Survivor of McCarthy massacre killed in fatal fire remembered as hero

Posted: Wednesday, January 02, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Chris Richards, the self-proclaimed mayor of the ghost town of Kennicott who died in a cabin fire one week before Christmas, was remembered by friends and relatives over the holidays as a rough-edged Alaskan who cared deeply about his neighbors, his dog and the fate of his historic Wrangell Mountain hometown.

He was also remembered as a man haunted by the 1983 mass murders in nearby McCarthy, which took the lives of six of his neighbors and friends. Richards, wounded in that attack by killer Lou Hastings, was the only local resident to survive, though he remained tormented by guilt and depression ever after.

When his cabin went up in flames Dec. 19 with Richards inside, more than one person who knew him said Hastings had finally claimed a seventh life.

''People told Chris he'd been a hero that day and saved lives, but he said he couldn't get there in his mind,'' said Sally Gibert, an Anchorage friend with long ties to the McCarthy area. ''At his heart Chris was very generous and sweet, but Hastings injected this anger and poison in him that he never could work out.''

With his broomstraw beard, Richards was a fixture in the small community at the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

''It's like if I woke up one morning and somebody told me the Kennicott Glacier was gone,'' said a neighbor, Rick Jurick.

Only a few people spend winters in Kennicott.

Richards, 48, lived alone in a small red millworker's house at the Kennicott mill site. His cabin looked out on the immense Kennicott Glacier.

In summer, when tourists visited the spectacular site, Richards had a higher profile. A vivid storyteller, he guided tourists through the historic buildings -- sometimes including, free of charge, acid lectures about tourist misbehavior and what he saw as overzealous park regulators.

''He could go on a rant. He was not politically correct,'' said Dianne Milliard, who took over the tours in recent years as Richards grew more erratic. ''Sometimes people didn't know how to take him. But Chris was a quintessential Alaskan -- rough around the edges with a heart of gold.''

The fire that burned his cabin to the ground remains a mystery. A neighbor living on the mountainside above was making an outhouse visit when he noticed an orange glow. By the time half a dozen people had rushed to Richards' cabin, it was too late.

''Flames were coming out where the windows used to be,'' Jurick said.

Richards' faithful white husky mix, Rudy, was outside the cabin, so everyone knew Richards was inside. All the Alaska State Troopers found later in the ruins was a handful of bone fragments.

''Everyone told me Chris had been leading a tormented life,'' said trooper Sgt. Carl Erickson, who found no evidence of foul play. His last day had been especially bad, Erickson said. Richards had become a problem drinker since the murders. Now he was trying to give up alcohol and was hallucinating and having delusional conversations.

''Chris deteriorated over the last few years but never lost his love of friends, his willingness to help people in need or to tell a story to some wayward tourist. I would like for him to be remembered for that,'' said his brother, Duston Richards, a financial consultant in Berkeley, Calif.

Chris Richards grew up in Ohio and moved to Alaska in 1974, his brother said. After a divorce, he settled in the abandoned mining community of Kennicott in the late 1970s, working seasonally on road construction gangs. He declared himself mayor one winter when he was the only person living in Kennicott.

He had mixed feelings about the national park that surrounded the McCarthy-Kennicott area after 1980.

Though he didn't like the hordes of tourists drawn to the park, he recognized that federal help was necessary to keep the historic buildings from collapsing into complete ruin.

The mine facility has since been purchased by the federal government in a deal promoted by a nonprofit group that had Richards on its board of directors.

On March 1, 1983, only two people were living at Kennicott: Richards and a quiet computer programmer named Lou Hastings, a recent arrival who kept to himself.

''I didn't really like the guy, personally,'' Richards said in an interview later that year. ''But I was trying to get along with him because I figured I was stuck with him as a neighbor.''

On the night before the murders, Hastings and Richards played the board game Risk by lamplight at Richards' cabin and made plans for the next day to go down to McCarthy, four miles away, to meet the weekly mail plane.

The next morning, Richards saw the spectacles and bushy beard of his neighbor peering in his door. Richards called for him to come in and reached for his coffee pot as Hastings entered, firing a pistol with a silencer. A bullet lodged in Richards' cheekbone. They struggled.

''Look, you're already dead,'' Hastings told him. ''If you just quit fighting, I'll make it easy for you.''

Richards shoved a kitchen knife into Hastings' leg and ran into the snow in his stocking feet with Hastings firing after him. Descending a ravine through waist-deep snow, he reached the cabin of Tim and Amy Nash. They took him to the McCarthy runway. A local pilot grabbed wounded Richards and took off to warn away the mail plane and summon troopers.

The Nashes stayed behind and were shot on the runway. Two others who came to meet the mail plane were also killed by Hastings, along with an elderly couple whose McCarthy home served as a gathering place. An eighth victim, a visitor Hastings wounded, escaped by covering herself with snow.

Hastings was later nabbed by a trooper helicopter as he rode a stolen snowmachine away from McCarthy.

The killer's effort to plead mental illness was rejected in court. He pleaded no contest and was never tried. Hastings is serving multiple life sentences at a federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo., according to the state Department of Corrections.

Richards was left with double vision and a plastic eye socket and unanswerable questions.

''Why would you put a silencer on to kill the only other person in a ghost town?'' he said in an interview the following summer.

''I feel like I've been violated,'' he said. ''Like he took a little bit of his insanity and pushed it into my brain.''

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