With the ruins of yet more cabins along the Yukon River still smoldering, some among the 178 residents of the tiny, riverside village of Grayling are reported to be standing guard as fears mount about a crazed loner nicknamed “Slop Pail Jerry.”
A note threatening local Athabascan Indians left at the scene of a weekend fire about 40 miles upstream from the village is linked to a 59-year-old wilderness recluse formally known as Jerald Harrison, who was living in Fairbanks until he disappeared into the wild earlier this summer.
The wording on the note was almost identical to that found on notes left at the sites of three other fires at fish camps and compounds farther up the river over the course of the summer.
“Joy Huntington is an evil Shaman who tortures to death anyone who gets in her way,” it began before leveling slurs and threats at the Athabascan people of the area.
Why Harrison has fixated on Huntington, a woman young enough to be his daughter, and the local Native population is unknown.
Huntington is a Dartmouth College educated Koyukon Athabascan, a member of the Fairbanks City Council, and a one-time assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who now runs a consultancy in the Central Alaska city. A shaman is a traditional Athabascan medicine man.
At a public meeting in the Yukon River community of Galena on Thursday, local residents were told that Harrison appears to have started looting cabins some 200 miles upriver in June and has been on a rampage of stealing and burning ever since.
He is believed to have stolen guns and food and is considered dangerous.
“This guy is extremely capable of living off the grid for years in caves in mountain sides (in to the summer) to snow caves in the winter,” Tyler Huntington, a well-known Alaska snowmobile racer wrote in a summary of the Galena meeting. “(He) smokes cigarettes if possible, has an obsession with multiple people but is fixated on one at the moment.
“Troopers stated don’t approach the area if you suspect him near. Call for the Troopers to report the exact location, what’s the signs or if there is a canoe around. It’s a strong guess that he is traveling only at night on the Yukon River, unknown color of canoe or if there is a motor. He may be pulling the canoe in the woods in the day and would never have been seen by any airplanes above or boats driving by on the river. Seems to be he does not want any contact with people since he has not been sighted for nine months, only his wrath of crimes and notes.”
Object of anger
The Huntingtons of the Yukon are a large and well-known, interconnected Alaska family with a rich history of business and political connections. Sidney Huntington, who died at the age of 100 in 2015, was a Yukon River legend who wrote a book titled “Shadows on the Koyukuk” which detailed some of the family’s life in an area which was once a remote wilderness and remains near that today.
Joy said Wednesday that she had no idea as to why Harrison has become obsessed with her.
“He used to come to city council meetings last summer and attack Mayor (John) Eberhart,” she said. She had one interaction with Harrison after he made what she called an “inappropriate comment.”
Fairbanks City Council minutes reflect that in July of last year Harrison “accused (then) Mayor Eberhart of being a psychopath. He stated that Ms. Huntington is ‘being naughty’ and ‘should be spanked.’ Ms. Huntington interjected and stated that Mr. Harrison’s comments were out of order; she stated that he should leave if he is going to make such comments.
“Mayor Eberhart reminded Mr. Harrison that his comments should be directed to the body as a whole and not to any particular council member. Mr. Harrison made no further comments.”
A couple months later, Harrison was back before the council to complain that then Fairbanks Police Chief Randall “Aragon tried to silence (Harrison’s) freedom of speech the day he held an anti-Eberhart sign on Cushman Street in front of City Hall. Mr. Harrison spoke to social issues between law enforcement and former felons,” council minutes say.
In reporting on that council meeting, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described Harrison as a “politically active homeless man.” His issue seemed to be with the mayor and the police chief.
Neither are Athabascan, but they do have connections to that community. Eberhart was an attorney for the Tanana Chiefs Conference and Aragon’s stepfather was a Navajo. The Navajo are the southernmost of the Athabascans.
After the September council meeting, Joy Huntington said, Harrison stopped coming to the council meetings “and then I never saw him again.”
