FAIRBANKS -- For hours on Tuesday in a large, wood-paneled court room here, the lawyer for an elderly rural Alaskan and a federal prosecutor dueled over some regrettable nastiness that transpired in less than two minutes back in September on the Yukon River far from nowhere upstream of a dot on the map called Circle. By midday, 70-year-old defendant Jim Wilde was looking like a cantankerous old cuss, and the National Park Service had egg all over its face.
And then the case of the U.S. versus James Albert Wilde took a serious turn toward the where-but-in-Alaska weird, with the feds' top lawyer for the Interior caught in the midst of what appeared to be an effort to create evidence. U.S. Attorney Stephen Cooper didn't see his job of directing photo reconstructions of the purported crime scene as that big of a deal, but defense attorney William Satterberg and Magistrate Judge Scott A. Oravec had a different view.
Oravec suggested a mistrial might be in order. Satterberg contemplated calling his counterpart from across the aisle to the witness stand to discuss what exactly was the idea behind his directing a shoot of photos in March to illustrate an incident on the Yukon in September of last year. It didn't help that one photo of the snowy, ice-covered Yukon appeared designed to misrepresent the position of Wilde's riverboat when he had a confrontation with two park rangers who wanted to inspect the craft.
That encounter turned ugly after Wilde told the rangers, "Screw you," or words to that effect.
How and why all of this happened is the subject of the trial which charges Wilde with eluding and resisting arrest, along with failing to legally register his boat under state law. Wilde contends there was no attempt to elude anybody. His lawyer has said the longtime Alaskan was simply headed for riverbank to beach his heavily laden boat so rangers could safely inspect it. Rangers, backed by Cooper, say that Wilde -- who was aboard the 21-foot Wooldridge with his wife and a huge load of gear, might have been trying to make a run north for the Canadian border, although why is unclear.
What all parties seem to agree on is that in an effort to stop the Central resident from fleeing, rangers began a high-speed chase, pulled alongside Willde's boat, pointed a handgun at him, put that away in favor of pointing a shotgun at him, and then finally met him on the beach, where they took him down and handcuffed him.
Ranger Joe Dallemolle said that was necessary to gain Wilde's "compliance." Asked by Satterberg what that meant, Dallemolle -- a second-generation Park Service employee in Alaska -- said rangers needed to explain to the old man the necessity of following the law, and they wanted to "educate him" about boating safety.
Almost needless to say, the Yukon incident has stirred bad, old feelings against the Park Service all across the freedom-loving Interior. There were a couple dozen people from north of here near along the Yukon in attendance at Wilke's trial. The words they used to describe how Park Service officials treated the seemingly affable old man tended toward the profane.
Dallemolle, however, testified that the man he and a ranger partner met on the Yukon was anything but affable. Wilde refused to cooperate. He yelled profanity at rangers. He took off for shore in his riverboat. And there he approached Dallemolle in a threatening manner.
Dallemolle is a broad-shouldered man of 28. Wilde is significantly shorter, but he is a barrel-chested fellow who moves across the court room with an animal fluidity despite his age and breadth. He wore New Balance trail runners to court on Tuesday, like he might be planning to flee again, and regularly hitched up the jeans that hung below his belly. Dallemolle, bearded and fit, looked like an Alaska mountain man dressed up in a suit.
Despite the obvious physical difference between the two men, Dallemolle said that based on "my training and experience," the old man on the Yukon beach in September looked ready to rumble. The look intimidated rangers. Asked to imitate the look, Dallemolle stood up in the chair at the witness stand, clenched his jaw, clenched his fists, and held the latter out beside his sides like a cowboy going to a gunfight.
As Dallemolle told his story, the bigger, younger, fitter ranger armed with a shotgun stood on the shore of the river threatened by the smaller, older, less fit old man with no weapons except those clenched fists until another ranger jumped Wilde. Then the two rangers got him to the ground, handcuffed him, hauled him 60 miles back to Circle by boat, drove him another 140 miles to Fairbanks, and then threw him in the pokey where he spent several days.
How this all came to pass was described by Dallemolle in this way:
He and and his ranger partner were hanging out on the Yukon on patrol. They saw a riverboat coming upstream, so they put their boat in neutral and let it drift. When the other boat got within several hundred yards, Dallemolle went out on the bow and started waving at the approaching boat. This is something often done by the passengers of a drifting boat in trouble. Wilde saw the waving Dallemolle and steered his boat toward the Park Service craft.
