A former BP oilfield engineer who thought he could seize control of much of Anchorage’s upper Potter Valley by buying an old homestead and then blocking off a historic road has been rebuffed by an Alaska judge.
In an 89-page ruling handed down Thursday (and attached below), Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby point by point struck down the reasons why Frank Pugh and sidekick Christopher Cavanaugh, who has since changed his name to Mattanaw Mattanaw, should not gain private ownership of what has long been known as “Stewarts Road.”
The pioneer access for the homesteaders who first occupied a high valley below McHugh Peak at the eastern edge of the city, the road was named for the late Ivan and Oro Stewart, once well known in Anchorage for their ownership of Stewarts Photo Shop downtown and their pet “Star the Reindeer,” a tourist attraction along the city’s Park Strip.
“The Stewarts moved to Anchorage in 1942 and opened Stewart’s Photo Shop in downtown Anchorage in 1943,” according to their biography in the UAA/APU Consortium Library. “Long-time gem and mineral enthusiasts, the Stewarts traveled internationally for many years as well as in Alaska. Ivan Stewart died in 1986 and Oro Stewart died in 2002.”
In her will, Oro left the couple’s old homestead at the end of Stewarts Road to the Alaska Zoo and the Alaska Botanical Garden. A fan of wildflowers as well as rocks, Oro had regularly visited the old homestead to view the flowers up until near the time of her death at the age of 84.
An adventurous woman, she was featured nationally in a 1996 Associated Press story that ran in most major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, under the headline “Pet Reindeer Is Tip of the Iceberg of Alaska Woman’s Uncommon Life.”
Why Pugh, a Johnie-come-lately from Louisiana, wanted to block access to her little wilderness escape at the end of the road that became an escape for many more as neighborhoods sprung up near the start of Stewarts Road has never been clear.
At trial in Anchorage earlier this year, Pugh testified that when he and his Russian-born wife, Oksana, bought the property in 2012 they knew nothing of the road running across it, but one would have to be a fool to believe that claim.
The road has long been identified in Municipality of Anchorage property records and municipal maps as an extension of “Steamboat Drive” in the Mountainside Village subdivision, and it is clearly visible in satellite images available online via Google Maps as are many of the trails Pugh’s neighbors built in the valley over the years.
Pugh also testified in court that he and his wife bought the old homestead then owned by a Washington-state trust only for their personal use and enjoyment, but many of his neighbors never believed that given the shifting answers Pugh offered when asked about his plans for future development of the property.
Though it was those same neighbors who eventually took Pugh to court to force the reopening of the road, Pugh has tried to portray himself as a beleaguered property owner victimized by outside agitators.
On a GoGetFunding website set up to solicit funds to fight a lawsuit filed by a group that labeled itself “Friends of the Stewart Public Trail,” Pugh claimed that “property rights in Alaska have been under assault for many years, pitting trail vigilantes and anti-development activists against landowners simply attempting to use their properties as they desire within the bounds of the law.”
But some of Pugh’s neighbors told him they’d be perfectly happy if he simply platted Stewarts Road as a public roadway to ensure its continued availability as was the plan when the alder-tunnel trail the road had become through years of neglect was graded bare again, widened slightly and realigned in one section in 2002.
At the time, Washington state resident Don Waddell, who owned land far up the valley, signed an agreement with other property owners to upgrade the road “to standards required by the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA), Alaska for a road dedicated to public use” and “join an LRSA (limited road service area) to the minimum extent required by the MOA when the roadway has been approved for dedication as a public road (see the attached document below).”
An LRSA that looked at the road after Waddell finished working on it refused to accept it because, in the LRSA’s opinion, the road hadn’t been built to a high-enough standard. The MOA subsequently dropped the ball on the plan for a “public road” and instead of telling Waddell to upgrade it granted him a “driveway permit” to cover the road construction.
It was clear by then, however, that the old homestead road had already passed into public hands through its years of public maintenance to maintain a trail along the old road bed.
