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.