tied the record and Merrill Field hit 90 degrees twice on July 4. Generally, NWS Sand Lake is going to be cooler and have less snow (which is true of the airport as well). Clearly, one winter we blew through the snow record, except at the less snowy airport.Anchorage should go back to using Merrill Field as a central standard, not the Sand Lake Station, though I know in the bureaucratic mind it detracts from that being the Vatican of weather for the NWS Weather Cardinal for Anchorage. It’s supposed to be about weather, forecast and as accurate readings as we can achieve. The NWS station manager in Anchorage should be ashamed of his spin in this regard.

— Gregory Schmitz


Have something on your mind? Send to or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Swan Lake fire smoke drifts back into Anchorage

Thu, 2019-07-18 10:51

Smoke from the Swan Lake fire on the Kenai Peninsula drifted into Anchorage on Thursday and cooler temperatures aloft helped concentrate the smoke in the city, surprising residents who’d become accustomed to clear skies in recent days.

“It was out of sight, out of mind,” said Lucas Boyer, a National Weather Service meteorologist. “We had a couple of really good clear days there, and things cooled off, and it became easy to forget there’s still a 100,000-acre fire burning down there.”

The air quality index remains moderate — not “good” but still below “unhealthy” levels, according to state air quality data for Thursday.

“We’re monitoring it but we don’t think there’s a need for an air quality advisory,” said Mark Smith, with the state Division of Air Quality.

Light winds have shifted to flow from the fire and up Cook Inlet to Anchorage, Boyer said. A temperature inversion capped the smoke, cloaking the city beneath a haze.

I took this photo about an hour ago.

— Adam gutteRsnipe W. (@adamrweinert) July 18, 2019

Temperatures in the mid-80s around the area of the Swan Lake fire northeast of Sterling increased the smoke of the 101,000-acre fire, said Adam Livermore, an information officer with the Swan Lake fire incident command team.

The fire is largely contained, but it could smolder until winter or a huge rainstorm arrives, Livermore said. Crews are working to stop the fire from “creeping" east. They’re on guard elsewhere around the perimeter to make sure it stays hemmed in. Two helicopters are dousing it with 40,000 gallons of water daily, he said.

“The temperature went up and the relative humidity went down, so there will probably be more smoke in the area until it cools down,” Livermore said.

Morning smoke could be a problem in Anchorage on Friday as well, Boyer said. But there’s a chance of rain in the forecast Friday and Saturday and winds should move in from the southeast, helping mix things up, he said.

“There’s a good chance everyone wakes up Saturday morning and we don’t see this cycle again Saturday, hopefully,” he said.

Anchorage man charged with attempted murder in stabbing of 74-year-old woman

Thu, 2019-07-18 10:21

A 28-year-old Anchorage man was charged this week with attempted murder in a July 4 stabbing of a 74-year-old woman who was using a walker when the kitchen-knife attack occurred, authorities say.

Rigoberto Walker was indicted by an Anchorage grand jury Wednesday for attempted murder and multiple felony assault counts for the stabbing that left the woman hospitalized with multiple wounds, according to state prosecutors.

Walker was arrested and arraigned on multiple assault counts on July 5.

He’s accused of approaching the woman near Centennial Circle, then attacking her with what police described as a large kitchen knife. The woman was moving a plant when the stabbing occurred, just before 7:45 p.m., and didn’t even realize what was happening initially. Walker is also accused of threatening two other people who tried to help the woman.

One of the victims identified Walker after police apprehended him shortly after the attacks, prosecutors say.

Walker is scheduled for arraignment on the attempted murder charge Friday.

He was also arrested and ultimately convicted of arson in a case last year that resulted in the closure of the restrooms at the Anchorage downtown transit center. Walker pleaded no contest to a second-degree arson in the case, in which he was accused of intentionally starting a fire that damaged the men’s restroom in the bus depot.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

The science of good bud

Thu, 2019-07-18 10:15

In Alaska, cannabis is regulated like alcohol, and while the two controlled substances work very differently inside the human body, they do have one important commonality: There’s much more to consumption than a simple mind-altering experience.

“When you walk into a liquor store, do you ever walk up to them and ask, ‘What is going to get me the most drunk the fastest?’” asked Jessica Alexander, technical director of The New Frontier Research in Wasilla. “Do you say ‘What’s your strongest? Where’s your Everclear?’”

No, she continued, most alcohol users don’t pick their beverage based solely on alcohol content. They look for flavor and a positive experience. Cannabis is similar in that different strains deliver different kinds of highs and effects. It’s a simple notion rooted in science that is surprisingly complex -- and still not completely understood.

The science of cannabis

At this point, especially in states like Alaska that have passed legalization, people are generally familiar with the two primary active chemical components of cannabis. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is just one of the 113 cannabinoids known to be present in cannabis, and the primary psychoactive component -- the part that gets you high. Cannabidiol, known as CBD, is the cannabis plant’s second major compound. It doesn’t have the psychoactive effects of THC; in fact, research indicates that CBD acts to modulate those effects while enhancing some others.

“There are a lot of details to the science of cannabis,” said Jonathan Rupp Strong, the scientific director at CannTest, which, along with New Frontier, is one of four licensed cannabis testing businesses in Alaska. “Even the experts, in general, don’t know all the details.”

One thing that is well established at this point is that humans actually have an endocannabinoid system that exists specifically to interact with cannabinoids. Two cannabinoid receptors were discovered in the 1990s, helping researchers begin to better understand how this system can impact anything from memory to female reproduction to exercise euphoria.

“THC makes you feel high, and CBD has these other properties, medicinal and otherwise,” Rupp Strong said. “On our body’s side of it, there are receptors in the endocannabinoid system that these plant compounds interact with. Different strains have different amounts and different ratios, and that’s going to have a different effect.”

In fact, he said, not only can the same strain of cannabis have different effects on different people, it can have different effects on the same person depending on when they use it and what state their body is in at the time.

“It’s complex,” Rupp Strong said. “The chemicals in the plant interact with different things in our body. There are receptors in our cells that activate different pathways in our biology.”

So while THC content is one factor to consider, Alexander said it’s far from an indicator of whether a cannabis product will be the right fit for a consumer.

“It doesn’t correlate to sensation,” she said. “It doesn’t correlate to enjoyment.”

And in fact, she added, it may not even correlate to potency. Concentration -- the percentage you see listed next to strain names at your local dispensary -- only tells you the amount of THC in a product. Potency, or the strength of its effect, varies depending on the complete cannabinoid makeup.

Enter terpenes

Cannabinoids aren’t the only compounds that affect how cannabis acts in your body. Even if you don’t partake, you might be familiar with the word “terpene.” These essential oils are found in different amounts and combinations in many plants, including cannabis, and they’re an important part of the cannabis experience.

“Terpenes, by and large, are not exclusive to cannabis,” Rupp Strong said. “Limonene is an example of a terpene; it’s found in citrus and it has a lemony smell. There’s lots of them that have different smells (and) different potential influences on the effect of the product.”

In the cannabis plants themselves, terpenes often play a defensive role.

“Cannabinoids and terpenes are equivalent to what our immune systems are,” Alexander said. “So when the plant is threatened or when the plant is trying to interact with its environment” -- repelling or attracting insects, healing a break, protecting itself from too much sun -- “it produces terpenes and cannabinoids -- terpenes in particular -- and those serve a purpose in its own personal health. And luckily for us, those terpenes and cannabinoids often do the same thing in our bodies.”

Terpenes interact with cannabinoids, with each other, and with the human body to achieve different results. In fact, a terpene’s effects may change depending on what other compounds it’s interacting with, a phenomenon known as the Entourage Effect.

“Different ratios of these compounds can work together synergistically, and that will produce this different effect in the user,” Rupp Strong said. Strains with similar THC and CBD content may have very different effect profiles because of their terpene content.

We do know what we don’t know

There’s much more going on inside the cannabis plant that still isn’t well understood. For example, Rupp Strong said, we know that cannabis contains flavonoids -- some of them unique to cannabis -- and that they likely contribute to the Entourage Effect.

“It’s a new area,” Rupp Strong said. “A lot of this stuff we’re still learning about, and flavonoids are even less known.”

Prohibition has made it difficult for researchers to have access to cannabis, so in many ways the science of cannabis is still in the early stages of exploration. Both Rupp Strong and Alexander stressed the need for further research to better understand cannabis and its effects, both medicinal and recreational, as well as whether certain strains may have compounds you might want to avoid.

“They’re actually even finding that there is one cannabinoid that is highly concerning for being something that promotes cancer,” Alexander said. “So it’s important that we learn about all the cannabinoids and what they do in the body.”

With so many factors to consider, and THC concentration no meaningful indicator of how a strain works, how does a consumer know what’s going to work for them? That’s where a budtender comes in.

“If you were to walk in and say to a budtender, ‘I want to giggle for hours and have a good time with my friends. What is that (strain)? And don’t talk to me about numbers,’ you’re going to get quality cannabis,” Alexander said.

In search of Alaska’s best bud

This month, Alaska cultivators are putting their products to the test in the Great Alaskan Cannabis Bowl, a locally produced event that will provide a way to learn even more about different strains and what they do. Twenty-four judges will evaluate commercial THC and CBD products, as well as homegrown flower entered by personal-use cultivators.

“They’re going to be looking at the aroma, the taste, the high or stone, the burnability or flush, the visual aesthetics, and a few other aspects,” said Cody Coman, co-owner of Trich Productions, who is producing the event. “Edibles, they’re going to be looking at the product originality, its healthiness, its strength and effect, the visual aesthetics of it. For the topicals, they’ll be looking at the aroma, the strength and effectiveness, the consistency, the ease of use.”

