TANANA, Alaska — An argument over a $150 couch and frustrations about tribal sovereignty among a small group of Tanana residents played a role in the buildup to the fatal shooting of two Alaska State Troopers on Thursday.
The bodies of the 15th and 16th Alaska State Troopers to die in the line of duty were flown from Tanana to Anchorage on Friday and the first of two suspects arrested in association with their deaths appeared in court in Fairbanks.
Trooper Sgt. Patrick "Scott" Johnson and Trooper Gabriel "Gabe" Rich were half of a four-member Fairbanks-based rural unit that covers 23 Interior Alaska villages in an area that extends as far west as Kaltag. They were providing backup to the village of Tanana's lone law enforcement officer Thursday when they were shot inside a home along the Yukon River, according to troopers' account of the the shooting.
A father and son were arrested on charges related to the killing Thursday evening. First, alleged killer 19-year-old Nathanial "Natch" Lee Kangas was arrested. Arvin Morse Kangas, 58, turned himself in at about 10:30 p.m. Thursday following a standoff with a SWAT-style trooper unit.
Arvin Kangas was arraigned Friday on misdemeanor charges of assault and driving with a revoked license that are related to his clash with Village Public Safety Officer Sgt. Mark Haglin on Wednesday. That encounter led Johnson and Rich to fly to Tanana on Thursday as reinforcements.
According to court charging documents, at about 9:15 p.m. Wednesday, Arvin Kangas allegedly became enraged about the sale of a sofa between a mother and daughter in the village. One of the women called Haglin, and said she was afraid Kangas was going to break into her daughter's home to retrieve the sofa.
When Haglin later saw Kangas driving near the daughter's home, the officer reportedly tried to stop the vehicle. Kangas responded with a profanity and told Haglin he had no jurisdiction to stop him.
Kangas motioned for Haglin to approach him, but the VPSO declined.
"Kangas' behavior and comments placed me in fear of being assaulted and injured if I continued to investigate this matter," Haglin stated in the charging documents.
Haglin said he told Kangas to drive his vehicle home and park it for the night, but he passed the white station wagon Kangas had been driving about 15 minutes later.
When he approached Kangas' residence to follow up, Haglin said he saw Kangas exit the building and start to sit down on a chair while pointing rapidly to a shotgun. Haglin said he left the area "in fear of being shot," leading to the call for backup by troopers to serve an arrest warrant.
Rich and Johnson flew into the community of about 238 residents on Thursday. Tanana, 130 miles west of Fairbanks, is not on the road system and is accessible only by boat and air. They were killed not long after arriving.
Details of the shootings Thursday weren't included in the court documents, but a news release from Alaska State Trooper Director Col. James Cockrell said Johnson and Rich were shot while attempting to place Arvin Kangas under arrest.
The release said a struggle ensued after the troopers contacted Arvin Kangas near the front door of his residence, resulting in the three men entering the home. While inside, it's believed that Nathanial Kangas shot and killed the troopers with a semi-automatic rifle, Cockrell stated.
A dozen troopers filled the courtroom for Arvin Kangas' arraignment Friday, departing soon after Kangas offered a plea of not guilty. Kangas reportedly has 10 previous criminal convictions, including a pair of assaults. His most recent conviction was in 2012 on a driving under the influence charge.
Speaking by video from Fairbanks Correctional Center, Kangas interrupted to protest when Magistrate Judge Alicemarie Rasley set his next court appearance for June 25 in Galena.
"No, in Tanana," Kangas said, arguing that Galena wasn't an appropriate location.
Gary Albert, a seasonal firefighter and friend of the Kangas family, said Friday he wasn't surprised by the news of the confrontation. Along with Arvin, Albert said he is a member of an organization called "The Athabascan Nation," which considers state of Alaska law enforcement an affront to Native Alaska sovereignty.
"We haven't ever been conquered and we ain't going to feel like we're conquered," he said.
Despite this week's events and his confrontational rhetoric, armed struggle is not the main activity for the group's 44 members in Alaska, he said. They instead distribute pamphlets and are looking for a lawyer to sue the state, he said. He dismissed the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the consortium of Athabascan tribal organization that routinely criticizes the state over subsistence, legal and other issues as being too connected to the state.
The head of Tanana's tribal government described Albert and the Kangas men Friday as part of a group of four "troublemakers."
Lester Erhart, chief of the Tanana Tribal Council, said it's difficult for a small community to deal with criminals, and it has gotten more difficult.
"Years ago when somebody was a troublemaker around, boom, you've got to go," he said. "Now the law sticks up for them. I don't think that's right."
Erhart didn't have much patience for Albert's "Athabascan Nation" group.
"He's been smoking too much of whatever he's got," he said.
Some parts of life were back to normal Friday in Tanana after Thursday's shooting. Students who had a lockdown Thursday afternoon were back to school. An already-planned funeral service for a town elder went as scheduled.
Tanana is built near the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers. It has long been a trading center and more than 20 years ago a regional hospital was located there.
The crime scene is a red single-story building with a metal roof next to the community hall on Front Street, which borders the Yukon River. While the ice has already melted out on the Tanana and water was just beginning to erode the sides of the iced-over Yukon.
On Friday morning, troopers had Front Street blocked off and about a half dozen men were unloading black garbage bags from the community hall and putting them in a village public safety officer van. One man carried a long gun.
Before noon, troopers had reopened the street and taken down all the police tape around the home. Two trooper Cessna Caravans left the airstrip but at least a half-dozen troopers and village public safety officers remained in town.
Charlie Campbell, a 33-year-resident of Tanana who was biking near the crime scene Friday afternoon, said it's sad to see his town in the news for this week's events. He said he moved to Tanana when he was in his 20s out of a sense of adventure and thinks of it as a place where people stop you in the street to wish you a happy birthday.
"I like living here because people are good-hearted," he said. "It's distressing for me for people to think of Tanana as a bad place."
The only other homicide in the community he knows of occurred in the 1980s, he said.
Tribal Administrator Shannon Erhart posted a written statement on a community message board Friday from the Tanana Tribal Council. Many Tanana residents were attending a burial ceremony that afternoon for community elder Lois Starr.
"This is a very sad day for our community of Tanana. Our hearts go out to the two fallen Alaska State Troopers ..." it stated.
"We have to continue with our plans to bury our mother/grandmother/auntie today, and we ask that you respect our community as we continue with this loss."
Nathanial Lee Kangas is expected to be arraigned Saturday. No charges had been filed against him by Friday evening, but anticipated charges include two counts of first-degree murder and a third-degree assault charge, according to Cockrell with the Alaska State Troopers.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcrime. Staff writer Jeff Richardson contributed to this report.