FAIRBANKS — “Undetermined” remains the word in the case of Johnny Wallis, a homeless Fairbanks man who died Saturday from burns suffered New Year’s Day in the hallway of the Barnette Street post office.
Local government and Native leaders held a press conference Thursday afternoon at Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall to update the community on the case and to promise a thorough investigation.
Although questions still outnumber answers, there were a few announcements at the press conference. A taxi driver passing by the post office about 20 minutes before the fire reported seeing two people in the hallway, Assistant Police Chief Brad Johnson said. The fire was reported about 5:50 p.m.
by a customer checking a post office box.
“One person was lying down and one was sitting up,” Johnson said, reading from a prepared statement. “The description was very general: Native males in dark clothing.”
Video cameras inside the post office won’t help the investigation, Johnson said; none of them records the area where Wallis was found. Investigators are asking anyone who might know who was in the post office to call police at 450-6500 or the fire department at 450-6615.
Several speakers at Thursday’s event talked about bringing the responsible party to justice, but Wallis’ death is considered a “suspicious” death rather than a homicide. It is not known if any fire accelerant was found on his body, and there has been no confirmation the burns were the cause of death, Johnson said.
Police are waiting for an autopsy from the King County, Wash., medical examiner.
“We don’t know if it was intentionally set (or) if it accidentally occurred. It was certainly suspicious. We can’t account for it right now,” Johnson said.
He said after the news conference that Wallis died before police in Alaska or Washington were able to ask him about the fire.
Fairbanks city and borough mayors, the executive director of Fairbanks Native Association and the president of Doyon, Limited spoke on a common theme before police answered questions. They asked for patience with the investigation and said it is unacceptable for a brutal death like Wallis’ to go unexplained.
“Nobody deserves to die in that fashion,” said Jerry Isaac, president of Tanana Chiefs Conference. “The only way we can minimize tragedies like this and atrocities that happen to our fellow man is to bind together.”
The press conference followed a fundraiser for Wallis’ family at the tribal hall. Audience members applauded the community leaders’ commitment to the investigation but also expressed skepticism.
“I hope they don’t brush this under the table like they’ve brushed other things under the table before,” Fairbanks resident Daisy Stevens said after the conference. “I really want to see this resolved.”
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime.