After months of wrangling between a Fairbanks attorney and Alaska prosecutors, a Nulato man who was at the controls of a snowmachine that ran into and killed a dog in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March finally agreed to plead guilty to a crime he says he doesn’t remember.
Twenty-seven-year-old Arnold Demoski has said since the beginning that he was returning home from a drinking party along the Yukon River near the village of Koyukuk in a drunken stupor.
On Monday, however, he entered a plea of guilty to charges of criminal mischief in the third degree, fourth-degree assault, reckless endangerment and drunk driving. He offered a tearful apology to former Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park, the owner of the dog that died, and musher Aily Zirkle from Two Rivers who was left terrified by the behavior of an unidentified man on a snowmachine.
Prosecutors say the man was Demoski. Zirkle in an interview this summer said the man approached her repeatedly and left her fearing for her life. She confessed the incident has made her apprehensive about taking to the Iditarod trail again.
Demoski’s guilty plea requires him to complete six months and three days of jail time, pay more than $35,000 in fines and restitution to the two mushers, and serve five years probation.
Over the spring and summer, he entered and completed an alcohol rehabilitation program and returned to work in tiny Yukon River village where he is the natural resources coordinator for the Nulato Tribal Council.
Where from here?
No sooner was his sentence handed down than some Iditarod fans were condemning it as too lenient. Iditarod mushers, and sometimes by association their dogs, are revered in Alaska.
As most things do these days, this debate played out on Facebook, where at least one resident of Nulato was willing to come to the defense of Demoski.
“Give me a break,” wrote Amy Nancy in a post. “The guy is young. The guy has a new baby and family. He’s remorseful. He’s sorry, plus, you have no idea what these people have to deal with out here. I dare you to come and live in his home village for one year.”
Nancy is in an interesting position to comment. An African-American educator who came north from Minnesota, she teaches in a village that is almost 94 percent Alaska Native. Nancy knows a thing or two about class and race in America.
More than that, though, she was in a pivotal position to go to the aide of mushers on the March night in question. After word reached the Nulato checkpoint that mushers were being harassed along the trail, Nancy offered to get on a snowmachine and head back toward Kokuyuk to look for anyone in trouble.
“I personally begged Karen (Ramstead) to go out and rescue Aliy about an hour and a half before she reached the checkpoint,” Nancy said via text message from Nulato Monday night. “I could have helped….”
Ramstead was the Iditarod race official in charge in Nulato at the time. She has refused repeated requests to comment on what happened with King and Zirkle in Nulato, and what role – if any – she might have had in covering up a third assault on a musher.
That involved a woman reported to have been “ass-grabbed” while on the snow-covered Yukon bound for Nulato after Demoski was arrested and jailed for running down and killing King’s dog.
Nancy on Monday revealed that Ramstead – an Iditarod veteran musher from Perryvale, Alberta, Canada, who the race now brings north every year to help officiate – did more than just advise Nancy not to talk about the third attack.
“What about Karen threatening me to keep quiet?” Nancy asked.
Transparency has never been the Iditarod’s strong suit. The race has a long, rich history of trying to cover up that which would not play well with average Americans, and it has proven masterful at playing the Alaska media.
The Alaska Dispatch News, an Iditarod sponsor, is now portraying Demoski as a rogue villager who intentionally tried to run down King and Zirkle.
Dispatch reporter Dermot Cole accused Demoski of “aiming his snowmachine at their dog teams,” and described the incidents as “attacks” despite Demoski’s claim that he drank so much that he doesn’t remember what happened.
Drunk driving laws, it should here be noted, were written to keep drunks from driving because their ability to “aim” a motor vehicle is notoriously bad. Drunks who drive cars often end up in the ditch because of this aiming problem.
It is, of course, possible Demoski was aiming at King and Zirkle. But it is equally possible, especially in the case of King who was hit from behind by a speeding snowmachine that kept going after hitting his team and losing its cowling, that Demoski misjudged a team’s position on the trail – a common problem with drunk drivers – and ran into it.
Only Demoski really knows what happened out there, and so far he has stuck steadfastly to the story that he doesn’t remember.
CORRECTION: This story was corrected on Dec. 20, 2016 to fix a error in the timeline involving the arrivals of Aily Zirkle and Jeff King in Nulato.
I was unaware word had reached Nulato, Aiiy was in trouble out on the trail an hour and a half before she came into the checkpoint and reported the incident. Why was this not reported earlier? Why was this teacher the only one in a position to help? Was there no VPO? Why was this person asking Karen Ramstead for permission to go “rescue Aliy”? Maybe I don’t undrstand, but why would an Iditarod Race Judge be in a position to authorize citizens to go into situations where criminal acts may be occurring? If this woman wanted so badly to rescue Aliy, why didn’t she? Was she forcibly restrained from doing so by Ms Ramstead? Who told her Aliy was in trouble? What was the threat Ms Ramstead made to her? It would seem, you might want to have these questions answered, before you print slanderous accusations against someone. I can only gather from the accusations made in this article, the teacher is blaming Ms Ramstead for what I’m not exactly sure, and defending the young man with a baby who is sorry, and we have no idea what he has to deal with in his life.
