With a surge in vehicle thefts in Anchorage, some residents are taking matters into their own hands.
One group mobilizing through Facebook is reuniting stolen vehicles with their owners. Members of the A Team, as they call themselves, say they are filling a void left by overworked police.
Anchorage police, though, say the A Team has raised concerns about vigilantism that has the potential to be unsafe for its members and the public.
On a recent afternoon, the A Team watched over a stolen pickup in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes on Cobblecreek Circle, waiting for police officers to arrive.
“We’ve been sitting on a stolen Chevy truck that was stolen last night, early this morning,” Floyd Hall, the heart of the A Team, said.
Hall, 52, sports a dark gray beard and a baseball cap. Some call him a hero. Others say he’s a vigilante. Either way, he’s got this down to a science.
“We’re sitting across the cul-de-sac from it, so we try to stay in sight of it, so we can watch it,” Hall said.
There are only five people on the A Team — the A stands for Anchorage, by the way — but many, many more people feed them tips via Facebook. There is plenty to keep them busy: Police say there have been more than 2,000 stolen vehicles in Anchorage so far this year, already surpassing the number stolen last year and more than double previous years.
The A Team has recovered about 30 vehicles in the past 18 months or so, Hall said.
The case of the maroon Chevy Silverado on Cobblecreek Circle is a perfect example of how the group works: The owner posted a photo of the pickup to the Facebook group “Stolen in Alaska.” Less than 24 hours later, a woman who follows the page saw it parked in front of her neighbor’s house. She called police and also, in her own post, let the Facebook group know.
The pickup’s owner saw the post and messaged Hall. Hall arrived a half-hour before the police, and since then has been “sitting” on it, as they say.
“If someone’s in it, we call APD, 911, and let ’em know it’s occupied, but most of the time they’re not occupied and we let ’em know that we’re close by watching,” Hall said.
Hall saw a man run away from the house earlier, he said, but the man is gone. By the time the police arrive, there was nobody for them police to question or arrest.
Hall was low-key, but it sounded like he’s been in some pretty hairy situations before.
“We try not to confront anybody. It’s about getting the vehicles back, you know? Let the cops confront the people,” Hall said.
But do confrontations happen?
“I was shot at, probably a month ago. But I had followed a stolen vehicle,” Hall said.
As Hall was talking, an officer walked over to his fellow A Team member, Chad Martin. The officers reminded Martin that, by law, he was supposed to tell them about his handgun, the one in a holster on his hip.
“What I want, just put you hands on the car for me,” the officer said. “I’m just going to take that firearm off you for right now, OK? Because you know you’re supposed to tell us about it.”
“I forgot,” Martin said.
Police Sgt. Jason Allen took Martin about 20 feet away from Hall to talk. Martin seemed confused.
“What’s this all about sir?” Martin asked.
“I’m a little concerned about your group. And about the fact that you guys are armed and you’re not notifying police officers about it,” Allen told Martin.
The discussion goes on for a few minutes, and Sgt. Allen eventually let Martin off with a warning.
Their conversation, though, got at something bigger. Remember the car chase Hall described? Well, the only charges in that case are for reckless driving, and they’re filed against him.
According to the charges, Hall chased the car going more than 60 mph in a 25 mph zone on a one-way street, heading the wrong way. It was near where a kids’ soccer team was practicing. The charges don’t mention any gunshots.
Still, that’s the conundrum with the A-Team: They’re helping get back stolen vehicles, but police say what they’re doing is risky for themselves and innocent bystanders.
After he said all this to Martin, Sgt. Allen refused an interview request. But Police Chief Justin Doll sat down for an interview later.
“Chasing down suspects is not helpful. It actually, in a lot of ways, creates a lot more work for the police department,” Doll said.
Doll said he understands the frustration over vehicle thefts and why people might support what the A Team is doing.
“But I don’t think that support’s going to last if one of those people hurts or kills some innocent people who are going about their daily routine and aren’t involved at all,” Doll said.
Tips on stolen vehicles or other property should be sent to the police, so they can handle it, Doll said.
The department is growing its ranks, Doll said, and that’s aimed at least in part at decreasing response times. Still, he said, even with more officers on the streets, police will always respond to crimes that threaten people before crimes that threaten property.
“I get that,” Hall said. “I’d rather them go to be on a shooting or a domestic violence (call) than an unoccupied stolen vehicle. They’re doing what they can, you know. I’ve got nothing against APD. They’re great guys. They’re doing their jobs.”
But, Hall said the police simply cannot keep up with the volume of stolen cars and trucks.