Rupp Strong said that while judging is ultimately subjective, the range of criteria being evaluated provides nuance and value.

“They aren’t just saying ‘This one’s the best, that one’s the worst, the end,’” he said.

Products will be tested at CannTest and New Frontier Research and evaluated by a panel that includes four members of the public -- selected through a random drawing -- as well as cannabis experts.

“Our biggest focus was to make the competition as even a playing field as possible,” Coman said. The winners will take home hand-carved, jade-inlaid burlwood trophies made by AK Manshed owner Scott Schwartzbauer-Carver, along with recognition for their prizewinning product.

“Part of the competition is figuring out who’s really good at their job,” Coman said. “Who has taken the responsibility of a young and growing industry and cultivated that responsibility? We want to help highlight and honor the people that are taking the responsibility seriously and at the same time being unique in their craft, helping move the industry forward.”

The Great Alaskan Cannabis Bowl may also be an opportunity to learn about strains that cultivators themselves love the most, including ones that often aren’t cost-effective to grow because they don’t have the high THC concentrations that customers want. Alexander said she hopes more consumers will educate themselves about the science of cannabis so cultivators aren’t discouraged from growing some of these strains.

“I see literally hundreds of cultivators,” Alexander said. “One question I ask every single person that comes through the door: ‘What is your favorite strain that you have?’ I can’t tell you the last time a cultivator told me, ‘Oh, it’s my strongest one.’”

Trich Productions presents the Great Alaskan Cannabis Bowl, July 27-28 at Settlers Bay Golf Course in Wasilla. Use the code GACB19ADN to save $15 when you buy your tickets online at

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Trich Productions. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.

The Alaska village where every cop has been convicted of domestic violence

Thu, 2019-07-18 08:20

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. This is the second article in a continuing series, Lawless: Sexual violence in Alaska.

STEBBINS — When Nimeron Mike applied to be a city police officer here last New Year’s Eve, he didn’t really expect to get the job.

Mike was a registered sex offender and had served six years behind bars in Alaska jails and prisons. He’d been convicted of assault, domestic violence, vehicle theft, groping a woman, hindering prosecution, reckless driving, drunken driving and choking a woman unconscious in an attempted sexual assault. Among other crimes.

“My record, I thought I had no chance of being a cop,” Mike, 43, said on a recent weekday evening, standing at his doorway in this Bering Strait village of 646 people.

He was wrong.

On the same day Mike filled out the application, the city of Stebbins hired him, handing him a policeman’s cellphone to answer calls for help.

“Am I a cop now?” he remembers thinking. “It’s like, that easy?”

Nimeron Mike, 43, worked as a village police officer for his hometown of Stebbins from Dec. 31 to March 29. Mike was hired even though he is a registered sex offender and had served six years behind bars in state jails and prisons. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

The short answer is yes. With low pay and few people wanting the jobs, it is that easy in some small Alaska communities for a convicted felon, even someone who has admitted to a sex crime or who was recently released from prison, to be hired with public money to work as a city police officer.

It’s also a violation of state public safety regulations, yet it happens all the time.

In Stebbins alone, all seven of the police officers working as of July 1 have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges within the past decade. Only one has received formal law enforcement training of any kind.

The current police chief pleaded guilty to throwing a teenage relative to the ground and threatening to kill her after drinking homebrew liquor in 2017. (Alcohol is illegal in the village.) He was hired a year later. He declined to answer questions in person and blocked a reporter on Facebook.

Two men who until recently were Stebbins police officers pleaded guilty to spitting in the faces of police officers; one was the subject of a 2017 sexual assault restraining order in which a mother said he exposed himself to her 12-year-old daughter. (The officer named in the restraining order said he was busy and hung up the phone when asked about his criminal history; the other officer admitted to the crime.)

The seven-man police force has served a combined six years in jails, prisons and halfway houses on dozens of criminal charges. That doesn’t include Mike, who was terminated on March 29, city records show. He says he wasn’t given a reason, but the city administrator said it was because he wasn’t responding to calls and didn’t get along with another officer.

Children play on the main road of Stebbins, a Bering Strait village that is home to 646 people. It has no Alaska State Troopers post or state-funded village public safety officer. The city employed seven village police officers as of July 1. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News reported in May that one in three Alaska communities has no local cops of any kind. In June, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr declared a “law enforcement emergency” in rural Alaska, announcing $10.5 million in Justice Department spending to support village police.

In the villages where there are cops, a different problem has emerged. A first-of-its-kind investigation by the Daily News and ProPublica has found that at least 14 cities in Alaska have employed police officers whose criminal records should have prevented them from being hired under Department of Public Safety regulations. The news organizations identified more than 34 officers who should have been ineligible for these jobs. In all but three cases, the police hires were never reported by the city governments to the state regulatory board, as required.

In eight additional communities, local tribal governments have hired tribal police officers convicted of domestic violence or sex crimes.

All 42 of these tribal and city police officers have rap sheets that would prevent them from being hired by the Anchorage Police Department and its urban peers, as Alaska state troopers or even as private security guards most anywhere else in the United States. Many remain on the job today.

[Have you experienced sexual violence in Alaska? Help us report these stories.]

“It’s outrageous that we have a situation where we have a, such a lack of public safety that communities are resorting to hiring people who have the propensity for violence,” said Melanie Bahnke, a board member for the Alaska Federation of Natives, which represents 191 tribes. “And placing them in a position where they have control over people and possibly could victimize the victims further.”

“That’s like a frontier mentality,” said Bahnke, who is also chief executive for Kawerak Inc., a Nome-based tribal consortium that oversees state-paid police in the region.

Substitute Village Police Officer Robert Kirk, 25, walks past boarded windows in the Stebbins public safety building. Police said the jailhouse is a former library where evidence is stored and officers can hold people in three cells at a time. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
A handmade sign in the Stebbins public safety building, where village police officers, hired by the city, hold inmates and prepare for village patrols. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

[From 2018: From criminal to cop, and back again, in Alaska’s most vulnerable villages]

A key part of the problem: There aren’t enough state troopers or other state-funded cops to go around. When it comes to boots-on-the-ground law enforcement, village police officers (VPOs) and tribal police officers (TPOs) working in Alaska villages are at least as common. Yet no one keeps track of who these officers are, where they are working, if they’ve passed a background check or if they’ve received any training.

The state agency that regulates Alaska police has suspended efforts to solve this mess.

Alaska Police Standards Council Director Bob Griffiths said his agency barely has the time to fulfill its regular duties of juggling complaints and appeals involving certified police officers. It doesn’t have enough money to also visit rural Alaska so it can research ways to fix police hiring practices. That effort will come in the fall, at the earliest.

Yet the stakes are high. The same Alaska towns that have no police, or criminals working as cops, are in areas with some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the country.

When a case relies on an arrest by an untrained cop who has a criminal record, prosecutors sometimes do not want to put that person in front of a jury and instead might drop or reduce felony charges, Griffiths warned. “I could see felony domestic violence assault cases that end up being pleaded down to harassment or coercion.”

Nome District Attorney John Earthman agreed that sometimes happens, and that cases involving untrained officers sometimes lack key evidence such as recordings of initial interviews. He said public defenders have raised concerns about some police because they have defended those same officers on recent criminal charges.

“I’ve been out here almost 20 years and some of these are realities that you just don’t see in the city,” Earthman said. Still, the hiring of Mike as a village police officer came as a surprise.

“If he’s the only one who took a statement from a suspect or a defendant, that may be an issue.”

Salmon dries on racks along the Norton Sound coast in Stebbins. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

‘You are absolutely desperate’

The story of how Alaska communities came to quietly hire criminals as police officers, without consequence or oversight, is the story of how cash-poor local governments found themselves without law enforcement and few options.

There are several different forms of police in rural Alaska.

The best trained and best paid are state troopers. More than 300 work across Alaska, but just one-third are based off the road system.

Next is a class of cops unique to Alaska: village public safety officers (VPSOs), who are nearly as well-trained as troopers and are also paid by the state. But the number of VPSOs appears to be at an all-time low, with just 42 officers statewide this year, compared with more than 100 in 2013.

On the same day the federal government announced millions in emergency funds for Alaska rural police in June, Gov. Mike Dunleavy revealed he had vetoed millions from the VPSO program, saying the money was for vacant positions.

Dunleavy, a Republican, has declared a “war on criminals” and vowed to punish sexual predators. “If you hurt Alaskans, if you molest children, if you assault women, we’re really going to come after you,” Dunleavy said at a July 8 crime bill signing.

Asked moments later why the Alaska Police Standards Council has suspended efforts to revamp law enforcement hiring regulations, given that men convicted of sex crimes are working as police in some villages, Dunleavy offered no specifics but said he planned to hold meetings over the summer with “stakeholders.”

Bahnke, the head of the Nome-based nonprofit that employs VPSOs, said that only five of the 15 communities in her region have VPSOs and called on the state to spend unused salaries on equipment, housing and other amenities that would make it easier to recruit new officers.

Alaska Native leaders once sued to force the state to provide armed, trained police in villages, but their lawsuit failed in state court. That leaves VPOs and TPOs to pick up the slack. They tend to be younger, paid less and have less training than traditional police.

VPOs, such as those in Stebbins, are mainly expected to enforce city laws such as curfews and misdemeanors. In practice, however, they must sometimes handle life-and-death encounters such as standoffs and suicide threats. TPOs perform a similar role but are employed by federally recognized tribes and are not regulated by the state.

