The stories that dominated Alaska news in 2018
From developments in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling to the first guilty verdict in a Palmer teen’s murder that drew international attention, people across the state gathered to learn more about the day’s events from KTVA and Alaska’s other media outlets.
Here are the most-read stories on KTVA.com in 2018.
The murder of Ashley Johnson-Barr
The disappearance and murder of Kotzebue 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr shocked Alaskans around the state.
Ashley had been last seen at a playground on Sept. 6. In the following days, dozens of volunteers searched the town and surrounding landscape over and over again, with no sign of the little girl. The FBI, Alaska State Troopers and search dog teams flew in to investigate.
Peter Wilson, 42, was initially charged with making false statements to a federal agent in connection with the case.
After eight days of searching, a team found Ashley's body in the tundra a mile outside of town.
Wilson was subsequently charged with three counts of first-degree murder, four counts of first-degree sexual abuse of a minor as well as kidnapping and tampering with evidence. A judge set Wilson's bail at $3 million.
Ashley's father, Scotty Barr, addressed the court at Wilson's arraignment.
“It’s in God’s hands now as well as you, the judge, as well as the district attorney,” Barr said. “I trust in all you guys to make the best decision for our family, our community and our region and our whole state, and our nation of states, that’s been behind us since day one.”
– Heather Hintze
Alaska’s election year featured a surprise, a changing of the guard and a little unfinished business.
With less than three weeks before the Nov. 6 general election, independent incumbent Gov. Bill Walker stunned a packed house at the Alaska Native Federation convention when he announced plans to suspend his bid for re-election.
A day prior he issued an apology to the Alaska Native community for historical transgressions: “I apologize to you, Alaska’s first people for the wrong that you have endured for generations. For being forced into boarding schools, I apologize. For being forced to abandon your native language and adopt a foreign one, I apologize. For erasing your history, I apologize. For the generational, historical problems, you have suffered, I apologize.”
Walker’s withdrawal left Democratic challenger Mark Begich and Republican Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy, a former state senator, won handily and was sworn in one month later in Kotzebue. He’ll begin his first session as governor on Jan. 15.
One election day result requires a final word from the state supreme court. Democrat Kathryn Dodge appealed her one-vote loss to Republican Bart LeBon. The supreme court will hear the case on Friday, Jan. 4.
– Steve Quinn
Closure of Alaska Sam’s Club stores
Amid chain-store closures in Anchorage including Blockbuster Video, Sears and Toys “R” Us, none seemed to hit quite so hard as the surprise January shutdown of Alaska’s three Sam’s Club stores. Alaskans, as well as early risers across the country, went to their discount warehouses on Jan. 11 to find security blocking entry as employees were told their locations were among 63 being closed nationwide.
The Anchorage Sam’s Clubs near the Dimond Center mall and the Tikahtnu Commons, as well as the Fairbanks store on College Road, held a final two-week liquidation sale before they shut down for good at the end of the month. Hundreds of people lined up outside to save at least 25 percent on all merchandise, leading to deals like an $800 mattress selling for just $350.
Although Anchorage residents were able to turn to competing Costco stores for their large-scale shopping needs, the news was a particularly bitter blow in Fairbanks where Sam’s was the lone discount club. Costco quickly agreed to take over the location, and despite an August fire as the building was renovated, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that the store reopened as a Costco in November.
– Chris Klint
Nov. 30 Earthquake
In the early morning hours of the last Friday in November, the earth beneath Alaskans' feet rumbled and fractured.
The total cost of Nov. 30's magnitude 7.0 earthquake has been estimated at $76 million, but miraculously resulted in zero loss of life. More than 100 structures in Southcentral have been deemed "unsafe to occupy" by municipal inspectors. Schools, government offices and some businesses were closed for days afterward.
Since it hit, many have compared the temblor to the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. KTVA's public affairs program, "Frontiers," dedicated an episode to telling the stories of the two seismic events.
The Mat-Su's Vine Road had about three days of international fame after a stretch was ripped apart.
Thousands of aftershocks later, Alaskans remain on edge. A recent 4.9 earthquake awoke many on Dec. 27. It was the largest aftershock since Dec. 1.
As of Dec. 17, more than 5,000 Alaskans had applied for individual earthquake damage assistance, according to Jeremy Zidek, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Emergency Management. Zidek said the state is encouraging people to apply before the Jan. 29, 2019 deadline, even if their damage doesn't seem excessive.
– Jes Stugelmayer
Ups and downs of air travel in 2018
It’s been quite a year for airlines across the country.
From international reports of a passenger being dragged off a plane in China, to a local woman being disappointed in the care of her wheelchair during an Alaska Airlines flight, stories of airline mishaps have hit the news almost every month.
