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The strange, too-short life of Genghis Muskox

Craig Medred
A free-spirited wanderer, a jack of many trades named Genghis Muskox, pictured here with his dog Coffee Bean, would seem almost destined to end up in Alaska. Courtesy Tommy Dixon

Some might think Genghis Muskox destined to end up in Alaska. With a name like that, a lust for adventure and a love of fishing, America's salmon-filled Last Frontier looked to be the perfect fit. That he would end up dead in the tiny community of Cooper Landing along the fabled Kenai River, allegedly shot down by one of the many young American men who were the heroes of the war in Iraq, no one could have predicted.

Everyone said Genghis, who was 27 when he died, and 30-year-old Paul Vermillion were friends. People who knew them both can't conceive of how Genghis ended up dead with Vermillion charged with first-degree murder. Some blame booze, Alaska's great scapegoat of choice.

Cheryl James, who runs Wildman's -- the busiest market in the normally quiet community strung out for several miles in the green, spruce forest along the Sterling Highway about 100 miles south of Anchorage -- said that "In some ways, it's a typical Alaska winter story." A couple of guys are drinking. They get in a fight. Gunfire erupts. One of them ends up dead. The other ends up in jail.

Only this story is far from typical. This is a story that brings together the children of families from distinct corners of America, both geographical and cultural.

Genghis was the son of Midwestern, New Age, American anti-war liberals. His surname is a combination of his mother's, Susan Muskat, and his father's, John Cox. He grew up in the Minneapolis area around artists and musicians. His parents, who are still together, never married.

Jazz singer Shawne Baccari, one of the daughters of Freddie Baccari of legendary Las Vegas lounge act The Characters, posted a tribute to Genghis on her Facebook page.

"He was a free spirit," said Jack Becker, the publisher at Public Art Review in Minneapolis, who watched Genghis grow up. "He traveled a lot. He could make things. He did things."

Paul Vermillion traveled a lot too, growing up. His father, Dr. Douglas Vermillion, was a career military man, a graduate of West Point. The family moved around the country from base to base -- California, Texas, Washington state, Virginia.

Douglas eventually retired from the Army to pursue a career in cutting-edge rehabilitative medicine. He now runs the Orthopaedic Research Clinic of Alaska, which specializes in the still-new science of cartilage repair and restoration. He is a man who by all accounts has dedicated his life to helping others and his country.

When Paul grew up, he followed in his father's footsteps. He enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was sent to Iraq. The Vermillion family isn't talking about what happened there, but a website for his uncle's business features a photo of Paul on its home page that bears the caption "Paul Vermillion Iraq Survived Two IEDS," or improvised explosive devices, above a promotion for "Disabled American Veterans."

Author Jim Frederick mentions Paul in the acknowledgements for his book "Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death." Asked by email about Paul, Frederick said he couldn't remember much.

"I interviewed him," Frederick wrote. "Went out to see him when he was in Long Beach. He seemed to me no more or less messed up than any other guy in that unit."

America's modern-day, counterinsurgency warfare asks even more of the country's young men than the battles of earlier times. It is a horrible and life-altering event to kill and see others killed in warfare, but in traditional battle the lines were at least clear: It was "us" against "them."

Counterinsurgency warfare is different. The goal is not just to kill the enemy, but to convert enemies, or friends of enemies, into supporters of an entirely different set of ideals and goals. It asks much of young men to try to win hearts and minds in dangerous corners of the world. It becomes especially difficult for some when they or their companions are maimed or killed by those they sought to help.​

Specifically how, or if, Paul Vermillion's time in Iraq affected him is unknown. Also unknown is what exactly happened in Cooper Landing sometime before 2 a.m. on Dec. 5, 2013. Paul and Genghis were alone that night and, as James noted, they were reportedly drinking.

Alvin Fleetwood, a part-time Cooper Landing resident and friend of Genghis, admitted that the young man "probably drank too much on occasion. But you could depend on him. He was honest and hardworking."

Two sides to the story

How much Genghis drank on the night of his death is unknown. So, too, is what exactly happened to spark an argument with Paul -- if there was an argument.

Only Paul knows the full story, if he remembers clearly. His mother, Patrice, might also know a fair bit. Paul reportedly called her to tell her he'd killed Genghis before calling Alaska State Troopers. She did not respond to requests for an interview.

In an interview with troopers after the shooting, Paul was reported to have told investigators he was attacked by Genghis and "executed the threat."

Tommy Dixon, a lifelong friend of Genghis's who helped bring his the young man's body back to Minnesota from Alaska, said Genghis was shot "execution style." "Two shots in the head, multiple shots in the chest," Dixon said. "I think the guy (Vermillion) was fucked up from being in war."

Dixon had been to Cooper Landing to visit Genghis during the summer. They went fishing and mountain biking. "He's the best fisherman I've ever met," said Dixon, who grew up in Minnesota.

Before his death, Genghis told Dixon he'd been hanging out with Paul and witnessed some odd behavior.

