Sometimes late at night the thoughts of Ila Griepentrog wrestling with the pain of loss come creeping out of the darkness. When the first draft of this story was written months ago, the long Arctic winter was over. Alaska’s friendly midnight sun was the shining on the Brooks Range Mountains near Griepentrog’s home in the far northwest corner of the state.
And Griepentrog was seeking “Justice for Isa, ” a young woman who might as well have been her daughter killed in a snowmachine crash in the dark of winter. With the midnight sun now come and gone and a hint of fall in the air, Griepentrog is still seeking justice, or at the very least closure.
Six months have passed since Isa – Isabel Greist – died in that collision on the Ambler-Shungnak trail. “Auntie Ila” Griepentrog believes, right or wrong, that Isa was killed by a drunk driver. Ila still can’t talk about what happened without breaking into tears.
The reaction is understandable. It is difficult almost behind belief when the last memories of a woman you’ve watched grow from infant to adult are of paramedics slicing into her rib cage to insert a chest tube as she is dying, knowing they are keeping her heart functioning as she is loaded onto an airplane for a flight to Anchorage only because she is an organ donor.
A trained health aide who now works as the Ambler postmaster, Ila was there almost until the end, pumping a manual ventilator to keep Isa — as all her friends knew the 24-year-old — breathing while paramedics worked frantically and futilely to save her life.
After the paramedics sliced Isa open, it was easier to pump air into her lungs, Ila remembered, but “every time I squeezed that bag, you could hear the gurgling. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. The last memory of her eyeball almost coming out of her head, blood coming out of her ears.
“No one should have to go through that. When I was in high school, I used to babysit those kids. I changed their diapers. I helped them with their school work.”
Choked by tears, Ila stopped there and sobbed over a phone line that carried her grief almost 500 miles south from the tiny village of Ambler to Alaska’s largest city where she hoped someone would listen to her story, hoped someone would do something, hoped somehow beyond hope that the problems of rural Alaska would begin to get better.
“This was all because of someone’s selfish act, thinking it was OK to drink and then get on a snowmachine and drive,” she said.
Accusations, but no evidence
Ila uttered those words almost three months ago. Alaska State Troopers were then months into the investigation of Isa’s death. They appear to be still investigating. In the meantime, there is no closure for Ila or the other friends and family of Isa, and a dark cloud hangs over 65-year-old Ambler resident Frank Downey, the driver of the other snowmachine.
Ambler resident Morgan Johnson is among those who believe Downey should be facing charges, but Johnson is far from an unbiased witness. His 22-year-old daughter, Cherissa, was a passenger on Isa’s snowgo and suffered injuries in the crash. Her father thinks the accident was Downey’s fault.
Others are of a different view. Accidents are accidents, they say. Live and let left live.
All of this has made for a difficult summer in Ambler, a village of only 260 people.
“I don’t have an ETA that I can provide for you (on that investigation),” trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters emailed on May 24. “As you noted, there are challenges which makes the investigation complicated. We also understand that these types of incidents and the investigation can be trying and frustrating for family members looking for closure. When it is completed we will provide what information we can to the people involved, the family of the deceased and to the public.”
There has been no information provided since.
Whether Downey had been drinking before the Feb. 11 accident and if so how much remains only speculation. It is speculation that hangs over Downey, who is powerless to do anything about it. It is speculation that fuels the”Justice for Isa” campaign Ila started not long after the accident.
Since then, Ila has led Mother’s Against Drunk Driving marches in Ambler, posted regularly on Facebook about the problems of alcohol in the village, and led a one-woman campaign to condemn Downey, who says he has no memory of the snowmachine accident.
“I got hit by a snowmachine,” he said in a brief interview at the start of summer. “I’m OK now.”
Asked about reports he’d been staggering after the accident, he said he suffered a head injury in the crash.
“Sometimes I’m staggering once in a while still,” he said.
Asked about the weather at the time of the accident, he said, “I can’t remember that. I’m kind of suffering a loss of memory.”
And then he hung up the phone.
Weather appears to have been a compounding factor in the accident and more so in the investigation after. Alaska State Troopers were unable to respond to the scene for days because of bad weather.
But Cherrisa Johnson told Shady Grove Oliver of the Arctic Sounder newspaper that the visibility was good enough that she saw Downey’s snowmachine coming from the direction of Shungnak as she and Isa headed there from Ambler to attend a basketball game.
“Our snowmachine skis locked and they must have gone head to head,” she said. “When it all happened, I flew over both of them. It happened so fast. I was hurt. It was my neck because we hit so hard, but I didn’t really care at that point because I was still alive. I was up.”
She did her best to help save Isa, but it was hopeless.
Two months to the days after Isa’s death, her partner, Byran Lee, committed suicide in Ambler. Friends said he was overcome with grief, started drinking and then decided to end his life.