His behavior, however, didn’t improve much. State court records show he was charged with assault and criminal mischief in February after tearing up a Fairbanks hotel room and threatening some hotel employees.
Harrison’s criminal history dates back to Valdez in 1985, according to state court records. From there a string of charges track his movement north through Anchorage, where he had trouble with a girlfriend; west to Bethel, where he had issues with another girlfriend and was charged with burglary, and on to Central Alaska in the 2000s.
His nickname – “Slop Pail Jerry” – stems from an incident in the Yukon River village of Ruby about 20 years ago when he threw the contents of a slop pail – the everyday equivalent of a bedpan in rural homes that lack indoor plumbing – into the truck of the mayor.
Harrison was charged with trespass in Galena, a Yukon community between Ruby and Grayling, early in the summer of 2007, and trespassing and theft in Fairbanks in the fall of that year. He went to jail for those crimes, but it is unclear for how long.
After 2007, he disappears from state court files for a decade until his latest problems begin in Fairbanks in February of this year. Fairbanks Assistant District Attorney David Bittner, the man now handling the Harrison case, did not return phone calls. An Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman said she couldn’t provide much information because she didn’t know anything about the case.
“The only information I have at this point to provide is what is contained in the (trooper) dispatch,” spokeswoman Megan Peters emailed. “Someone outside my agency told me that the (latest cabins to burn) weren’t actually on Blackburn Island but on the main shore nearby, however, I haven’t had that confirmed by anyone in my agency yet.”
Close to Grayling
The cabins that burned this week are about 40 miles north of Grayling near Blackburn Creek on the west bank of the Yukon. They were part of a Thurmond family compound that dates back to an earlier time in Alaska. Archie and Virginia Thurmond, who met on nearby Eagle Island at a time when people still lived a true subsistence lifestyle in the Bush and later raised 10 children in a tough land, are buried at Blackburn.
Where Harrison went after setting the fires, if indeed it was Harrison who set the fires, no one knows. But many along the river are worried about where he might be now and what he might do next.
Troopers, who don’t have anything to say to the media, have been warning river residents to be wary.
“One can only assume (Harrison) is the one responsible but the Troopers stated they have no evidence he is the person, due to all the evidence being sent to the state crime lab which we were told can take up to one year for results,” Tyler Huntington posted on Facebook after the public meeting in Galena. “Recommend people to check your property and make sure it’s safe.
“Once again, he is extremely dangerous and mentally unstable as is evident in the crimes of arson and similar notes at each crime scene. I hope this can be of some help. I can ask the tribe for their notes on the meeting to see if I covered the basics. Be careful and prayers for safety for the people on the Yukon River.”
No matter Harrison’s strange behaviors, he is reported to be adept at living off the land.
A resident of the village of Ruby reported that years ago Harrison “went up 11 miles above Ruby and dug into the side of the cliff and that is where he lived for several years before the troopers went and got him.”
Ruby is an old mining community of about 225 people. Once a bustling port on the Yukon, it is now a shadow of its former self but remains a welcoming stop for many traveling the river and comes to life each March to welcome the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It is best known these days as the home of former Iditarod champ Emmitt Peters.
Harrison’s survivalist background and present loner status have added to the belief he could be dangerous. The river has a bad history with loners. In 1984, a lone drifter by the name of Mike Silka killed seven people about 185 miles upriver from Ruby in Manley Hot Springs on the Tanana, a major Yukon tributary.
One of the dead was an Alaska State Trooper trying to apprehend Silka while investigating the disappearances of six Manley residents. Troopers and others familiar with that history have every reason to be cautious in approaching Harrison. That doesn’t make things any easier for uncomfortable villagers.
For some of those living in rural Alaska – a state where race colors many things – it is hard to avoid thinking that race might play a role in why Harrison’s apparent crime spree has continued all summer, and they have been posting those thoughts on Facebook.
