Big news stories shook Chugiak-Eagle River in 2018
Several high-profile stories dominated the headlines in 2018 Chugiak-Eagle River, where a tragic bear mauling, a controversial court ruling and a powerful earthquake all made national news. There were also several big local stories that
drew attention throughout the year, including a much-barked-about dog park proposal, a ballyhooed bridge strike, a costly vandalism spree and an ongoing community discussion about crime.
There were also plenty of uplifting tales, from the case of a heroic husky on the Crow Pass trail to a community horse rescue in Chugiak.
From the good and the bad to the inspiring and uplifting, here’s a look at the stories that helped shape Chugiak-Eagle River in 2018:
Man shot by prowler
The New Year got off to a violent start when a man was shot by a prowler in Eagle River on Jan. 4. Police said Jesse Basler went outside after hearing a noise and was shot by a man tampering with his vehicle. He survived, but suffered serious injuries that required hospitalization and expensive medical bills. Police sought two suspects in the case but no arrests were made as of the end of the year.
Binkley Company buys Star
The Binkley Company, which in 2017 purchased the Anchorage Daily News, announced it had bought the Chugiak-Eagle River Star (along with the Alaska Journal of Commerce and the Alaskan Equipment Trader) from Morris Communications. The sale meant the Star and ADN would share resources, according to company president Ryan Binkley. The Star, which was founded by Lee Jordan in 1972, was purchased by Morris in 2000.
Thomas sentenced for 2014 murder; eligible for parole in 14 years
Murderer David Thomas was sentenced to 75 years in prison with 25 suspended for the 2014 killing 19-year-old Linda Anne Martz Bower. However, due to his plea agreement, Thomas will be eligible for parole after serving 14 years of his sentence, which Bower’s parents said was unfair.
A March 21 bridge strike caused traffic chaos on the Glenn Highway as drivers endured hours of delays during the morning and afternoon commutes. Dubbed “Bridgepocalypse” on social media, the closure was caused when a too-tall 18-wheeler struck the overpass at Artillery Road. School start times were delayed and commuters missed work due to the traffic standstill, which was cleared up by the weekend.
Parks board mulls new neighborhood dog parks
In the first of several public meetings on the topic, the Eagle River-Chugiak Parks and Recreation board discussed in April an idea to bring dog parks to municipal parks at Fire House Lane and in Peters Creek.
While the board was enthusiastic about the proposals, the public was not — at least in the case of the Fire House Lane location. In a replay of a 2013 proposal to build a skate park at the municipal-owned land, neighborhood residents rose up at subsequent public meetings and effectively killed the proposal. As of the end of the year, the parks board had scuttled plans to build a dog park on Fire House Lane, though the Peters Creek location was still on the table.
Saylor wins second straight state spelling bee
Mirror Lake Middle School 7th grader Josh Saylor correctly spelled “pompier” to claim his second straight Alaska State Spelling Bee.
Students join national walkout on Columbine anniversary
Students at Chugiak and Eagle River High Schools staged a walkout to coincide with a national school walkout on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. The walkouts were brief, and no students left campus, said principals at the two schools. The walkouts spurred some discussion and debate about gun control but were peaceful in nature.
Salvation Army thrift store leaves Eagle River
After just a year back in Eagle River, the Salvation Army thrift store announced it was again leaving Eagle River. The store on Business Boulevard closed in April out of a need to provide more direct services to its clients, according to the nonprofit. The Salvation Army previously closed its thrift store in Eagle River in 2012, then opened at a new location in 2017.
Eagle River principal leaving for district office
Eagle River principal Marty Lang announced he would be leaving ERHS at the end of the school year to take a job as deputy director of secondary education for the Anchorage School District. Lang had been principal since the 2011-12 school year and had been a teacher at ERHS since the school opened in 2005. In June, Lang was replaced by Tim Helvey, who had been an assistant principal at Chugiak High.
Pepper-spray suspect caught in Eagle River
A man wanted in a high-profile pepper-spray attack was arrested above Tips Bar in Eagle River in April. According to police, Bret Maness attacked a group of people gathered at the Church of Love in Spenard. He was taken into custody without incident.
22-year-old JBER soldier killed in action
Spc. Gabriel David Conde, a 22-year-old infantryman from Loveland, Colorado with the Army’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, was killed by small arms fire on April 30 while serving in Afghanistan.
Aggressive brown bear shot near Beach Lake
Foreshadowing the bloody summer to come, a brown bear was shot at the Birchwood Camp in Chugiak on May 1 after breaking into a family’s chicken coop and killing 22 chickens and a goat. The shooting of the sow by state biologists was the first of a record number of bear killings in the Chugiak-Eagle River area due to defense of life and property, including several incidents in which bears were shot after breaking into trash cans or vehicles.
