The Best (Worst) Time of Year

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This must be the week where all the troopers got together and decided they were ready to be interviewed by yours truly. Maybe it’s the change in season. Yeah, on second thought, I definitely blame the change in season.

This is Alaska’s most boring time of year. The days are shorter, the weather is unpredictable, summer is not quite over, but winter snow has yet to fall. Autumn is even gone – leaves from the trees are on the ground, caked in mud and grey from decay. For Fairbanksans, this past summer was full of these weird bad days. It was the rainiest summer on record — and many people (myself included) got more than a little fed up with the miserable weather pattern. Fairbanks summers are supposed to be endless, bright, and energizing. And this year it was anything but those things. I guess it’s not too abnormal, though. If I’ve learned anything in the last couple of years living in the country’s most northern large town, it’s that the weather is anything but predictable.

But right now, everybody I know has a bee in their bonnet, including my wild and crazy Dog who has been picking fights at the local dog park. Now, I’m not looking to pick fights with any police officers, but I wonder if people in general aren’t getting a little restless and bored. Alaskans don’t like to be bored. They get in trouble when they get bored, they drink too much, they run around and get crazy. But for some people, boredom is also a time of self-reflection. It’s a perfect time of year to talk to people.

When I worked for ADF&G’s Subsistence Division, we often travelled to villages in the wintertime. Summer was frenetic and if we wanted to chat with people, we probably would be out of luck. No one in Alaska wants to sit at their kitchen table, drink coffee, and talk about fishing during fishing season. Nope, they want to be fishing. Springtime is also busy and I never met a whaling captain on the North Slope who would rather sit and chat with anyone over spending time fixing snowmachines, repairing gear, and generally prepping to go out and hunt whales once the migration began and the whales started to show up in Arctic waters.

So even though I am not a fan of this time of year, I’m thankful for it — and thankful that there are enough people out there who are beginning to realize the importance of talking about an old murder case. It’s a part of Alaska after all, just like the seasons.

A conversation with Alaska’s most famous trooper

I’ve moved to Anchorage temporarily and have been spending the past few weeks luxuriously deep in my thesis project. I’m nearly finished (or so I’d like to think). I’ve taken forever to get this thing done and as a result, have been consumed by more than my fair share of self-doubts. On the flip side, I’ve also been overwhelmed by the response I have gotten from people — and the willingness of so many to subject themselves to my interviews and pesky questions.

One of the most interesting interviews I’ve conducted recently was with former Alaska State Trooper Glenn Flothe and his wife, Cherry. Flothe is probably the most famous trooper in Alaska right now — he was the homicide detective who hunted down Robert Hansen, Alaska’s notorious serial killer who killed at least seventeen women back during the pipeline years. Hansen was convicted thirty years ago, but when Flothe started talking about the case and his memories, it became clear that the case still lives within him every day. Almost immediately, I was struck by Flothe’s calm and earnest demeanor and when he told he initially intended to be a high school English or history teacher, that totally made sense. He is thoughtful and well-spoken and has an interest in the bigger picture narrative of why things are the way they are.  I think he may have been a bit frustrated with me, however, as he kindly tried to help me wrap my head around the themes of my thesis. The ethnographer in me of course, didn’t want to talk about the process and the analysis, but wanted to hear and record the stories of his memories as a trooper.

I wanted to talk to Flothe because I have been trying to better understand what was going on in the Alaska justice system back in the 1980s. I know things were different then. There were no cell phones or DNA evidence. There was no Internet. Background checks could take days and fingerprints taken from scenes of crimes couldn’t be easily entered into databases to find a match (isn’t that what they teach us on CSI?). Politics were also different. The state of Alaska was recently awash in oil money and the state’s population expanded almost overnight. Flothe was there during all of that and I was interested in his perceptions and experiences. I’m thankful he was willing to share, but also recognize that there is a side of trooper life that remains hidden from view.

One of the topics I’ve grappled with every day of researching the Investor murders is trying to understand how people internalize the terrible things that happen to them and their loved ones. I think it’s easy to forget that our country’s first responders — firefighters, paramedics, and cops — are subjected to daily traumas that most of us want to forget. It leaves an impact on them, though, as Flothe wisely noted, everyone is differently. Flothe said he thinks about Hansen’s victims almost every day of his life, but not everyone would have that kind of response. It makes sense. Resiliency of the human spirit is complex — some people fold under small pressures while others undergo repeated tragedy and only emerge stronger. I think about it a lot and am in awe of how tough people can be. There’s an entire body of literature out there that probes this very topic, but I’ve been more interested in the capturing of the narrative of trauma and looking at it through an ethnographer/historian’s lens.