“It’s sad now Byran and Isa’s children Jodi and Jace are left without a mom or dad,” Ila messaged on that day. “Started off with Isa getting killed because Frank Downey (allegedly) chose to drink and drive. Byran felt so alone, lost without Isa.”
Later, Ila sent this:
“Have you seen my post about bootleggers making fast illegal cash and destroying people’s lives?
“I got some good comments on that post.”
Ambler is what Alaskans call a “dry” village. It means alcohol is legally banned there. Booze makes it into the village anyway. Prohibition doesn’t work any better in rural Alaska than it worked in America through the years of one of the country’s greatest failed social experiments.
Nobody likes bootleggers anywhere in the 49th state, or at least no one publicly admits to liking bootleggers. But in most places where alcohol is banned, bootleggers seem to do a healthy business. Obviously there are people happy to buy from them.
And because alcohol is such a difficult social issue with which to deal, opinions on how to manage booze in rural Alaska are split. There would, however, appear to be a growing consensus that drunk driving is wrong.
A Kotzebue snowmachine driver who killed an Anchorage doctor while driving drunk was convicted of manslaughter and other charges in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years in jail. A Nulato man who hit a team in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and killed a dog while allegedly driving drunk now faces a variety of charges in connection with that case.
Ila is troubled by the fact troopers were quick to charge Arnold Demoski in Nulato, after the Iditarod accident last March, but have yet to resolve the Ambler case from a month earlier.
Race colors almost everything in Alaska these days, and there are hints race is involved here. The Kotzebue case involved an Alaska Native driver hitting a white city doctor. The Demoski case involved an Alaska Native hitting a dog in the team of a white musher competing in the state’s highest profile sporting event.
The Ambler case involves an old Native man running into two young Naive women. It is the sort of accident that happens in Alaska with some regularity every winter. Most such collisions don’t even make the news, but most end with injuries not deaths.
Can you run a story on this?” Ila asked. “Maybe that would put pressure on the troopers and DA.”
Slow wheels of justice
The investigation into the Ambler crash was complicated by the inability of troopers to reach the village or the scene of the crash in a timely manner due to bad weather in February. The trooper post nearest Ambler is some 130 miles to the southwest in Kotzebue, an “All American City “ which qualifies as a regional hub in Alaska. It has a population of about 3,200 and a jet-served airport.
Possibly no other American community of this size can boast regular jet service, but then airplanes of all shapes and sizes are vital to rural Alaska. There are only about 30 miles of road in the Kotzebue area and none of them leave the Baldwin Peninsula jutting into Kotzebue Sound.
People travel by plane year round, by boat and all-terrain vehicles in the summer, and by snowmachine everywhere in winter when travel in Alaska is the easiest as it has been since the region’s first coastal residents hooked dogs to a sled to expand their range for winter travel thousands of years ago.
The snowmachine — which is now almost as efficient and easy to operate as the automobile but equipped with no more safety protection than a motorcycle — has proven both a huge blessing and damned curse in rural Alaska. The machines allow villagers to regularly travel to visit with each other.
The machines also kill significant numbers of people every winter.
Given that snowmachine accidents in Alaska are treated even more matter-of-factly than motor-vehicle accidents in the rest of the country, state date is poorly reported. The Alaska Department of Transportation recorded only five snowmachine fatalities in 2001.
That same winter, the Associated Press combed news reports on fatalities and concluded that, “With just under 627,000 people, the death toll this winter is 19, on a pace to exceed last winter’s 24. Wisconsin, with a population of 5.4 million, had 38 fatalities last year. New Hampshire, with 1.2 million people — and strict snowmobiling laws — had one death last year and three so far this year, including a man suspected of suffering a heart attack.”
Despite the 24 deaths the AP uncovered, only five are in the official report, which notes that three involved alcohol.
If three in five, or 60 percent, of snowmachine fatalities in Alaska involve alcohol, drunk snowmachining would seem a serious problem in the 49th state. And anyone who has spent much time on the winter trails of Alaska, knows there are people out there drinking.
How many of them have been drinking too much to legally drive is the question. It is a question that now haunts the village of Ambler. Ila is not the only one there who wonders why Downey isn’t facing charges, while Downey is now forced to live in a small-town version of purgatory.
With the investigation into the snowmachine crash still unresolved, at least publicly, he can no more prove his innocence than those with suspicions about his drinking can prove his guilt. This is the sort of thing that tears villages apart.
He has “balance issues yet he can drive a four wheeler with one hand, operate a boat, drive the tribal van around town?” messaged Ila, who worries the snowmachine accident will just be allowed to fade away unresolved. This is the way justice sometimes works in rural Alaska.
Time, it has been said, heals all wounds. Ila posts less often now on Facebook about Isa. The problems of the day – the village was on lock down the other day because of a troubled young man with a gun roaming the streets – take precedence over the issues of the past. Memories fade into the distance. The survivors move on.
This is in some ways the story of rural Alaska.