Shageluk copes alone in early stages of family tragedy
Update: Troopers have identified the 21-year-old suspect as Everett Semone of Shageluk. He has been arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Semone is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in Bethel.
A couple was killed in Shageluk late Tuesday night, and friends and neighbors in the Interior Alaska community say their son is responsible.
Details about what lead up to the deaths of Flossie Semone, 46, and her longtime partner Johnny Arrow, 57, have not been revealed. Alaska State Troopers arrived on scene the next morning and are now trying to learn what happened in this isolated Interior Alaska community of about 80 people.
When they arrived, they found the couple’s 21-year-old son tied to a chair in the city office building.
Joyanne Hamilton, the lead teacher in Shageluk, identified the victims. She also said people in the community had to apprehend a dangerous suspect on their own and did their best to provide emergency medical care.
An AST dispatch, a daily online log of trooper activities, said troopers received a report of two people injured in the village at 9:17 p.m.
The trooper dispatch said plans were being made to send two troopers to Shageluk on a medevac flight from Bethel, a Kuskokwim River community about 150 miles southwest of Shageluk. The flight was aborted an hour later when the Bethel hospital learned the two victims had died.
According to the trooper log, Aniak troopers were to respond via a chartered flight.
A spokesperson for the state troopers, Megan Peters, told Bethel’s public radio station KYUK she believes the troopers reached Shageluk by 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
City and tribal leaders issued a joint press release expressing frustration over the response.
“The community of Shageluk is extremely outraged by the lack of medical attention and emergency response by the Alaska State Troopers,” said the statement, which was signed by Roger Hamilton, Jr., 1st chief of the Shageluk Native Tribe and Anna Benjamin, secretary-treasurer for the City of Shageluk.
The release also noted that Shageluk has not had a health aide in two years and does not have its own village public safety officer.
Dan Winkleman, who is president of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, said YKHC had been actively trying to recruit a health aide, but was having difficulties attracting one to such a small and isolated community.
“Staffing is always an issue in our villages,” Winkleman said. “We do the best job we can.”
Just this past weekend, Winkleman and other YKHC leaders visited Shageluk, Holy Cross, Anvik and Grayling. They traveled over more than 250 river miles to meet with leaders in those Interior Alaska communities, which are not on a road system. Winkleman said he had asked for Shageluk’s help in trying to recruit a health aide.
For Winkleman, the tragedy hits especially hard. His mother is from Shageluk and he is related to the couple who died.
“I just visited with them last Thursday, and I spent the afternoon with them,” said Winkleman, who admits it’s hard to address the gaps in services, while at the same time cope with his own grief.
“Right now, I’m really focused on the family, the extended family,” which he says also extends to Shageluk’s neighboring villages.
Winkleman said YKHC has sent its crisis response team to Shageluk to offer counseling or other help in dealing with the tragedy.
The news of the Shageluk deaths came during the annual meeting of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a tribal organization that represents more than 50 communities.
Winkleman, who has been attending the AVCP conference in Bethel, said the Shageluk tragedy has renewed the call for more local control.
“Troopers needed to be on the ground last night when this happened,” Winkleman said. “There were a lot of frightened people. Children. Family. People taking up arms in their own homes to ensure that there was safety.”
Winkleman says he has asked for help from Gary Folger, the state public safety commissioner. Folger is an Alaska Native who has spent much of his career serving rural Alaska.
Winkleman wants Folger to look further into why the response to the Shageluk crisis wasn’t faster. Folger was in Bethel on Wednesday attending the regional tribal gathering and could not be reached for comment.
A number of factors can affect air travel to remote villages — weather conditions, the size of the airport runway, the lack of adequate runway lighting, as well as aircraft and pilot availability.
State troopers work collaboratively with tribal organizations and other nonprofits, which manage the Village Public Safety Officer program, paid for mostly with state funding. Although their numbers have increased in recent years, many villages such as Shageluk still don’t have a VPSO.
In the wake of the killings, Winkleman said, he’s more convinced than ever of the need for more tribal control.
“To me, this goes to the heart of why tribal sovereignty is so important in the state of Alaska,” Winkleman said. “It works everywhere else in the Lower 48, where tribes have their own cops and law enforcement — and that should be true in Alaska, especially in our remotest communities.”
Joyanne Hamilton, the lead teacher in Shageluk, voiced her frustrations in an email on Wednesday, about 19 hours after the killings.
“As of right now it’s 4:20 and still no special crime unit has arrived. A single state trooper is standing outside the house where our loved ones still lay,” Hamilton wrote.
Hamilton also said the young man believed to have killed his parents had been in need of mental health services, which were not available.
She believes the circumstances may be similar to a tragedy earlier this year in the Interior community of Tanana involving a young man accused of shooting and killing two state troopers.
For now, it may be awhile before the reasons for the deaths are completely sorted out.
The statement from the tribe and the city attempted to sum it up: “Shageluk is, and always has been, a community that pulls together during hard times. We ask for prayers for the family, the siblings, the grandchildren, the extended family and the Shageluk residents.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported Arrow’s age. The story has been revised.
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