Alaska News Nightly: June 18, 2012

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Cox, Vernon Found Guilty Of Conspiracy To Murder Government Officials

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

An Anchorage jury has found Alaska Peacekeepers Militia leader Schaeffer Cox guilty of conspiracy to murder government officials. The jury returned verdicts on 15 counts against Cox and his co-defendants Lonnie Vernon and Coleman Barney on Monday, but could not reach a decision on one additional count.  Lonnie Vernon was also found guilty of conspiracy to murder government officials, while Cox was judged guilty of soliciting others into a murder plan.  Federal prosecutor Steve Skrocki said he’s pleased with the outcome of the week’s-long trial.

Jurors could not reach unanimous agreement on one count of conspiracy to murder government officials against Coleman Barney.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan told those in the courtroom that he would declare a mistrial on that one count.

Cox, Barney and Vernon were found guilty on a number of weapons charges, such as possessing Hornet’s Nest grenade launchers, silencers and machine guns. But all three were found not guilty on possession of firearms on some of the counts.

After the verdicts were read, Cox blurted out “The prosecution with-held evidence!,” but Judge Bryan silenced him.

Cox then stared steadily at his wife, who was seated in the gallery.  Prosecutor Skrocki said he had no comment on Cox’s outburst.

Sentencing is set for late September.

Two Troopers Injured Kotzebue Standoff

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Two Alaska State Troopers were injured during a prolonged standoff with an armed man in Kotzebue who ultimately took his own life Sunday. The end of the incident came when officers approached the vehicle of Arvid Nelson Junior, 50 of Kotzebue, hours after the initial shooting, and found he had taken his own life.

The Kotzebue Police Department responded to a call early Sunday morning of Nelson brandishing a weapon at a civilian after his truck had run into a guardrail on Ted Stevens Way, a road just east of town. Trooper spokesperson Beth Ipsen says KPD called on the troopers for help.

Ipsen says both of the injured officers returned fire. One trooper was struck in the lower part of his body.  He was medevaced to Anchorage, where Ipsen says he remains in stable condition. It’s unclear how the other trooper was injured – if he was grazed by a bullet or hit by shrapnel – but he began bleeding from the head and was taken to the Kotzebue clinic and shortly released.

The standoff continued when Nelson barricaded himself in his vehicle around noon. The area was cordoned off and the city’s airport was closed to non-emergency traffic. Troopers called a crisis negotiator and five members of the Southcentral Special Emergency Reaction Team, or SERT, were called in from Anchorage. Ipsen says there was contact with Nelson around midday.

Ipsen says the SERT team arrived on the scene shortly after 2 p.m.. When the crisis negotiator received no response from Nelson, Troopers attempted nonlethal interventions, to no avail.

The standoff ended around 6 p.m. Sunday, when troopers and officers approached Nelson’s truck and found Nelson dead in the vehicle from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Ipsen says troopers with the Alaska Bureau of Investigation are in

Kotzebue handling the case. Due to both officers returning fire, Ipsen says the names of the troopers injured during the initial shooting are being withheld for 72 hours in keeping with department policy.

Four Japanese Climbers Killed In Avalanche On Denali

Lorien Nettleton, KTNA – Talkeetna

An avalanche on Mt. McKinley’s West Buttress during the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 13 has claimed the lives of four Japanese climbers, leaving one survivor. National Park Service rangers believe the crevasse is the final resting place for 64-year-old Yoshiaki Kato, 50-year-old Masako Suda, 56-year-old Michiko Suzuki and 63-year-old Tamao Suzuki. 69 year old Hitoshi Ogi survived.  National Park Service Spokesperson Maureen McLaughlin says this is the first time an avalanche on the west buttress has resulted in fatalities.

After several days of heavy snow and high winds, the five-member expedition from the Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation was descending an area called Motorcycle Hill near 11,800-feet early Wednesday morning when an avalanche swept them all downhill into a crevasse. Hitoshi Ogi survived the slide after the rope linking him to his team was severed. After being unable to locate his four teammates in the snow and ice, Ogi was able to climb out of the crevasse. He then descended more than 4-thousand feet alone, to arrive at the Kahiltna Basecamp on Thursday evening, more than 36 hours after the incident.

By the time the first helicopter search of the area was initiated on Thursday evening, there was little chance the others had survived. By Friday, a team of four searchers probed the area, and on Saturday the search grew to ten people and included Rangers, Volunteers, and a search and rescue dog.

McLaughlin adds that while not frequent, it is not unheard of for the area known as motorcycle hill to shed snow, especially after periods of high snow fall as have occurred on the mountain over the last week.

During Saturday’s search, in the same crevasse that Mr. Ogi had fallen in to during the avalanche, searchers found the end of a broken rope. The rope was fixed in compacted snow and ice, and further excavation inside the crevasse would have put searchers at risk. The recovery effort was suspended permanently.

OCS Grievance System ‘Flawed,’ State Ombudsman Says

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The Alaska Office of Children’s Services’ grievance process fails to fairly and adequately respond to citizen complaints.

