Major search effort triggered by soldiers' brawl

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 - 20:00
Nearly 50 people respond after South Fork trip turns violent

A fight between a trio of soldiers on an early October camping trip up the South Fork Eagle River Valley ended with one in jail and another wandering, injured and alone in miserable weather, with a massive search underway.

The victim eventually emerged early the next afternoon, dazed and suffering from head injuries and mild hypothermia, searchers said. An Alaska State Troopers helicopter lifted him to safety.

But the incident that began Oct. 1 and ended the next day triggered a grueling 12-hour search that ultimately required the services of six trained dogs and 49 people — volunteer mountain rescuers, Anchorage police and ambulance responders, troopers, ski patrollers, a few local residents and eight people from the soldier’s unit.

Six inches of snow lay on the ground. Gale-force winds howled all morning.

“This was maybe as bad a weather as we’ve gone out and searched all night in,” said the search’s incident commander, Bill Laxson, with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group. “The winds were blowing our folks off our feet, gusts were just knocking them off their feet.” And to think the whole thing started with a little R&R.

The trio of soldiers pitched their tent about six miles up the scenic valley, at Eagle Lake, on Oct. 1, according to police and search officials.

The men began drinking, said police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker. At some point, 22-year-old Ross Purkis, stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, began assaulting one of his companions, a 27-year-old soldier also stationed at the base who was not identified. A third soldier, also unidentified, tried to intervene but left when Purkis turned on him and ran back to the trailhead to get help, police and search officials said.

Purkis emerged separately and was arrested at the trailhead and lodged at Anchorage Jail without bail, Parker said.

The victim, however, remained out there somewhere.

The men all serve in the 725th Support Battalion (Airborne), a unit of the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. The 4-25 is scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan next month.

A spokesman for U.S. Army Alaska said civilian law enforcement authorities are handling the criminal case.

The public defender representing Purkis did not return calls for comment. A judge eventually set his bail at $1,000 and Purkis apparently bailed out on Oct. 5, according to a state courts database. Nobody could say what started the fight.

The details of the search provide the only reasonably clear part of the story.

The Mountain Rescue Group got the call at 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 1: a man — maybe unconscious, maybe just disoriented — was last seen somewhere in the upper valley at a campsite by Eagle Lake.

At 2 a.m., a team of seven mountain rescue members and a trooper left the trailhead and headed out to search, said Laxson.

He was immediately bedeviled by a lack of reliable information.

The last person to see the victim was in jail. The soldier who ran for help got to the South Fork trailhead, called from a nearby resident’s phone, and took off, Laxson said.

He put that first team of experienced searchers on the ground to find the campsite, look for tracks and find the missing man fast. But it was dark and there was so much refuse and abandoned camping gear in the area from prior visitors that no clues turned up.

To find the tent, searchers ended up calling the third soldier — the one who ran for help — after getting permission from his commander, Laxson said. It was 11 a.m. on Oct. 2 before the search team tracked that soldier down. Then he got permission to return to the trailhead and pinpoint the tent’s location.

Searchers at the site found the tent, found tracks leading away. A few hours later, at about 1:30 p.m., a search-dog team found the victim — in the middle of a trail that three separate search teams had traversed in the course of the mission, Laxson said. The man was about halfway back to the trailhead.

He complained of being dizzy. His head hurt.

“He claims to not remember how he got there or remember anything beyond being assaulted and lying face down in the snow at the edge of the lake,” Laxson said.

But he’s not sure the soldiers told the whole story. For one thing, searchers found some puzzling clues: a backpack along a trail that disappeared during the course of the mission; tracks that appeared in the middle of the search.

“The guy admitted that he’d seen or heard people passing in the night,” Laxson said.

He said he could only speculate as to why the victim didn’t call out. Hypothermia does strange things to people, sometimes prompting them to run from searchers, though that’s usually the case with younger victims. Maybe the soldier thought the voices he heard belonged to his assailant, returning to finish him off. Maybe he didn’t want to return to base and face military repercussions.

Laxson said that by noon — an hour before the man showed up — search leaders were starting to think about gearing up for an even bigger operation after finding nothing even after four hours of daylight.

“You’re starting to think he really is down, and he’s under the snow and I need to put lots of people in the field,” he said. “At the command level we were beginning to plan for a very major operation.”

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