Of the emergency village law enforcement funding announced in June by the attorney general, $4.5 million will go to hire tribal officers who will not be required to undergo background checks.

But lack of funding for cops isn’t the only problem. Many villages have no housing for police, no secure jail cells or no public safety building. When Barr visited the state in May to see the problem for himself, he called the lack of services one of the most pressing public safety needs in the United States.

Our review also found that villages have routinely ignored — or said they were unaware of — laws that require training and bar people with certain criminal records from being hired.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr tour a jail holding cell in the Western Alaska village of Napaskiak on May 31. Barr later declared a federal emergency related to public safety in Alaska villages. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

Last year, the Daily News reported on isolated cases of people with criminal records working as police in remote Alaska villages. That story focused on a case at the edge of the Arctic Circle, in the tundra village of Selawik, where the city employed an officer who had been convicted of bootlegging and faced a pending charge of giving alcohol to a minor when he sexually assaulted an underage girl. The 16-year-old died the night of the attack, and the city settled a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit for $300,000. (The officer pleaded guilty to rape and furnishing alcohol to a minor in that case but was not charged in her death. He has not responded to numerous interview requests.)

What happened in Selawik is far from an isolated example, our comprehensive examination shows. Between January and May, ProPublica and the Daily News identified 50 city and tribal governments that employ officers. Some would not provide names, but of the 159 officers identified, more than 42 have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to assault or another crime, most often domestic violence, that is typically a bar to working in law enforcement.

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Leaders in some communities, including Stebbins, say they have little alternative but to hire anyone they can.

“It’s easy to look at in that light, ‘How could these people hire criminals to do this job?’” said Jason Wilson, public safety manager for several Southeast Alaska villages.

“When you live in a community and you’re desperate, you are absolutely desperate for some law enforcement and to have somebody step up that might have a blemished record, you are willing to say, ‘OK, I think person is still going to do OK for us.’”

Asked if the criminal backgrounds of some TPOs and VPOs hamper investigations or undermine prosecutors’ cases, Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said the local officers are vital to fighting crime in far-flung communities.

“Our troopers regularly say that, while tomorrow they might have to arrest a VPO or a TPO, today they are critical,” Price said.

‘He was our only applicant’

In village after village, troubling examples abound.

In Mountain Village, population 864, one recent VPO awaits trial on charges of stealing from a murder scene. Court records show five other recent VPOs in the same Yukon River community are awaiting hearings or have admitted to criminal charges including four counts of disorderly conduct, three counts of assault, two cases of neglect, two cases of drunken driving, two charges of harassment and three cases of domestic violence.

The Yukon River community of Mountain Village. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)

Along the Norton Sound coast, the city of Shaktoolik in May hired a VPO who has pleaded guilty to five assault charges within the past 10 years. “He was our only applicant so we had no other choice,” a city employee said.

Among those hired as TPOs in the fishing villages of Kasigluk and Tuntutuliak, located among the vast web of river-fed lakes in western Alaska, are registered sex offenders who admitted to abuse of a minor or attempted sexual abuse of a minor. The Kasigluk tribal administrator said he was directed by the tribal council not to talk to a reporter about the issue. In Tuntutuliak, Administrator Deanna White said the village council was willing to hire an offender on a part-time basis because of constant turnover and a lack of applicants in the high-stress job.

“Every time we hired, they wouldn’t last,” she said.

In the Kuskokwim Bay village of Kwigillingok, a 33-year-old man worked as a tribal police officer while subject to a long-term domestic violence restraining order. He was indicted in February on charges of sexually abusing an 11-year-old and is awaiting trial in a Bethel jail. He has pleaded not guilty.

And in the nearby Kuskokwim River village of Napakiak, recent police hires include William Gibson Smith as a TPO.

Smith was picked to patrol the village despite a complaint filed two years earlier by a young mother whose 3-year-old daughter told her that her bottom hurt. The girl later confided that Smith had touched her there, according to an application for a sexual assault restraining order filed in Bethel court. Based on a “preponderance of the evidence,” a magistrate ordered that Smith, who was not present at the hearing, stay away from the family. (Such an order is not automatically disqualifying, but the regulations say candidates must be of “good moral character.”)

Despite the judge’s orders, a matter of public record and discoverable on a public court database, Smith was hired to perform police work in Napakiak. He had the power to place his neighbors in custody and to hold them against their will if he declared them to be drunk or disorderly. In October, the Alaska State Troopers arrested Smith on charges of having sex with a different underage girl, and he has been in custody since. Today he is awaiting trial in that case and in another, in which he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in police custody. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

Jail cells inside the Stebbins public safety building on June 27. Officer John Aluska said one of the cells had been occupied the night before, following a drunken driving arrest. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

In Stebbins, Louise Martin said she knows all too well the toll that officers with criminal records can take on a town. She recently filed a restraining order against a current city police officer, accusing the man of threatening her in person and through Facebook messages in which he said he would beat her up. Prior to his hire, the officer had been convicted of domestic violence and bootlegging.

“For him to be a cop, he shouldn’t be acting like this, especially if there’s kids + elders around,” Martin wrote in her application for the restraining order. An initial order was granted but a longer-term one was denied because Martin did not participate at a hearing.

Martin, grew up in Stebbins and isn't unsympathetic to the needs of the village. "They need a trooper in town." But she said the city cops “hide behind their badge and harass people and drink on the job.”

One of the worst jobs in town

Stebbins, an Inupiaq and Yup’ik village, survived a generation of monstrous sexual abuse by a Catholic priest and church volunteers. It is plagued by 12% unemployment, and its lone grocery store charges twice as much for food as it costs in Anchorage. As the lack of police data regarding missing and murdered indigenous women raises concerns nationwide, residents of Stebbins and neighboring St. Michael say the suspicious death of a local woman, 19-year-old Chynelle “Pretty” Lockwood, in 2017 remains unsolved.

The city offers no benefits to part-time officers who walk into life-and-death emergencies. They are untrained and unarmed, their only equipment a cellphone and a pair of handcuffs. The police department, like most homes, has no flush toilets or running water.

Stebbins Village Police Officer John Aluska provides a tour of the public safety building. Aluska has a criminal record but said it does not interfere with his police work. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Leg irons hang on the wall of the public safety building in Stebbins. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Next to hauling waste, residents say being a cop is one of the worst jobs in town. In 2001, the mayor of Stebbins was shot in the face as part of a robbery scheme involving a 20-year-old man who had been working as a VPO despite jail sentences for assault and animal cruelty.

“I was not very fond of that (hire) in the first place,” then-Mayor Robert Ferris told the Daily News at the time, having survived the shooting. But, he reasoned, “In a place like this you take any help you can get.”

After serving time in prison for his role in the mayor’s shooting, the former VPO returned to Stebbins and was eventually hired back by the city as a police officer, current city officials said.

Little has changed in recent years.

“Other people don’t want to apply,” said the current Stebbins city administrator, Joan Nashoanak, when asked why her local government has hired so many VPOs with criminal backgrounds. “They are willing to work.”

In Alaska’s largest city, the Anchorage Police Department receives 18 applications for every cop it hires. Each recruit is subject to criminal background checks, drug tests and polygraphs.

“It’s incredibly important for our department to uphold those standards because they are key to upholding the public’s trust in law enforcement,” said APD Chief Justin Doll, who serves on the Alaska Police Standards Council board. “If the public looks at a law enforcement officer and sees a lengthy criminal background, it undermines that trust.”

Anchorage police pay starts at $33.61 an hour plus benefits, retirement and a union.

In Stebbins, Nashoanak said it’s impossible to avoid candidates with a felony or a misdemeanor within the past five years, who should be prohibited from serving as cops by law, because of constant burnout and turnover. Officers are paid $14 an hour.

Factor in small-town politics and the pressure to look the other way when an influential person or family gets in trouble, and it’s easy to see why officers are constantly quitting.

“It’s a problem, but it’s never really been addressed,” Nashoanak said. “We can’t find anybody else without a criminal background.”

A former city administrator, Doreen Tom, says she has complained to the city about the officers’ conduct and rap sheets.

“These guys are criminals,” Tom said of the VPOs. “There’s qualifications to be a police. What you can’t be and what you can be. You can’t have a misdmeanor within five years and these policemen, there’s police who were charged with rape. People who were charged with assault.”

One recent Stebbins VPO is 24-year-old Harold Kitsick Jr., who has worked off and on over the past year despite a conviction for spitting in the face of a police officer in nearby Kotlik in 2013. The victim in that case said Kitsick had threatened to kill him, his 6-year-old child and his wife and vowed to burn down his house. The Kotlik officer said that he could smell gasoline around his home and that he waited out the night with a gun handy, afraid for his life.

Reached by phone, Kitsick denied that he threatened the police officer but admitted to attacking him. “I assaulted him, I hit him. I spit on him and kicked him. That was it.”

The Kotlik VPO quit being a police officer soon after the encounter with Kitsick. He asked not to be identified because his wife still works in the region. He, too, was a VPO with a criminal record, he said. The city of Kotlik recruited him despite an assault charge that should have prevented him from being hired under state law.

“There’s really no background checks to it,” he said.

Stebbins city records show Kitsick stopped working as a police officer on May 28 after two years on patrol. He sometimes tried looking for different work with better pay and more hours, he said, but jobs are scarce in the village.

“Then (the city) asked me to go back. I was, like, ‘Well, might as well,’” said Kitsick, who is currently awaiting trial on two new charges. Troopers accused him of punching a woman in the face and punching fellow Stebbins VPO John Aluska in two separate 2018 incidents. He has pleaded not guilty to both.