At this point in the trial, Satterberg asked Dallemolle to go to a photo of the river at the front of the courtroom and diagram the movement of the boats. Spectators leaned in intently to watch. Dallemolle plotted Wilde's boat approaching to anywhere within 50 yards to "30, 40 or 50 feet maybe" of the Park Service craft.
Dallemolle then identified himself as a park ranger and asked Wilde to shut down his inboard engine. The ranger and Satterberg argued about the exact language used to do this, but Dallemolle eventually agreed he did tell Wilde to turn off the motor because it was noisy. The rangers left their motor running.
"Are you going to turn off your engine?" Satterberg asked.
"No," Dallemolle said.
"We have our safety concerns," Dallemolle said. (Safety is the reason Wilde has said from the start he didn't shut down his boat in the middle of the fast-flowing Yukon. He didn't want to lose maneuvering power in the swift current.) When pressed on the issue of why Wilde was supposed to shut down, Dallemolle said, "I can hear him just fine, but it is a distraction for conversation."
Dallemolle heard just fine when Wilde yelled profanity, however. The ranger had notes written down on that. He read them back in court to illustrate every bad word Wilde used. There were a bunch of them. And then Wilde took off in his boat. The rangers quickly give chase.
"You're behind him, and his boat's up on step?" Satterberg asked.
"Yes," Dallemolle said.
"How far behind him are you?"
"We caught up to him."
"This is a guy who is going to out-run you to Canada," Satterberg asked.
"That's possible," said Dallemolle, who argued Satterberg's inboard jetboat with its longer waterline could travel faster than the shorter, lightly loaded, outboard-powered Park Service craft over a long distance. So the rangers had to give chase. Dallemolle was in the bow, his partner at the controls.
Wilde, the ranger said, "swerved his boat in toward ours." The craft came within three or feet, close enough Dallemolle could almost touch the cabin on Wilde's boat.
"He's just about that distance when I draw my pistol," the ranger said. He pointed it at Wilde, holding it in one hand and motioning with the other for Wilde to slow down. Wilde kept going, but veered his boat away. That, Dallemolle said, was when he went back into the cabin of the Park Service craft to "get the shotgun."
He estimated the chase had now been underway for 20 or 30 seconds. He said the shotgun was necessary "to gain compliance with a lawful order." Dallemolle pointed the shotgun at Wilde, whose wife was seated directly across from him in the boat. Satterberg asked Dallemolle whether the shotgun was loaded with slugs -- which punch neat, single holes or buckshot, which sprays around and might hit anyone in the front of the boat. Dallemolle said he didn't know. But he knew the shotgun got Wilde's attention.
"Within one second of raising that shotgun," Dallemolle said, Wilde made an abrupt turn and headed for the beach. And pretty soon the old man was in compliance at last and on his way to jail. Date stamps on photos taken by a passenger in Wilde's boat indicate the entire incident, from a photo of the first encounter with the rangers to Wilde in handcuffs on the beach, took about a minute and a half. A Park Service dispatcher in Eagle, who recorded calls from Dallemolle reporting a chase and then Wilde's apprehension, put the time at something under two minutes.
Testimony will resume today if the trial resumes. The problems with Cooper's involvement erupted at the end of the day Tuesday after Satterberg cross-examined ranger Scott Sample, who was presented as something of an expert on crime-scene interpretation -- a CSI version of Sgt. Preston of the North. As it turned out, however, Sample was little more than the flunky taking photos for Cooper.
Under cross-examination from Satterberg, Sample was repeatedly asked why he took certain photographs at the scene of the alleged crime, and he repeatedly said, "This is where Mr. Cooper said I should take a photo. Mr. Cooper had the defense photos."
Of two of those defense photos, everyone seemed to agree, Cooper appeared to have directed good imitations of the alleged, crime-day photos taken by the passenger in Wilde's boat. But the third did not match the defense photos and appeared to be an effort to put Wilde's boat in a different place so as to portray a longer, more involved chase.
Satterberg said he wanted an explanation of why the prosecuting attorney inserted himself into the case to create evidence instead of calling upon experts in crime scene reconstruction. The defense attorney did not get an answer. When the trial adjourned for the day, the defense was debating what to do.
"If he's called as a witness," Satterberg told the judge, "we can't argue the case (because the state has no counsel.) Then what do we do?"
The choices seemed to be between an officially declared mistrial or a mistrial by default, although Satterberg didn't appear much interested in either option, given the weeks of trial preparation and the money spent by his client trying to fight the power of the government.
Contact Craig Medred at email@example.com.
Craig Medred's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect the views of Alaska Dispatch.