Local residents join their Anchorage cousins in expressing concern over growing crime rates. Some blame recent legislation such as Senate Bill 91.
They believe it is too lenient by shortening sentences for certain infractions. Others look for more and better ways to rehabilitate inmates as well as provide more incentives in hopes of dissuading unfortunates from wrongdoing.
Crime is not new to Chugiak-Eagle River. The degree of seriousness, though, has definitely increased at an alarming rate.
We have had our share of mayhem.
As a result of the most sensational local murder, Raymond Cheely, Jr., is serving two 99-year prison sentences without possibility of parole. In 1991, he was one of those who stole money from an Eagle River business and spent part of it on a fancy rifle. After target shooting and guzzling beer at a gravel pit on the Glenn cutoff leading to the Butte, he and two companions decided to head for Anchorage. Approaching the Muldoon exit, two other young men from our community cut ahead of them from the left lane. In a fit of road rage, one of the trio decided to teach the traffic offender a lesson. He fired at the car exiting on the off-ramp. One shot hit the college student passenger in the head, killing him.
The offender and a companion were convicted, in part based on testimony from the third member of the group, and sent to prison. Later, three siblings were found guilty of building and mailing a package containing a bomb to the home of the third person in the Cheely vehicle, informant George Kerr. David Kerr, George’s father, was killed when he opened the package. His wife, Michelle, was injured. Cheely and one of the others were said to have ordered the hit from jail.
The most costly violent crime in terms of money also involved an explosion.
It happened at an explosives storage area on Powder Magazine Road, alongside the railroad tracks. Three 18-year-olds broke into a half-buried Quonset hut and stole dynamite at around 3 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1971. In an effort to conceal the deed, they set off a bomb. The resulting explosion caused millions of dollars in damage, broke out windows in the Eagle River business district, knocked buildings off their foundations, and sent emergency responders scrambling to find the cause. Fortunately, no one was injured, although an Army explosive demolition expert told this writer at the time that had there been cloud cover, casualties would surely have resulted.
The culprits were caught and convicted. One of them still had a case of stolen dynamite in the trunk of his car. Also charged was a Wasilla man who made the bomb. The three thieves were angered because the bomb was supposed to have had a 30-minute fuse but it went off much sooner and they were still in Eagle River.
Not long after the 1971 Pearl Harbor anniversary early-morning explosion that woke people from South Fork to Eklutna, several young punks broke into downtown Eagle River businesses. The vandalism was more costly than the missing items but still raised owners’ hackles. Firms hit included George Malekos’ North Slope Restaurant and Nora Collett’s Chugiak Candy Kitchen. Those two were an especially bad choice on the part of the miscreants.
With State Troopers the only law enforcement entity then serving the area, Malekos and several customers of his popular eating place took action. They formed a citizens’ patrol, touring the downtown area at night. An article about the “Eagle River vigilantes” in an Anchorage newspaper included a photo of Collett, referring to her as “a sweet grandmotherly-type woman in tennis shoes toting a shotgun.”
The instances of break-ins and vandalism presented an opportunity for Dick Smerdon, who opened a private merchant patrol service. He toured the area nightly, charging businesses a monthly fee to cover expenses. He was able to catch a few offenders and his presence unquestionably prevented several burglaries. In one instance he apprehended a young man who one night illegally painted the exterior of Chugiak High School. Smerdon ordered him to restore the building to its previous condition. From a prominent family, the boy’s parents objected strenuously to the “cruel and unusual punishment” and threatened a lawsuit against the school district and Smerdon. That and the lack of enough customers to make the business profitable before too long caused the private eye to close up shop.
Combatting crime was one of the arguments raised by residents who pushed for separation from the Greater Anchorage Area Borough and formation of a Chugiak-Eagle River borough.
The situation was not unlike the one now facing Girdwood and the lower Seward Highway area between Potter and Portage. Annexation to the City of Anchorage was not an option favored locally and there was no other answer.
When the Chugiak-Eagle River Borough was voided by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1975, hopes for a local law enforcement solution were ended. That same year, voters in other parts of the borough chose to create the Municipality of Anchorage, unifying city and borough governments. Three of every four voters from local precincts had opposed that move.
In 1979 residents looked to joining the Anchorage Police service area and a majority of voters elected to do so. Promised were a local substation with a clerk during office hours, three officers on patrol around-the-clock, a full-time investigator and other resources—all provided at the same rate paid by taxpayers in the former city, Fairview and Spenard. Today there is an unstaffed substation and officers on patrol with investigators and other resources provided as needed.
While residents had to take things into their own hands in the “old days,” they are still willing to help police however they can. A case in point in the recent well-publicized break-up of an auto theft ring in Chugiak. Neighbors reported suspicious activity and officers made a couple of stops that led to a “stash house” with stolen goods on the property. Also, there are various neighborhood patrols where citizens keep an eye on things and report suspicious activity. A Neighborhood Watch program is supported by APD and serves to alert people of problems.
Despite the headlines about crime in Anchorage, Chugiak-Eagle River remains a good place to live.
Bad apples show up occasionally, but the rest of the barrel remains unspoiled. In the opinion of this writer, it has always been the “Center of the Universe.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.