Shirley: I will do my best to answer what I can here. Little of what happens along the Iditarod Trail gets reported unless a reporter happens to be around when things happen. Other than that, the Iditarod keeps a tight lid on information and lets out a.) only what it wants out; and b.) often little of that. I did not learn until just this week that there was a conference of Iditarod officials in Nulato when it was first learned what was going on and that Karen Ramstead there decided it was too “dangerous” for anyone to go out on the trail alone. So they waited until they had a trio of people to go back along the trail. They were at the same time dealing with mushers who wanted a snowmachine escort out of Nulato because they were scared. There was obviously a lot of fear in Nulato at the time. It never got reported. Teacher Amy Nancy was not the only one in position to help, but she happened to be at the checkpoint. I’m sure Iditarod could have found villagers willing go back out along the trail, but according to ms. Nancy Iditarod never asked anyone else for help. That is not unusual. The organization tends to be somewhat insular. Nulato has a VPSO, which is a state law enforcement officer. VPOs are Village Police Officers in a Bureau of Indian Affairs program. Law enforcement gets confusing in rural Alaska. But whether VPO or VPSO, their responsibility is for the village in which they work. Alaska State Troopers have the lead authority over what happens between villages. There was, in this case, no AST around. Iditarod has no legal authority. But as a practical matter, when Iditarod arrive in a village or for that matter a remote checkpoint, it simply takes over. I have had Iditarod volunteers give me all sorts of orders in these locations over the decades. I once had one question me in Rohn as to “what business” I thought I had on the trail. It was a straight up attempt at intimidation. I was, at the time, covering the back of the pack (BOP) with which Iditard has a sometimes strained relationship, and he didn’t like it. I had to explain to him the Iditarod is a public trail, though I wanted to just tell him to go f— himself. I did not ask Ms. Nancy the specific nature of Ms. Ramstead’s “threat,” but I have no doubt that Ms. Nancy was told in no uncertain terms that this was an Iditarod affair, and it was not her business to be going out on the trail to look for anyone. Must people, for better or worse, tend to listen to those “in command” even if those people lack any authority. I’m an outlier. I would have ignored Ms. Ramstead and headed back up the trail, but I can easily understand Ms. Nancy being intimidated. She now regrets that she didn’t go or didn’t round up a posse of Nulato villagers to go. Who told who what in Nulato remains unclear to this day. Aily met a Good Samaritan named “Mike” on the trail after she was first stalked and terrified. He promised to go back to Nulato to get help. I have never been able to find Mike or who he talked to in Nulato, although Aily said he apparently didn’t talk to the “right people” because no help ever showed up. The situation is still clouded by the fog of war all these months later. Ms. Ramstead’s unwillingness to talk about her role only adds to the fog. I reached out to her repeatedly after the incident. She has never responded. All of which leaves me wondering what your reference to “slanderous accusations.” I can only presume this is some sort of reference to Ms. Ramstead’s role here being discussed in the story. If so, I can only surmise you think it wrong for someone to question the behavior of an Iditarod official acting as a person of authority in an Iditarod checkpoint. This ought to at least enable you to empathize with Ms. Nancy, who at the time of this incident also believed authority should not be questioned.
“Dispatch reporter Dermot Cole accused Demoski of “aiming his snowmachine at their dog teams,” and described the incidents as “attacks” despite Demoski’s claim that he drank so much that he doesn’t remember what happened.”…so it may have been bad aim…or it may have been a deadly attack. He “doesn’t remember.” How about his approaching Aily several times so that she feared for her life? Were all those approaches also “bad aim”?
Tragic on every level.
Jane: Demoski has never admitted to aiming at anything. He has admitted to being drunk. It is hard to aim when you are drunk. He has also never admitted to stalking Aily, which is what that first “attack” sounds like when she describes it. It was pretty horrific. I feel for her. I hope she can get over that incident, but it was traumatic. Demoski did plead guilty to everything as part of a plea agreement to avoid a trial. But I have now talked to more than a half-dozen people who know him on a personal level, and they all say that what Aily describes is not the sort of behavior they’ve ever seen in Arnold Demoski. As a woman friend of his messaged me just last night, “I know him and don’t think he would do anything like that on purpose.” I don’t know what to think. I do know I would like to know who was at the Koyukuk party with Demoski and what they have to say about anything that might have been said there about the Iditarod or Iditarod mushers, or if they know when Demoski left. The sad and unfortunate death of King’s dog was a pretty clear drunk driving incident for which Demoski has been duly punished. The second encounter with Aily – a pass too close, a circle around to light her up, and then the flight fits with what Demoski has admitted to doing and something a drunk who had already hit something on the river before might do, ie. he hits a dog team and keeps going but has the humanity to spin around and check if he has some thought he might actually have hit a musher (human) in a second collision. These two collisions are as understandable as they are unforgiveable. Demoski shouldn’t have been driving drunk, and for that he deserves severe punishment. Is six months enough? I don’t know. Everyone reading this can decide. A young woman in Anchorage drunk and drugged ran over a cyclist and killed him. She got a year in jail.
This is a sad story all around, and laden with hypocrisy. Too bad Karen Ramstead was not charged for running her own dog to death during the 2007 Iditarod. No, instead she became president of MUSH with P.R.I.D.E. and she and Bob Fawcett drew little pictures of where to shoot the dog in the head and how long to keep their chains. Fawcett committed the Whistler cull in 2010 and served with Ramstead on the group’s board for ten additional months before his PTSD claim went public and he was voted out.
Now Ramstead is back on the trail doing Iditarod’s dirty work…encouraging a young victim of domestic violence to remain silent, encouraging the same young victim of sexual harrasment/assault to not report it, and threatening the local school teacher in the village where the series of tragic events unfolded. Is this a case of a Canadian race official obstructing American justice, or does Ramstead just exemplify how the Iditarod does business?