Iditarod musher facing domestic violence charges


Travis Beals/courtesy Frank Kovalchek at Wikimedia Commons

© 2016 All Rights Reserved

A little over a month ago, 24-year-old Travis Beals from Seward happily rode into Nome behind a team of six dogs to claim his second top-20 finish in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and collect a check for nearly $17,000.

On Tuesday, the 2015 winner of the Horizon Lines Most Improved Musher award is scheduled to appear in court to face charges of assaulting his fiancee, another Iditarod musher. It is not the first time. Beals was in the summer of 2015 convicted on charges related to an earlier assault on the same woman.

At that time, the victim told Alaska State Trooper Eric Jeffords that “Travis had hit her and hurt her. (The victim) stated she had not reported those incidents because she thought Travis was just struggling with his mental health issues. (The victim) states on one occasion Travis struck her in the arm and broke her arm.”

Despite pending domestic violence charges and a history of domestic violence that appears worse than that of disgraced former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, the Iditarod allowed Beals to run the 2016 race. His fiancee, who has stuck to his side despite the abuse, competed in the same event.

Rice witnessed a much different treatment. He was indefinitely suspended from the National Football League in 2014 after it was revealed he had knocked out then-fiancee Janay Palmer. Rice has yet to return to professional football, and there is increasing speculation he might never find a team willing to take him back.

Iditarod Trail manager Mark Nordman said Friday that the Beals case might have been handled differently if Iditarod had been aware of his prior conviction.

“I didn’t know anything about how he was convicted on anything before,” Nordman said. “Was I aware of the pending charge? Yes.”

Iditarod legal counsel, however, advised the race let Beals run, Nordman said.

“What can I do,” he added.

No one is talking

Beals could not be reached for comment. His phone at Turning Heads Kennel said it was full and could not take messages. He did not respond to a message sent him on Facebook.

Beals’ domestic violence cases have gone unreported in Alaska up until now despite several reporters and a large segment of the mushing community knowing the history. The victimization of the female musher in question appears to date back to not long after her arrival in the state from the East Coast more than five years ago.

Friends said efforts to separate her and Beals went nowhere. The victim has expressed the view she wants to be the next Susan Butcher, the winningest woman in Iditarod history, and some think she has so convinced herself that Beals is the ticket to Iditarod success that she is willing to suffer his abuse.

Only 14 days after he was charged in late 2015, she delivered to the Palmer court a handwritten note saying she “would like to remove the no-contact order on Travis Beals starting immediately.”

Beals has shown some mushing success. An Iditarod rookie in 2013, he finished an impressive 11th in only his third race in 2015. His performance slipped this year, but training was interrupted by domestic problems which seemed to be temporarily over by the March start of the Iditarod.

Beals’ Facebook page showed him and his fiancee hugging at the start line. She did not return a message asking for comment for this story. Her name is being withheld to protect her privacy.

She is not the first person to become obsessed with the Iditarod and make questionable personal decisions. The Iditarod has some history of people burning up their life savings and exposing themselves to considerable danger or injury to ride behind a dog team for 1,000 miles across Alaska. The race has never killed anyone, but it has left many frostbitten.

Beals, like his fiancee, is among those consumed by an Iditarod dream.

“As a young child, Travis often wandered the dog lot, baby blanket dragging behind,” it is written on the webpage for the Turning Heads Kennel. “His parents would often have to remind him not to share his bottle with his companions, but he proved to be a poor listener. Whenever Travis was upset, he’d visit with the dogs. His parents once thought he’d run away, only to find him asleep with one of the dogs inside its dog house.”

Treatment or jail time?

The assault charges for which Beals is appearing before a so-called “CRP hearing” next week stem from an incident in Willow just before Christmas. Willow is a small community about 75 miles north of Anchorage where dozens of mushers live and train their dogs in the winter. CRP stands for “Coordinated Resource Project,” a mental health review that seeks to steer offenders away from jail and into mental health treatment programs.

Beals appears to have an anger-management problem.

According to court documents, the latest attack on his fiancee began with “an argument about their dog team training. Beals took (the victim’s) vehicle keys from” her and tried to drive off in her truck. She opened the truck door in an effort to stop him “and was struck by the door of the truck,” the affidavit drafted by Trooper Wallace Kirksey says.

The victim then fled to a cabin and locked herself inside to avoid Beals, according to the affidavit, which continues in this way:

“Beals entered the cabin through a window and grabbed (the victim) in a headlock, picking her up off the couch, physically escorted her to the door and pushed her out of the cabin into the yard, causing (her) to be placed in fear of imminent physical injury….Beals grabbed (her) personal belongings after throwing her out of the house, including but not limited to a Samsung Galaxy tablet with an approximate value of $200, and threw the items onto the ground in the yard breaking the Samsung tablet.”

The temperature in Willow on the day in question was somewhere around 10 degrees. The affidavit did not say how the victim was dressed.

As with other incidents involving Beals, this one went unreported. His public image, like that of most Iditarod mushers, circles somewhat glowingly around his love of the state’s premier sporting event – “The Last Great Race.”

“Despite the rush of achieving his lifelong goal being behind him,” the Peninsula Clarion newspaper reported after his rookie race, “Beals can now channel his effervescent energy to besting the mushers he used to daydream about in elementary school.”

