Peggy Larson woke to sirens wailing in the distance and getting closer every second.
It was 12:30 a.m., or thereabouts, on April 25 -- late enough that most folks in her quiet wooded neighborhood off Kalifornsky Beach Road and West Poppy Lane were bedded down for the night.
Assuming, she said, that the sirens were approaching fire trucks, she looked out her window to see flashing lights pass her driveway on Birdsong Avenue, a dead end. She woke her husband, Lee, and opened the window. She heard voices; then a loud noise.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s a helicopter!” she yelled.
Outside, police cars roamed. Above, the chopper circled, low enough, she said, to cast a prop shadow on the lawn. A bright light illuminated everything.
“What’s going on?” she wondered. She called the Alaska State Troopers to find out if she was safe or not. A trooper dispatcher told her little, saying only that the Soldotna Police “had business over there,” she said.
“For the first time in 34 years of marriage, my husband loaded a shotgun and put it by our bed,” Larson said.
Information regarding the late-night, ground and aerial search was finally issued in a press release late Monday, five days after the episode. According to Soldotna Police Chief John Lucking, interviewed Tuesday, events began when Officer Aaron Renken saw a 1988 Ford LTD parked in the lot at Kenai Peninsula College, long after the college had closed.
Renken reported seeing three young people hunched together “apparently getting ready to smoke marijuana,” the press release said. The occupants could have been teenaged or perhaps in their early 20s, Lucking said.
When Renken approached the car and knocked on the window, he got no response. The driver, he said, just looked at the occupant in the right front seat. Renken grabbed the door handle, but the driver hit the gas, forcing Renken to jump out of the way to avoid being struck. The LTD quickly accelerated and sped out of the parking lot.
Renken pursued what Lucking described as junker, “a $500 car.”
Running without headlights, the LTD ran a stop sign at the intersection of East Poppy Lane and College Road and hit 70 mph on East Poppy Lane. The driver ignored a flashing red signal at K-Beach Road, Renken reported, and continued onto West Poppy Lane.
According to the press release, Renken discontinued the chase when the LTD drove into a dark, densely wooded area with no exit. Other officers soon responded to what had become a pursuit on foot.
The chopper that joined in was not a law-enforcement aircraft, but rather a medevac helicopter on a training mission. It is owned by Providence LifeGuard Air Ambulance and stationed at Central Peninsula General Hospital.
According to Soldotna Police, the crew witnessed the police efforts and, on their own initiative, responded to assist police.
The search went on for 90 minutes, but was unsuccessful at finding the alleged pot smokers.
Not far away near the corner of West Poppy Lane and Whisperwood Street, Nita and Dan Young were also asleep in the home they’ve occupied for 27 years. Scared by the activity outside, they did what any citizen might have done, Nita said. Her husband called the authorities, in this case the Alaska State Troopers because they live outside Soldotna city limits.
“They were really rude,” Nita Young said. “They were short and snappy, like ‘Don’t bother us.’ This is trooper jurisdiction. We didn’t know it was SPD. It seemed like a lot of hullabaloo for a couple of kids smoking pot. There were no guns, nothing. What were they (police) thinking?”
Young said violent incidents have occurred occasionally in the area, and she and many of her neighbors feared something similar. With no information to go on, the Youngs had some reason to fear the worst.
On Masters Court off Liberty Lane, Sandra and Bill Forbes also heard the scream of sirens and saw the shining searchlight from above.
“We locked everything down,” Sandra said. “It was definitely unnerving to have a helicopter flying over the house constantly.”
She, too, called troopers the next day to ask them if they’d been in any danger.
“They said ‘No,’ but they were very curt,” she said.
She said it was a good thing that the chopper crew volunteered to help, but considering that police were only chasing suspected pot smokers, she felt “it was overkill.”
During an interview Tuesday, Chief Lucking and Soldotna City Manager Tom Boedeker tried to put the incident in perspective and to reassure residents that what had occurred had followed policy.
First, Lucking said the advent of the helicopter was not the Soldotna Police Department’s doing. It was serendipitous, an accident of circumstance. It just happened to be there while on the training mission. While the light from above was certainly welcome on that dark night, Lucking said officers on the ground were unable to talk with the pilot above.
Tom Bailey, program manager with Providence LifeGuard, said, however, that the helicopters have radios and satellite phones and regularly communicate with Alaska State Troopers. He said it would be unusual not be able to link up with authorities on the ground.
“Trooper dispatch does know our frequency,” he said. “It seems rather odd.”
Megan Peters, information officer with the AST, said new radio equipment had recently been acquired and frequencies changed as part of a wholesale and ongoing upgrade of statewide communications paid for with Homeland Security funding. She said the troopers are training on the new equipment and some reprogramming is under way, and that may have contributed to the lack of communications between officers on the ground and the helicopter, but she could not be sure.
Bailey, who was not on duty that night, said it was not company policy to participate in such activities without the approval of the administrator on call. The helicopter was on a training mission -- one pilot was familiarizing another with night operations, he said. When they observed the action on the ground, they went over to take a look. The pilots told him they didn’t see much, and a short time later left the area to refuel. At that time, according to the pilots, they got a call from trooper dispatch asking if they’d seen anything.
Bailey said the helicopter flew back over the area again, but, according to the pilot, spent perhaps 10 minutes actually searching.
“Not being there, I can’t say for sure,” Bailey said. “I have no reason to doubt the pilot. I can say that the pilot understands that is not part of our mission. But then, they were doing training, and it was not a normal (rescue or transport) mission.”
He said pilots would respond, if requested, in an emergency.
Lucking said Renken was joined by another Soldotna officer, Sgt. Duane Kant, as well as an Alaska State Trooper -- according to Peters, Trooper Jeremy Minnick -- in searching for the suspects in the dark woods. For a brief time, Renken got lost due to the darkness. The night was overcast and pitch black, according to Renken.
“It was trees and swamp and an unfamiliar area,” Lucking said.
Boedeker said the first call received by the city lodging complaints about the incident was a phone message saying police had “terrorized the neighborhood,” which he said included nothing about being unable to get information from authorities.
“That was the message on the phone. That was the context with which we started,” he said.
“We want to see that people get information,” he said.
As for the trooper dispatchers being short with callers, Boedeker said he has no control over that and didn’t know whether the claims were true or a matter of perception in a time of anxiety. Dispatchers’ jobs are not easy ones, he noted.
Lucking said the chiefs of peninsula police departments were set to meet today for a regularly scheduled get-together and communications with peninsula citizens would be on the agenda.
Had there been a real threat to residents, police would have done whatever was necessary to advise them, he said. That could mean knocking on doors or using an existing telephone system that allows block calling -- ringing up several homes at once -- and playing a recorded message. While the system is there to warn, it is not used to reassure people that they are not in danger, he said. That is another issue that could be discussed, he said.
Incidents that don’t run smoothly can sometimes alert authorities to the need for changes in policies and procedures, Lucking noted.
“If communications is an issue, we will address that and try to improve,” he said.
As for pursuits in general, Lucking said the department has “exhaustive policies” dictating approaches officers can take. They have a high degree of discretion, he said, and may call off a pursuit if, in their judgment, it has become unreasonably dangerous.
He acknowledged that pursuing teens suspected of smoking pot is very different from chasing someone suspected of homicide.
“There are a lot of variables,” he said. “There’s no black and white.”
He said searching for 90 minutes was not unreasonable.
Lucking said the LTD was recovered, but as of Tuesday afternoon, had not been linked to a suspect. The investigation continues. He asked that anyone with information call 262-4455.
Hal Spence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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