Smarter than you
I lived just below the road from the 1980s until a year ago, and I was one of those who regularly in the winter maintained the route. I used to hook two or three dogs to a dogsled to tow me up onto the trail with saws and an ax to do that work.
One neighbor once suggested I shouldn’t be doing this without the permission of the landowners along the trail, but they were never around to be found, and the trail was going to grow in if someone didn’t maintain it.
That trail went back to being a road after Waddell bulldozed it, and a simple single-rail gate designed only to keep out motor vehicles was placed at the entrance, given everyone in the surrounding neighborhoods was fearful of teenagers partying at the end of the road and starting a fire that might burn down the entire valley.
Then came Pugh to put in a much bigger gate designed to block foot access as well, which drew objections from both neighbors and city officials and things started to heat up.
At the time, I suggested to Pugh that if he truly believed the road was private, not public, he should join with the municipality in filing a “friendly suit,” “a lawsuit brought by two parties, not as adversaries, but by agreement in order to resolve a legal question that affects them both,” according to the Legal Information Institute.
Such suits are a whole lot cheaper than engaging in adversarial actions in court, but Pugh decided he wanted to fight city hall.
His response to the city telling him to tear down that gate was to further reinforce it and top it with barbed wire. He then begin piling brush to either side to make it difficult for people to go around the gate, although there were plenty of other ways to get across his property to access the road.
Eventually, the city, which had years earlier fumbled the ball on making the road public, backed down on its demand Pugh remove the gate. The unwillingness of the administration of then-Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to enforce the claim to a public right-of-way only emboldened Pugh.
Semi-retired and apparently without much to do, he took to sometimes cruising the road in his sport-utility vehicle to chase down hikers and bikers to demand they sign an access agreement with some fine print at the end stipulating that the agreement could be revoked at any time for any reason.
Often he was armed. One attorney who lived in the area told her friends she quit hiking the road for fear that if she was killed her body might not be found.
Pugh’s aim appeared to be to get everyone to sign his agreement so he could thus demonstrate that everyone in the neighborhoods surrounding the trail and the few who visited from elsewhere agreed the road was private.
The problem was that many of his neighbors or near neighbors (Pugh lives in an upscale subdivision a couple of miles away from the Stewart Road property that is undeveloped except for the existence of the one-lane road) refused to sign his agreement.
A group of them eventually organized to form the Friends organization and managed to raise about $150,000 in contributions to take Pugh to court after efforts to settle the dispute through mediation were rebuffed. Pugh then went out and hired himself one of Anchorage’s top-rated and expensive litigators and prepared to do battle.
Lawyers now estimate Pugh has spent more than $300,000 in attorney fees and, having lost the case, he is also liable for 30 percent of the plaintiff’s court costs now totaling $275,000. All of this for futility trying to demonstrate that a road used by thousands or tens of thousands in the years before the gate went up and hundreds or thousands even after the gate was in place could be claimed as Pugh property because it crossed a parcel of land which Pugh bought long after the road was built.
Which wasn’t always how Pugh thought of the road.
When Pugh was still practicing friendly persuasion in an effort to gather signatures on those access agreements, we had a discussion near the end of the road during which he argued that “you can sign this agreement and have access to all of the trails in the valley or you can have just this road.”
“If it comes down to that,” I told him, “I’ll take just the road.”
Pugh at the time had no authority to offer anyone access to the many trails local residents had pioneered across vacant properties in the valley over the decades. A whole network of them had been created and enjoyed by Potter Valley residents for years before Pugh arrived to stir trouble in the neighborhood with unfounded warnings to other property owners that Chugach State Park was trying to seize their property.
Pugh himself blamed parking problems for starting the ruckus.
As he told it, “a neighbor to our property entrance in Mountainside Village Subdivision contacted me seeking help with a parking problem that had developed at an intersection near the entry to his driveway. Some people had learned about this area when the Municipality of Anchorage published a proposed park access plan which highlighted our property as a potential entry point.”
