Up and down the Yukon River in the wild heartland of Alaska, the warning to be on the lookout for ex-con Jerald Harrison – a man now believed to have torched four cabins and looted more – has moved at light speed.
A land of big distances and few people, the central Yukon country is today intimately connected via friends, families and Facebook. The latter has carried a warning written by a well-known Alaska snowmachine racer for nearly 400 miles along the river from Tanana, population 260, to Russian Mission, population 330.
After outlining Harrison’s alleged crime spree and the man’s description, Iron Dog racer Tyler Huntington warned that “he is extremely dangerous and mentally unstable as evident in the crimes of arson and similar notes at each crime scene.”
The notes are near identical. They threaten a Fairbanks city council woman and the native Athabascan Indian residents. As to why, no one really has a clue.
Harrison, nicknamed Slop Pail Jerry for once throwing a bucket of human waste into the truck of the mayor of the tiny Yukon River village of Ruby, has a checkered history.
Thirteen years ago, he barricaded himself inside a store in the Yukon River village of Nunam Iqua, formerly Sheldon Point, not far inland from the Bering Sea.
Troopers at the time described him as “an armed homeless man, who said he was tired of being taunted.” By whom he was taunted was not reported, but Harrison, who is white, has a problem with Athabascans.
His notes have accused councilwoman Joy Huntington of being an “evil (Athabascan) shaman who tortures to death anyone who gets in her way.” A shaman is an Athabascan witch doctor. Huntington is a Dartmouth College-educated consultant who has never been known to torture anyone, let alone kill.
Now 59, Harrison was 46 when he “broke into the Swan Lake store in Nunam Iqua, 500 miles northwest of Anchorage,” the Juneau Empire reported in 2004. “Armed with a sawed-off rifle, Harrison barricaded the door with cases of sugar and canned food and refused to leave.”
Troopers had to helicopter into the village from a post 60 miles away to talk Harrison out of the store and send away some villagers who arrived with shotguns. Harrison was arrested and went to jail in Bethel.
In and out of jail
According to the records of the Alaska Division of Corrections, the Nunam incident led to Harrison’s second stay in the Yukon-Kuskowkim Correctional Center in the regional hub. His first visit lasted but five days in 2002.
The standoff in Nunam kept him behind bars for three months. He was released from jail near the end of summer 2004 only to be arrested again in October. He was soon out on probation, but back behind bars in May.
After that, he was moved from Bethel to the Cook Inlet Pretrial facility in Anchorage where he was held until mid-June 2005 before he was again released on probation. That time he managed to stay out of jail for almost two years.
The summer of 2007 saw him charged with burglary and the theft of firearms in Ruby, the Yukon River village of 160. Ruby residents say they remember that incident well.
A trooper SWAT team flew in to get Harrison, who was living in a cave he’d dug into the side of a cliff about 10 miles upriver from Ruby. He appeared to have been living there for some time.
The Ruby charges resulted in Harrison doing a couple of years in jail. He was released on probation in the summer of 2009 and successfully completed it in the summer of 2010.
He managed to stay out of trouble until earlier this year when he was arrested for assault at a motel in Fairbanks, taken to the Fairbanks Correctional Center, and released the same day only to fall off the grid.
Where he has been since then is unclear.
Huntington said it seems Harrison “does not want any contact with people since he has not been sighted for nine months, only his wrath of crimes and notes.” But there is a report that he had a chance meeting with a German canoeist on a Yukon adventure.
Sense of unease
Village residents along the river are watching, wondering, worrying and chattering back and forth on Facebook about all of this.
The general belief seems to be that Harrison has been working his way downriver by canoe, possibly traveling mainly at night. A Holy Cross resident posting on Facebook identified the German paddler who met Harrison as Robert Neu, said Neu had talked to troopers and then posted a photo of Neu, saying, ” I just wanted to share his photo so that downriver villages are aware he is a good guy. ”
Rachel Freireich, the tribal administrator for Grayling, posted that some of the locals talked to Neu “who came into contact with (Harrison) somewhere on the river (and) said he is traveling in a green canoe and very crazy. (Neu) said he got away from him as quickly as possible. So far the green canoe has not reached Grayling. Last seen 18 miles from the village.”
That was two days ago, and there have been no reports since.
Most people on the Yukon these days, and especially local people, travel in outboard-powered riverboats that make enough noise that a man wanting to avoid being seen would likely have enough warning of their approach to get to shore and hide. That could be what Harrison is doing.
How long he can succesfully do this is unknown. Some concerns have been raised that river residents might take the matter into their own hands if troopers don’t find Harrison soon.
“Need to round up the warriors and take him down before he kills some innocent person,” one Central Alaska resident posted on Facebook.
“No one seem to know how to deal with the guy,” answered the resident of a Yukon River village. “Maybe Mother Nature will.”
Those familiar with the 59-year-old Harrison say they think the latter unlikely. They say Harrison is a skilled survivalist. That, the arsons, and the reports he has stolen numerous guns from cabins along the river is what has many on edge.
A Facebook post started by a Galena woman has been shared 150 times and attracted dozens of comments from nervous river residents. In the world of Facebook outside of Alaska, 150 shares might seem like nothing, but there only about 2,400 people living in 10 villages strong out for about 400 miles along the middle Yukon.
If a corresponding 6 percent of the citizens of New York City shared a post about a madman on the loose there, it would amount to more than 500,000 shares. If 6 percent of the residents of the Northeast Megapolis, the corridor that stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C. and is about the same length as the Yukon from Tanana to Russian Mission, shared a story about a madman on the loose, they would generate about 3 million shares.
Strange as it might seem, 150 shares on Facebook in a community of people this small is heavy traffic, and the comments reflect that a lot of those people are nervous.
“OMG this is scary,” posted a woman from Holy Cross, population 230.
“So scary. Prayers for everyone’s safety. Hope n pray this sick man gets caught very soon,” added another from Nulato, population 260.
Village fears sounded like they might also have made things a little uncomfortable for that German paddler when he passed the village of Grayling, population 215.
“Grayling guys stopped him,” a woman from the village posted. “They told him to keep going. Not to stop in Grayling. He was shook up cause our guys were fully armed.”
Correction: Robert Neu’s last name was misspelled in the original version of this story.