Trooper accident prompts investigation, public uproar

Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2001

A pair of Alaska State Troopers responding to a teen brawl early Saturday evening collided and skidded out of control in downtown Soldotna. The accident created an uproar of criticism of, and support for, the troopers on a local radio talk show Monday.

A trooper in the parking lot of Peninsula Center Mall witnessed the beginning of a fight at about 5:26 p.m., and called for backup, according to Trooper 1st Sgt. Charles Tressler in Soldotna.

"One trooper and a half-dozen to a dozen kids are not good odds," he said.

Two troopers, Brad Nelson, 26, and James Johnson, 36, both of Soldotna, responded.

Nelson, in the lead patrol car, was forced to brake and swerve when other teens, headed to watch the fight, bolted from between stopped cars, Tressler said.

Johnson, who was in the second patrol car, could not brake in time and hit Nelson's right rear tire and panel, forcing them both into a light pole near Arby's along the Sterling Highway. Damage to the vehicles was estimated at $10,000, and to the light pole at $500.

Tressler said one of the cars was totaled, and the other may be repaired. Both were standard Ford Crown Victoria patrol vehicles.

Soldotna Police Department Officer Shane LaCroix picked up the call for backup and helped break up the brawl, according to Soldotna Police Chief Shirley Warner.

Warner praised the troopers for responding inside the city.

"By practice, we have a great working relationship with the Alaska State Troopers," she said, adding the troopers often respond to crime in the city, just as her department tries to help outside it.

However, controversy arose, according to Tressler, when callers to KSRM's talk show "Sound Off" criticized troopers for one, speeding, and two, for crashing.

"Lt. (Tom) Bowman got on the air and said he was glad the troopers hit each other rather than the kids," Tressler said. "And callers criticized that position."

He said two employees of KSRM were on the air, claiming to be eyewitnesses, saying the troopers were going more than 60 mph, Tressler said. But when investigators interviewed them, they recanted, saying they had no real estimate of the officers' speed.

Other witnesses said the troopers were going 35 to 40 mph, Tressler said, which is about the speed Nelson and Johnson said they were going.

"The callers to Sound Off just got their information wrong," he added. "I turned them off two years ago because they never get anything right."

He said the investigation will include analysis of the skid marks, the impact damage on the vehicles, how far from the accident the vehicles stopped and road conditions.

"But the callers say we're going to cover this up, no matter what," Tressler said. "They asked if the troopers were going to be charged triple traffic fines in a speed zone area."

Traffic fines are increased on the Sterling Highway through downtown due to summer-long construction there. Tressler said if one of the troopers is at fault here, they'll be "on their knees begging for a triple traffic fine," because the department's punishment would be more severe.

He said the outcome of the investigation could find one or both of the troopers at fault, or neither. Both remain on the job.

"Others called and complained that we have too many troopers, that they should get rid of half of us, that we should be driving four-cylinder cars and that our Crown Vics are like tanks," Tressler said. "They're just like everyone else's, not padded or armored."

Despite the on-air criticism, the trooper post in Soldotna received several calls, many of them in support of law enforcement. One person, after hearing the radio show, dropped by the station to offer words of support.

Tressler said the two troopers were responding with lights and sirens, but are still under orders to drive reasonably and prudently.

He said he did not know if the teen brawl was planned, as others in Soldotna have been in the past, but said enough other kids knew about it that they gathered there to watch it.

The fight was broken up, and troopers forwarded charges of disorderly conduct to juvenile authorities.

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