That’s the finding of an eight-month investigation by the state Ombudsman’s office, which resulted in a 94-page report released today (Monday). The report recommends a complete overhaul of OCS agency regulations governing grievances.

Alaska Ombudsman Linda Lord-Jenkins says her office rarely initiates an investigation. Instead, it usually responds to specific complaints lodged against state agencies or employees. But Lord-Jenkins says the number of complaints filed against the Office of Children’s Services in recent years led the ombudsman’s office to take a closer look at the agency’s grievance process.

“In this case we believed that there was a fatally flawed complaint system at Children’s Services,” Lord-Jenkins says.

Ombudsman’s office investigators spent eight months talking to OCS employees and citizens who’d complained about the agency. They found inconsistent and erratic responses to grievances.

“People would file grievances. They could prove to us that they had filed grievances, and they just never got responses, or the grievance was lost,” says Lord-Jenkins.

In her report, Lord-Jenkins places blame on OCS regulations, which she says are just as confusing to department caseworkers as they are to citizens. A grievance filed with OCS can end up in one of two venues. In some instances, an administrative law judge will hear the case, and present a decision to the Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner for action. In other cases, the facts are heard by a regional review panel, which can only issue non-binding recommendations. In either case, the OCS Director isn’t required to be notified.

“So there are a lot of structural problems that just create other problems for individuals who are seeking to enforce their legal rights,” Lord-Jenkins says.

Part of the problem is that OCS and the Division of Juvenile Justice used to be under the same umbrella at the Department of Health and Social Services. While both remain part of DHS&S, the two agencies have been separate for about 10 years. But OCS still uses the same regulations.

Lord-Jenkins recommends severing ties between OCS and Juvenile Justice, and completely rewriting regulations governing the OCS grievance process.

“We have recommended that they make these regs as simple and clear as possible,” says Lord-Jenkins. “That they not include one single word that isn’t necessary; that they make them understandable so that all OCS employees understand them and are aware of them; and so that all citizens who might want to use the grievance process can understand them.”

OCS Director Christy Lawton says agency employees were aware of the problems before the ombudsman’s investigation. She hopes to have new grievance regulations in place by early next year, and says the report provides a good starting point.

“It’s been an area that we have struggled with and have known we needed to work on. But frankly just didn’t have the staff time or resources,” says Lawton. “So the depth to which they really went through it and mapped out all the regulations and even gave us potentially language we can use to draft new regulations, it was very helpful, and I anticipate that we will be using a lot of that.”

The regulations in question are administrative and do not have to be approved by the legislature. However, they will be reviewed by the Department of Law and available for public comment before taking effect.

OCS is the state’s child protection agency, which can take custody of children if staff finds the parents are neglectful or abusive.

The ombudsman’s office is an independent state agency, though for funding purposes it’s considered part of the Alaska Legislature.

Kuskokwim Hit With Another Salmon Fishing Closure

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Kuskokwim subsistence fishermen are getting hit with a double whammy. Another emergency salmon fishing closure has been announced, extending the current closures to 12 days. The fishing restriction is controversial and was not approved by a regional advisory group of fishers.

Myron Naneng, President of the Association of Village Council Presidents, is asking for a disaster declaration over the poor King returns.

He wants Governor Sean Parnell to declare a state disaster because of the low numbers on both the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers.

Lawmakers Back in Washington, DC

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Lawmakers in Washington, DC are back at the Capitol for the long-grind before the campaign completely takes over later this fall. They’re facing a number of tight deadlines and a less-than-forgiving schedule. APRN’s Washington correspondent Peter Granitz is looking into that schedule.

State Will Apply For No Child Left Behind Waivers

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The state is asking the Obama Administration for waivers from the national standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act. The act went into effect during 2001 and has drawn bipartisan criticism for demanding a one-size-fits-all standard for Alaskans.

FV Scandia Goes Down – Dog Left Aboard Rescued

Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak

The fishing vessel that partially sunk Sunday afternoon in the Shelikof Strait has gone to the bottom. A Coast Guard spokesman in Kodiak reports the Scandia went down in Uyak Bay about 1:47 this morning as it was being towed by the Good Samaritan vessel Hazel Lorraine.

Petty Officer Johnathan Klingenberg said the Hazel Lorraine took the Scandia under tow last night at 7:43 p.m. and made for Kodiak Island. Uyak Bay is about 50 miles west-southwest of Kodiak City.

While the five members of the Scandia crew made it safely to a skiff with survival suits on, a dog was left aboard the fishing vessel. It was rescued by the Hazel Lorraine before the Scandia went down, and is reported in good condition. The crew was hoisted early yesterday afternoon by an Air Station Jayhawk helicopter and delivered to Kodiak. No injuries were reported.

The fishing vessel was reportedly caring 1,200 gallons of diesel and 80 gallons of lube oil, however, there have been no reports of pollution at this time.