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Actor from gritty film set in rural Alaska charged with attempted murder

Amanda Coyne,Suzanna Caldwell
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The film set in Barrow Alaska, “On the Ice” -- arguably the best feature film ever to come out of Alaska -- is, at its core, a cautionary tale about violence and the ripple effects of bad decisions, and how the culmination of those decisions can lead to ruined lives and a wounded community.

A real-life narrative with similar themes has been taking place in Kiana, a village of about 350 in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough, about 300 miles Southwest from Barrow. Unlike the movie, however, redemption seems unlikely anytime soon. 

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On Friday, Teddy Smith, a lead character in “On the Ice,” was led into a courtroom in Kotzebue. He is being charged with assault, robbery, theft, weapons misconduct and two counts of first degree murder for allegedly shooting two brothers who encountered him on a hunting trip. His bail was set at $500,000.

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“On the Ice” is directed and written by Barrow native Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, who wanted to show the real rural Alaska. He wanted to rip the gauzy fabric that Outsiders have used to shroud Alaska Natives in mystique and awe.

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“I wanted to make something that was about us, who we are now. Not about some idealized version of ourselves,” MacLean said in an interview earlier this year. MacLean, who lives in New York, didn’t have time on Friday to talk about Smith.

Teddy Smith, playing 'Egasak' in the film 'On the Ice'

Photo from the film "On the Ice"

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The main plot and the action in “On the Ice” centers around two young friends, Qalli (played by Josiah Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan). But Qalli’s father, played by Smith, is the film’s moral ballast. A good, strong, family man, he is what the young characters and the audience depend on to help cut through moral ambiguity and set the standards. The film might be set in an exotic locale, but the lessons are universal. In America, violence is endemic and devastating. In Alaska, violence is endemic and devastating.

In the movie, Smith modeled a way out of the circle of violence.

The latest chapter in Smith’s real story however, is yet another reminder that no matter how much we want to believe in cinematic narratives and satisfying endings, life rarely imitates art.

A death in the family

Smith, a former Marine, isn’t from Barrow. He’s from Kiana, a village of about 360 in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough, at the intersection of the Kobuk and Squirrel rivers. Kiana is reported to be one of the nicest, most modern villages in the area. It’s a quiet village, known for its strong leaders. Crime in the community is comparatively rare. Unlike many other villages, it has opportunities for work. Red Dog Mine, the world’s largest zinc mine, is less than 60 miles away. Smaller mines surround the area.

On the night of Sept. 7, Teddy got on the VHF radio -- a common way to communicate in rural Alaska -- to announce that his 74-year-old mother, Dolly, had died.

Troopers labeled Dolly Smith's death as suspicious. According to troopers, the investigation into her death is ongoing.

Dolly was a beloved member of the community. She made parkas and hats out of beaver fur and seal skin. She was active in the Quaker church, had retired from the local health clinic, where she worked as a health practitioner.

When some of the members of the community arrived to help, Smith allegedly fired a weapon at the crowd. Nobody was hurt, but bullets whizzed. According to troopers, he had been drinking.

Shortly after the incident, Smith began to walk downriver. He emerged 11 days later, when things would get worse.

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Court documents paint a complicated and frightening picture of what happened on the evening of Sept. 18, when two brothers -- 46-year-old Paul Buckel of Kotzebue and Charles Buckel, 47, of Fostoria, Mich., showed up to stay in at their friend’s cabin on the banks of the Squirrel River north of Kiana.

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According to documents, at 5:30 p.m. the two brothers, floating the river on a hunting trip, beached their inflatable canoe near the cabin. When they entered they were surprised to find it warm, with wood burning in the stove. Smith allegedly introduced himself to the two as “Paul,” and told them he had permission to stay there. For over an hour, the three talked.

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At about 7:30 p.m. Charles decided to call his friend to let her know they had made it to the cabin. As he was looking for his phone, Smith allegedly produced a handgun and shot Charles once in the chest. Smith then allegedly pointed the gun at his brother, Paul, and ordered him to load all of their belongings back into the canoe.

