Starting shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday, Alaska State Troopers began receiving Report Every Dangerous Driver Immediately calls about a yellow SUV being operated in an erratic manner.
One of the first calls came from Randy and Nancy Boeshart. The Kasilof couple was returning home from Homer. At about 5:20 p.m., they were near Mile 153 when "all of a sudden, bam, it hit the back of our car," said Randy Boeshart of the SUV striking the back of his BMW.
"We were just cruising along and all of a sudden it happened. ... I didn't even see her in the rear view mirror."
Boeshart immediately pulled to the edge of the road. The SUV passed so quickly neither Boeshart nor his wife got a look at the driver or the vehicle's license number.
The SUV then proceeded to pass other vehicles ahead of the Boesharts.
"She was actually going toward oncoming cars, like she was trying to drive them off the road, heading right at them," said Boeshart.
Nancy Boeshart dialed 911 and reported the incident. Then the couple wondered if they should pull over and wait for the troopers to contact them. They decided to turn around and go to the Anchor Point trooper office. Finding it closed, they continued to Kasilof, arriving home around 7 p.m.
"We never saw a roadblock. Never saw a trooper. Never saw any flashing lights," said Boeshart.
Shirley Cox, who lives at Mile 147 on the Sterling Highway, was driving northbound on the Sterling Highway, headed to a Kenai Peninsula State Fair board meeting in Ninilchik at about 6 p.m. Sunday. Near Mile 141, Cox saw a yellow SUV pull out of a road onto the Sterling Highway and head south.
"It drifted across the center line and was coming right at me," said Cox. "I thought, 'Do I stop? Do I go left? Go right?' I went into the ditch. (The driver) proceeded up the road ... completely in the wrong lane. There were probably five cars behind me and they were diving out of the way, trying to avoid her."
Cox remembers seeing the driver of the SUV.
"The person was hunkered down behind the steering wheel," said Cox. "I remember seeing headphones on her and thinking, 'You idiot, you're playing with your music.'"
Cox dialed 911 and reported the incident. When she pulled into Ninilchik's waste transfer site a short time later, the driver of the vehicle behind her also pulled in.
"He was really upset. She almost hit him and he was pretty shaken," said Cox.
According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety, an Alaska Wildlife Trooper spotted the yellow SUV traveling northbound near Happy Valley at about 6:15 p.m. The trooper attempted to make a traffic stop, but the SUV's female driver continued northbound. When the vehicle temporarily stopped, the driver began shooting and the trooper returned fire.
"The vehicle then drove northbound and stopped again at Mile 147," said Megan Peters, a Public Safety information officer.
The trooper involved in the shooting was placed on a three-day administrative leave on Sunday, with his name to be released at the end of his leave. On Thursday morning, Alaska State Troopers identified the trooper as Alaska Wildlife Trooper Trent Chwialkowski, Anchor Point post. Trooper Chwialkowski has been a trooper since February 2008. Wildlife troopers have training in fish and game enforcement, but also respond to public safety calls like other troopers.
"First and foremost they're a cop. When they know that people's lives are endangered, they need to respond," Peters said of wildlife troopers.
Troopers from Soldotna and Anchor Point, a Homer police officer and members of the Southcentral Special Emergency Reaction Team responded.
After about 30 minutes, the driver put her hands outside the vehicle, troopers made contact and it was discovered the driver had an apparent gunshot wound to her torso.
At 6:30 p.m. Anchor Point volunteer emergency responders were contacted and requested to move into position two miles from where the incident was occurring, said paramedic Kayt Ligenza Andrews. Within seven minutes Andrews and her team of two EMTs and two ETTs reached the staging point, with a second unit standing by in case of multiple victims. After about 20 minutes, the emergency responders were directed to the site and identified one person with injuries.
"She definitely needed hospital care and we arrived at South Peninsula Hospital at 7:45 p.m.," said Andrews.
The Sterling Highway remained closed until approximately 1 a.m. while the Alaska Bureau of Investigations processed two crime scenes -- one where the shooting occurred and one where contact had been made with the female driver -- and the SUV and trooper vehicle were removed.
"A firearm was located in the suspect vehicle. Several spent shell casings also were recovered from the vehicle," said Peters. "Witnesses stated the female suspect was firing the pistol while in her vehicle, endangering some of them."
The trooper's vehicle appeared to have been struck by at least one round fired by the suspect and it is believed the gunshot to the suspect was from the trooper who returned fire.
After being treated at SPH, the driver of the SUV was transported to Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. No arrests have been made and the cause and circumstances of the shooting remain under investigation.
"(The driver's) name is not being released because she's not been charged with anything," said Peters. "She is a suspect in a criminal investigation and we routinely do not release the names of suspects in criminal investigations."
Cox invited motorists she knew into her home while they waited for the Sterling Highway to reopen. She questioned the lengthy highway closure.
"I understand the obvious concern that you get all the facts right, but (troopers) were in no hurry to open the road," said Cox. "When I was there about two hours before they opened the road, they said they were waiting for a tow truck and they were clearly able to get traffic around the vehicles. I don't mean to sound callous, but why didn't they open the road?"
At one point, as many as 130 cars southbound and 70 northbound were lined up. Many roadside turnouts north had motorhomes and cars camping. Some drivers continued by using an ATV trail on the east side of the road, with a few cars reportedly stuck. One tourist from Wyoming said he was stuck four hours.
"I am not a happy camper," he said.
Calls from others unhappy with the closure were received by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. Seaton noted the possible economic loss to Cook Inlet and peninsula fishermen that could be the result of a lengthy highway closure.
"I am very pleased that we were able to get the earlier (highway) opening and prevented the loss to our fishing families," said Seaton of the road opening at 1 a.m. rather than later in the morning as was originally anticipated. "However, I will be calling for a hearing so we can clearly identify justifications and procedures for the closure of public roads for extended times."
Upon returning to the Anchor Point Fire Station, Andrews and her crew were greeted by two pizzas and a chocolate cheesecake an anonymous individual sent from Anchor River Inn.
"Something tragic happened in the community and immediately we were responded to by support from the community," said Andrews. "A big thank-you to whoever that was."
On Monday, Randy Boeshart was still considering his sudden and unexpected encounter with the driver of the yellow SUV.
"I don't know where she came from. Don't have a clue. There was just a slam and we went off on the side of the road and she zipped around us," he said.
Peters urged anyone with information about the incident to contact the Alaska State Troopers at (907) 262-4452.
"As much involvement as the community can put into helping us, the safer overall your community is going to be," said Peters.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at email@example.com. Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.