The news hasn’t been all bad, though. In May, Alaska Airlines made history when one of its West Coast flights became the first to be flown by two black women. And in June, news turned positive again as a group of more than 20 Alaska veterans toured war memorials in Washington D.C. as part of the Last Frontier Honor Flight.
With many lows and a few highs, KTVA has a roundup of some of the biggest airline ups and downs of 2018.
– Elizabeth Roman
Moose charging at cyclist caught on camera
It was just another typical bike ride along a trail outside Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson for avid cyclist Andrew Eker back in May 2018. That is until he unexpectedly came across a mother moose and her two calves. As Eker rode by, the cow charged at him. The moose didn't hit him, but caused Eker to fall off of his bike and slam hard into the ground. Each time Eker tried to get up, the moose lunged at him.
The whole scene played out live on KTVA's Facebook page in a video that has since been viewed more than 1.9 million times.
KTVA got word earlier in the day that the moose was acting aggressively toward others on the trail, with her two new calves at her side. Two photojournalists and a reporter responded to the scene.
One photojournalist set up a live Facebook picture on the other side of the highway when the incident suddenly unfolded. Viewers were stunned to see the moose continuing to lunge at Eker who remained on the ground. A short time after Eker fell off his bike, you see a white SUV drive up and get between Eker and the mother moose. Two people get out of the car and pull Eker to safety — a separate KTVA crew that was sent to the other side of the Glenn Highway to report on the agitated moose.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game ended up closing off the trail because of the danger, saying the presence of offspring is a key factor in attacks by cows.
The moose family ended up walking through a moose fence and onto JBER. Eker was told by his doctor to stay off his bike for a few days.
– Joe Vigil
JBER battalion commander charged in nearly $500K of insurance fraud
One of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s strangest cases involving military justice emerged in May, when a high-ranking Army officer was accused of fraudulently claiming almost half a million dollars in insurance expenses dating back to his arrival in Alaska.
Lt. Col. Christopher Demure, at the time commander of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, faced federal charges of mail and wire fraud as well as money laundering in the case. Prosecutors said DeMure marked his 2016 move from Fort Benning, Ga. to JBER by falsely claiming his U-Haul moving van had been burglarized to the tune of $215,000.
Last year, DeMure allegedly submitted a Palmer police report to American Express, showing that a backpack containing thousands of dollars in goods including an Apple iWatch had been stolen from his vehicle outside the local Fred Meyer. Federal investigators, however, spoke with the officer whose name appeared on the report DeMure submitted – and she said she had never written such a document.
The funds from DeMure’s claims were allegedly channeled into repaying various credit cards and loans, as well as the purchases of a 2016 Chevrolet Suburban and a 2016 Audi A7.
– Chris Klint
Longtime Mat-Su teacher accused of sex crimes against students
Former Mat-Su Borough School District teacher Lukis Nighswonger, 36, faces charges of sexual abuse against his students dating back to 2008. District officials say nearly 400 students during a 14-year period had contact with Nighswonger, who allegedly told investigators that he was a pedophile and that he’s been attracted to children for as long as he can remember.
– Daniella Rivera
Chinese fishing vessel caught with 80 tons of illegal salmon
Continuing salmon fishing closures due to shortages have left Alaskans acutely angered by reports of illegal catches this year, but none more so than the 160,000 pounds of chum salmon seized from a Chinese fishing vessel by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Run Da was spotted by a Coast Guard C-130 search plane, then stopped nearly 900 miles east of Hokkaido, Japan by the cutter Alex Haley and a Chinese coast guard vessel. Coast Guard officials said the Run Da’s captain admitted to illegal fishing with driftnets in international waters; the vessel, crew and 80-ton catch were handed over June 21 to Chinese custody.
Other fish-related cases this year include hundreds of fish being dumped near Mile 14.5 of Knik-Goose Bay Road in July, as well as an August case in which Sitka police divers retrieved a single king salmon illegally thrown overboard from a fishing vessel in a wanton-waste case.
– Chris Klint
A no-jail plea deal and an ousted judge
Justin Schneider’s no-jail-time plea deal for an assault during which he strangled and masturbated on an Alaska Native woman, became an election surprise that cost the judge who oversaw the case his job. About a month after that deal was struck, voters recalled Superior Court Judge Michael Corey, despite state officials including then-Gov. Bill Walker saying the deal resulted from a criminal code “loophole” that needs to be closed.
– Daniella Rivera
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Alaska Supreme Court would hear the the case of Democrat Kathryn Dodge on Thursday. The case will be heard on Friday, Jan. 4.
Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.
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