Last updated at 7:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 16

James Dale Ritchie wasn’t on the Anchorage Police Department’s radar. It wasn’t until he came in contact with APD by happenstance Saturday, when Ritchie shot at an officer responding to a theft. Officers fired back, killing him.

What police detectives found as they investigated the scene, turned out to be a major break in their ongoing investigation into several unsolved homicides. APD says ballistic evidence proves the gun Ritchie used is the same gun used in five recent murders.

Detectives are now digging into Ritchie’s past, his social media accounts and phone records, trying to find his connection to the shootings, while those who knew him say they never saw this coming.

A former classmate, who asked not to be named, told KTVA, “He was the kinda guy everybody liked.” Also known as “Tiny,” Ritchie grew up in Mountain View. He attended East High School where he played basketball and football, graduating in 1994.

It was shortly after that Ritchie’s criminal past began. By 1998, Ritchie was already serving time in prison for drug possession. Law enforcement involved in the drug bust recalled greeting Ritchie by his street name, according to court documents.

Following a conviction, Ritchie wrote a letter to Anchorage Superior Court Judge Larry Card, asking for a second chance.

A letter written to Judge Card by James Ritchie

A letter written to Judge Card by James Ritchie

“I’ve let everyone down who was hoping I would succeed,” Ritchie wrote. “I lay in bed every night thinking about how I’ve ruined my life. Then I sit up crying, wishing I could go back to high school.”

Richie said he wished he’d gone to college to play football or basketball.

“Then I would be graduating now instead of here in jail,” he wrote.

But Richie would wind up in jail again. In 1999, he was caught driving intoxicated and in possession of drugs and a gun. In 2005, he served two years for attempted burglary.

The Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) says 2007 is its last record of Ritchie in the system.

“He was out of the system, so unless they’re arrested again, he was free from anything, any conditions from the Department of Corrections,” said Corey Allen Young, a spokesperson for DOC.

Some have been quick to call him a serial killer, but APD said using the term is premature. To earn that label, Ritchie would have to be a suspect in multiple homicides. So far, police can only place him at one of the three crime scenes: Bolin Street in East Anchorage, where Treyveonkindell Thompson was shot and killed in July.

Thompson’s case was pivotal for APD’s investigation. Witnesses were able to help them develop a person of interest sketch and description, one APD now says depicted Ritchie.

However, APD has only connected the gun to the other four homicides. They still need to figure out who pulled the trigger.

“Our detectives will be looking into Mr. Ritchie’s past,” said APD Lt. John McKinnon. “We will be reaching out to our partner agencies to look at where he might have been in the nation, and see if there’s any other cases that may be linked to him.”

Community activist Ma’o Tosi attended East High School with Ritchie.

“When I saw the name, I said ‘I wonder if that’s him,’” Tosi explained in an interview Wednesday, pointing to a 1994 picture of the two standing side-by-side in a group photo of the school’s basketball team. “The photo with me standing right next to the criminal is the craziness. But also to look at that photo really broke down kind of why it was so important to have the options that we did because maybe these could have been crimes that began at a younger age. But having the outlets that we had, having basketball to be that consistent in our lives, maybe if he would have had the opportunity to go to college or do some other options then that probably would have opened up to where this wouldn’t have been what we’re dealing with now.”

Where Ritchie went after 2007 is still a mystery, but Saturday’s shooting does hold a connection to his high school past. Arn Salao, the officer Ritchie shot, was a freshman at East High during Ritchie’s senior year. It’s unknown whether the two men knew each other.

Police are asking anyone with information on Ritchie to come forward. Call APD at 907-786-8900 or leave an anonymous tip through Anchorage Crime Stoppers online or by calling 907-561-7867.

KTVA 11’s Daniella Rivera can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter. KTVA 11’s Liz Raines contributed to this report.

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