Tania Snowball cuts up salmon after a day working as the village health aide. As a first responder who relies on village police officers to handle emergencies at her side, Snowball said she couldn’t do her job without the local village police officers. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Aluska, who himself was convicted of domestic violence in 2010 and 2014, said he hasn’t been in trouble in years and is part of a roster of about seven officers who some Stebbins residents said work well together.

“The current ones we have are pretty good,” Stebbins health aide Tania Snowball said of the police force. While she spoke, Snowball cleaned a gleaming chum salmon, hauled moments earlier from the Bering Sea. “The ones in the past, they never answered their phones.”

As a health aide, Snowball said she partners with VPOs. If there were no police — or if the city couldn’t hire people with criminal records — Snowball said there would be no one to assist her in emergencies such as suicide attempts or shootings. She would quit the clinic.

“You have to have somebody help respond, because most of the people that call are intoxicated. There’s four-wheeler accidents or serious injuries,” she said. “VPOs gotta be available.”

‘I’m a pretty good cop’

A few hours after the health aide finished cutting fish along the foaming shoreline, Aluska began the midnight to 4 a.m. patrol. Rain beaded on his four-wheeler, a Honda shared by the entire police force.

Aluska circled the village in a wide loop. There are no stoplights and no paved roads in Stebbins. Most homes rest on stilts; red foxes and berry bushes hide in the knee-high grass. All groceries and vehicles arrive by plane or barge, and trailer-sized shipping containers in primary colors dot the yards. Aluska has lived here all his life.

Village Police Officer John Aluska tells children to go home at 12:45 a.m. on June 27. Village police officers mainly enforce city ordinances, such as curfew, and prevent drunken driving. They are also first responders to emergencies and domestic violence calls. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

“Go home!" he hollered to a crowd of middle-school-age kids outside the gymnasium. More than 40% of the village population is younger than 19, and parents said it’s hard to keep them indoors this time of year, when the sun dips low and red but never really sets.

“Don’t make me tell you again,” Aluska warned. A boy in a hoodie shuffled his feet, walking with exaggerated slowness.

The Honda engine clicked and popped as he turned off the ignition. The real trouble usually starts later. Everyone knows when the VPOs go off duty.

If someone is driving drunk, getting in fights or becomes a danger to themselves, they are held in one of three cells in the city jail. The building used to be a library, but it was converted when someone broke the fuel line at the old jail house, soaking the building in heating oil.

Aluska likes the new jailhouse. No one has broken out yet.

“In my time it was easier,” Aluska said.

VPO John Aluska walks to the door of the Stebbins public safety building. The jailhouse is a converted library, residents said. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

The 42-year-old said he got into his share of trouble when he was younger. Making homebrew. Escaping custody. “It’s been years ago now since I last went to jail.”

Asked if he had ever been convicted of domestic violence, Aluska said he had, in 1998, but the charge was dropped. State court records show he also pleaded guilty to domestic violence-related assault charges in 2010 and 2014.

Aluska doesn’t think his record makes him any less able to keep the village safe. Same for his colleagues.

“Not really,” he said. “I get a call and, if you’re drunk and doing bad things, I’ll come get you.”

The next afternoon the rain disappeared, replaced by a damp heat that sent kids splashing between gillnets.

At city hall, the Stebbins City Council gathered for a monthly meeting. Chairs ringed a cafeteria table beneath property maps of village landmarks: The Old Church. The Elder Center. The New School. Skin drums and a bingo scoreboard (proceeds help pay police salaries) adorned the adjacent community hall.

Mayor Morris Nashoanak Sr. leads a Stebbins City Council meeting, where each village police officer presented a monthly report and talked about ways to improve public safety in the village. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

One by one, the police officers gave monthly reports and brainstormed public safety ideas. Officer Delbert Acoman suggested police begin wearing small body cameras purchased from Amazon; the police chief admitted he can’t bring himself to shoot dogs when an animal needs to be put down. One officer who is the subject of a current restraining order wondered about turning a vacant building into a teen center.

At 45, Acoman said he’s worked as a Stebbins police officer off and on for two decades. During that time, court records show, he has been convicted of a dozen crimes, including three counts of domestic violence. His last no-contest plea to assault came five years ago and Acoman said he’s turned a corner — trying to provide for his wife and kids. A steady job makes that possible.

Acoman headed home as his colleagues prepared for overnight patrols. Middle schoolers chased rebounds on an outdoor basketball court as two young men sat wrenching on a four-wheeler, fanning mosquitoes.

At the edge of town lives Nimeron Mike, the registered sex offender. While he was working as a police officer he could never shake the feeling that visiting state troopers might take him away to jail, instead of the people he arrested.

Stebbins police chief Sebastian Mike, left, and fellow officers leave City Hall. Two officers patrol the village each night until 4 a.m. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Mike said he is ready to go back on patrol any time the city needs him. He figures street smarts must count for something.

“I’ve done my time, now all I want to do is work and make money,” he said. “I’m a pretty good cop.”

For now, the state of Alaska hasn’t caught up with Mike’s change in job status. The official state sex offender registry database still lists his employer as “City of Stebbins.”

ProPublica research reporting fellow Alex Mierjeski and Anchorage Daily News reporters Alex DeMarban, Tegan Hanlon, Jeff Parrott, Michelle Theriault Boots and Annie Zak contributed to this report.

Story editing: Charles Ornstein (ProPublica) and David Hulen (ADN). Photo editing: Anne Raup.

This story and related content will be published in a special section in Sunday’s Anchorage Daily News.


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Injured hiker, companion rescued from ridge near Girdwood after 30-foot fall

Thu, 2019-07-18 07:48
Video from the Alaska National Guard shows the area in the Chugach Mountains near Girdwood where two hikers were rescued.

The Alaska National Guard on Wednesday rescued a 22-year-old hiker from Anchorage who spent the night outside after he was badly injured in a 30-foot fall in the Chugach Mountains near Girdwood, authorities say.

The hiker’s companion, who climbed a nearby peak to wave down rescuers, was also picked up by the Army Guard UH-60 Black Hawk, the Guard said.

Ben Seaman fell from Penguin Ridge and injured his leg on Tuesday evening, Alaska State Troopers said. A trooper helicopter couldn’t locate Seaman because of bad weather, and the weather also kept LifeMed from responding. The Rescue Coordination Center, which dispatches military crews, didn’t have any air assets available that night.

The ridge stretches high above the Seward Highway between Bird Creek and Girdwood.

Seaman ended up at the bottom of a saddle in steep, rocky terrain at 3,600 feet, the Guard said.

Early Wednesday morning, the Black Hawk from the 2-104th’s Golf Company, Detachment 2, left Bryant Army Airfield on Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson with a flight medic, according to the Guard. The medevac unit stood up in 2017, and Wednesday’s mission was its first rescue with hoist.

The crew, with pilot 2nd Lt. Cody McKinney, scanned the ridge on the way to pick up pararescuemen from the 212th Rescue Squadron in Girdwood. They spotted the hikers, “waved” the helicopter at them, then continued to Girdwood before heading back to the hikers, McKinney said in an account of the rescue. McKinney is commander of the detachment and the medevac unit commander.

The pararescuemen dropped down to the peak and descended to the injured hiker to find that Seaman couldn’t walk, the Guard said. He and his companion were hoisted out from the saddle, with the helicopter about 70 feet from the ground.

Seaman was taken to an Anchorage hospital for treatment of injuries described as not life-threatening.

Volunteers with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group also responded, troopers said.

Providers await impacts of Medicaid cuts; dental services axed

Thu, 2019-07-18 06:42

Gov. Mike Dunleavy talks and answers questions about his recent budget vetoes at the start of a meeting with members of his cabinet in Anchorage on July 15, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

Alaska Gov. Mike. Dunleavy’s cuts to the state Medicaid budget have providers holding their breaths as they wait to see the impacts.

Dunleavy vetoed about $58 million of general fund support for Medicaid programs from the Legislature’s enacted budget on June 28. The Legislature, divided between special sessions in Wasilla and Juneau, failed to override the vetoes, and so the cut stands for now.

Because Medicaid is a federally matched program, the dollars the state cuts lead to forfeited federal dollars as well. The $58 million general fund cut is compounded by those federal dollars, meaning at least $77 million less in total.

Though there’s no immediate impact for hospitals, but one of their concerns is for the end of the next fiscal year, when money starts running out to reimburse providers. The state suspended payments for about two weeks in June due to a Medicaid funding shortfall, forcing hospitals to wait until the turnover of the fiscal year to be paid.

While hospitals are again being paid, there’s the possibility that if funding is cut, the suspension could go on for longer next year, said Jeannie Monk, senior vice president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

“Right now, in terms of hospitals and Medicaid, everybody’s okay,” she said.

One Medicaid service would be eliminated entirely if the vetoes stand: adult preventive dental medical coverage. Up until this year, Medicaid recipients were able to access preventive dental services such as cleanings and X-rays. Dunleavy vetoed $27 million supporting the program, which would stop the preventive program, though emergency situations would still be covered, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Providers say it’s more than a luxury. During the regular session, legislators and providers argued for the retention of the program, saying it was an essential part of preventative health and provided opportunities for people to encounter the medical system who might not have otherwise gone in for a doctor’s appointment.

Without the benefit, there’s a concern that those patients will just wind up in the emergency rooms with abscesses and acute dental conditions, Monk said. The same is true of the homeless population, with the vetoes applying to social services that help run homeless shelters.

