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Deadly Kotzebue standoff leaves rural Alaskans rattled

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

Kotzebue residents are still recovering from Sunday's tragic confrontation between law enforcement and a local man, which left Kotzebue's Arvid Nelson Jr. dead and two troopers wounded.

According to initial investigation by the Alaska State Troopers, 50-year-old Nelson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Events began to unfold around 9:15 a.m. Sunday, June 17, when the Kotzebue Police Department received a report that Nelson's vehicle had struck the guardrail on Ted Steven's Way. According to that initial report, Nelson's vehicle was stopped on the road, and a passerby in another vehicle had witnessed him brandishing a firearm.

Sgt. Norman Hughes, a Kotzebue Police officer, responded to the report with two Kotzebue-based troopers, Gordon Young and Christopher Bitz, according to a press release from the Department of Public Safety. When they approached the vehicle, Nelson shot at the officers, wounding both troopers.

Trooper Bitz was shot in the upper leg, and medevaced to Anchorage for immediate medical treatment. He is in stable condition at an Anchorage hospital recovering from his wound. Trooper Young suffered a minor injury and was treated at the Kotzebue clinic before being released and heading back to the scene.

"The suspect was barricaded in the vehicle until 6 p.m.," wrote AST Information Officer Beth Ipsen in a release. "Five members of the Southcentral Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT) and a crisis negotiator flew from Anchorage via a charter airplane and arrived in Kotzebue shortly after 2 p.m. to assist in the safe resolution of the situation."

Nelson's vehicle was near enough to the end of the runway that all but emergency airport traffic was shut down.

The SERT team pursued a number of different methods in order to contact Mr. Nelson, said AST Captain Barry Wilson, C Detachment Commander. Though a trained crisis negotiator was on hand, the location of the vehicle prevented troopers from safely getting near enough to Mr. Nelson to speak with him.

"The best thing is (if) we can talk with them and they decide to come out," Wilson said. "With the open terrain, there was not an easy way to get to (the) location. You couldn't hide behind a solid wall. We couldn't get close to the vehicle to try to make further verbal contact."

Nelson did not answer his cellphone when troopers tried to contact him that way, Wilson said, so they sought to reach him through other non-lethal methods.

They launched bean-bag rounds at the vehicle to knock the windows out, said Ipsen's report. They also launched pepper powder rounds through the windows, trying to force Nelson to leave the vehicle.

All efforts to communicate with Nelson failed, and troopers were unable to make any contact with him following the exchange of gunfire that morning.

There were indications that Nelson was alive during this time, but non-communicative.

"We did see some movement in the vehicle up until the last part of the afternoon," Wilson said.

The standoff ended at 6 p.m. Troopers approached the vehicle to find Nelson had died of a gunshot wound.

Troopers: SERT deployments rare in rural Alaska

Four investigators and a crime scene technician remain in Kotzebue to perform a thorough investigation of the incident, and Nelson's body was sent to the State Medical Examiners Office in Anchorage for an autopsy.

"The Alaska Bureau of Investigations is the investigative arm of the Alaska State Troopers," Wilson said, "(which) does all of our investigations into our use of force investigations."

That same branch also oversees all homicide investigations. The same attention that would be given a homicide investigation is given to situations like this, Wilson said, in order to assure that the transpired events are fully understood.

While gunfire was exchanged between the troopers and Nelson, it seems apparent that Nelson's life did end through suicide.

"I am confident from the information that I've been provided that it was a self inflicted gunshot wound," Wilson said.

This is just the second time in the last year that Wilson could recall a SERT team responding to a rural Alaska crisis situation.

He said the outcome of this conflict was disheartening for everyone involved.

"Our goal is that everybody safely leaves the situation," Wilson said. "And that includes the officers, that includes the public and that includes the suspect."

Members of the community are at a loss for how to respond, said Kotzebue resident Noah Naylor, and are deeply saddened by such a tragic event.

"I'm not sure how I feel about it," said Naylor, who said he hadn't realized how serious the situation had become until later in the day, and was shocked to hear that two troopers had been shot.

"I feel really terrible about the whole incident. It's just a bad situation all around," he said. "I still feel uncomfortable talking about it."

Wilson echoed that feeling, and said the troopers are saddened by such loss of life as well.

“My personal reaction is it’s just unfortunate,” Wilson said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened at all in the first place. It’s unfortunate that this individual chose the initial response to the officers arriving on the scene. It’s unfortunate we weren’t able to communicate with him."

The Alaska State Troopers ask that anyone with information, pictures or video that could pertain to their investigation please call (907) 269-5611.

This article was originally published by The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.