As a point of fact, much of that was wrong. The MOA hadn’t highlighted anything. The Stewart Road access had as early as 2008 been identified in municipal trail plans and was in 201`0 on a list of dozens of popular area trails that the MOA noted lacked “formal public access” even though “local residents have traditionally used the road cut for running, hiking, biking, skiing, and skijoring and to access the McHugh Peak complex.”
The road was well enough known in the 1970s to merit mention in “55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska,” the region’s most popular trail guide at the time and for decades after.
By 2015, use of the area was actually in decline.
For years prior to that, there had been a snowmobile-groomed system of ski trails in the valley that became so popular they were attracting people from all over the city, and some people were lobbying the Nordic Ski Club to groom Stewarts Road for skate skiing.
Some neighbors had begun to wonder if the area wasn’t getting “too popular” and with no one wanting to upset Pugh, who had already posted various trails with private property signs, the grooming of the trails in the valley below the road had been considerably cut back although the drag used to groom them remained near one of the trailheads for years for anyone’s use before mysteriously disappearing.
The belief in the neighborhood nearest the trailhead was that Pugh had snatched it, although the drag technically wasn’t on his property but on a lot next to his property. And Pugh might have been unfairly accused because by then the relationship between him and some of his neighbors had begun to seriously deteriorate.
After then-Cavanaugh, now Mattanaw Mattanaw, bought most of another old homestead just up the road from Pugh’s property in 2017, Pugh fired him up to join in the effort to do something about the “trespass problem” on the road and things really got crazy. A member of Mensa who self-identifies as a genius, Mattanaw has written of being plagued by “hyper-creativity” that can lead to “social disapproval.”
But he hit it off with Pugh and promptly began putting up more private property signs, which he personally designed and of which he was very proud, to warn people the road was private and they needed to keep out.
Then, in early 2018, he began pushing the Anchorage Police Department (APD) to prosecute a state fisheries biologist and others who regularly used the road. The city attorney, who’d told Pugh to remove the gate but taken no action to force him to do so, advised APD not to take any action because the official status of the road was in legal limbo.
Despite this, Cavaugnah sent an “Order to Stay Away from the ‘Cavanaugh’ Property” to a variety of his neighbors threatening “legal action, including Criminal and/or Civil Trespass charges under the provisions of the Anchorage Municipal Code.”
At the time, I actually asked the city attorney to prosecute me given that the “crime” of trespass requires the intent to illegally enter a property. I was confident that at trial it could be shown that anyone who ventured onto Stewarts Road had a legitimate reason to believe the road was public and thus couldn’t be shown to have the intent to break the law.
A not-guilty judgment in such a case would have pretty well put an end to the road dispute, saved the court system a lot of time (the subsequent Stewart Road trial dragged on for days), and allowed Pugh and the supporters of Friends of Stewarts (of which I was not one) to avoid paying attorneys hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But the MOA wasn’t interested in pressing charges and refused to bite on an interesting end around Mattanaw offered APD in 2019 to try to get it to cite Alaska Landmine publisher Jeff Landfield (who Mattanaw misidentified as John in correspondence with the city); Paxson Woelber, a Landmine contributor who’d written a lengthy 2019 story about Pugh’s efforts to lockup the valley, and this reporter.
“It is my preference not to provide information to APD for submission to the prosecutor’s office, but to have the law enforced directly prior to moving the case to the prosecutor,” Mattanaw wrote APD. “Otherwise, I cannot be sure I’m protected or that they have been ordered to discontinue their criminal activities. And I cannot rely on the prosecutor to do any of these things effectively without the police.”
He had apparently never seen an episode of “Law & Order,” the well-known television show that opens with the proclamation that “in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.”
This ignorance of the law did not, however, stop him from later posting on his LinkedIn page that he had “created a legal arm to my company Social Architects and Economists International, LLC. Emphasis is on legal contracts and software IP. Practiced as a Pro-Se Attorney in a notable case involving Land Use in the State of Alaska.
“Case Litigator and Researcher. Trial Attorney. Civil Law. Works with Law Enforcement and Prosecutors.
