Alaska News Nightly: August 25, 2011

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Mora-Lopez Sentenced to Three Months in Prison, $10,000 Fine

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A man in an unusual case of identity theft was sentenced in federal court in Anchorage Thursday. Rafael Mora-Lopez had lived in Anchorage for more than two decades as Rafael Alberto Espinoza.

Mora-Lopez had been a police officer in Anchorage for six years before he was arrested in April for living in the U.S. illegally under a stolen identity. Tom Bradley is an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division of the Anchorage office. Mora-Lopez had faced a maximum sentence of 13 years and $250,000 in fines. Bradley says Thursday’s sentence of three months in federal prison and a $10,000 fine is fair.

Bradley says Mora-Lopez will be sent to a facility outside of Alaska because there are no federal prisons in the state. After he completes his sentence, he could be deported, but Bradley says he can appear before an immigration judge to seek permission to stay.

Bradley says it’s very unusual for someone who has committed identity theft to go into a high profile position such as a police officer.

Mora-Lopez had pleaded guilty in June to passport fraud and false claims of U.S. citizenship.

Yukon Skipper Dies After Fish Tender Capsizes

Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel

A Pilot Station man is dead after a 32-foot tender he was piloting flipped over in the Yukon River.

Alaska State Troopers are reporting the pilot as 23-year-old Gerald Richardson Minock.  They say he was the only one on board when the boat turned upside down sometime Tuesday night or, more likely, early Wednesday morning.
The tender was found by a trooper caravan at about 10:40 on Wednesday morning. It was flipped upside down and stationary four miles below its destination.

The boat belongs to Boreal Fisheries, a small-scale fish buyer operating out of St. Mary’s in the lower river. The tender was loaded with fish and headed to the fish buyer’s dock.

About 10 volunteer boats filled with 30 searchers began looking for Minock.  Early, that Wednesday afternoon two hunters below Mountain Village located his body floating in the Yukon waters.  Minock was wearing a life jacket.

Troopers say there were no obvious signs of trauma and alcohol does not appear to be a factor in the incident.

An initial investigation by troopers is indicating that the tender was overloaded with fish.

Troopers say they talked with a fisherman who observed the boat just eight inches out of the water.

Weather conditions at the time were windy and rainy.

Minock’s body will be sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Anchorage for an autopsy.

Alaska Issues Under Scrutiny in Wake of Fuglvog Incident

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

The admission this month by a Senate staffer that he’s guilty of illegal fishing in Alaska is creating greater impact than just one man’s future.  Arne Fuglvog was an aide to Senator Lisa Murkowski for five years.  He was a local Petersburg fisherman who was considered a top expert in the U.S. Senate on fisheries policy.  Now some of the Alaskan issues he promoted are under extra scrutiny.

Polar Bear Scientist Allowed Back to Work


National Public Radio is reporting that Anchorage based polar bear scientist Chuck Monnett is expected to report back to work Friday. But, his job will be changing and he will no longer manage federal contracts.

Monnett was suspended more than a month ago by the Bureau of Ocean Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Cab Driver Charged With Sexual Assault

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

Last Sunday an Anchorage cab driver was arrested by police and charged with sexual assault.  Now the Anchorage police say more women have come forward with similar accusations against the man.

Officials Address Yupiit School District Problems

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Nearly 46 percent of the state’s schools showed Adequate Yearly Progress in the national tests required by the No Child Left Behind standards. That leaves 275 schools that did not meet all the measurements of the test. Many are familiar with being on the list – one school has not met the standard in eight years. And they are aware that the state will take corrective actions beginning with an improvement plan after the first year. At the end of the range of corrections, personnel are replaced, a new curriculum is put in place, students are allowed to transfer. And finally, the school district loses control.

Last summer, the state intervened in the Yupiit School District and began a multi-year plan to show improvements in the three schools in the district.

Legislative hearings in February pointed out friction in the working relationship between the school district and the Department of Education.  Legislators were told there was not true dialog between state and local people – and the district did not feel it was being included when decisions were made.

Six months later Bethel Representative Bob Herron says the relationship could still be better.  He says the process and the results of the intervention are still not defined to his satisfaction.“I’ll be polite, I’m extremely disappointed in the Department’s attitude. And I’m going to continue to work and kick their butts that they need to change their approach to my school district,” Herron said.

Herron says he’s looking for a cooperative management style.  Not a top-down approach that avoids responsibility for the outcome.  Herron says the department must admit that the process being used in Yupiit isn’t working.

The Department of Education sees positive results.   Deputy Commissioner Les Morse says the first steps have taken place, and the three year goal is to put the support in place for the district itself to carry on.  And he says the district has reached out – for example, with the state following the district’s ideas on improving how students learn to read.