This process of collecting stories reminds me of a few lines Elie Wiesel wrote in Night, a book remembering his experiences in Auschwitz during World War II. He wrote: “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

Now, I don’t think it’s anyone’s duty to talk to me and tell me their story, but I remain thankful and in awe of those who do.

Following A Trail Of Memories

Following A Trail Of Memories

People who know me well know that for the past couple of years, I’ve been digging into an old Alaska murder case. The murders themselves were terrible, particularly because they included the deaths of two small children (though honestly, is there ever a situation where murder isn’t just awful?).

The murders occurred in 1982 at the end of a busy salmon fishing season on board a gleaming new fishing boat, the F/V Investor in Craig on Prince of Wales Island. Eight people were murdered, including a family from Blaine, Wash. and their four teenage deckhands. Among those killed were the Coulthurst family, Mark, 28, his pregnant wife, Irene, and their two children Kimberly, 5, and John, 4, and crewmen Mike Stewart, 19, Chris Heyman, 18, Dean Moon, 19, and Jerome Keown, 19.

The timeline of events surrounding the murders is a little difficult to wade through because a lot of potential witnesses didn’t even really remember what they were up to during the days surrounding the murders — let alone what was going on around them. A lot of people were drunk, high, or other wise preoccupied with finishing up the end of the salmon seining season. Though weird stuff has been known to happen in some of our small Alaskan towns, mass murder wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would have ever imagined.

The Alaska State Troopers who investigated the case focused their investigation on Bellingham, Wash. resident and fisherman, John Kenneth Peel, framing the incident to the media as a tragic case of workplace rage that resulted from “an explosion of emotion.” Troopers believed that twenty-two-year old Peel had been angry with the skipper of the boat — a man who had also been a former boss — and had gone on a rampage, killing everyone on board before motoring the vessel into the harbor, setting it on fire to destroy evidence, and escaping by skiff.

Peel was arrested two years after the killings, but was acquitted by a jury in 1988 following two grand juries and two lengthy trials that cost the state an estimated $3 million. The lack of resolution in the case has haunted the memories of the victims’ friends and families, as they have been left wondering what frightening events befell their loved ones. 

These events have been on my mind a lot lately, in part because I have been hard at work work putting together a synopsis of the investigation and trials. The sheer complexity of the case is overwhelming and it is easy to feel sympathy for the detectives who were tasked with finding the killer more than 30 years ago.

It’s interesting to me because I’ve never thought of myself as a person drawn to the blood and gore of true crime thrillers. There was a time as a kid when I loved either Steven King horror movies (think Cujo and The Shining) or anything about the 16th century English King Henry VIII and knew exactly which one of his six wives he beheaded or divorced. But as I got older, none of that kind of stuff seemed so captivating anymore. I can’t stomach horror movies and I gloss over parts of books that describe the grisly detail of how some awful event went down. I’ve only ever seen the footage of the Twin Towers collapse by accident. I don’t even own a TV.

I became even more sensitive after I worked for a newspaper in northern California and covered a few murders, tragic accidental deaths, and even travelled overseas to witness human suffering of a different kind in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. I once wrote a story about a brilliant Oscar-winning artist with mental illness who had committed suicide. Though not nearly as well known, it was a story not unlike what happened recently with Robin Williams’s own suicide. I was struck and saddened by the people who e-mailed or called and wanted to know how the man had taken his own life.

I hadn’t even asked, I told them.

I haven’t wanted to write too much publicly about the Investor case in large part because I didn’t want to succumb to the unnecessarily sensational. It has all the makings of a wild thriller movie and yet, there is nothing glorious or fantastic about what happened to those five men, one woman, and two young children. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to tell this important story. I’ve never been so vain to think that I could solve the case — or to find the missing puzzle pieces that eluded so many cops and attorneys. Obviously, there’s always the hope that by keeping a story alive, there is a chance that some new leaf will be turned over. I still have that hope and will continue to dig and see what gets uncovered.

