Aboard a makeshift, homemade raft, the suspect in a string of summer arsons along the Yukon River slipped past the village of Anvik after a brief, Thursday encounter with locals who told him to keep moving.
Village mayor Jason Jones said Friday that he and others are hopeful Alaska State Troopers will arrive soon to begin a search for Jerald Harrison of Fairbanks, believed to be the man who over the course of the summer torched a variety of cabins and fish camps along the river and left behind notes threatening Athabascan Indians who live in Central Alaska.
Why the survivalist some have come to consider the Mad Man of the Yukon has a problem with Athabascans is unclear. Frank Turney, a political activist in Fairbanks who befriended Harrison, said he believes the man’s trouble might trace back to an earlier time in jail.
“Prison can break a man’s spirit…(I) think he suffered more than others,” Turney messaged. “He said he has been to all the villages and had no problems with other Natives, but not Athabascans.”
State records, however, appear to indicate otherwise. Thirteen years ago, troopers were called to the Yupik Eskimo village of Nunam Iqua, a place once known as Sheldon Point, to arrest Harrison, who’d armed himself and broken into the village store.
An Associated Press report from the time described him as “an armed homeless man…tired of being taunted.”
The Juneau Empire version of the story said Harrison “broke into the Swan Lake store…500 miles northwest of Anchorage just before midnight. …Armed with a sawed-off rifle, Harrison barricaded the door with cases of sugar and canned food and refused to leave.”
Troopers were able to talk him out and take him into custody. It was never clear who taunted him or why, if he even was taunted, or how he became homeless in a community of only about 150 people and 40 to 50 buildings that rise above the windswept tundra of the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta on the edge of the Bering Sea. Nunam would not be an easy place for a homeless individual to survive.
Gone to ground
Since an end of August fire that destroyed the Thurmond family compound near Blackburn Creek on the west bank of the Yukon about 40 miles upstream from the village of Grayling, villagers along the Yukon from Grayling down to Holy Cross have been on edge wondering what the man nicknamed ‘Slop Pail Jerry’ might do next.
The nickname stems from an incident the Yukon community of Ruby about 20 years ago where Harrison threw the contents of a slop pail – or what others sometimes call a honey bucket – in the truck of the mayor.
The 59-year-old Harrison, who appears to have spent most of his adult life in Alaska, has been up and down the Yukon from Nunam to Tanana. Ruby, an old, gold-mining community about 300 miles north of Anchorage, is but one stop along the way.
Grayling is about 250 miles downriver from Ruby with Anvik about 20 miles below Grayling. Immediately after a German canoeist touring the Yukon reported encountering Harrison not far upriver from Grayling about a month ago, some of the 200 people living there armed themselves and waited for Harrison to show, but instead he faded back into the vast wilderness of Central Alaska.
For weeks, no one reported any sign of him. Then it was discovered a moose had been been poached upstream from Grayling. Someone was seen in running into the woods when others approached the area.
Harrison was an immediate suspect, and by Tuesday, he was reported to be on the move downriver. Tom Huntington from Fairbanks by way of Galena, another Yukon community, passed the word via Facebook that he’d heard “Jerry is kinda sneaking by Grayling and now Anvik. Down to a rickety raft I hear. He (allegedly) killed a moose above Grayling and took only the heart and liver. Someone in a boat went past him. He waved like there’s no problems. He’s right above Anvik hiding and waiting to go by in the dark.”
Facebook is the modern “tundra telegraph” for rural Alaska. Per capita, rural Alaska residents might be among the most active Facebook users in the country even though the internet isn’t always that cooperative beyond the road system. Anvik residents shot video of Harrison on Thursday, but didn’t have the band width to transmit it.
Huntington is a member of the old and large Huntington clan from the Koyukuk country along the Yukon. The late Sidney Huntington wrote a book titled “Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life Along the River” that has become an Alaska must-read. Tom’s contacts along the river are very good.
Harrison “was seen (a flashlight) three miles above Grayling night before last,” he reported Wednesday. “Then someone (they think its him) had a fire going in an old abandoned, fish camp nine miles below Graying at dark last night. Someone then passed him on his raft today. They stayed clear of him. He’s right above Anvik now and probably going by tonight. Everyone has made numerous calls to the troopers but no response.”
Harrison finally showed up near Anvik on Thursday.
“The local men went to him with guns four miles above (the village),” Tom reported. “Mexican standoff. They let him know he wasn’t welcome there. He just wanted to go by he said. He wanted cigarettes. They gave him some in exchange for passage. And no law (enforcement) yet.”