"Genghis said once before the guy 'switched,'" Dixon said. "He said Paul pointed a rifle at him and said, 'What are you doing here?'" Genghis said something about his friend having been affected by war.

"My theory is he got broken by war," Dixon said.

A number of Genghis's friends believe he was trying to help Paul deal with an emotional struggle to adjust to post-war life in America.

"That was what he was, and that's what he did," said Baccari, who watched Genghis grow up next door in Minnesota. "I'm just heartbroken. I've lost my parents, a sibling, two siblings actually, but this hit me the hardest. He was amazing."

Paul Vermillion and his family have a different version of events. They say Paul was attacked and beaten by his friend Genghis, and shot the younger man in self-defense.

Those who know Genghis well said he did sometimes have trouble keeping his mouth shut. None of them have much doubt he might get in a heated argument.

"He was very opinionated," said childhood friend Natalia Becker, who attended elementary school with Genghis in Minneapolis and renewed acquaintances when she took a job in San Francisco.

Becker and others describe him as a lover, not a fighter, but someone with strong views. All can imagine him getting in a shouting match. None can conceive of him physically attacking, let alone beating, anyone.

Genghis Muskox's thirst for adventure

Genghis was a friend to everyone he met, said Darrow Boggiano, who first ran into him when they were walking their dogs in San Francisco. They struck up a conversation and became friends.

"He made friends wherever he went," his mother, Susan Muskat, said. "He had an especially big heart for people who were down and out or lived on the fringe of society. It's heartbreaking to think there are people there who think that he would attack someone, or who think this was somehow his fault."

Friends of Genghis's at Citizen Chain Cycling in San Francisco echo Susan Muskat's words.

"He was part of the neighborhood," said shop co-owner Niko De Vries. "He lived on boat nearby with a super well-trained dog. His name was unique so everyone remembered it. He was a good-natured guy. He was a very creative soul. He had skills to make things, but maybe not as disciplined as an artist. Everyone liked him." 

Before heading back to Alaska, "he'd been doing work here as a tree climber," an arborist, said Boggiano, who works as a website designer. "He used to climb these 150-foot trees to top them for part of his work. It kind of blew me away."

The dangerous job hewed with Genghis' thirst for adventure.

Natalia Becker remembers accompanying him and some other kids to his father's farm in Wisconsin when they were but middle schoolers. The city kids were pretty excited just to be spending a weekend in the country, but Genghis wanted more.

"He and his friends decided to pitch a tent way on the other side of the farm and spend the night there," she said. "Silly boys."

His mother, a successful Minneapolis businesswoman, said her son first came north when he was 16. He took a summer job on the Kenai Peninsula. It didn't go well. He came down with shingles, a nasty viral disease, and had to go home.

It didn't slow him for long, though. His father -- a carpenter who split his time between Minneapolis, where Muskat runs a highly-praised restaurant, and Wisconsin, where he farms trees -- remembers watching 17-year-old Genghis paddle off and disappear into the cattails that line the headwaters of the Mississippi River where it flows from Minnesota's Lake Itasca.

The teenager planned to paddle the 2,530-mile length of the Mississippi, but promptly got lost looking for the channel. He persevered, however, eventually found his way and started paddling south. 

Months later, Genghis rode his kayak into New Orleans on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. He found work there for a time, but then moved on. He returned home to Minneapolis for a while, then headed for Europe, where he undertook a bike trip from Amsterdam to Norway.

Everywhere he went, friends say, he picked up odd jobs and acquired new skills -- cook, carpenter, shipwright, arborist. He lived the happy life of a footloose wayfarer. But Genghis was no Chris McCandless, the self-proclaimed "supertramp" who lived mainly off of others before venturing into the Alaska wilderness to starve to death and become posthumously famous.

"He was a lot more interesting than that kid that died in the bus," Dixon said, and far more skilled. 

"He was actually more of an outdoorsman-type person than I am," said his father John. "He made moccasins. He carved his own longbows. He made knives."

Maybe this was his destiny, with a name like Genghis. John recounted how the name itself sprang from an outdoor adventure. John was caught out in a Midwest snowstorm when Susan was pregnant. The couple had yet to select any male names for the baby. When John came in from the storm, his face encased in snow, a friend remarked that he looked like "Genghis Khan." John later suggested Genghis as a boy's name to Susan, and so the baby came to be named.

Genghis's brother -- Wilder Muskox -- was named after an American Indian woman John admired. Only after the boy was named, John added, did the woman tell him that her name was supposed to be pronounced "Will-deer."

Wilder followed his brother to California, married and settled there. He could not be reached for this story. At the age of 27, Genghis was showing signs of settling down, too. His girlfriend, Jenna Miller, came up to Alaska from Oakland to work at Wildman's so they could be together over the summer.

