Man charged with shooting pipeline no stranger to trouble

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

LIVENGOOD (AP) -- Ask neighbors, acquaintances and family about how Danny Lewis went wrong and they all say the same thing: Things never went right.

As a boy, when his father beat him, he ran off into the snow.

At 15, he took off in his father's pickup to Fairbanks, said his brother. When he returned drunk two days later and the old man pulled a gun, Danny just laughed, threw the keys in the dirt and walked away.

At 17, he left this tiny community in the hill country north of Fairbanks. Less than a year later, he was arrested for the first time, charged with speeding past a stop sign and drunken driving.

Since then, Lewis' home has been three walls and a barred door more often than not. In total, more than 10 of his last 17 years have been spent in jail or prison for assault, theft, driving while intoxicated and burglary -- midlevel crimes that put someone behind bars but are never serious enough to keep them there.

Now, Lewis, 37, may be facing a longer fate in his second home.

In a drunken, defiant haze on Oct. 4, Lewis shot the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, according to his brother, Randy, and the Alaska State Troopers.

Lewis was charged with three felonies of criminal mischief, assault and driving while intoxicated, with additional charges possible for oil pollution and weapons misconduct. If convicted, he may face 20 years in prison.

Lewis denies shooting the pipeline. He says he was home at the time asleep. He has declined to be interviewed.

Oil spurted from the bullet hole for 36 hours, spilling almost 300,000 gallons of oil into the forest. It was the third largest oil spill since North Slope oil production began in 1977.

Those who know Lewis and the family describe a chaotic upbringing of extreme poverty, mixed with alcohol, violence and a meager education. While many are disappointed, none are surprised.

''Danny has a history that it just kinda makes sense,'' said Dave McConnell, who lived about a mile from the Lewis homestead and was the family's closest neighbor.

After he left Livengood in the early 1980s, Lewis returned there only sporadically, said his brother Randy, who now lives at the family homestead, a decaying trailer and abutting shack about a mile from the pipeline.

The weight of poverty still sits on the Lewis place. Randy does not work regularly. He collects checks from Doyon Ltd., the regional Native corporation, gets a state oil dividend and government assistance to help pay his heating bills. Every year he recycles a mound of aluminum beer cans. Last year he returned more than 100 pounds for $26, he said.

''It's all I need out here,'' he said.

At 2 a.m. Oct. 3, the day before the shooting, Randy was asleep when Danny Lewis came through the door. He had just driven a four-wheeler 80 miles from Fairbanks along the pipeline. He was hung over and hungry.

''He said he was home for a few days,'' Randy Lewis said.

The next morning, the two brothers salvaged a water pump from a junked car behind the homestead and sold it to a neighbor, getting $18, he said.

His brother went down the road and bought hot dogs and two bottles of Canadian whiskey in the store. The brothers spent the day fixing their all-terrain vehicles.

The next day they took a bottle of whiskey, Randy's dog Lil' Bear and headed across the road toward the trans-Alaska oil pipeline to hunt.

Danny Lewis carried his brother's .338-caliber rifle -- a large gun for moose and bear hunting. Randy Lewis said they were headed to a nearby lake for bird hunting.

When they passed the pipeline on the way to the lake, Danny shot at one of the thick steel supports that hold up the oil pipeline. He took a second shot at one of the tall columns atop the supports.

The two had little luck hunting.

''We'd stop. Take a shot (of whiskey). Keep going,'' Randy said. Shortly after 2 p.m., they returned to the dirt access road along the pipeline. They stopped, took a swig and Danny leveled his gun at the pipeline.

''I said: 'Don't shoot that pipeline,''' Randy Lewis said. His brother turned angry and pointed the gun at Randy, he said.

''I'll shoot it if I want. I'll put a hole right through it,'' Randy Lewis remembered his brother saying. He pointed the gun back at the pipe, shot, then drove further along the line and shot again.

''I got it!'' Danny yelled as a spray of oil shot from the pipe. He jumped back on the four-wheeler and tore off, heading north along the road next to the pipe.

Randy stared at the oil shooting across the road. Following his brother, but avoiding the spill, Randy drove under the pipe, around the oil and back to the road.

He found his brother sitting on his four-wheeler, smoking a cigarette, he said.

As he pulled up a helicopter swept overhead and began a turn to land. His brother took off, Randy Lewis said. Four hours later, troopers arrested Danny Lewis outside the homestead. He is being held at the Fairbanks Correctional Center in lieu of $1.5 million bail.

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