For patients at federally qualified health centers, that means paying a sliding scale fee. Though that fee reduces the patient’s cost, it’s still about 25 percent of the total charge, said Jon Zasada, the policy integration director for the Alaska Primary Care Association.

“I think a lot of folks know that once you start doing the cleaning, fillings, and other procedures, it becomes a lot more expensive,” he said. “Let’s say a cleaning or a tooth pulling … a patient could easily have a bill that at full cost is multiple thousands of dollars, and then they would be responsible for $1,000, which they generally are not able to pay.”

Other states who have cut their preventive dental services for Medicaid have studied and tracked increases in emergency room visits for dental reasons, Zasada said. Though that isn’t something Alaska has done in the past, it’s something the APCA will be looking into, in part because of the inefficiency of treating those problems in an expensive place like an emergency room, he said.

“Certainly an abscess or an infection, when treated in an emergency room, is far more expensive than when it might be under control because someone has access to preventative care,” he said.

At hospitals, those patients would be eligible for financial assistance, or charity care. Hospitals generally have to eat that cost later. That’s not the case for federally qualified health centers; they often have grants to help cover that shortfall from the sliding scale fee. But with more patients not able to pay for services, they may have to rely more on those backup funding sources.

For the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, that means probably looking for more grants to support their services and relying on patients who come with private insurance, said Tammy Green, the CEO of Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center.

“We have figured out that we have a fair amount of our dental patients that are on Medicaid with our dental benefit,” she said. “We’re going to have to figure out where else to shoulder that in our business.”

The Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center has integrated medical, dental and behavioral care, and patients who come in for dental services are frequently referred for medical services and vice versa.

Without the dental benefit, patients may not be as likely to receive care in the first place, which may lead to more serious conditions down the road and may hamper their ability to get jobs. Green said a number of the patients who have had dental services have written to the clinics and said oral care played a role in their ability to be employable by correcting their speech or smiles.

The other problem is that the caseload may go up as other providers in the area stop taking Medicaid patients, she said.

“I think the other piece about these cuts is that in our community, the dentists will no longer be able to see the Medicaid patients and we are going to be deluged, but more importantly, I think the hospital emergency rooms are going to end up (seeing these patients),” she said.

The House Finance Committee, meeting in Anchorage July 15, introduced House Bill 2001 to reinstate many of the cuts from the line-item vetoes, including Medicaid, and using remaining state funds to pay the Permanent Fund dividend. Zasada said the APCA hadn’t formally endorsed the bill, but “anything that would reinstate funding for broad health care services amongst all of the other things, we are supportive of.”

During a press conference July 15, Dunleavy said his administration hadn’t had time to review the House’s new bill yet but planned to continue discussions with legislators later in the day.

State awards former Knik Arm crossing official a no-bid contract worth up to $100,000

Thu, 2019-07-18 06:34

An artist's rendering of the proposed Knik Arm crossing connecting Anchorage and the Mat-Su. (Alaska Department of Transportation of Public Facilities)

Amid big budget cuts by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, his administration has awarded a no-bid contract worth up to $100,000 to a former state official with the mothballed Knik Arm Crossing project who is studying the risks and benefits of resurrecting it.

The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities awarded the sole-source, 4.5-month contract on March 19 to Kevin Hemenway, the former longtime chief financial officer for the project, records show.

Hemenway said no one knows as much about the Knik Arm Crossing as he does. That unique knowledge played a role in his selection.

“I’m doing this because I believe this is a good project for the state to consider,” said Hemenway, 59.

The contract was uncovered through a public records request by Bob French, an engineer and longtime critic of the effort. French provided the contract to news media on Tuesday.

Dunleavy recently vetoed $444 million from the budget to shrink a giant deficit.

“I think this contract is fiscally irresponsible," French said. “We are cutting services across the state, but they are looking to spend another $100,000 to study something that’s been studied for 15 years.”

The two-mile toll bridge across Cook Inlet would connect Anchorage with Point MacKenzie in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. It would cost more than $1 billion to build.

Former Gov. Bill Walker shut down the project in 2016, saying it wasn’t worth pursuing during tough economic times.

Dunleavy in February reversed an executive order by Walker that put the brakes on that and other major construction projects. Dunleavy said during his campaign and shortly after his election to office that he would reconsider the bridge, but it needs to fit into the state’s “fiscal realities.”

The state Legislature created the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority in 2003 to develop the project. By 2016, some $85 million in state and federal funds had been spent on it, officials said at the time.

Hemenway said Transportation commissioner John MacKinnon asked other department officials to reach out to him about the possibility of studying the project, leading to the contract. The two men have known each other for years, dating back to MacKinnon’s term as deputy commissioner of Transportation more than a decade ago, he said.

The contract directs Hemenway to pay special attention to areas that include financing options such as federal loans and private investment. He should recommend the “best value” to the state, and develop a potential work plan and budget should the state decide to advance the project.

The contract pays $125 an hour, through July 31.

Hemenway said he likely won’t use the full, $100,000.

The state Transportation department said Hemenway’s "deep understanding” of the project is unique, according to an email from Meadow Bailey, a DOTPF spokeswoman.

The award is in "the state’s best interest,” the email said.

Hemenway’s “vast knowledge of the project provided an efficiency -- Mr. Hemenway did not have to spend time learning about the project, he already possessed that experience," the email said.

The contract will not necessarily lead to more spending on the project, the department said. But it will help officials determine its economic feasibility. Construction could lead to economic development and new jobs, it said.

A single dollar spent on the bridge is money wasted, French said.

A 2013 legislative audit called consultant studies about the toll bridge “unreasonably optimistic," with projected cash flows to the state “likely overstated.” The federal government has rejected loans for the project several times, French said.

In early 2016, federal officials rejected a $375 million low-interest loan for the bridge.

But Hemenway and others continued working to secure the loan. They were close to securing it when the project was shut down later that year, Hemenway said. The project had received investment-grade rating opinions from Standard and Poor’s and DBRS, clearing a key hurdle, he said. Other loan requirements were also met, he said.

Hemenway said he expects to produce his report to the state soon after his contract ends.

Hemenway said the bridge, if built, would be an important alternative when accidents or weather halt traffic on the only road north out of Anchorage. It would be just the third road out of the city. Mat-Su valley residents who commute to Anchorage would also benefit, he said.

“For safety and route-redundancy purposes there’s a transportation issue in Anchorage that is probably unique in the country for a city of this size," he said.

Opioid death rates soared in communities where pain pills flowed

Thu, 2019-07-18 05:09

A cemetery on a hillside above the town of Charleston, West Virginia. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara. (Melina Mara/)

Death rates from opioids soared in the towns, cities and counties that were saturated with billions of prescription pain pills from 2006 through 2012, according to government death data and a previously undisclosed database of opioid shipments made public this week.

The highest per capita death rates nationwide from opioids during those years were in rural communities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. In those seven years, those communities also were flooded with a disproportionate share of the 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills from some of the country's largest drug companies, an analysis by The Washington Post reveals.

The national death rate from opioids was 4.6 deaths per 100,000 residents. But the counties that had the most pills distributed per person experienced more than three times that rate on average. Thirteen of those counties had an opioid death rate more than eight times the national rate, according to the government data. Seven of them were in West Virginia.

“What they did legally to my state is criminal,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said. “The companies, the distributors, were unconscionable. This was not a health plan. This was a targeted business plan. I cannot believe that we have not gone after them with criminal charges.”

For the first time, The Post is able to reveal where prescription opioid pills were shipped county-by-county and compare that information with federal data that logs deaths caused by prescription opioids.

The Post obtained and analyzed a previously unreleased database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration that tracks the path of every pain pill sold in the United States - by manufacturers and distributors to pharmacies in every town and city. That data was compared with individual death records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which were obtained and analyzed by The Post.

A map of the deaths and shipments reveals a virtual opioid belt of more than 90 counties stretching southwest from Webster County, West Virginia, through southern Virginia and ending in Monroe County, Kentucky.

This swath includes 18 of the top 20 counties ranked by per capita prescription opioid deaths nationwide and 12 of the top 20 counties for opioid pills distributed per capita. In the belt from 2006 through 2012, death rates from opioid abuse were 4.5 times the national average.

Nowhere is this more stark than in Norton, Virginia, a rural city of about 4,000 people, that lies in the eastern edge of the opioid belt.

In Norton, considered a county by the federal government, the per capita death rate from prescription opioid overdoses was 18 times the national rate. At the same time, drug companies shipped 306 pain pills per person per year, The Post analysis shows.

"That number blows me away," said Joseph Fawbush, Norton's mayor. "I believe the manufacturers misled the doctors. It is addictive, and they were telling the doctors it's not addictive."

Fawbush said opioids have devastated his town.

"Our jails are overflowing, a high percentage of children now have to be raised by their grandparents, and our court system and emergency services are strained," Fawbush said.

The analysis shows that McDowell County in the southern part of West Virginia along the Appalachian Mountains ranked second for rate of death from prescription opioids from 2006 through 2012.

In that period, the per capita death rate was 13 times higher than the national average in a county where drug companies shipped 96 pain pills per person per year. West Virginia also had the highest opioid death rate in the nation during this period.

[Newly released federal data unmasks epidemic that led to 76 billion opioid pills]

Grappling with the epidemic, the McDowell County sheriff and others from the county came to Washington last year to meet with officials in Congress and the White House about the crisis and the lack of treatment resources.

"They have pumped a bunch of pills in here. It's such a bad situation," said Cecil Patterson, 64, a McDowell County commissioner and coal miner. "Every family has been affected by this. It's just overwhelming what's going on here. We are hard-working people. We'll survive this. But it has been tough. We've all had family members and friends we have lost to drugs."

