FAIRBANKS—The first day of testimony in the Nathanial Kangas murder trial started Monday morning, with both sides presenting opening arguments to a packed and tense courtroom.
Kangas is accused of fatally shooting Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Scott Johnson and Trooper Gabe Rich in the village of Tanana on May 1, 2014 while they were trying to arrest his father, Arvin Kangas, for threatening Village Public Safety Officer Mark Haglin.
District Attorney Greggory Olson summarized the events of that day and told the jury they should find Nathanial Kangas guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, one count of third-degree assault and four counts of tampering with physical evidence. Defense attorney Greg Parvin told jurors Nathanial Kangas did indeed shoot and kill both troopers, but he said they should not find him guilty of the crimes he was charged with.
"There’s no question Nathanial Kangas pulled the trigger that killed those two officers. It was not his intent. What he did was impulsive, reactionary, without forethought, without any thought," Parvin said.
Haglin, the first witness called to the stand, recounted the events leading up to the killing.
The night before the shooting Haglin got a call from a woman who said Arvin Kangas had come to her house and tried to argue with her about a couch he sold her daughter. The woman told Haglin that Arvin drove off on an ATV and was drunk. Haglin responded and encountered Arvin driving down the road in a white station wagon.
Haglin said Arvin did not smell like alcohol but did have bloodshot, watery eyes and slurred speech. The encounter did not go well, Haglin said, because Arvin was instantly combative.
"The first thing out of his mouth was 'You don't have jurisdiction,' Haglin said.
Haglin chose to let Arvin go but later drove by his house. Arvin, who was sitting outside, locked eyes with Haglin while pointing at a nearby shotgun, Haglin said.
Haglin notified the Fairbanks trooper post and requested a warrant for Arvin's arrest. Johnson and Rich arrived the next afternoon and Haglin picked them up at the airstrip. They left the pilot, who was not a trooper, at Haglin's office while Haglin accompanied the troopers to Arvin's house. When they arrived they saw Nathanial run into the house.
The troopers explained the reason for their visit and tried to persuade Arvin to come with them peacefully. That's when Arvin called his wife, Judy, and asked her to come home from her job at the village school.
Things got worse when Judy arrived, Haglin said.
"She got him wound up even more. They were both yelling at the troopers. Arvin was hostile, not listening to reason. Very loud," Haglin said.
Judy went into the house to get Arvin's wallet, Haglin said, and Arvin declared he needed to go to the bathroom. He stood, unbuttoned his overalls, and the troopers tried to restrain him. They struggled and hit the front door, which opened, leaving the three men in a heap on the floor. After a brief struggle in which Rich warned Kangas he would use a stun-gun on him, Haglin heard loud popping noises he thought were firecrackers. He stepped into the house and saw that Johnson was dead.
Haglin said Nathanial then pointed the rifle, a Ruger mini-14, at him with "intense hatred in his eyes." Haglin turned his back because he didn't want to see the bullet that was going to kill him, then heard a commotion as Arvin struggled with Nathanial for the gun.
Haglin said he yelled for Rich because he thought he might still be alive, then ran from the house and drove back to his office to contact troopers in Fairbanks.
A makeshift posse
Haglin gave Rich's M-16 rifle to the pilot, whom he assumed was a trooper, and the two men went to the village clinic to get the physician's assistant, a retired Army veteran who had "a cache of weapons." The three men went to Arvin's house in hopes of helping Rich, but he was dead when they got there, Haglin said. The pilot and the physician's assistant cleared the house while Haglin stayed outside. Arvin and Nathanial were gone but Judy was still there, so they brought her outside and the three men went in search of Nathanial and Arvin.
Nathanial was found standing with a group of people down the road, waving a white plastic grocery bag in what Haglin later realized was an improvised white flag of truce.
"He thought we were going to execute him," Haglin said.
Nathanial was remorseful, quiet and not hostile or combative, Haglin said. He was taken into custody without incident. Arvin was taken into custody a short time later.
Judy Kangas took the stand after Haglin. She said she went to the house after Arvin called her and went inside to get his wallet because she figured it was best if he went with the troopers. She recalled yelling "Satch!" which is Nathanial's nickname, and went into the kitchen. She was getting her iPad to record the incident when she heard "all this popping and shooting."
Judy said she saw the two troopers on the floor and heard Arvin yelling "No! No!" to Nathanial and he took the gun from him. She said she doesn't recall the next minutes because it was "too dramatic for me" but remembered telling Arvin she hated him because he had ruined her life.
Judy said both her husband and her son left the house and that she called the school.
"I called Doris and told her not to let my son come home because my son just shot two state troopers," Judy said.
Judy was hiding in the bedroom when she heard her husband and son return. She heard a clicking noise and came out to see Arvin wearing gloves and holding one of the troopers' pistols. She said they left after Arvin changed into sweatpants, but she stayed because she didn't want to leave the troopers alone. She said Rich was still alive at the time and raised his hand toward her at one point.
Judy reiterated her bitterness toward Arvin, describing him as a domineering and lazy man who demanded his wife and children jump to do his bidding.
"We had to do everything for him. If I didn’t have tea ready for him in the morning he hollered at me. He didn’t work anymore so it was up to me to do two to three jobs if I could," Judy said.
Chaos in the village
Several other witnesses testified and described the chaos in the aftermath of the shooting.
Catherine Roberts, Judy's sister-in-law, said she went to the house and saw the door open and the troopers' bodies on the floor. She saw Arvin and Nathanial facing each other and Arvin with the rifle in his hand. Arvin started yelling at her and she ran back to the street, undecided about what to do or where to go until Haglin came outside moments later. The two drove off and Roberts got a ride with a friend they encountered down the road. The woman took Roberts to the elder's home to look for her mother, who she thought might have been in the house during the shootings.
Roberts said at one point Arvin showed up at the building and started yelling at her again but she covered her ears.
Judy Gau, the last person to testify Monday, said Roberts came running in yelling and screaming, "They had uniforms on, they had uniforms on and I think they’re dead!"
Gau said they heard noise at the neighboring Native council building and went to see what was happening.
"I saw Satch coming in and he was crying, saying 'Oh my god, I shot them, I shot them! See what the white man made me do,'" Gau said.
Gau said her first thought was pity for Nathanial.
“I thought, 'Oh my god this poor boy is brainwashed.' Because of that Athabascan Nation, the anti-white and anti-government group," she said.
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.