Partnering with FBI, Unalaska police aim to finish Ballyhoo crash investigation

The May 9 crash happened at Mount Ballyhoo’s Ulakta Head, on the far right side of the mountain. Police said they hope to compile the pieces of their investigation by the end of June. (Photo by Berett Wilber/KUCB)

Unalaska police are partnering with the FBI as they continue investigating last month’s deadly crash on Mount Ballyhoo.

Two local high school students were killed when a truck plunged off the cliffside and fell about 900 feet to the shoreline below. Authorities said they hope to have an explanation by the end of June.

Unalaska police said they’ve come up against tough cases before, but this one is in a category of its own. 

“This is probably the single most community-impacting event that I know of over my 35-year relationship with Unalaska,” said Interim Police Chief John Lucking.

Lucking has been overseeing the investigation since May 9, when three high school students drove up Mount Ballyhoo during their lunch hour. Only one made it back alive.

“This is to our core,” he said. “These folks are from here and of here — and of us.”

The students killed were Karly McDonald, 16, and Kiara Renteria Haist, 18. The lone survivor was the driver, Dustin Ruckman, 18. 

In a statement after the crash, the Department of Public Safety said Ruckman allegedly “lost control” of the 2001 Ford pickup on the Ulakta Head side of the mountain and “claimed to have been thrown from the vehicle as it descended down a steep ravine with the two girls still inside.”

The crash has posed a challenge for local police, who don’t often deal with such complex, emotional cases unfolding over so much rough, rocky terrain.

That’s why Lucking requested help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which he said offered skills and experience his department doesn’t have. 

“We want to walk away knowing we did absolutely everything we possibly could to further the investigation, develop the whole picture, and provide that to the community, who deserves — and I know is anxious for — some answers,” he said. 

Fifteen FBI agents from Anchorage and Quantico, Virginia visited the island last week to collect evidence on the mountain.

Lucking said drone operators captured footage that’ll be used to reconstruct the crash with 3-D modeling, while a mountaineering team rappelled down the cliff to retrieve pieces of the truck.

He declined to get into specifics, but he said those pieces should provide “important” information about “the state of the vehicle” as it went over the edge.

“We found some things that we were specifically looking for — that I won’t mention,” he said. “But we’re very fortunate those things were able to be recovered.”

Beyond gathering physical evidence, Lucking said police have conducted “lots” of interviews with the three teenagers’ classmates, family members, and more to establish a timeline of events before the crash and to better understand their relationships.

Ruckman declined to be interviewed. He also declined KUCB’s request for comment through his lawyer, David Mallet.

Police are still waiting on the results of Ruckman’s toxicology tests to determine whether he was driving under the influence.

“That’s an important element that we’re very anxious to see,” Lucking said. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t been produced yet.”

While public court records show Ruckman has a history of driving violations, none of them appear to be connected with alcohol or drugs.

In less than two years, he was been charged with seven minor offenses and paid more than $600 in fines for violations including speeding, racing, and having a person riding outside the vehicle.  

Lucking said police will take that information into account as they assemble the many pieces of their investigation over the course of the month.

He expects the FBI to share its findings in the next week or so, while the full autopsy and toxicology reports are due in the next two weeks.

“Probably by the end of June, I suspect, we’ll be able to look at the thing in totality and maybe sit down and discuss what that means,” Lucking said. “If there needs to be consideration of charges, that’s probably a discussion that will happen — as best I’m thinking right now — in the latter part of June.”

As of Wednesday, no charges had been filed and no one had been arrested in connection with the crash.

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Laura Kraegel covers Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands for KUCB . Originally from Chicago, she first came to Alaska to work at KNOM, reporting on Nome and the Bering Strait Region. ( / 907.581.6700)

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