2003 on the Kenai Peninsula was a year of stark and often tragic contrasts. The year began with the fatal shooting of a Nikiski man by Alaska State Troopers. It ended with the Christmas night slaying of a Kenai police officer in the line of duty. Officer John Watson's funeral will take place today at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School.
In February, a lack of snow caused the cancellation of a popular sled dog race, while in December, heavy snowfalls buried the peninsula in a blanket of wintry white.
Declining reserves of oil and natural gas led two major employers to make significant job cuts, while at the same time, a new pipeline began pumping newly discovered gas from Ninilchik.
A major retail store left Kenai, making way for the opening of another later in the year.
In Kenai and Soldotna, city councils voted to ban smoking in restaurants, while Homer saw a similar ban go up in smoke.
And who could forget the watery clash between a Soldotna man and a group of peace demonstrators? Or the confrontations between humans and bears?
All in all, 2003 was indeed a year of ups and downs full of controversy, crime, court cases and job cuts and, of course, lots of talk about the weather.
The following in a chronological list of the stories that shaped how we lived, died, worked and played during 2003 on the Kenai Peninsula:
Jan. 5 Nikiski's Casey Porter is shot and killed by Alaska State Trooper Jesse Osborn at a Sterling rest area after Porter refuses Osborn's order to exit his vehicle. Troopers report Osborn feared that Porter was going to injure another officer with his car. Troopers and the Kenai district attorney determine Osborn's use of force is justified. In February, Osborn is reassigned to the Department of Public Safety headquarters in Anchorage.
Jan. 29 The Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race is canceled due to a lack of snow. Overall, the winter of 2002-03 is one of the driest on record, with just 26 inches of snow falling in the central Kenai Peninsula area between November 2002 and April 2003.
Feb. 11 Billy D. Smith is convicted of first degree murder in the 1994 killings of Harold Enzler and Nancy Bellamy. At the trial, it is alleged that Smith shot the couple over a child custody battle between Harold Enzler and Mimi Enzler, Harold's ex-wife and the girlfriend of Smith at the time. The prosecution says Smith killed the couple, destroyed the evidence, dismembered the bodies and later dumped them in Cook Inlet. In December, Smith is sentenced to 99 years in prison for the killings.
March 6 The organizers of the Kenai Peninsula's bid to host the 2006 Arctic Winter Games receive word that the peninsula has been chosen over Fairbanks and Juneau to host the games, which are expected to bring 2,000 athletes and countless spectators from around the Arctic to the Kenai Peninsula.
March 6-15 Hurricane force winds whip across Southcentral Alaska, grounding flights, knocking over trees and causing power outages throughout the region. In June, $400,000 in federal disaster aid is made available to help those affected by the storms repair the damages.
March 25 After agreeing to reconsider an earlier "slot limit" regulation passed in 2002, the Alaska Board of Fisheries passes new regulations for the Kenai River stating anglers can only retain Kenai kings measuring less than 44 inches or 55 inches or longer from the beginning of the season through June 30. The board also passes a regulation that bans nonresident anglers from fishing on the Kenai between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. during June.
March 31 A restaurant smoking ban takes effect in Soldotna. Before the year is out, the city of Kenai will pass a similar ban, stating it's in the interest of public health, while Homer's city council will reject one on the grounds that it would infringe upon residents' civil rights.
April 1 Jeff Webster, a Soldotna cab driver, guide and father of a U.S. Marine serving in Iraq, is cited for harassment by Soldotna police after Webster throws a bucket of water on peace demonstrators at the intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways. The incident ignites a flurry of both support and condemnation for Webster within the community, with some people sympathizing with his position and others criticizing his actions as misguided and unconstitutional.
In July, after a highly publicized misdemeanor case, an unapologetic Webster is convicted by a Kenai District Court jury of two counts of harassment and one count of interfering with the constitutional rights of the demonstrators. The jury also finds him not guilty of one count of fourth-degree assault and one count of interfering with constitutional rights. He is sentenced to 320 hours of community service.
April 11 Representatives from the Kenai Peninsula School District and district teachers reach a tentative agreement on a new contract, narrowly avoiding a possible strike by teachers.
April 13 After a lengthy liquidation sale, the Kenai Big Kmart store closes its doors for good. The closing of the store means a big sales tax hit roughly $800,000 in yearly revenue for the city of Kenai. However, later in the year, Home Depot announces plans to renovate and reoccupy the vacant building.
April 17 At a meeting of the Kenai River Special Management Advisory Board, Alaska State Parks Area Superintendent Chris Degernes announces that a moratorium on Kenai River guides tentatively approved in 2002 will not go into effect. Degernes tells the board that State Parks Commissioner Tom Irwin rescinded the moratorium because of mounting legal pressure from several lodge and guide operators.
