Angry neighbor's rampage leads to night of terror

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2001

HOMER -- An enraged man shot up a remote cabin near Homer, sending three people fleeing into the forest during a night of terror.

An Ohlson Mountain man fired at least 22 shotgun rounds into a home below Lookout Mountain northeast of Homer late April 5 while an unarmed young couple inside tried desperately to shield themselves. He later shot at and threatened a passing snowmachiner, who feared his life was over.

Amazingly, no one was hurt.

John R. Powell, 38, known as "Walking John," was arrested in the early morning hours of April 6 after troopers coaxed him from the forest where he had been shooting.

"Do I get a chance to answer these charges?" Powell asked Judge M. Francis Neville late that afternoon at his arraignment in Homer District Court after she read charges. "This is absolutely wrong," he said.

He faced a grand jury Friday and gets a bail hearing Monday.

Powell sat impassively at the defendant's table listening to Neville list the charges: three counts of first-degree attempted murder, two counts of second-degree misconduct involving weapons, three counts of third-degree assault and three more of reckless endangerment.

He could face life in prison.

Gabe Ritchie, 28, Susan Malone, 32, and snowmachiner Dave Baird, 39, are lucky to be alive.

Ritchie had just arrived back after driving a friend home on a snowmachine. It was around 11 p.m.

"Susie was in bed reading. I went downstairs and lit a candle on the windowsill and started reading myself," he said.

Suddenly, he heard something hitting the roof that sounded like icicles crashing on the deck. It was buckshot striking the cabin.

"After two shots, I figured somebody was shooting. The dog stood up," Ritchie said. "I ran upstairs."

Upstairs seemed the safer place to be. The cabin has huge windows downstairs. He found Malone hiding behind a beam and a futon. Then they cowered under the bed, building barricades of books.

The buckshot mostly glanced off the cabin. When Powell changed to slugs, things changed.

"Slugs went through everything," Malone said. Slugs pierced even the headers -- four inches of wood -- and ricocheted about the cabin's interior.

Ritchie and Malone called 911 on their cell phone. The connection was poor, but when the dispatcher heard the shots in the background, the troopers acted. Still, it took an hour to reach the trail off Ohlson Mountain Road. That left a mile or more on snowshoes to reach the cabin.

Meanwhile, Ritchie and Malone heard at least three snowmachines, raising their hopes that help had arrived.

The unlucky third was Dave Baird, heading home. When he realized he was being shot at, he accelerated to escape but struck a tree, troopers said. Powell yelled at him and threatened to kill him, troopers said Baird told them.

Later, according to troopers, Powell said he was mad because snowmachines had been driving on his property and he believed Ritchie and Malone were harassing him.

He also told troopers he was tired of the environmental destruction.

Powell allegedly told Baird he must be "a lucky son of a b----" to be alive, that he'd missed with six shots.

He told Baird he would spare him if he went to the cabin and told Ritchie to come out.

In fear for his life, Baird did as he was instructed. When he knocked, the couple's hopes soared thinking it might actually be troopers.

"Then Dave stumbles in," Ritchie said.

Together, the three split from the cabin, opposite where Powell was thought to be, and headed toward the woods at 12:30 a.m. It required moving over open, moonlit ground. Once in the woods, Baird hot-footed it home, a 10-mile trip.

Ritchie and Malone were hardly prepared for a night in the cold and snowy forest. They were naked when the shooting began. On their way out the door, Malone grabbed light pajamas, a coat and boots.

Ritchie took a coat for his upper body and another he wrapped around his waist and legs, plus boots. They were in a hurry.

Malone recently had lung surgery and could not run. The couple made it to a line of spruce trees and waited, listening to yelling from the direction of the cabin.

They moved into the woods and kept going to put distance between themselves and their attacker. They were cold and defenseless. Eventually they traveled about six miles, Ritchie said.

When Sgt. Jim Hibpshman and Troopers John Brown and Todd VanLier arrived, they heard a dog barking. They knew Powell had a dog. Brown and VanLier took up rifle positions while Hibpshman moved about 30 yards down the trail and called out to Powell.

"Powell answered and stated we would have to kill him," Hibpshman said.

After about 20 minutes of shouted negotiations, Powell surrendered, emerged from hiding and handed over a Remington 12-gauge shotgun, two large knives and two bandoleers containing shotgun shells.

He told Hibpshman that Ritchie must be "the luckiest son of a b---- in the world to get out of the cabin," and he expected to get 50 years in jail for what he'd done.

Troopers began searching for the victims. Ritchie and Malone eventually caught sight of a search helicopter. They lit spruce trees afire to signal and were rescued, cold but unharmed, at about 4:30 a.m.

Malone said it has yet to sink in just how lucky they all are. The cabin was full of holes and dents, but not even their dogs and cats were hit. Both praised the bravery of troopers who walked into the situation not knowing where Powell was.

Though equipped with snowmachines, troopers used snowshoes, Hibpshman said, because they knew Powell was shooting at snowmachines.

Ritchie and Malone have lived in their cabin for more than five years. It is a mile from Powell's.

Malone said the couple had clashed with Powell. About two years ago, they came home to find him blocking their front door. He pulled a knife and threatened to burn them out and to rape Malone. That incident was reported and Powell was ordered to never go near them, they said.

After the rape threat, Ritchie and Malone armed themselves. But when the couple left Homer in September because Malone was ill, they deposited the guns with Ritchie's father and had not retrieved them.

The couple said two things probably saved their lives.

One, "Dave was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Ritchie said.

Second, Powell had no way of knowing the couple wasn't armed.

According to Ritchie and Malone, Powell had staked out seven shielded positions in the trees surrounding the cabin from which to shoot. At one site, Powell had written "Death Soon!" in the snow, Ritchie said.

Trooper Brown reported finding 22 fired 12-gauge shells and four live 12-gauge shells. They also found an empty bottle of Chivas Regal. Troopers took 19 live shotgun rounds from Powell.

Powell was been taken to Wildwood Pretrial Facility in Kenai.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Homer News.

Peninsula Clarion reporter Shana Loshbaugh contributed to the story.



CONTACT US

  • Switchboard: 907-283-7551
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-283-3584
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Business Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-335-1257
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING

MORRIS ALASKA NEWS