FAIRBANKS, Alaska >> Law enforcement officers from as far away as Florida on Saturday mourned the loss of two Alaska state troopers killed earlier this month in a remote village while trying to make an arrest.
A memorial for Sgt. Scott Johnson and Trooper Gabe Rich began with a procession and a drum cadence at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks.
Col. James Cockrell, head of the Alaska State Troopers, said Johnson and Rich touched many lives during their careers, and their deaths will strengthen the bonds between officers.
“This is a time to begin the healing process and come together as a community to provide strength to those who are still feeling the pain of their loss,” Cockrell said. “For in times like this, true Alaskans stand together.” The Anchorage Daily News said some 4,000 people attended the memorial.
A Fairbanks grand jury on Thursday indicted Nathanial “Satch” Kangas, 20, on two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths May 1 of Johnson and Rich. The two were assigned to rural law enforcement in 23 remote communities and were occasionally featured on the National Geographic Channel show “Alaska State Troopers,” which shows officers patrolling the state’s wild terrain.
Johnson and Rich had flown to Tanana, 130 miles west of Fairbanks, to arrest Kangas’ father, Arvin. A village public safety officer had reported that Arvin Kangas had driven without a license and pointed a rifle at him.
Johnson and Rich contacted Arvin Kangas, and as he tried to go into his home, they struggled. Nathanial Kangas emerged with an assault rifle and fired seven shots into the backs of the troopers, according to investigators.
Nathanial Kangas was taken into custody by the village officer. But other troopers, including a Special Emergency Response Team, poured in to the village to arrest Arvin Kangas. He was indicted Thursday on charges of evidence tampering and hindering prosecution. This week, Arvin Kangas and another man were banished from the community.
Johnson was a veteran trooper who joined the force in 1993. He spent his career in Fairbanks and worked a variety of roles, including patrol trooper, field training officer and canine officer, instructor and canine unit supervisor. He also had worked as a supervisor of a Fairbanks-area narcotics team. Survivors include his wife and three daughters.
“An amazing dad raised me,” said Hayly Johnson, according to report in the Daily News. “He left a lasting impression on everyone that you talk to.”
She said she will always honor him and the troopers; they are part of her family.
“We have to make the best of every day even if they don’t come home,” Hayly said.
He was also remembered as a mentor who loved to hunt and fish.
“Scott was quick to open his home and his arms to greet a friend and put him up,” said Keith Mallard, a friend.
Rich was born in Sayre, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Fairbanks. He first worked as a patrolman with the North Pole Police Department southeast of Fairbanks before deciding to join the troopers in 2011. With the troopers, he spent most of his career on patrol. Survivors include his fiancee, their 1-year-old son and his fiancee’s 8-year-old son. At the time of his death, Rich was in the process of adopting the older boy, troopers said.
“Gabe was one of those people that you just absolutely loved to see when he came into work,” said his supervisor, Sgt. Mike Roberts. “You could walk into the squad room and you’d be better because you’d see him with his mischievous smile on his face.”
The Daily News report said Dave Rich, father of Gabe, thanked the community and all law enforcement personnel who risk their lives. He said the way the troopers and others have supported his family in the last week has been overwhelming.
“They are genuine, they are honest, they are caring right down to the last person,” said Rich. “And that made me realize why Gabe was so proud to be an Alaska State Trooper.”