April 23 Citing an inability to fully supply its North Kenai nitrogen products plant with natural gas, Agrium announces plans to cut its work force at the facility by 65 employees. The situation is compounded by an ongoing legal dispute between Agrium and Unocal over gas supplies.
May 11 Kasilof teen Cody Williams is attacked by a brown bear while hiking near Tustumena Lake. Williams escapes with minor injuries after friends help chase the bear off.
May 31 Nikiski's Jon and Athena Harman are convicted in Shelby, Mont., on 180 counts of animal cruelty for an incident that took place at the U.S.-Canada border. The Harmans were arrested in October of 2002 after border inspectors stopped them trying to enter the United States from Canada with a tractor trailer full of dehydrated, sick and emaciated dogs, mostly collies, and cats. In June, the couple is sentenced to 10-year suspended jail sentences and ordered to relinquish nearly all of their 191 animals.
July 10 The city of Kenai closes the Kenai Recreation Center after the Friends of the Recreation Center group, which opposed the city awarding a facility management contract for the center to the Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula, takes the city to court over the issue. The center is reopened Dec. 1 after the city rewrites a section of its code regarding facility management and awards another management contract to the Boys and Girls Club.
Supporters of the peninsula's bid for the 2006 Arctic Winter Games greet a site selection committee in January. The local bid was successful and preparations are underway.
File photo by M. Scott Moon
July 15 In the second notable bear attack of 2003, Girdwood fisher Dan Bigley is severely wounded by a brown bear while walking near the Russian River in Cooper Landing. Bigley spends months in the hospital and loses his eyesight as a result of his injuries. The incident leads state officials to close the popular fishery during nighttime hours. Overall, 2003 is a rough year for bears and humans alike, as 18 bruins are killed in defense of life or property on the peninsula the highest total on record.
Officials with British Petroleum's Gas-to-Liquids plant announce progress has been made developing the plant's experimental technology.
The Kenai-Kachemak natural gas pipeline, a joint-venture between Marathon and Unocal, begins pumping gas from gas fields near Ninilchik into the existing gas grid. Although the gas does little to ease fears of a gas shortage in Cook Inlet, the search for more natural gas on the peninsula intensifies throughout the year, with several gas companies drilling new exploratory wells throughout the year.
Skywatchers are rewarded with intense aurora displays after unusually active sunspot activity bombards the planet with supercharged solar energy. Displays bright enough to be seen in the southern United States give peninsula viewers tremendous shows throughout the month.
Oct. 2 Kenai's restaurant smoking ban goes into effect.
Oct. 7 Political newcomer Dan Chay unseats Kenai incumbent John Davis on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. In other races, Ron Long and Milli Martin keep their seats on the assembly. In Kenai, voters oust one incumbent and keep another, as Amy Jackman loses her seat and Pat Porter retains hers. John "Ozzie" Osborne, who was appointed to the council in April to fill the seat vacated by Duane Bannock, also loses, as Blaine Gilman and Rick Ross win seats on the Kenai council.
Soldotna's council remains unchanged after Sharon Moock and Jim Stogsdill reclaim their seats without being challenged.
Oct. 24 Unocal announces plans to cut 14 positions from its peninsula work force. The cuts come less than a year after the company laid off 47 workers in an effort to streamline its business operations. The cutbacks fuel speculation that despite recent discoveries, the peninsula's oil and gas industry is taking a major downturn.
The layoffs come just as residents of the south peninsula protest plans by companies to explore the Homer area for coal bed methane gas, a controversy which continues as residents call on the state to buy back oil and gas leases on the peninsula from developers.
Nov. 20 A study by the state of Alaska reveals that as much as 10,000 gallons of petroleum were spilled into the Kenai River over the summer. The study's authors point to motorboats operating on the river as the main culprit of the contamination.
In contrast to the previous winter, the month begins with heavy snowfalls, taxing road maintenance crews and causing a number of traffic accidents, including several involving moose. Overall, accidents involving collisions between vehicles and moose are up more than 30 percent from the previous winter.
Dec. 17 After months of renovations to the old Kmart building, Home Depot opens for business in Kenai. Large crowds turn out for the opening, which is heralded by city officials as a major boost for the city's economy.
Dec. 25 Kenai police officer John Watson, 43, is shot and killed at a residence in the VIP subdivision of Kenai after stopping a silver SUV in order to make a welfare check on one of the vehicle's passengers. After a lengthy standoff at his residence, Kenai's David Forster, 33, is taken into custody and charged with Watson's murder.
Clarion staff members Jenni Dillon, Phil Hermanek, M. Scott Moon, Jenny Neyman, Joseph Robertia and Hal Spence contributed to this story.
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