Both Iditarod racers and the Iditarod race have achieved iconic status in the Alaska media thanks primarily to two women — Libby Riddles and the late Susan Butcher. An attractive blonde who later appeared in Vogue magazine, Riddles became the first woman to win the 1,000-mile Iditarod in 1985 by braving a Bering Sea storm that most of the men in the race thought too much to tackle.

Her historic victory vaulted a little-known race across the wilds of the north onto the international stage. Butcher cemented it there by winning four of the next five races.  Through the mid-1980s and into the 1990s, Alaska was known as “The Place Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod.”

Butcher was for most of that period every bit as famous as former Alaska Gov. and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin would later become. As the Iditarod grew and flourished in the wake of those two past champions, hundreds of thousands of people joined the ranks of race fans clinging to a mythical view of brave people and tough dogs challenging a dangerous winter wilderness.

Alaska’s beloved race

The fans, and sometimes the media, now react strongly to any stories or comments that might tarnish this image. Because of that, questions have occasionally been raised as to how thoroughly the Iditarod and some of its local-celebrity participants are scrutinized.

After earlier this year revealed an unreported assault had followed two highly publicized assaults on well-known mushers along the trail, the state’s largest news organization focused not on the details of what had happened, but whether the story should have been reported at all because the Iditarod and the musher involved prefered to keep quiet an assault which took place on a public trail used to stage the state’s highest profile sporting event.

The victim was “‘extremely disappointed’ ( did not respect her request for privacy,” wrote the Alaska Dispatch News.  The victim, it said, “praised the Iditarod for not issuing a public statement during the race, saying such a statement would have brought unnecessary attention and would have been a ‘huge emotional distraction.’

“‘The sensation that this has caused has only reaffirmed my belief that things were properly handled at the time.’….The  Iditarod ‘continues to be extremely supportive’ in figuring out ways to improve musher safety.”

The story offered no insight into exactly how things were handled by the Iditarod, or what the Iditarod had done or is doing to improve musher safety. The story raised obvious questions as to how aggressively the state’s largest news organization was likely to pursue character flaws in someone like Beals, one of the young and emerging heroes of the Superbowl of Alaska.

The Beals case, with its strong similarities to the case of the NFL’s Rice, raises the same difficult, complicated and confounding questions about domestic violence. Rice knocked out fiancee Janay Palmer with a vicious left cross to her jaw after a fight in casino elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Palmer, however, stood by her man, later married him, and made national television appearances in an attempt to help him regain employment in the National Football League.

America’s highest profile sporting organization, the NFL at first reacted to the assault by suspending Rice for two games, but after the video of the knock out surfaced at, the NFL suspended the running back indefinitely and the Ravens terminated his contract even though the victim protested that he should be allowed to continue to play.

Meanwhile, as SB Nation reported, the league instituted a policy requiring “a six-game suspension without pay for the first offenses, and a lifetime ban for second offenses….(to) apply to all NFL personnel, including executives and owners.”

The Rice case began a discussion of domestic violence as it related to professional sports. Many sports followed the lead of the NFL in cracking down on such abuse.

“Despite the lack of a written domestic violence policy, when allegations were made against (NASCAR) race car driver Kurt Busch (in 2015), the league suspended him and made him meet certain criteria before he could drive again,” American, a publication of the American Bar Association, reported last year.

The Iditarod has no domestic violence policy, but before the March start of this year’s race Nordman warned mushers that “if people are not respectful to these events, we don’t have to accept any entry…if you’re a negative person and not toeing the line on promoting this race, we don’t have to accept your entry. It’s not a God-given right to run this race, it’s a privilege.”

The warning, however, was aimed mainly at public-relations issues, which the Iditarod instituted a gag order to try to control. Nordman on Friday said the organization hadn’t thought about domestic-violence, but obviously that issue has now been forced upon the organization.

“We’re discussing it daily now,” he said. “It’s something we’ve got to look at.”

Iditarod, an event always sensitive about maintaining a dog-friendly image, has a domestic violence problem that goes beyond that faced by other sports, given an  increasingly well-established link between domestic violence and animal abuse.

“Women residing at domestic violence shelters  were nearly 11 times more likely to report that their partner had hurt or killed pets than a comparison group of women who said they had not experienced intimate violence,” said a 2007 study in “Violence Against Women.” Reports of threatened harm to pets were more than four times higher for the group. Using the Conflict Tactics Scale, the authors demonstrated that severe physical violence was a significant predictor of pet abuse.”

Historically, the Iditarod has been aggressive in dealing with mushers caught publicly abusing dogs. Musher Jerry Riley, an Alaska Native from Nenana, was booted from the Iditarod for nine years after he failed to report he’d injured a dog while breaking up a dog fight, and two-time race runner-up Ramy Brooks, an Alaska Native from Healy, was suspended from racing for two years and put on probation for three more after it was reported he kicked some dogs and hit others with a ski pole.

Brooks never returned to the Iditarod. Riley hasn’t run a race since 2003. The Iditarod has never suspended or banned anyone for domestic violence.

Clarification: The photo atop this story was changed on April 24, 2016 to end a distracting debate about the “fair-use doctrine” as it applies to journalism and Facebook photos.

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