Why does Hall feel like he’s the one that needs to do this?
“Why not? You know, I mean, do what you can. I was raised to do what’s right, I guess,” Hall said.
The Acilquq Dance Group performing an invitational song on stage to kick off the second day of this year’s Elders and Youth conference in Anchorage. The three-day gathering of more than a thousand people from across Alaska takes place just ahead of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention each fall.
Today heard a keynote address from Clare Swan, a Dena’ina Athabascan elder from the Kenaitze tribe on the Kenai Peninsula. Swan’s speech focused on the changes she’s seen in her lifetime, including the effects of commercial pressure on subsistence fishing, and population growth in Southcentral Alaska. In spite of immense changes, Swan told the younger generation much of their work remains the same as decades ago.
“While this world is very different, and being a teenager is very different from the time I was, we all walk the same paths,” Swan said. “And you guys, wherever you go, wherever you build – there’s a Dena’ina word, that’s susten. It means ‘breaking trail.’ You will always be breaking trail for the rest of the people to come.”
The conference held break-out sessions focused on regional and language issues, as well as workshops on topics as varied as moose-hid tanning and cedar weaving to suicide prevention and college prep advice.
The audience also heard about a change in security protocols at this year’s AFN, which kicks off Thursday. AFN board member Georgianna Lincoln said there will be metal detectors at the entrances of the downtown Dena’ina convention center.
“The board wanted us to have a safe, and productive convention, but one where we know we’re in a safe environment,” Lincoln said. “And unfortunately with what’s happening around the world outside of our native communities we often don’t see that.”The Ahtna Heritage Dancers performing at the start of Elders and Youth Day 2. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)
AFN’s Director of Communications Jeff Silverman clarified that the decision to install metal detectors was made by the Dena’ina Convention Center. He added the move isn’t a response to any specific threat, but was a “sign of the times.” Items prohibited will include explosives, alcohol, drug paraphernalia, as well as noise-makers, signs bigger than 14 inches and large objects that could be used for demonstrations. Though there will be exceptions for elders and artists entering the building, attendees are warned there could be long lines on Thursday morning.
Today also saw the launch of a new political group meant to bolster native influence in elections and legislation. The new entity, Native People Action, “aims to ensure traditional values are reflected in tribal, local, municipal, state and federal government.” Executive Director Grace Singh said part of the groups focus is mobilizing new voters on issues of public safety, education and aspects of traditional life like subsistence — as well as providing information to voters ahead of the 2018 elections.
The 34th annual Elders and Youth conference wraps up Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan has hired Larry Burton as Chief of Staff. Burton grew up in Alaska and worked in the offices of Congressman Don Young and the late senator Ted Stevens, as well as in the executive branch. He also worked for BP for 17 years.
Sullivan said Burton is well versed in Alaska issues and also understands Washington, D.C. Burton replaces Joe Balash who has been nominated to be an Assistant Secretary of Interior.
President Trump has nominated an Arctic Slope Regional Corporation senior executive to be the assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs.
Tara MacLean Sweeney, if confirmed, would be the first Alaskan to serve in the position, which oversees the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education.
Her nomination has Alaska’s U.S. senators literally cheering.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski: “What a fabulous, fabulous nomination.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan: “Historic. Super-well qualified.”
Sweeney is a graduate of Barrow High School and Cornell University. She’s now Vice President of External Affairs for ASRC and a past co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives. Until this spring, Sweeney also chaired the Arctic Economic Council. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says Sweeney led international efforts on broadband and shipping.
“She is at a level as an Alaskan that is just enviable,” Murkowski said. “And I think, again, we could not have identified an individual who has a broader perspective including that of coming from the ANC (Alaska Native corporation) side.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan sees the nomination as part of a trend that will put Alaskans at the helm of critical agencies for the state. Sullivan points to Joe Balash, nominated to be an assistant Interior secretary with sway over public lands, oil and mining. Also, Chris Oliver, head of NOAA Fisheries. And now Sweeney.
“A big part of our job (as senators) is educating our colleagues and some of the federal agencies on unique aspects of Alaska,” Sullivan said. “Now we have Alaskans running these agencies for the country. And Tara Sweeney is going to be phenomenal.”
David Solomon, a Gwich’in activist from Fort Yukon, is happy, too.
“Oh it’s awesome,” Solomon said, outside the U.S. Capitol. “It’s good to see our Native leader be in the front line now. We’ve been recognized.”
Solomon was in Washington, D.C. to rally opposition in the Senate to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ASRC owns subsurface rights in the refuge and Sweeney has been a lead advocate in favor of drilling there. But Solomon takes a broader view and says Sweeney’s selection is good for Alaska Natives.