Witness examination and cross-examination. Prepared and submitted filings to the Anchorage Superior Court’s Clerk.”
On LinkedIn, Mattanaw identifies himself as “a Semi-retired, Multi-industry, International Technology Executive, and Management Consultant” who was once the ” Chief Architect at Adobe Systems.” He claims to hold a master’s degree from Harvard University.
Whether the claims are true is hard to determine. There appear to have been multiple Chris Cavanaughs who’ve graduated from Harvard, but it is unclear if Mattanaw Mattanaw is among them. Against this backdrop, it is also worth noting that the online “Book & Journal of Mattanaw” – which contains an insane amount of personal information – contains no image of a Harvard ID or diploma.
The “open health” post there does, however, contain photos of all the pages in Cavanaugh’s passport, his high school ID, his Maryland driver’s license, his Social Security card, a University of Maryland ID, a Montgomery College ID, his pilot’s log, his State of Maryland birth certificate, his 2020 certificate of name change to Mattanaw Christopher Matthew Cavanaugh Mattanaw, his retinal photos, his fingerprints “in relation to purchase of a suppressor/silencer for a .22 LR handgun,” results from blood tests in 2018 and 2019, and more. None of the photos have been blacked out or altered to hide personal information.
Mattanaw is clearly not one of those people worried about internet privacy.
A man who is all over social media, he in 2018 also began trying to promote himself as an adventurer living “off-grid” in Alaska because he sometimes occupied a trailer towed up Stewarts Road and left parked in the middle of the historic route later bypassed in favor of a road with a gentler grade when Waddell in 2002 took a bulldozer to what had up until then been an alder-tunnel trail.
Mattanaw is now, unfortunately, in trouble with the law for a June shoot-’em-up in and around that trailer, and he has put his property up for sale. It is listed as being located on “Steamboat Drive” as MOA maps identify Stewarts Road.
The June shooting spree left some of his neighbors terrified and resulted in APD hauling Mattanaw off to the Anchorage jail. On that occasion, Mattanaw blasted holes in his fifth-wheel trailer and shot up most of the “No Trespassing” signs of which he was once so proud, according to court documents.
What sparked the gunfire is unknown. Mattanaw is not talking about either his criminal case or the judge’s ruling on Stewarts Road. A request for comment brought only this:
“Please take this as a specific notice, again, that I simply do not want to hear from you or see you. I have no idea who you are,” although he knows exactly who I am having picked my picture out of a photo lineup and identified me when trying to get APD to press trespass charges.
Pugh did not respond to a request as to how much it has cost him to battle with the muni, which first tried to get the gate removed, and his neighbors, who later formed the Friends group. His GoGetFunding page set up more than a year ago with a goal of raising $50,000 to help with court costs has to date raised $1,770.
The bulk of the funding – $1,570 – is reported to have come from anonymous donors. The other $200 came from Kelly Becker, who along with her husband, Rusty, owns a home at the intersection of Mountainside Village Dr. and Stewarts Road. The Beckers were the people who complained about cars parked near the entrance to Stewarts Road.
The Beckers were fond of driving their all-terrain vehicle (ATV) to and from the end of Stewarts Road and often acted as if they believed hikers or bikers were interlopers on their trail. The use of ATVs is permitted on private property in the MOA with the consent of the property owner. The use of such vehicles on all other property is prohibited.
Some of the Beckers neighbors had been unhappy about the damage done to the poorly maintained upper section of the road by the Beckers driving on it when it is wet, and their ATV would likely not be permitted to use and damage a public right-of-way.
The lower road, meanwhile is – or has been – maintained by a young couple who bought property across the road from Mattanaw and built a home on it. They temporarily fled after Mattanaw started shooting. They have since bridged Potter Creek and built a road to connect to the Potter Heights Road on the opposite side of Potter Valley to avoid Stewarts Road if necessary.
A date has yet to be set for removal of the gate. What will replace it to prevent vehicle access and who will maintain that barrier is unclear. If Pugh’s pockets are deep enough, he could also appeal the Crosby ruling though it is now the law of the land.