Jones was part of the group meeting with Harrison. The men with him were armed, but no one was brandishing any weapons. For men to have guns with them in rural Alaska is normal, more common actually than for women to be carrying purses in urban America.
Everyone in rural Alsaka hunts and almost all the time. People live in significant part off the land. A firearm is a tool. There is no telling when it might prove useful for killing whatever wildlife presents itself.
Harrison had guns, too, among them a .30-30-caliber, lever-action repeater, according to reports. At least two similar rifles have been reported stolen from camps or cabins burned along the river.
“He (Harrison) had a couple firearms there right at his arm’s length,” Jones said, but made no move toward them.
“We weren’t out there to confront him,” Jones added, but to talk to him because “people were on edge in town.
“We got maybe a couple feet away from him. We gave him a box of food, and we told him to keep on going.”
Harrison was told Anvik was “closed” because of someone burning camps along the river, Jones said, and Harrison was asked about that.
“He didn’t admit to anything,” Jones said. “‘He said he just really didn’t want any trouble.”
The last anyone in Anvik saw of Harrison, he was headed downriver. Jones said he asked how far to Holy Cross. It is about 35 miles. The question led the mayor to suspect Harrison might be planning to stop there, but no one knows.
“I was a little apprehensive about going out there to talk to him,” Jones admitted, “but what else can we do? That’s what we’re supposed to do” as public officials.
He was hoping for help from trained law enforcement. The village had been in touch with troopers.
“It sounds like they’re going to be coming this (Friday) afternoon,” Jones said.
Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters had little to say when queried as to what troopers plan to do about Harrison.
“If people have a concern about an individual, they need to report it to their local Alaska State Troopers or local law enforcement so the situation can be appropriately evaluated,” she emailed “Troopers are tracking reports of suspicious or criminal activity along the Yukon. AST is not going to discuss plans or strategies of potentially taking any individual into custody.”
At this time, Harrison is only a suspect in the river fires. The notes left at the scenes of several of them threaten Fairbanks council woman Joy Huntington and echo comments Harrison made in public at council meetings last year.
Turney believes his old friend needs help. Harrison can pretty easily turn from friendly to aggressive, Turney said.
An arrest warrant for Harrison was issued in Fairbanks. He was charged with assault and criminal mischief in that city in February after tearing up a hotel room and threatening some hotel employees.
The failure of troopers to apprehend Harrison has sparked a lot of Facebook discussion in a state split by a rural-urban divide and racial divisions that only seem to have grown in the wake of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
The Claims Act, it was hoped, would avoid the crisis of Lower 48 reservations that in some cases became rural ghettos. Worried about that fate, Native leaders in Alaska settled with the U.S. government on a different plan.
Instead of creating separate Native nations within the nation of the United States, Alaska Native leaders agreed to establish 13 regional business corporations, plus dozens upon dozens of village corporations; bankroll them with about $1 billion in federal money; allow them to select 44 million acres of Alaska land (an area about the size of Missouri); and permit them to plot their own paths forward.
The results have been mixed. Corporations with access to oil and gas resources or minerals generally did well. Most others, lacking those resources, have not done nearly so well. The corporations have provided great opportunities for Natives successful in the U.S. educational system. A lot of villagers continue to struggle economically.
In some parts of the state, tribalism has grown and is continuing to grow. There are moves to legally tribalize village corporation lands, essentially turning them into reservations. And good numbers of rural Alaskans feel that they have been left behind by urban Alaskans, who now make up close to 70 percent of the state’s population.
“Our elected leaders in Doyon (a Central Alaska Native corporation) and Tanana Chiefs (a tribal entity) should be outraged with the Alaskan justice system not doing a damn thing about this racist white guy burning down Native cabins and leaving racist notes,” Ricko DeWilde – a young, Central Alaska businessman posted – on the Craig Medred Facebook page.
The outrage is understandable. There is an obvious and undeniable difference between the intensity of law enforcement in rural Alaska and urban Alaska. But there is also a difference in topography and terrain. There is a lot of wilderness along the Yukon into which a man like Harrison can escape.
If, of course, he wants to escape. Winter is coming fast to the Alaska Interior where winter temperatures regularly dip to 50 degrees below zero. It’s not unreasonable to wonder why Harrison has suddenly shown his face.
Is it possible Harrison, a man knowledgeable about the Alaska wilderness despite his issues, has arrived at a point where he wants to be caught?