She later took a job at the Peninsula Clarion, the newspaper for the Kenai. She was unable to talk about what happened when reached by phone. In a Facebook photo of herself and Genghis, he looks happy, sporting a full, brown beard. A shock of brown hair juts from beneath his red stocking hat. He is wearing a yellow Patagonia rain jacket and smiling contentedly with Miller at his side.

A hard-headed history

She told friends she last talked to Genghis only hours before the shooting.

He and Paul had gone four-wheeling on all-terrain vehicles in the unusually snow-short Alaska December and were in good spirits, she told friends. Genghis reported they'd had a great day. It clearly didn't last. For some who knew Genghis, it is not hard to imagine him having a little too much to drink, getting into an argument, and failing to recognize danger signs shouting: Shut up and flee!

"He might have shot off his mouth, and he might have gotten himself into trouble," his mother admitted. "I don't know. But he's not aggressive." 

Dozens of interviews with friends of Genghis paint a picture of someone prone to challenge authority. He was of Midwestern stock, someone who when told he is wrong almost automatically ask, "Why?" He wouldn't back away from an argument, Dixon said.

"He had his challenges as a kid," added Becker. "There were discipline issues." 

He was fired from a job in a Minneapolis restaurant in 2007 when he violated a no-smoking policy. He was then only 21, but the incident made the news because Genghis refused to sign a form acknowledging he'd been a bad boy when he sneaked outside the building to grab a few pulls on a cigarette.

His boss said sign the form or get fired, reported CityPages. Genghis's reply was "fine," fire me. 

That and an incident with his dog Coffee Bean in San Francisco led some in the media to paint Genghis as something of a ne'er-do-well.  In that incident, he was accused of tossing the dog, a black Labrador, into the water, because she pooped on his boat. That story also made the news after Genghis was forced to pay $200 to have the dog spayed before authorities would return her.

"Coffee Bean, of course, not only got thrown into the water, but came out of that situation only to have the city make off with her ovaries," reported the San Francisco Weekly.

How exactly being spayed protected the dog from an owner originally charged with animal cruelty was not explained, but then the 88-year-old Alvin Fleetwood said the charge was just so much dog crap from the get go.

"He called me from San Francisco to tell me about it," Fleetwood said. "He threw Coffee Bean in the water all of the time, and Coffee Bean loved it. But someone in San Francisco saw him and said, 'My goodness, who would throw their dog in the water?' Genghis just decided it wasn't worth it to fight it."

Fleetwood is the sometimes-resident of Cooper Landing who helped Genghis land a job there in the summer of 2013. He recommended the young man to a local contractor looking for carpenters.

"Genghis did some work for me about four years ago," said Fleetwood. "He was the best worker I ever had."

The retired banker and his wife, now deceased, grew attached to the young man.

"That's the reason that I kept up with him during the years he wasn't here," Fleetwood said. "I called him periodically, maybe like once a month, just to see how he was doing.

"I could live through him vicariously. If only I'd had the guts when I was young to live the way he did."

Those words mean something coming from Fleetwood, who has lived a big and successful life in the 49th state. He founded Alaska Statebank in Fairbanks in 1961, eventually sold it into a merger with a bigger bank, and went on to serve as the executive director of each of the state's three largest chambers of commerce.

Alaska Business Monthly magazine in 2007 honored him for his "Lifetime Achievement in Business," saying "the road leading to Al Fleetwood's success in business has been paved with excitement, dedication and impact."

Fleetwood hooked Genghis up with Cooper Landing contractor Rob Bear.

"Genghis was one fine individual," Fleetwood said. "I can't say enough about him. This hurt me in the heart. He was totally special." 

'Everyone loses'

When Genghis arrived in Cooper Landing, Paul Vermillion was living off and on in the half-million-dollar summer house his parents had purchased on the quiet shores of Kenai Lake near the Kenai River Bridge. Genghis met Paul there when Bear's company was contracted to build a new garage.

On the surface, Paul -- an Iraq war veteran -- and Genghis -- a participant in the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests against most anything establishment -- did not seem like an obvious match, but they quickly hit it off. 

"There are a lot of second homes here," Bear said. "There are a lot of retired people."

The few young people tend to gravitate toward each other. Bear said he didn't pay a lot of attention to what Genghis was doing in his off time, but he did say that the young man from California and Paul Vermillion "were friends. Paul's very outgoing.

"Neither one of them seemed angry. They were both very polite. Genghis was definitely a character. Paul was a bit of a character himself. I never saw any animosity.

"I know both families," Bear said. "I feel bad for them all. It's a tragedy. Everyone loses."

About that, there is no doubt. Today, one family mourns and another awaits a trial. Paul Vermillion pleaded not guilty to the murder charge in a Kenai court. He was subsequently sent to Anchorage for a court-ordered "medical examination."

And the way Susan Muskat sees it, her son is yet another victim of America's long-running wars in the Middle East.

"Paul's messed up," she said. "It's really horrifying. It's tragic. And it's ironic. Both (Genghis's) dad and I have been anti-war all of our lives."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com