Vandalism sprees cause major damage
Teen vandals caused tens of thousands of dollars during a pair of vandalism sprees that lasted into late June. The first vandal hit the McDonald Center and Fire Lake Elementary multiple times in March, April and May before being caught in June. Police did not identify the teen because of his age.
The vandalism was the first of two major incidents in the spring and summer, including an incident at Alpenglow Elementary where a teen boy caused an estimated $100,000 in damage by smashing windows and electronic equipment. The vandal was also not identified.
MacKinnon decides not to seek re-election
Sen. Anna MacKinnon, a Republican representing Eagle River, announced in June she would not seek re-election, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family. In November, Lora Reinbold was elected to replace MacKinnon.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Nancy Dahlstrom was elected to replace MacKinnon; Dalstrom was elected to the State House (see below).
Eagle River soldier accused of raping 9-year-old
A 33-year-old Army medic named Jeremiah S. Gettler was arrested on first-degree sex assault of a minor charges after he was caught on video assaulting a 9-year-old girl, police said in June. As of year’s end, Gettler remained incarcerated while awaiting trial.
Ski area gets to keep taps flowing
Arctic Valley ski area faced a potential disruption to its apres ski scene when the Alaska Alcohol Beverage Control board nearly denied the resort a renewal for its beer and wine license in June. The license was opposed by Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office staff, who said it didn’t fit within the definition of a “recreational” license. However, at a subsequent August meeting the board voted to renew the license.
Eagle River man killed, searcher mauled by brown bear
Tragedy struck South Fork in late June when 44-year-old Michael Soltis was killed by a brown bear and a man searching for him was injured. Soltis was last heard from on June 18 after presumably leaving his home on Hiland Road for an evening hike. Two days later, Soltis’s body was discovered when a search party was attacked by a brown bear defending the kill. The second man survived the attack.
The maulings set off a massive search for the bear that included DNA testing and periodic closures of area hiking trails, but state biologists were unable to find the animal believed to have killed Soltis and injured the man searching for him.
Bear Paw attracts thousands
Another successful Bear Paw Festival was held in mid July in downtown Eagle River, with an estimated 40,000 attendees during the four-day festival.
Air Force colonel becomes JBER’s first female commander
Air Force Col. Patricia Csank made Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson history in July when she became the first female commander in the history of the joint base near Eagle River.
Alaskan husky helps hiker on Crow Pass Trail
A husky named “Nanook” was credited with helping a young deaf woman out of a difficult situation on the Crow Pass Trail in July. Amelia Milling, a 21-year-old college student from Tennessee, said the dog pulled her from the water and helped guide her to safety after Milling fell and lost her way on the rugged trail through the Chugach Mountains. Nanook’s owner, who lives in Girdwood, said the dog frequently joins hikers on the trek.
Rock kills 8-year-old Eagle River boy
A freak accident claimed the life of 8-year-old Noah Schwebach on July 19 when the vehicle he was riding in was struck by a rock on the Sterling Highway. According to Alaska State Troopers, the Eagle River boy was in the back seat of his family’s car when a rock rolled off a truck in a construction zone and crashed through the front windshield, killing him instantly. Officials initially said the truck the rock fell from had been tentatively identified, but a responsible party was never publicly named and no charges were filed in the case.
Eagle River man killed in motorcycle crash
A fiery motorcycle crash near the intersection of the Old Glenn Highway and Artillery Road claimed the life of a 56-year-old Eagle River man on July 21. According to police, Joe Carlos died after he struck a pickup truck and his motorcycle burst into flames.
Chugiak family’s life turned upside down by brazen burglary
A Chugiak family that left on a July 4 vacation to Seward returned home to find their home had been burglarized by a man caught on video carrying a gun up the family’s driveway. The family was in Seward for the holiday weekend and returned to find a car, television sets and jewelry had been stolen. The man seen walking up the driveway, Erik F. Donhauser-Sagmoen, 24, was later arrested at a property on nearby Sunnyside Drive.
In December, municipal authorities demolished two structures on the Sunnyside property after numerous complaints from neighbors about junked cars and criminal behavior at the notorious property, and residents hailed the demolition as a step in the right direction for the neighborhood.
Grand opening for new substance abuse center in Eklutna
An open house was held Aug. 2 for the Ernie Turner Center, an 11,526-square foot substance abuse and mental health treatment facility in Eklutna. The 16-bed facility was built through a partnership between Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Eklutna Inc.
Removal of diversion dam complete
A major step toward returning the Eklutna River to its natural state was taken in August with the completion of the removal of the old Eklutna River diversion dam. Built in 1929, the $7.5 million project to remove of the 61-foot concrete diversion dam was completed through a partnership between the Native Village of Eklutna, Eklutna Inc., the Eklutna Native Corporation and the Nature Conservancy.
