Advertisement

Violent crime in Alaska:Are loners and outcasts drawn to America's frontier?

By ANDREW MacLEOD

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- For the second time in a year, a mass murder in Alaska's remote bush has focused attention on a much-debated notion that the 49th state may draw a greater proportion of loners and outcasts bent on violent crime.

Like a March 1983 shooting spree near McCarthy that left six dead, the presumed mass killing of seven Manley Hot Springs area residents earlier this month who police believe were dumped in the swift, silt-laden Tanana River, apparently was without motive.

Advertisement

In both cases, the suspects were described as troubled loners and newcomers to Alaska.

Whether the mass killings are indicative of anything unique about Alaska or are simply the same type of random killing that has happened in many other places across the nation is a gray area that is open to debate among law enforcement officials, criminologists and psychologists.

'We tend to get a lot of people here who have had problems and that is true of any frontier whether you're talking about the original 13 colonies or Australia,' said Jim Cole, a psychologist and director of the Center for Health and Counseling at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Advertisement

'They are not the people winning back home or they would not pull up stakes and leave. Some of these people are running to the end of line and when they get there, they turn around and attack.'

Other mass killings have occurred in Alaska during the last two years. Eight people were slain in 1982 aboard a fishing boat in Southeast in 1982 and four teenagers were murdered in 1982 in an Anchorage park.

In the latest case, Michael Silka, 25, was killed in a firefight May 19 that claimed the life of a state trooper. He was accused of killing seven people in the Manley Hot Springs area.

Law enforcement officials believe the state's violent crime rate is more a product of population growth and the statistical makeup of the population -- younger, more males, few family ties and high rates of seasonal unemployment and alcoholism -- than of a particular type of person who flees to Alaska with a romantic image of the wilderness as a last refuge.

Alaska, which frequently ranks in the top 10 states in murder per capita and which leads the nation in reported rape, has undergone an almost two-fold population increase since oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968.

Advertisement

Law enforcement officials give some credibility to the notion the state draws criminally unstable people, but do not believe there is enough evidence to support that conclusion.

'I think to some degree it probably does (attract those prone to mass murder),' said Lt. Glenn Godfrey, deputy field commander for the Alaska State Troopers. 'We have had our share in the last couple of years, but I'm sure it happens everywhere.'

'I don't think there are any ready-made answers,' he added.

One area where there is consensus is that isolation poses severe law enforcement problems for officers who are mostly stationed in larger towns.

'If a situation takes off out there, it is usually over before the police arrive,' said Stephen Conn, a lawyer and anthropologist who teaches at the University of Alaska at Anchorage in the School of Justice.

The lack of law enforcement officers stationed in the bush also means there is no official watching for telltale signs of trouble to come, Conn said.

'If you have a person acting strangely to come to the attention of police in a town, that same behavior would probably not be dealt with in rural Alaska,' Conn said, adding that people have the false assumption that rural areas are safer than urban.

Advertisement

'People have the same view as people in the Lower 48, despite reality to the contrary; we view rural areas as peaceful and safe and the cities are viewed as dangerous and ugly places.'

How the crime rate in the bush stacks up against the rest of the state is another gray area, said John Angell, dean of the School of Justice. The results differ depending on what is termed bush and what is termed urban, he said.

'But generally speaking if you're talking about (violent) crime it's much higher and if you're talking about property crime it's much lower,' he said.

Like others, Angell is not sure whether the recent mass murders hold any significance for Alaska.

'The one thing you can't reject is that it is just a statistical quirk,' Angell said. 'It could be we won't have anything else like this for 25 years.'

Latest Headlines

Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us

Advertisement