As a writer, I’ve always known it was important to document events in our lives, especially as they are happening and when our memories are freshest. But when my own dad died at age 61 in 2009, I pretty much stopped writing altogether for a couple of years. During the week after his death, I tried without success to write about all that was going on around me. I tried to catalogue for memory’s sake the visitors, the conversations, the weird details that families go through during the days after a death. I knew I needed to remember these things. I knew I should write them down. Still, I couldn’t do it. I stubbornly refused to document what these weeks revealed, worried that somehow these final memories would overshadow all the other much warmer ones I held. I regret this now, but I understand.

I wish too that I had written more the past few years. Instead, I’ve done a whole lot of listening. And boy, do people have a lot to say. I worked for four years for Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Subsistence, traveling to villages, sitting at dozens of kitchen tables, and listening and learning from the Y-K Delta to the Beaufort Sea coast.

I have been trying to interview as many people as I can who remember the victims of the Investor, who remember the trials, the case, or that time in Alaska’s history.

All through this, I haven’t stopped thinking that the story of the eight who perished on the Investor 32 years ago continues to be important. The case is not resolved. There has been no closure for the communities, the families and friends of the victims, the fishermen and women of the Pacific Northwest. There has been no closure even for the numerous detectives, lawyers, and others who worked the case for years. I have heard frustration, sadness, anger, and bitterness in the voices of dozens of individuals.

My investigation thus far has revealed way more questions than answers. My efforts have been frustrated by distance, an overwhelming number of documents, confusing and contradictory story lines, and people who don’t want to trust me. But I am also slowly peeling back layers. I am finding some answers.

And I am continuing to believe that by keeping the story from being forgotten, one by one, my questions will be answered.

Portrait of Outhouse Life (disclaimer: nudity)

Portrait of Outhouse Life (disclaimer: nudity)

For five years now, I’ve lived without running water. It’s an interesting existence and not uncommon in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I haul water home in 5-gallon jugs. I collect rain water for my garden in the summer.

I heat water on my electric stove to wash my face or clean dishes.

I usually shower at the gym or the university or the laundromat or at a friend’s house, whichever seems more convenient.

It’s not necessarily an easy way to live, but there’s a simplicity in this kind of lifestyle.

And along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons:

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I appreciate more what I have than what I don’t have.

I’m less concerned about my looks.

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I know how to conserve. I live it every day.

I understand that some things, like washing dishes, just take time. I am patient.

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Sometimes it’s okay to use paper plates and paper coffee filters.

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Houses don’t need to be perfect to feel like home.

But sometimes a good cleaning makes everything seem brighter.

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Don’t neglect the small tasks in life, because they can catch up to you.

Always remember to check to see if the slop bucket needs to be emptied.

But if you forget, that’s okay. Messes can be cleaned up.

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Good friends don’t mind if I get naked at their homes. They understand.

Really good friends always have clean towels.

And body scrub.

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It’s okay to neglect yourself, but not others.

It’s time to go for a water run when the dog’s water dish is nearly empty.

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Warm water is cathartic and rejuvenating.

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Fancy things are really just fancy things.

You can’t put a price tag on the things that really matter.

Septic systems are expensive.

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Naked men make every experience better.

Naked women too.

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The dog will always want to go for another walk.

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.”

- Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers)

A shelter dog living the dream

A shelter dog living the dream

Anyone who knows me knows that (I think) I’ve got a very special dog. I’ve written about her some, but not too much. I think it’s about time I told her story. I adopted Sadie when she was just three months old. She’s almost 10 years old now, so we’ve been together for a long time.

When I adopted her, I was living in Nevada City, working as a reporter at the local daily newspaper, The Union. I wanted a dog in the same way that some people seem to want babies. The craving came out of the blue and I took it as a symbol of the inevitability of settling down (boy was I wrong).

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I decided I wanted a boxer. I have no idea why. Boxers seemed like a friendly breed with a sense of humor — and I liked the idea of a dog without too much hair. I scoured www.petfinder.com on a daily basis, keeping my eyes out for a boxer puppy.

On one bright day in August, there was a posting describing three boxer/blue heeler mix puppies. Was this my beast, I thought to myself? I drove  to the Nevada County Animal Shelter during my lunch break to become acquainted with the three pups. Sadie was among them — the only girl — and she went by the name Cheyenne.