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Paul loaded the canoe with two rifles, 40 rounds of ammunition, camping gear, binoculars and a satellite phone. Smith then shot him in the shoulder.

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Bleeding, the two brothers fled into the woods.

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Smith pushed the loaded canoe off the river bank and began floating down the river. Shortly thereafter, the two brothers returned to the cabin and radioed for help.

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The Buckel brothers are both recovering from their injuries at an Anchorage hospital. Charles, shot in the chest, is in fair condition. Paul is listed in good condition.

On the river

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Kiana resident Lorry Schuerch thought that he might be able to help troopers locate Smith. Schuerch himself is a former trooper. Now, at 68 years old, he works the winters at Red Dog. In the summers he runs a lodge and is a fishing guide. He knows the land, he knows his community and he felt obligated. And he wanted it to be over. Shortly, he was going to have to leave his family to go work at Red Dog for three weeks, and he didn’t want a dangerous man with a gun in the community.

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Too, he had been close to Smith’s father, Don Smith when he was alive. He wanted to help bring Don’s son in safely.

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His wife packed two sandwiches: one with eggs and bacon, another with caribou, mayonnaise and onions, and sent him out the door.

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The troopers told Schuerch that Smith was on the river paddling downstream toward Kiana. Schuerch knew the river made a wide left bend about 22 miles upstream from Kiana. “I suggested to the search commander that ‘this is probably going to be a good place,’” to apprehend Smith.

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He took the troopers to the spot and they waited. By the time Smith’s raft floated past five hours later, they had the area surrounded and they told him so over a loudspeaker.

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Smith immediately surrendered and paddled to the shore. “He was tired and hungry,” Schuerch said. “He had been out there for 12 days. He’s one tough hombre, but he looked like he was tired and worn out.”

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On the boat on the way to town, Smith mumbled incoherently. The only word he spoke clearly was when, as they were docking the boat, Schuerch asked Smith if he was hungry. Smith said, “Yes.” Schuerch gave the sandwiches to a trooper to give to Smith when he was in his cell.

Redemption in nature?

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In the movie, the character Smith plays works for search and rescue. He doesn’t drink. His house is tidy. His son is smart and college bound. A drug and alcohol fueled murder, though, threatens everything he has and everything he knows. The movie and the acting is at its best when you feel Smith’s rage, anger and devastating sorrow as it looks like his son’s life will be ruined.

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In 2005, in the real world, Smith drank a liter of mouthwash, threw an axe at his brother and grabbed a gun. His brother tripped over a snow bank as he was trying to escape, and Smith stood over him, aiming the gun at him. He put it down after his sister begged for him to do so.

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In 2010, Smith was charged with drinking and driving. In that year, he was also the subject of a restraining order.

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He has five misdemeanor assault charges.

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Frank Qutuq Irelan who lives in Nome and was one of the lead characters in the film, called him a hard worker. “I don’t know what to think, but I’m pretty sure with his skills he could have gotten other movie roles if he had pursued it. He really worked hard at memorizing his lines,” Irelan said.

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In fact, Smith was pursuing other roles.

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On his Facebook page, Smith posted photos of himself teaching Kiana high school students how to fix an elder's dogsled. Other photos show him fixing other old sleds. Another picture is of his truck. "This will let you know how small my village is. My 1975 F250 has 15,543 miles!" he wrote. 

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Pictures also chart the progress that he’d been making on another feature called "Wildlike,” about a troubled girl who finds herself lost in the Alaska wilderness in Southeast. The Outside producer, Schuyler Weiss, said that he wanted to portray the real Alaska, the “healing element,” in nature. Nature, according to Weiss, is the “redemptive force in the film.”

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It’s not known what role Smith has in the film.

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On Sept. 2, Smith posted on Facebook that he and the crew had just finished filming the movie. Five days later, he was at home in his village, surrounded by real nature.

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Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com and Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com