The DEA database was released Monday by a judge in the largest civil action in U.S. history. About two dozen companies are being sued in federal court in Cleveland by nearly 2,000 cities, towns and counties.

"Now that we're seeing these things that we knew and couldn't prove, and now that we have these records, I think we should go after the living daylights of these people," Manchin said.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster lifted a protective order that had been concealing the database from the public. The database, the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System, known as ARCOS, contained seven years of data. The Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, waged a year-long legal battle for access to the database and other documents. Last June, The Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail asked Polster to lift the protective order covering the ARCOS database and the court filings. He declined, but the news organizations won access to the database on appeal.

The Post analysis shows that the volumes of the pills handled by the companies climbed as the epidemic surged, increasing 51 percent from 8.4 billion in 2006 to 12.6 billion in 2012. The overall number - 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills shipped over the seven years - eclipsed what was previously known about opioid distribution by orders of magnitude.

The prescription pill crisis was the first wave of an ongoing epidemic that hit rural areas particularly hard in West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Nevada, according to the database.

When the federal government began imposing hundreds of millions of dollars of fines on the largest drug distributors and pharmacies between 2008 and 2015, the supply began to tighten and pill addicts turned to heroin, triggering the second wave of the epidemic.

Increased heroin use ultimately led to the third wave of the epidemic, as Mexican drug cartels began blending their heroin with fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid shipped from China. Drug dealers in the United States also began selling fentanyl, leading to more than 67,000 overdose deaths from fentanyl from 2013 to 2017.

As the epidemic raged, local governments fought back. Norton and other communities filed lawsuits against the drug companies, alleging that opioids from the companies were destroying their towns. Some of the lawsuits allege the companies not only failed to report suspicious orders, but they also sought to maximize profits.

As hundreds of lawsuits began to pile up, many were consolidated into the one centralized case in U.S. District Court in Cleveland. The opioid litigation is now larger in scope than the tobacco litigation of the 1980s, which resulted in a $246 billion settlement over 25 years.

Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor who served as a drug policy adviser to the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, said the correlation of opioid deaths and pain pill distribution could be expected.

"These horrible death rates should not surprise anyone," Humphreys said. "The supply of drugs matters enormously no matter what else we try to do. When there's a flood of addictive drugs, lots of people end up being harmed."

- - -

The Washington Post’s Aaron Williams and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.

Marijuana? Cannabis? Weed? Pot? Dope? What do you call that stuff?

Thu, 2019-07-18 05:01

(Tribune Content Agency)

I was talking with a colleague the other day about the advent of legal recreational marijuana in Illinois when out of my mouth came words that horrified me the minute they emerged.

"I've never really liked dope," I said.

I wasn't horrified to admit I don't like dope -- I'm not embarrassed to say I prefer other paths to an altered state -- but I cringed to hear myself call it that.

I mean, dope?

Did saying "dope" make me look old?

The minute I said it, I knew it did. It was like wearing a halter top, flowered bell-bottoms, a string of love beads and a middle part in my hair. All of which, I regret to say, I used to do, even though I've never really liked dope -- or whatever it's cool to call it now.

Is it still cool to say "cool?"

Whatever the word -- marijuana? cannabis? weed? pot? -- everybody's talking about it these days, but as we talk, the question grows more urgent: What are we supposed to call this stuff?

Some of the groovy old words for it seem as outdated as "groovy."

"I use 'marijuana' because that is the most common, widely understood term for it," says my aforementioned colleague, Bob McCoppin, who's covering the state's legalization for the Tribune.

Many media organizations still use the word "marijuana." It's the generally preferred word in the AP Stylebook. But it, too, could soon seem outdated, stained as it is by racist associations.

If you said, "Really?" you're not alone. I didn't realize until recently that in the early 1900s, "marijuana" -- aka "marihuana" -- came to be associated in racist ways with Mexican immigrants to the United States, a connection that played a role in the move to ban it.

There remains debate about the word's racist roots, but there's no doubt that the rise of the word "marijuana" -- for a substance previously known as "cannabis" or "Indian hemp" -- came attached with ugly racial attitudes. One Prohibition leader even blamed marijuana for "Satanic music," by which he meant jazz and swing.

But that was another century. Now the medicinal uses of marijuana are more widely accepted. The cultivation of the cannabis plant from which the drug is derived is big business. Laws are changing, and so are words.

"We call it cannabis," Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, a leader in the state's legalization movement, said when I asked for her preferred term. "'Marijuana' has a pejorative history."

In the vernacular, Steans said, the current common terms are "weed" or "pot."

But here in 2019 even "pot" comes with a whiff of Grandma's attic.

"Well, I used to say 'pot' until my daughters upbraided me and instructed me that it is now 'weed,'" says a friend with millennial children. "Does anyone still call it Mary Jane?"

Sorry, Granny, I don't think so. But how would I know? I'm still saying, "dope."

Reefer. Ganja. Grass. The slang for dope is vast, much of it redolent of distant times.

"Because it's such a widely consumed substance and it's been illegal for almost a hundred years, there had to be code words for it," says Dan Linn, executive director at the Illinois chapter of NORML, which is the acronym for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Despite the organization's name, Linn, too, prefers the term "cannabis" these days, though sometimes he'll say "weed" or "pot" when talking with high school and college friends.

"Nostalgic terms from my youth," he said. He means the 1990s.

And "dope?"

"If I'm talking amongst friends or purposely being tongue-in-cheek, then I might call it 'dope,'" he says. "You'd have to go back to the '80s or 1990s to find it referred to as that with consistency."


The legalization trend raises more pressing questions than what to call this weed. Questions like: Who will reap the profits of the booming business? Have the potentially harmful effects been sufficiently explored?

But the smaller questions like what to call it matter too. The etiquette guru Lizzie Post addresses nomenclature in her new book "Higher Etiquette: A Guide to the World of Cannabis, From Dispensaries to Dinner Parties."

Her answer is: Call it cannabis.

But don't be surprised if the prediction by my friend who still calls it "pot" comes true:

“I’m betting that some of the truly old lingo will be reclaimed and repackaged as vintage. Reefer madness! If it was good enough for 1936, it’s good enough for 2019.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Failure to stand up for the truth, suggests not an open mind but an empty one

Thu, 2019-07-18 04:57

(Tribune Content Agency)

A man named Josef Buzhminski told this story at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

It happened on July 27, 1942, at the fence of the Jewish ghetto in Przemysl, Poland. Buzhminski was watching from hiding as an SS man named Kidash seized a Jewish woman and her 18-month-old son. "She held the baby in her arms," Buzhminski said, "and began asking for mercy that she be shot first and leave the baby alive.

"From behind the fence," he continued, "there were Poles who raised their hands ready to catch the baby. She was about to hand the baby over to the Poles. He took the baby from her arms and shot her twice and then took the baby into his hands and tore him as one would tear a rag."

That's just one story -- one wrenching, awful story. There are 6 million more like it -- 11 million if you count beyond the Jewish victims.

Understand that and you understand the fury over William Latson. He was the principal of Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton who, in April 2018, had a just-revealed email exchange with an unidentified mother about the Holocaust. As first reported in The Palm Beach Post, she had written to ask how that genocide is taught. Latson assured her the school has many Holocaust education activities, but added that they're not mandatory -- "not forced upon individuals as we all have the same rights but not all the same beliefs."

Stunned, the mother pointed out the obvious: The Holocaust is not a "belief." Latson was unmoved, reminding her that "not everyone believes the Holocaust happened," and claiming that he is required to be "politically neutral."

"I can't say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee," he said.

Those words ignited an uproar. And Latson, you will not be heartbroken to learn, is now the ex-principal of Spanish River High.

Which is fine, except that he is less the problem here than just a particularly glaring symptom thereof. Forcing him out does nothing to address the toxic "both-sideism" he represents and that has crept over American education, politics and journalism in recent years.

Sometimes, it's merely disingenuous, an excuse for inaction -- like when Republicans pretend they can't be definitive about climate change because there's no scientific consensus. Sometimes, it's fear of the damning word. Like when reporters look at incidents involving nooses, burning crosses or the generous application of the N-word and pronounce them "racially insensitive." And sometimes, it's a misbegotten attempt at even-handedness. Like when Latson evidences such tender regard for the feelings of Holocaust deniers.

It's a fine thing to maintain an open mind. Intellectual flexibility, the ability to see things from the other side, is to be encouraged. But none of that precludes the obligation to make a judgment, to say flatly what is and what is not.

Failure to do that, failure to stand up for the truth, suggests not an open mind but an empty one -- and cowardice, to boot. The truth is already under attack from the White House, the Russians, Fox "News" and other forces of weaponized chaos and organized confusion. Will it now be under attack from the schools, too?

We can't allow that. To allow that is to poison the future. And besides, Josef Buzhminski -- and millions of other witnesses and victims of atrocity -- deserve better. They are beyond our solace. The least we can do is remember their ordeals and speak them without equivocation.

You wouldn’t think that’s too much to ask.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

With both R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein, it takes a village

Thu, 2019-07-18 04:54

FILE - In this June 26, 2019, file photo, Musician R. Kelly departs from the Leighton Criminal Court building after a status hearing in his criminal sexual abuse trial in Chicago. (AP Photo/Amr Alfiky, File) (Amr Alfiky/)

Shame has its limits, even in Chicago, so there was no way that R. Kelly -- famous R&B singer and infamous accused pedophile -- was going to get the cozy Jussie Smollett treatment.

