Police body cameras shed light on Ketchikan man’s drowning during pursuit

Two white men sit on  log on a beack
Brandon Larson, left, and friend Bergan Wieler. (Brianna Gunn)

A 34-year-old Ketchikan man drowned in a creek last month while fleeing police. Family and friends describe a bright but troubled young man who fell into addiction.

KRBD’s review of police body camera footage shows a routine stop by police that ended tragically.

At about 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 11, dispatchers answered an anonymous 911 call about a man attacking a woman outside the caller’s apartment.

“This guy keeps dragging this lady around and pushing her,” the caller said.

Officers found Brandon Larson and his girlfriend huddled together on the banks of Ketchikan Creek and separated the two. Larson told Officer Ray Satterfield the couple were just having an argument and were homeless.

“What the person that called it in said [is] that you were trying to drag her into the wood line over there,” Satterfield said in one video.

“No sir,” Larson answered. “I would never put my hands on a girl.”

As they talked, Larson slowly edged away and then abruptly fled. Larson swung under a railing and dropped 10 feet onto the swollen creek’s bank — heavy rains had prompted flood warnings the weekend before. After Larson ran out of sight, Satterfield spotted him again a little way upstream.

“Stop, or I’ll tase your ass! Stop!” Satterfield said in the video, though the report said Larson was far beyond Taser range.

The footage shows Larson hesitating for a moment before stepping into the fast-running creek. Satterfield calls out, “Get out of the water, you idiot!”

The current then took Larson downstream.

Ketchikan Police Department Lieutenant of Investigations Andy Berntson said officers still aren’t sure whether it was an accident or an attempt to evade police.

“[The officer’s] initial take was that it appeared he was essentially trying to ride the creek — like, lay into it. Could that be a slip and fall? I mean, it certainly could,” Berntson said in an interview this month.

About 20 minutes later, an officer called for medics after finding Larson’s body pinned in a logjam a few hundred feet downstream. He’d been in the water for about 40 minutes.

‘I do think they chased him to his death’

Police released the bodycam footage to KRBD a few weeks after his death. Members of Brandon Larson’s family have since watched the tapes.

His sister, Brianna Gunn, said it’s clear her brother wasn’t forced into the creek. She’s puzzled by his actions that night.

“But I do think they chased him to his death. I do think that,” she said in an interview this month. “And, you know, whatever that means, I’m not really sure, but I do think that happened. I don’t necessarily think they intended to, but that’s what happened. And I don’t think it had to happen.”

Larson didn’t have any violent criminal arrests in Alaska. Gunn said her brother wasn’t an aggressive person and believes his problems came from drug abuse.

“He was not a threat to anybody. He wasn’t out to hurt anyone. He was an addict. He needed help,” she said. “And I realize that he was in legal trouble. I understand that. There’s protocol for that. I get that. But at the same time, like, you have to be able to read those kinds of situations.”

Ketchikan police defend their officers’ actions. Berntson said at the time of the pursuit, they were investigating a report of a woman being assaulted, and Larson had open warrants.

“We had an initial report, which brought us there. We had information from that report that was concerning to follow up on. And domestic violence investigations are tricky, and they can be difficult to sort themselves through,” Berntson said.

But Berntson said the way the night ended was tragic.

“It’s horrible. I mean, any — any person that dies from a preventable situation is just — it’s sad. You know, you feel like, everybody in that situation — it could have been — it could have resulted better for everybody. And it didn’t need to end that way,” Berntson said.

He said the department was reviewing what happened that night to prevent it from happening again.

Who was Brandon Larson?

Bergan Wieler was one of Larson’s best friends.

“He was a really carefree type of guy,” Wieler said in an interview.

They started as high school friends, wrestling on the beach and catching pint-size trout in Carlanna Lake. He remembers Larson loving books and having an intellectual streak.

Brandon Larson (Brianna Gunn)

“He would have an extreme knowledge base, because he’d read like 20 or 30 different books from different [political science] authors and then going off on diatribes about things like that,” Wieler said.

But after finishing high school, Larson didn’t continue his education. He started abusing prescription opioids. He moved to Seattle a few years later.

He would bounce back and forth between Ketchikan and the Lower 48. Then last summer, he returned to Ketchikan for good. Dave Timmerman had been his boss years back, when he’d hired him as a security guard at the port. He came across Larson again this summer.

“I ran into Brandon on the sidewalk, downtown — actually, in front of the Ketchikan Daily News,” Timmerman said in an interview.

But he said he could tell right away that addiction had taken its toll.

“And I was shocked by what he looked like,” Timmerman said. “He was skeletal.”

Wieler said his childhood friend was trying to get clean.

“Life had been a little difficult for him where he was, and he decided to take a shot coming back up to Ketchikan,” Wieler said.

At first, things looked good. But the pandemic made it difficult to keep in touch in-person.

Larson was charged with minor theft in October, his first criminal case in Alaska. The following month, he was arrested for allegedly dealing drugs, a felony. Wieler bailed him out. But Larson skipped his court appearance. That technically made him a fugitive from justice the night he ran from police.

His sister wants people to know her brother was never a violent criminal. She hopes his story helps the community view those fighting addiction as human beings.

“Instead of just writing these people off, as you know, just junkies,” Gunn said. “And I think it would be good to shed a light on that — for the public of Ketchikan to know, this could be your kid, this could be your brother, or this could be your grandkid. Brandon was that and more to everybody.”