“They’re engaging our people that are supporting them and trying to make sure that we’re working together.  And that’s what I see … the people on the ground doing the work – the teachers,  the principals and our coaches that go out and work there – are working together,” Morse said.

Yupiit Superintendent Howard Diamond says he is still concerned that the state Trustee – part of the intervention team – does not collaborate with the district before decisions are made.  He says the state is looking only at numbers – the result of one annual test. But the school district is looking at improving all the root causes of why schools fail the tests – teachers, parents, the communities and the students themselves.

“Our Communities are going through a Wellness Journey.  And they are looking at improving the entire community,  They talking about improving their schools, their families,  and how they relate to each other. And during this Wellness Journey we are a part of it.  And we are very happy to be a part of it.  Because we feel as the communities improve, as the families start to take more interest in their student’s success in school, as a by-product, test scores will improve,” Diamond said.

Diamond says success will not be measured in a test score.  He and the school district are looking for systemic changes that will be seen many years from now.

Morse says even the federal government sees the goals of the No Child Left Behind program as unrealistic.    Those call for one hundred percent proficiency in every school by 2014. Morse says the state is happy with a consistent, reasonable improvement.   He says the Department is putting a lot of support efforts in two districts – Lower Yukon and Yukon Flats.  But the state is stepping back from its level of involvement with the Northwest Arctic District.

“So there’s a lot of districts, and a lot of varying places in terms of the support that we provide to them.  All with the same ultimate goal of improving achievement,” Morse said.

Representative Herron recommends the Department of Education reevaluate the work going on in Yupiit in light of success elsewhere.  And he recommends the local educators have more of a say in their future.  He says change has to be made across the board – not just locally.

Ground Penetrating Radar Makes Well-Preserved Discovery

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage & Patrick Yack, APRN – Anchorage

Archaeologists in Barrow have begun to use ground penetrating radar as a way to detect burial sites beneath the tundra. Though it is a relatively untested technique in the Arctic, they have received some promising results.

When UIC Sciences Senior Scientist Anne Jenson decided to team up with Radford University’s Rhett Herman to bring up the ground penetrating radar – or GPR – system, no one was really sure how well it would work.

Not even the manufacturer knew how accurate the system would be on the mostly unconsolidated gravel laying on top of a layer of permafrost that makes up much of the geology in the area.

According to Jenson, it turns out that the GPR didn’t work very well on areas that had seen frequent vehicle traffic. Evidence of the compacted road surface could be observed up to two meters below the surface…hindering the GPR’s ability to see grave sites. But, once the crew got a little ways off the beaten track, that story changed.

Jenson says that this burial was actually much better preserved than the more shallow burials she’s worked on that normal.

Though they have found the body, Jenson says some cultural considerations will need to be addressed before more work can be done.

Jenson says the bodies don’t leave Barrow as people study it.. And once studies are complete, a service will be held and the body will be reburied.

According to Jenson, studies – such as this one – in the Arctic have become even more important because of the changing climate. Coastal erosion and changing of the permafrost layer have added to the sense of urgency.

Jenson says that though the GPR only found one new burial site this season, she believes there are probably more graves in the area.

Pilots Awarded for Saving Damaged Jet

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Two Alaska Airlines pilots are being recognized for safely handling a jet last year after one of its engines exploded while taking off from Sitka.

Captain Steve Cleary and First Officer Michael Hendrix won the Superior Airmanship Award from the Air Line Pilots Association Aug. 18th.

Cleary and Hendrix were at the Boeing 737’s controls on August 8th, 2010.

Association spokeswoman Jennifer Sutton says there was little room for error at Sitka’s island airport, with ocean waters at the end of the runway.

“As they stared to accelerate down the runway, they hit about 100 knots. And they saw an eagle flash past the plane, directly in the path ahead. Just mere seconds later, when they hit about 130 knots, which is about 150 miles an hour, the eagle smashed into the left engine, causing the engine to explode and burst into flames,” she says.

With one engine gone and one going full throttle, the pilots struggled to maintain control. But they were able to stop the jet before it veered off the runway or went into the water.

“The really amazing thing here is that while this could have had a tragic ending, the procedures they took that day and the clear, swift-thinking action resulted in an event where there were no injuries to any of the 134 passengers or five crew members on board,” she says.

The pilots were not available for immediate comment.

The $7 million engine had to be replaced. A jet sent to pick up stranded passengers also struck and killed an eagle on takeoff. That plane was not damaged and the flight continued.

Only one other crew received the annual award from the association, the world’s largest pilots union. It was presented at the 57th Air Safety Forum Awards Banquet in Washington, D.C.

Residents Respond to Healy Clean Coal Plan Plan

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Golden Valley Electric’s plan to buy and restart the Healy clean coal plant drew attention at a utility board meeting Monday night in Fairbanks.