Not in federal court. And not after Kelly's recent federal indictments in Chicago and New York on charges that he pressured witnesses to change their stories years ago in his Cook County criminal case, and that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to scoop up child sex tapes in which he had a starring role.

"This investigation is far from over," Assistant U.S. Attorney Angel Krull said as Kelly's bond was denied on Tuesday. Krull also said prosecutors have three videos showing Kelly's "sadomasochistic abuse" of a 14-year-old girl.

The indictments against Kelly came just days after the underage sex trafficking indictments against New York financier Jeffrey Epstein. That wasn't just happenstance, said Jim DeRogatis, music critic, professor, journalist and author of the extensively reported "Soulless: The Case against R. Kelly."

"What's obvious now is that it takes a system of people to enable a predator to do his thing for years, for decades," DeRogatis said on my podcast "The Chicago Way" on WGN Plus. "This is not a coincidence that the charges came within a span of a week, against Epstein and Kelly."

In both cases, it's clear that there were industrious enablers helping predators on their hunt. It takes a village.

The monstrous Roman Polanski liked young girls too. He gave a 13-year-old girl a quaalude and champagne, then raped her in the home of Jack Nicholson. But he was a great director, and Hollywood defended him, giving him standing ovations and awards in absentia. He stayed overseas rather than go to prison in California.

"Hollywood has the best moral compass because it has compassion," said one of Polanski's great champions. "We were the people who did the fundraising telethon for the victims of 9/11. We were there for the victims of Katrina and any world catastrophe."

Who was the great Polanski supporter? Producer Harvey Weinstein, who goes on trial in New York after Labor Day as an accused sex predator.

Hollywood, the music industry and politics are each all about selling fantasy, and what we find acceptable in fantasy reveals much about us. In the late 1980s, two movies based on the same story about decadent French nobility -- each containing scenes of rape of a 15-year-old girl by an older man -- were big hits in America, "Dangerous Liaisons" and "Valmont." Would such scenes be made today? Or is modern America so much like pre-revolutionary France that we've lost perspective?

While Epstein was a favorite of the wealthy New York elite, numbering former President Bill Clinton, other national Democrats and Republican President Donald Trump among his social contacts, Kelly was a Chicago guy.

He grew up here. He soon became the most influential musician of his generation. And as Kelly became famous for his music, he became famous for being a grown man hunting 14- and 15-year-old girls. And Chicago knew it.

"There was Kelly cruising Kenwood Academy, and other high schools, the Evergreen Plaza shopping malls, the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's," DeRogatis said. "Nobody cared to stop it because the money was too extensive."

DeRogatis tried. Then-music critic at the Sun-Times, he teamed up with then-Sun-Times reporter Abdon Pallasch to document Kelly's behavior beginning in December 2000. They did story after story, yet these were largely ignored by other media in town, including the Chicago Tribune. Kelly was considered a Sun-Times story. And DeRogatis and Pallasch were isolated.

They were supported by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, an African American, who wrote many columns defending them.

"We were vilified in all of Chicago black media, especially the radio stations, they never stopped playing him," DeRogatis recalled. "We were (called) racists, and Mary wrote more than two dozen columns urging the black community to wake up to the predator in its midst."

Later, Pallasch told me, "When we published our first story about R. Kelly sexually abusing underage teenage girls, we braced for a wave of other news outlets following up and covering this. And we were met with a collective shrug from our fellow journalists. This was before the #MeToo movement. We got, 'What? It's news that music stars go for young girls?'

"But it would be years before some of our fellow journalists recognized that video of R. Kelly sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl was not 'the pee tape' but rather 'the rape tape,'" Pallasch said.

Some things to watch as both the Kelly and Epstein cases proceed: How many enablers will be revealed, in politics and media? How will the politics of the local courts -- R. Kelly's acquittal in Cook County and the slap-on-the-wrist Epstein received in Florida -- be explained away? And how did the lawyers on both sides play those earlier cases, which authorities now say allowed accused child molesters to resume hunting?

DeRogatis said much will be exposed about Cook County and Kelly as the federal case unfolds.

"Because the indictment already brings out that the girl and her parents were bribed. And there are obstruction of justice charges," he said on "The Chicago Way." "How far will these charges go? And when Kelly's enablers begin to flip and turn state's evidence to avoid prosecution themselves, what else will come out?"

I don't think it'll be the kind of tune you'd want for your wedding song or your prom. There might be a silent scream or two, maybe, and a sigh.

But it won’t be music.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Apollo 11′s achievement still dazzles

Thu, 2019-07-18 04:45

FILE - In this image provided by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Television is marking the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, moon landing with a variety of specials about NASA's Apollo 11 mission. (Neil A. Armstrong/NASA via AP, File) (NEIL A. ARMSTRONG/)

WASHINGTON -- Thirty months after setting the goal of sending a mission 239,000 miles to the moon, and returning safely, President John Kennedy cited a story the Irish author Frank O’Connor told about his boyhood. Facing the challenge of a high wall, O’Connor and his playmates tossed their caps over it. Said Kennedy, “They had no choice but to follow them. This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space.” Kennedy said this on Nov. 21, 1963, in San Antonio. The next day: Dallas.

To understand America's euphoria about the moon landing 50 years ago, remember 51 years ago: 1968 was one of America's worst years -- the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinated, urban riots. President Kennedy's May 25, 1961, vow to reach the moon before 1970 came 43 days after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to enter outer space and orbit the Earth, and 38 days after the Bay of Pigs debacle. When Kennedy audaciously pointed to the moon, America had only sent a single astronaut on a 15-minute suborbital flight.

Kennedy's goal was reckless, and exhilarating leadership. Given existing knowledge and technologies, it was impossible. But Kennedy said the space program would "serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." It did. The thrilling story of collaborative science and individual daring is told well in HBO's 12-part "From the Earth to the Moon," and PBS's three-part "Chasing the Moon," and in the companion volume with that title, by Robert Stone and Alan Andres, who write:

"The American effort to get to the moon was the largest peacetime government initiative in the nation's history. At its peak in the mid-1960s, nearly 2% of the American workforce was engaged in the effort to some degree. It employed more than 400,000 individuals, most of them working for 20,000 different private companies and 200 universities."

The "space race" began as a Cold War competition, military and political. Even before Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, jolted Americans' complacency in 1957 (10 days after President Dwight Eisenhower sent paratroopers to Little Rock's Central High School), national security was at stake in the race for rockets with ever-greater thrusts to deliver thermonuclear warheads with ever-greater accuracy.

By 1969, however, the Soviet Union was out of the race to the moon, a capitulation that anticipated the Soviets' expiring gasp, two decades later, when confronted by the technological challenge of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. By mid-1967, a majority of Americans no longer thought a moon landing was worth the expense.

But it triggered a final flaring of postwar confidence and pride. "The Eagle has landed" came as defiant last words of affirmation, at the end of a decade that, Stone and Andres note, had begun with harbingers of a coming culture of dark irony and satire: Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22" (1961) and Stanley Kubrick's film "Dr. Strangelove" (1964).

Photos of Earth taken from the moon were said to herald a global sense of humanity's common destiny. Osama bin Laden was 12 in 1969.

Stone and Andres say Apollo 11 was hurled upward by engines burning "15 tons of liquid oxygen and kerosene per second, producing energy equal to the combined power of 85 Hoover Dams." People spoke jauntily of "the conquest of space." Well.

The universe, 99.9 (and at least 58 other 9s) percent of which is already outside Earth’s atmosphere, is expanding (into we know not what) at 46 miles per second per megaparsec. (One megaparsec is approximately 3.26 million light years.) Astronomers are studying light that has taken perhaps 12 billion years to reach their instruments. This cooling cinder called Earth, spinning in the darkness at the back of beyond, is a minor speck of residue from the Big Bang, which lasted less than a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second 13.8 billion years ago. The estimated number of stars -- they come and go -- is 100 followed by 22 zeros. The visible universe (which is hardly all of it) contains more than 150 billion galaxies, each with billions of stars. But if there were only three bees in America, the air would be more crowded with bees than space is with stars. The distances, and the violently unheavenly conditions in “the heavens,” tell us that our devices will roam our immediate cosmic neighborhood, but in spite of Apollo 11′s still-dazzling achievement, we are not really going anywhere.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Democrats say no one is above the law - except illegal immigrants

Thu, 2019-07-18 04:42

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite/)

WASHINGTON -- We have heard a lot about the importance of the rule of law from Democrats lately. During special counsel Robert Muller’s investigation of President Trump, Democrats in Congress delivered a clear and unified message.

"No one is above the law, especially the president of the United States," declared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Donald Trump is the most corrupt president in our lifetime. ... No one is above the law. Not even the president," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. "Everyone should be held accountable. And the president is not above the law," said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. Republicans "are basically saying that in America one man is above the law and that's not a fact," said Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "No one is above the law [and] everybody ought to be held accountable," said South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

No one, that is, except illegal immigrants.

Fast-forward to this past weekend, when the Trump administration announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers would soon begin enforcement actions to remove illegal immigrants who have been issued final deportation orders by a federal judge. Those same Democrats and the rest of their party delivered a clear and unified message.

"It's so appalling, it's outside the circle of civilized human behavior," said Pelosi. "The Trump administration's cruelty runs bone-deep. A Warren administration will not rip families apart to try and score political points," said Warren. "The aim is to scare immigrant communities. ... And so, he's going to ... do these raids which is a crime against humanity," said Harris. "We are on your side, we stand with you together," Durbin told activists protesting ICE enforcement. "It's really designed to strike fear into people at a moment when fear is something we've got way too much of in this country," said Buttigieg.