(Names have been removed from the following posts between rural Alaska residents. Their identities are being shielded to protect those who might innocently believe Facebook is private.)
“I try very hard not to be prejudice,” one post started. “I know there are good and bad people in every race. However I cannot help thinking (that) if a Native person was burning down Caucasian cabins that person would be picked up already. My own opinion.”
“I was thinking the same thing!” another post followed before someone intervened to say, “It’s not a racist thing. He is just an arsonist.”
The debate raged on from there.
“Not sure that troopers would be quicker to pick someone up just because they were a Native burning down Non-native cabins…but I’m pretty sure that they would be spending much more effort to find whoever was doing it than they are now,” came another post.
“Another angle on non-Trooper action is (that) they know exactly who they would be up against as they already used a SWAT team to get him before a few years ago above Ruby. The know the guy. He’s a survivalist, armed, loose screws in the head, now skinny ” from lack of food.
“Tell AST (Alaska State Troopers) what you know,” someone responded. “And please, don’t make this asshat represent any race or let this become a racist issue. One ugly human does not represent a whole race.”
Others were quick to echo that sentiment.
“It’s not a race issue,” one wrote. “I did call the troopers as this guy left three notes at my mom’s camp above Galena. We found a campsite near the summer camp. Reported it. I don’t think they even checked it out. I feel for the…foreign river canoe tourist….”
The canoeist comment refers to a German paddler on a Yukon River float trip. He appears to have been one of the few people to actually meet Harrison along the river this summer. The man reported the once 190-pound Harrison was down to about 170 pounds.
Tom Huntington, who now makes his home in Fairbanks, said he talked to the Anvik tribal chief about the German earlier this week. Anvik is about 20 miles downriver from Grayling.
“He said the German tourist waited there to talk to the troopers but they didn’t show up,” Tom texted. “He left by canoe. It’s reported to be windy and rough on the river at Grayling. They’re waiting and watching.
“My take is (Harrison) is heading for the Kuskokwim as a number of years ago that’s where he came from.”
The Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers converge on the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta. It is a 50,000-square-mile wilderness, an area about the size of Louisiana dotted with lakes, rivers and ponds.
Only about 25,000 people live there, most of them Athabascans and Yup’ik Eskimos who sometimes waged war against each other before the Russians moved into Alaska in the mid-1800s and helped to unite the aboriginal population against a common enemy.
The residents of the Y-K Delta remain a tough and hardy bunch now struggling to find a path between the old ways and the new. They survive in about 50 villages scattered across the Delta, the largest of which is the regional hub of Bethel where Harrison once lived.
It would not be easy to cross the delta from the Yukon to Kusko, but it is possible. There is an old portage about 75 miles long from near the village of Russian Mission on the Yukon to near Lower Kalskag on the Kusko about 90 miles upstream from Bethel.
A Bureau of Land Management report noted the portage was once used as an Alaska mail route although “because of shallow water and crooked, narrow creeks, travel over the Y-K Portage was difficult….In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Alaska Road Commission, the agency then in charge of building roads, trails, and bridges in territorial Alaska, improved access across the Y-K Portage by staking the route, installing trams with flat cars, windlasses, cables, dredging and clearing of vegetation, building a small dam to help navigate the portions where there was shallow water, and constructing two shelter cabins for travelers’ safety.”
That infrastructure has since been abandoned, but the route itself remains passable, and deranged men in the north are known to have set off on unbelievable journeys. Albert Johnson, the mad trapper of Rat River, led the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on a month-long, 150-mile chase from the Northwest Territories over the 7,000-foot-high Richardson Mountains into the Yukon Territory in February 1932 in temperatures that plunged to 40 degrees below zero. Mounties killed Johnson in a shoot out.
To this day, little is known about Johnson. No one ever determined why he moved north to the Arctic or why Johnson shot a Mountie who only wanted to know if Johnson had been tampering with other people’s traps.