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Botched mushing trip: Key witness still lacks details about trial

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Posted: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 12:14 am | Updated: 6:37 am, Tue Apr 23, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — It’s been more than a year since Todd Surloff and his wife, Chontica Tanapornsakul, of Georgia, barely survived a guided mushing trip gone bad in the White Mountains National Recreation Area, and more than nine months since the state filed criminal charges against the two guides they hired.

Peggy Billingsley, 49, and Darrell Harpham, 48, of Fairbanks, each were charged with reckless endangerment back in July, but the case has yet to go to trial and Surloff, a chiropractor from Atlanta, is beginning to wonder if it ever will.

Try as he might via phone messages and emails, Surloff said he can’t find out what is going on with the case and has been told he will have to pay his own way to Alaska to testify in the case, in which he is the key witness, or the charges probably will be dropped.

“I’m extremely frustrated,” Surloff said Monday by phone from Atlanta.

Tanapornsakul ended up in the hospital with hypothermia and frostbite after the ordeal and Surloff said all he wants to do is recoup $3,500 in medical expenses. The two Georgia tourists went on an overnight trip to a cabin in the White Mountains with Billingsley and Harpham in March of last year.

Harpham and Tanapornsakul were each mushing a team of dogs 20 miles back out to the Elliott Highway trailhead  when Harpham, who was in the front, became separated from Tanapornsakul, a 29-year-old woman from Thailand who had never mushed dogs before. Harpham continued to the trailhead at 27 Mile of the Elliott Highway while Tanapornsakul ended up getting lost and stranded on the trail for several hours.

Alaska State Troopers found a hypothermic Tanapornsakul, who had only a light parka, “barely breathing and unconscious” inside her sled about five miles from the trailhead. She was transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and treated for severe hypothermia and frostbite.

In charging documents filed in July, troopers said Harpham and Billingsley weren’t prepared and didn’t provide the two novice mushers with the proper survival gear for the trip. The two guides, meanwhile, blamed the mushing inexperience of Surloff and Tanapornsakul for the problems. The pair had never mushed dogs before coming to Alaska.

According to Surloff, the assistant district attorney handling the case for the state, Scott Mattern, told him “if you don’t show up we’ll probably dismiss the charges.”

That’s assuming the case ever gets to that point. So far it’s been “delay after delay and continuance after continuance,” Surloff said. The case has been delayed or continued at least a dozen times, he said.

A status hearing scheduled for today was rescheduled for Thursday, and lawyers for Billingsley and Harpham still are requesting evidence from the state in the case. At an evidentiary hearing two weeks ago, defense lawyers asked the court to subpoena a Bureau of Land Management ranger who interviewed Surloff after the trip, to get his testimony. The ranger is scheduled to appear in court sometime this week.

Mattern did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls from the News-Miner regarding the case. Surloff said he has talked to Mattern only once, despite leaving repeated phone messages. Different people in the district attorney’s office had told him different things about whether the state will foot the bill for him to come to Alaska to testify, Surloff said.

“I can’t get a straight answer,” he said. “Some people in the district attorney’s office have told me (the state) will pay to fly me up and some have said they won’t.”

“It’s almost like they’re trying to beat me into attrition,” Surloff said. “Nobody gets back to me. They don’t care because this case doesn’t effect them one way or another.”

But Surloff said he’s not going to drop it, even if he has to spend another $1,500 to fly to Alaska to testify, because he wants the two guides held accountable for abandoning his wife on the trail.

“If you’re a guide and you have one person to watch and you don’t know where they’ve been for 10 hours, you’ve failed,” Surloff said.

Any money he spends or loses as a result of lost wages to return to Alaska to testify in a trial will be added to the restitution amount, he said.

“This whole thing is about me collecting restitution for the medical bills they caused,” Surloff said. “I’m not trying to stick it to anybody. Nobody would pay to go to Alaska to go on a dog sledding trip so they can spend $3,500 to stay in the hospital.”

The two guides did not have a Bureau of Land Management permit to guide trips in the White Mountains but so far have not been cited by the federal agency, said ranger Jonathan Priday, the one who was subpoenaed to appear in court this week.

“We’re going to wait and see how things work out with state case before moving forward,” Priday said. “Depending on the outcome of that we’ll make a decision (on a fine).”

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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