The position requires Senate confirmation.
The new PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynne Novak on the Vietnam War takes a look at a conflict fought decades ago that lives on for many veterans to this day. As part of the series, we’re looking at how Alaskans experienced the war.
Former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles enlisted in the Army during the mid-60s, just as the war began escalating. Knowles’ opinion of the war began to change after he returned to civilian life, and the parallels he sees in today’s conflict in Afghanistan.
In the early ’60s, most young men in America expected that at one point or another they’d be drafted into military service.
“After I got to college I proceeded to get kicked out, both for academic and disciplinary reasons,” Knowles said.(Photo courtesy of Tony Knowles)
During an interview with Alaska Public Media, Knowles said he was working on an oil rig in Colorado, and as winter started baring down he figured he might as well enlist.
“I’d always wanted to be a paratrooper, so I decided I’d join the Army, get in the paratrooper, and see the world,” Knowles said.
At 21 years old, Knowles served in an intelligence unit for the 82nd Airborne. He arrived in Vietnam in the fall of 1964, when there were only about ten thousand American military and civilian personnel in the country, serving mostly as advisers to the South Vietnamese. Knowles said his role was using satellite imagery, infrared, and other tools to figure out where to drop bombs.
“Initially what we were looking for was areas that could be bombed in the belief that we could win this war without committing a lot of ground troops,” Knowles said. “That didn’t turn out to be that successful.”
By the time Knowles’s tour was over, the military was gearing up for a very different kind of war in Vietnam. There were now 200,000 troops in the country, no longer just as advisers, but many directly fighting the North Vietnamese. Just as Knowles was leaving in the fall of 1965, a major operation in a combat zone revealed an extensive number of tunnels, caches of weapons, and enormous stores of food. Provisions for the enemy’s war effort. It made Knowles realize the Viet Cong were vastly more established than he’d been led to believe.(Photo courtesy of Tony Knowles)
“It really brought into question whether technology could win the war,” Knowles said. “And as we found out it didn’t.”
As he transitioned out of the military, Knowles felt his confidence in the military’s mission and the country’s infallibility erode. At that point in the mid-60s, the nation’s attitude toward the war wasn’t yet as polarized as it would eventually become. But back at college, Knowles said the information coming in through the media and from the government about the war’s progress didn’t mesh with what he’d seen personally during his deployment.
“It seemed to be that what you heard just didn’t represent the truth, so you said ‘well what are we doing there, and what is it doing to us with the Americans who are getting killed? How many Vietnamese were getting killed? And what is the purpose?’” Knowles said.
According to Knowles, what really changed the national opinion of the war was the draft. He said that spread skepticism across families in every part of the country, particularly when the lottery system was introduced in 1969.(Photo courtesy of Tony Knowles)
“You were gonna be drafted,” Knowles said. “And so that made people think ‘now why are we there, and why is my son or my brother or my father going to that war?’ Without that, it distances the public from what the military is doing.”
That distance is one of the reasons Knowles thinks the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan, which has eclipsed Vietnam as the longest-running conflict, has consumed the better part of two decades. Whereas draftees generally did one tour in Vietnam, today’s volunteer military is filled with a smaller number of people deploying to combat over and over.
“We have people, and I know friends, who have served three and four, five tours,” Knowles said. “So you have a military that the general public doesn’t think about very much because they don’t have cousins and relatives and uncles involved in that war. It’s just a much smaller group of people who are doing that.”
Knowles sees many of the mistakes of Vietnam being repeated in Afghanistan: an over-reliance on technology, working with a corrupt regime, and a murky sense of what troops are actually fighting for.
For more Alaska stories about the Vietnam War, visit Vietnam Echoes.
A member of Governor Bill Walker’s cabinet is taking a key position at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The agency confirmed Tuesday that Chris Hladick will become the regional administrator overseeing EPA’s work in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Hladick is currently commissioner for the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. The Walker administration announced that Hladick will step down from that post on November 1. He will take the reins at EPA Region 10 in December.
Before joining Walker’s cabinet, Hladick spent over two decades working for communities in rural Alaska. He was city manager for Dillingham, Unalaska and Galena.
While Hladick was Unalaska’s city manager, he was involved in reaching a settlement with EPA related to Clean Water Act violations from its wastewater treatment facility.
At EPA, Hladick will oversee regulation of a wide range of activities in the Northwest — from superfund sites to the proposed Pebble Mine.
Walker announced that outgoing Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre will take Hladick’s place.