In truth, I didn’t pay much attention to her; I was more drawn to her  brothers. One was brindle like her, the other had the fantastically exotic markings of a red heeler. They were bouncy and friendly, Sadie was a bit more reserved. I took her brothers out to play in the yard of the shelter. I was trying to choose one, hanging out to see if I’d bond with one over the other. Sadie was still inside, alone in her kennel.

Yes, I will admit it, Sadie wasn’t my first pick. It wasn’t love at first sight. But as it so happens every once in a while, she chose me.

Here’s how it happened:

I eventually brought the two boy pups back to the kennel and when I did, I opened the gate and walked inside, shutting it behind me before removing their leashes so they wouldn’t escape. Puppy love was everywhere, fur jumping up and down, kissing my face… I had to kneel down to remove the leashes and was swatting away ears and puppy teeth and everything else, it was like a mosh pit.

Suddenly, I looked down to see that the small girl dog had, ever so gently and politely, placed her head in my lap.

“Hi,” she said.

And with that, it was settled. She would be mine.

“I wanted a girl dog anyway,” I reasoned.

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The funny thing is, now nine and a half years later, I am still trying to figure out life, but Sadie seems to know what’s up all the time. Sometimes I find this a little annoying, but then I remember that I’m 35 and she’s almost 70 (in dog years anyway). She’s had a remarkable life for a dog.

Here are some of her achievements (and she’s not done yet!):

  • She has lived in Colorado, California, Alaska (and kindof Washington).
  • She has spent a total of about two weeks on Alaska Marine Highway ferries, but her tickets have only cost me a total of about $100.
  • She has travelled roughly 100,000 miles in a truck (this figure is based on the fact that I bought my Toyota Tacoma approximately 3 months before she was adopted and for the most part, she’s almost always my co-pilot).
  • She once sat upright and facing backwards the entire 300+ miles through Nevada.

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  • On multiple occasions, she has taken a dump outside when the temperatures were 45 degrees below zero.
  • She has an unusual reaction to the word, “cow,” because of a particular incident with a herd of cattle (we don’t talk about that incident).
  • She has lived about 3 months out of every year with other people.
  • She has spent about 3 nights of her life in a kennel. She was petrified, but not as badly as when….
  • … she went to jail on two separate occasions after run-ins with Animal Control.

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  • Sadie and her friend were once regulars at the Rendezvous Bar in downtown Juneau.
  • Sadie once took a crap in front of my former boss’s office — while he was watching her.
  • Sadie once got kicked out of doggy day care for playing too rough with her best friend.
  • She has accompanied me on several interviews during my investigation of an old unsolved murder.

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  • Sadie doesn’t care too much about playing fetch, but she likes to chase stuff. Fetch is a goofy game anyway.
  • She knows how to skijor, but pursues that hobby on her own time with her other friends.
  • She is commonly mistaken for being a wild animal.

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  • She tried to beat up a cop in Utah (she thought he was threatening me), but I held her back.
  • She’s been in two serious fights that landed her in the hospital with stitches.
  • She once leapt six feet off a deck and raced 50 feet across a yard to jump into a dog fight just for the thrill of the action.
  • She has been bear baiting and caribou hunting.
  • The only animal she has ever killed was a vole and it was an accident.
  • I’ve seen her get chased by a bird, a rabbit, a cat, a moose, and a bear.
  • When she got chased by a bear, she ran back toward me, turned around 20 feet from me, and stood her ground.
  • For the first 3 years of her life, whenever she saw another dog, she hid behind my legs.
  • One of her best friends, Ladakh, taught her not to be afraidof dogs anymore. Sadie taught Ladakh not to be afraid of people.

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  • When my niece, Zizi, was a newborn, Sadie never left her side — except when Zizi cried and Sadie would hide in the bathroom.
  • When my niece Sophie was a baby, Sadie slept outside the door of the room where Sophie took a nap.
  • When I once moved across town, Sadie travelled all the way back to our old house (bringing a friend with her). It was a distance of about 7 miles.

And one of my favorites:

  • Unbeknownst  to me, for a while Sadie would accompany an old man with a cane on his daily walks. I saw her with him once and he told me that she always kept him company for about a block of his walk. He said it was the best part of his day.

But my absolute favorite:

  • Her favorite phrase is: “good morning,” which Sadie translates roughly as “I’m going to rub your belly.”

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