And nobody can predict what further craziness might develop in this long-running dispute.
As Robert W. Service, the so-called bard of the north, long ago observed, “there are strange things done in the midnight sun….”
The judge’s ruling: 3AN-19-05746CI
The Waddell agreement: Stewart Rd – Easement
Years ago I purchased a farm in Pennsylvania. Before my ownership my neighbors treated the property as their own with hunting, trapping, camping and hiking. The previous owner was an elderly lady and had no idea what was going on with her property. From my perspective the problem was that if one of those trespassers was injured on my property, or did something unlawful, I had a legal liability. So, I posted the property with a caveat that with my permission neighbors could access the property provided there was no taking of things dead or alive. That didn’t work because the trespassers still treated my property their own. So, I took legal action through the court, and unlike Frank Pugh I prevailed. Moving ahead to this ruling, it is not at all clear what happens now if one of the Friends of Stewart Trail is injured on the property. For example, does this ruling protect Mr. Pugh from liability torts? East of the Mississippi this ruling by the court would probably never happen because there property rights are more protected. For example, one cannot cause landlocked property by purchasing surrounding land. In my opinion, Mr. Pugh’s mistake was not constructing an abode on the property and thereby changing the nature of the property from public use to private use.
If there is a case out there of someone successfully suing a private landowner for an injury happening on a public trial or public right-of-way, I couldn’t find it although I can envision cases where this could happen – if, for instance, the land owner put some sort of obstruction in the public right-of-way or stretched a cable across it to trip a hiker/jogger/runner or take a cyclist off a bike.
East of the Mississippi, eminent domain is commonly used to resolve these disputes and, unfortunately for landowners, it isn’t limited to existing and obvious roads: https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/03/16/rover-pipeline-land-seizure/99274826/
Local governments there are also regularly far more aggressive in trying to protect the public interest than those in Alaska: https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/City-votes-to-use-eminent-domain-for-Geyser-Road-12175380.php
The chickenshit Berkowitz administration threatened Pugh to “tear down that gate,” and then ran and hid when he refused. It was left to his neighbors to come up with the money to take him to court to resolve a cut and dried issue, one Pugh could have agreed to let a judge decide in a friendly lawsuit with the muni when the whole sad affair began.
Such a move would have saved everyone a lot of time, trouble and cost.
Numerous state statutes (AS 09.65.200, AS 09.65.202, AS 09.65.290) provide tort and liability protection to the landowner. If a Recreational Trail Easement is recorded, AS 34.17.055 provides additional protection.
The fellow could easily have more screws coming loose and some may be looser than this piece reveals. Time for a bit of scanning before walking out your door?
I understand the problem. I lost a lawsuit over a similar road across my property that a neighbor closed off, thereby blocking access to me and three other neighbors.
But if APD and the DA refused to press trespass charges, why didn’t you just continue using the road? Like one of my neighbors said on the stand, “If and when I need to use that road, I’ll just drive right through that fence, and we’ll all be here again.”
Sorry about your road, Reggie. That would suck.
Some people did keep using the road. Others didn’t. A couple older ladies complained to me that being harrassed by Pugh, or taking the risk of being harassed by Pugh, took all the pleasure out of their walks. A few humans seem to thrive on confrontation but most want to avoid it.
You could have stopped at “changed his name to: Mattanaw Mattanaw”. Alaska is a gorgeous place, but no shortage of migrated West Coast mental illness.
Sounds more like a local attitude. Take money from the lower 48 and close up access to Alaska
Ridiculousness. I spent a large part of my childhood on that trail. My Dad & I routinely took our dune buggy on it to access the valley. On tough days, it was my ‘happy place’. We’d drive until we’d get to a place where I wanted to hike for a bit, my Dad would give me space & wait. Some of my favorite memories. I miss old(er) Alaska.
This story is good intro to easements and notorious adverse possession. It’s a topic property owners should understand especially at the time or purchase. The attachments make good reading, thanks for that.