Furor erupts over plea deal
National controversy erupted after former Eagle River man Justin Schneider reached a plea deal that kept him out of prison for a brutal attack on an Anchorage woman in 2017. Schneider, a 34-year-old former air traffic controller, pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree sexual assault during a change-of-plea hearing in which he was sentenced to two years in jail with one year suspended. Combined with the year Schneider spent on house arrest, the deal allowed him to leave court a free man despite choking a woman and performing a sex act on her while she was unconscious. The deal attracted widespread media attention and resulted in the ouster of presiding judge Michael Corey in the November elections.
Community bands together to save horse stuck in swamp
“They’re all heroes,” said horse owner Michailia Massong after a group of good Samaritans helped rescue Massong’s 13-year-old American quarter horse from a swampy mud pit in Chugiak. The horse got stuck during a ride and was getting cold and tired when a dozen or so helpers arrived, including a septic tank company with an excavator, the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department and concerned neighbors.
Locals speak out against veterans housing proposal
A proposal by Ric Davidge of the Alaska Veterans Foundation to house homeless veterans off HIland Road got a chilly reception at a meeting of the South Fork Community Council in September. Davidge’s as-yet-unfunded plan was criticized as ill-advised and poorly located, with residents pointing out the proximity of Davidge’s preferred location to the nearby dump and artillery ranges, as well as his failure to secure the land itself from the federal government.
New police shooting range opens in Birchwood
The Ted R. Smith Tactical Training Facility for Law Enforcement opened under sunny skies during a grand opening ceremony on Sept. 12. The new 22-acre facility near the Birchwood Airport was completed at a cost of $8.2 million in state grants.
Former youth hockey treasurer sentenced for embezzlement
Jennifer Suchan, the hockey mom charged with stealing more than $150,000 from the Mustang Hockey Association while serving as volunteer treasurer, reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors on two counts of wire fraud. Suchan — who prosecutors said spent the money to pay for things like family vacations, car payments, mortgage payments and a chicken coop — was sentenced to 14 months in prison and agreed to pay $170,353 in restitution to the local hockey association.
Ed Willis dies at 94
Ed Willis, who represented Chugiak-Eagle River in both the Alaska Legislature and the Anchorage Assembly, died on Oct. 8 at the age of 94.
Chugiak-Eagle River begins exploring cemetery ideas
A proposal to bring a cemetery to the Chugiak-Eagle River area gained some momentum in 2018 after Girdwood’s Tommy O’Malley proposed joining with that community to support a possible future bond proposal. Girdwood’s cemetery plans are much further along, but O’Malley has suggested Chugiak-Eagle River area could also explore the idea, which would potentially make the joint proposals more attractive to municipalwide voters. Several community councils have expressed an interest in discussing the idea further.
Republican women went 4-for-4 on election night, with Rep. Cathy Tilton (House District 12), Nancy Dahlstrom (House District 13), Kelly Merrick (House District 14), and Rep. Lora Reinbold (Senate District G) all winning their elections by wide margins over their Democratic rivals. In December, Dahlstrom announced she would not take office and local Republicans chose a list of three candidates to replace her. Gov. Mike Dunleavy — a Republican who easily defeated Democrat Mark Begich in the general election — appointed Eagle River’s Sharon Jackson to replace Dahlstrom in the Alaska State House.
Demboski leaves assembly
Assemblywoman Amy Demboski of Chugiak announced in November she was stepping down from her post to become a deputy chief of staff for Gov. Dunleavy. First elected in 2013 after serving as president of the Chugiak Community Council, Demboski was an outspoken backer of Dunleavy’s campaign. She said she hoped to serve as a pipeline of information between the governor’s office and the municipality. In December, Gretchen Wehmhoff — a retired teacher from Birchwood who has run several unsuccessful campaigns for public office — was appointed to serve out the duration of Demboski’s term, which expires in April of 2019.
Earthquake rocks Eagle River
The biggest news story of 2019 happened at a time now etched in the memories of anyone in Southcentral Alaska. On Nov. 30 at 8:29 a.m., the most powerful quake to strike the area since 1964 rocked the area and caused widespread damage in Eagle River. Although the magnitude 7.0 quake resulted in no fatalities, there were several injuries and close-calls, including an Eagle River man who survived a house collapse and a basketball coach who fell off a ladder while trying to extinguish a chimney fire. But the effects of the quake were truly felt in the days and weeks after as the extent of the damage became clear, including businesses forced to close for weeks or months, partially collapsed roofs, homes with severe structural damage and two area schools — Gruening Middle and Eagle River Elementary — closed for the year.
Christmas spirit returns to Eagle River
The big earthquake forced the annual Winter Wonderland and Merry Merchant Munch celebrations to be cancelled, but the Wonderland was eventually held in mid-December, with Santa Claus arriving in Town Square Park and the annual Christmas tree lighting.
Some random cheer was also spread at the Ealge River Walmart, where shoppers reported someone had paid off their Christmas gifts. According to a company official, someone did indeed pay off about $500 worth of toys on layaway, but didn’t give their name.