So, Democrats were for rule of law when it comes to the Mueller probe, which did not find that the president broke the law. But they are against rule of law when it comes illegal immigrants who have been found by a federal judge to be in violation of U.S. immigration law.

Illegal immigrants subject to ICE enforcement have been given their constitutional right to due process, with the right to a hearing in a federal immigration court and the right to be represented by counsel. If they show up at their hearing and are not granted relief by an immigration judge, they have the right to appeal. If they lose that appeal, they are issued a final order of removal. Once such an order is issued, they must either voluntarily depart the country or turn themselves in to an ICE facility for deportation. If they fail to depart or turn themselves in, then their case is referred to the ICE fugitive unit, which is tasked with finding them.

It is a long process to get to the point where ICE is knocking on someone's door to enforce a final order of removal. Those now subject to a final deportation order either failed to show up to immigration court; showed up and lost their case; waived their right to appeal; lost their appeal; did not show up for their appeal hearing; were granted voluntary departure but did not leave; or failed to turn themselves in to ICE for court-ordered removal. In each case, a federal judge has ruled that they do not have the right to be in the United States and must leave. But Democratic leaders are now saying they should be allowed to stay, in contravention of our immigration laws.

Then again, Democrats didn't think this way when they held the White House. President Barack Obama deported far more illegal immigrants than Trump. Axios reports that "under the Obama administration, total ICE deportations were above 385,000 each year in fiscal years 2009-2011, and hit a high of 409,849 in fiscal 2012." I don't recall Democrats in Congress accusing Obama of a "crime against humanity" or actions "outside the circle of civilized human behavior."

Back then, Democrats agreed, as Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., put it in a 2009 speech, that “illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple.” Since Trump took office, Democrats have become the party of illegal immigration. The want to decriminalize illegal border crossings, cut ICE detention beds to force the agency to release illegal immigrants and then refuse to enforce lawful deportation orders. So, it’s a little hard to take Democrats seriously when, in investigating Trump, they claim to be fighting for the principle that no one is above the law.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

I have served in the Air Force and Congress. People still tell me to ‘go back’ to China.

Thu, 2019-07-18 04:34

Ted Lieu. (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/TNS) (Ricardo DeAratanha/)

Lieu, a Democrat, is a U.S. representative from California.

I served on active duty in the U.S. Air Force and currently serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet I still experience people telling me to “go back” to China or North Korea or Japan. Like many immigrants, I have learned to brush off this racist insult. I never thought the president of the United States would tell members of Congress to “go back” to another country.

President Donald Trump has often crossed the line of what constitutes decent behavior. But this time feels different, because he is now attacking legal immigration and U.S. citizenship. His statements on Sunday and since then imply that immigrants are somehow less loyal to our country, less American, and that we should "go back" or "leave" if we disagree with him.

Twenty years ago, I wrote an op-ed in The Post about what it was like to wear my Air Force uniform while people questioned my loyalty to the United States, all because of the color of my skin. I was in my Air Force blues when a woman asked if I was in the Chinese air force.

The suspicion that immigrants are not to be trusted or are unpatriotic is not just wrong, it is un-American. And dangerous. Yet it has marred America's past, including with the 19th-century "Yellow Peril" hysteria, the internment during World War II of more than 110,000 people who happened to be of Japanese descent and accusations against Jewish Americans of harboring dual loyalties.

That brand of bigotry was at the core of Trump's online comments attacking the patriotism of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, insults he continued to defend Tuesday.

To say I was furious when I read Trump's tweets would be an understatement. It brought me back to the feelings I had when writing in 1999: about belonging, sacrifice and what it means to be an American. Just as my Air Force uniform didn't protect me from racism then, the lapel pins worn by members of Congress didn't shield those four representatives from Trump's hateful venom. It didn't matter that three of the women were actually born in the United States or that Omar immigrated from Somalia as a child.

The problem for the president is that many Americans are immigrants or have friends or family members who are immigrants. The American people continue to support newcomers. A Gallup poll last year found that 75% of Americans believe immigration is good for the country. The American people understand that what makes the nation great is not people's bloodlines or how long ago their ancestors arrived here, but their character and belief in the Constitution.

A lot has changed in 20 years since I wrote the Post op-ed. Americans elected the nation's first black president; there is a Hispanic American on the Supreme Court; a woman is House speaker; a record number of Asian Americans are in Congress; and for the first time, Native American women and Muslim American women are serving in Congress.

"The United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world," according to Pew Research, and "the U.S. foreign-born population reached a record 44.4 million in 2017." The same report found that immigrants and their descendants will drive 88 percent of the United States' population growth through 2065. The president cannot stop most of this demographic change, especially without the consent of Congress.

The United States represents hope, freedom and opportunities to those who are born here and to those who are not. Those values are part of the United States' fabric. Diversity - both in ideas and people - has always been one of the country's greatest assets.

Americans - white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American - understand that we are better than the president’s xenophobic message. Americans understand that rising drug prices, wage stagnation and inadequate infrastructure affect everyone, regardless of race. It is heartening to see the reaction to Trump’s remarks from countless Americans who recognized that his words were repulsive. Notwithstanding the current occupant of the Oval Office, the United States is, and will remain, an exceptional nation.

Originally published by The Washington Post

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Donald Trump, America is not your house

Thu, 2019-07-18 04:13

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Williams Arena in Greenville, N.C., Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Carolyn Kaster/)

Dear Donald Trump:

Years ago, I got to visit Kwethluk, an Alaskan town of fewer than 900 souls. It is an isolated place where the people, most of them Yup’ik, live on what the tundra provides: ptarmigan, moose, seal, salmonberries. I remember standing upon that snowbound landscape and marveling that I was further than I’d ever been from everything I’d ever known.

It was a feeling I'd had once before, at a village in Niger. But this was different, because I'd needed no passport to get to Kwethluk. Though I stood in a distant place with people who did not look like me and whose traditions were not like mine, the marvel of it was that I was yet standing with fellow citizens, together in our country. Because this was America, too.

I doubt you would have understood that. Your vision of what makes an American is too niggardly and cramped to allow it.

Sunday, you offered superfluous proof of that failing in a series of tweets where you told four progressive congresswomen of color to "go back" to their own countries and stop complaining about the United States. The four women are all American citizens. One, Rep. Ilhan Omar, is an immigrant from Somalia. Rep. Ayanna Pressley is a black woman born in Cincinnati; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx; Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American from Detroit.

Not that those facts really matter. Similarly, they are hardly the only ones to criticize this country. You, for instance, have called it "stupid," "weak" and "pathetic." But that doesn't matter either. Not to the people to whom your tweets were directed.

It would be naive not to recognize that you were performing for a particular audience: the racially resentful white people of the GOP base. If the rest of us are -- as I was in Kwethluk -- energized and inspired by the vastness of America, they are threatened by it and terrified of it. Especially as representatives of that vastness rise to positions of prominence and power.

You, like them, take for granted that America is your house, a white house where you make the rules, you set the standards and the rest of us live only by your sufferance. That's the assumption embedded in your tweets: that you have the right to tell the rest of us to -- apologies to the Beatles -- "get back to you where you once belonged."

But this has never been just your house, Donald, grandson of a German immigrant. It belongs to all of us, to every Yup'ik in Kwethluk, every Cuban in Miami, every black boy in Compton, every Muslim in Dearborn. We get to criticize it, we get to love it, we get to fight with it, we get to fight for it, because we built it. And we do not need your permission.

"Go back where you came from?" We've heard that one often. It is less an expression of geographic reality -- again, three of the women you slurred were born in the USA -- than it is of white fear. The notion that you live here on probation if you are black or brown is one of racism's oldest canards. And it was not surprising to see members of your party offer tepid rebukes of your behavior or none at all, while stepping gingerly around the "r" word like a body on the sidewalk.

American politics has never seen a more chicken-hearted bunch.

But for all their cowardice, for all your cynicism, for all the fear some white people hold, you can count on the fact that the rest of us will not be denied, deterred or defeated. You are nothing we have not seen before. And still we rise.

It would behoove you, then, to get over the idea that this is your house and you can order the rest of us to leave. If we can go back where we came from, guess what?

So can you.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Letter: Governor’s vetoes are despotic

Wed, 2019-07-17 17:44

The pattern of the governor’s veto actions are despotic, eliminating the roles of the two other co-equal branches of government, the Legislature and the courts. The governor has essentially taken vetoes such that the budget now reflects entirely the very one that he introduced prior to legislative action. The Governor also vetoed funding to the court system in retaliation for social decisions that are supported by the law.

Both the Legislature and the courts work hard to do their jobs. The governor’s use of the veto pen shows that this executive intends to wield absolute power to yield a massive Permanent Fund dividend check to all Alaskans at the cost of the constitutional protections owed them by all branches of government and a depressed state economy.

Stephanie Rhoades


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Letter: Negate the governor’s vetoes

Wed, 2019-07-17 17:40

Famed mountaineer Ed Viesturs coined a phrase that has been canonized by the climbing community, and is applicable to Alaska’s budget crisis. He stated: “Reaching the summit is optional, returning safely is mandatory.” Likewise, the size of the Permanent Fund dividend is optional. Maintaining the very fabric and soul of our state is mandatory.

Close ranks, Legislature, form a “45 Coalition” and systematically restore the funding cut by the governor’s disastrous vetoes.

In your heart, you know what needs to be done. Restructuring the state’s budget should be undertaken more gradually and thoughtfully. Destroying our state isn’t an option.

Frank Baker

Eagle River

Have something on your mind? Send to or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.