Jul/Aug 2002  •   Salon

High Emotions

by Tom Dooley

I'd like to share a recent news story from the front page of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. It was written by reporter Beth Ipsen about events in Kaltag, Alaska, and ran in the Friday issue on June 14, 2002.

Emotions run high in Kaltag after shooting

On the surface, Kaltag is a normal village on the Yukon River.

Kids of all ages ride colorful bikes and shout greetings to people walking by. Adults walk or ride four-wheelers and nod at visitors as they pass.

In this village of about 250 people, where almost everybody is related by blood or marriage, people come out of their houses to gather in small groups in the middle of the road to talk.

But beneath the normality is a community of people angered and hurt by the loss of a man who had a smile as big as his stature.

It was only days after 47-year-old Kenneth Madros Sr., known simply as Kenny, was shot and killed by Alaska State Trooper Dane Gilmore, but the village outcry was strong enough to prompt troopers to hold a community meeting Thursday to try to dispel rumors, explain what the investigation has found and ease tensions in the tight-knit remote community.

"This is pretty hard to deal with," said John Madros, the tribal chief and Madros' first cousin. "It's going to take some time to get over this."

Many villagers and family members said Madros' death on Monday has not only shaken the village 330 miles west of Fairbanks but other villages up and down the river as well, because he was well-known for his kindness and larger-than-life personality.

The village has had traumatic events in the past 100 years—other unexpected deaths, an epidemic that wiped out whole families and the 1997 fisheries disaster that destroyed the commercial fishing industry that provided an economic backbone and funded the village's infrastructure.

This time, it's different.

"Any death impacts the whole community," said mental health counselor Violet Burnham. "A death that's unexpected and as tragic as his was, it impacts all of our lives. He was such a big guy. You noticed his presence. He had a great sense of humor."

Madros was involved in numerous things in the village—search and rescues, carpentry and plumbing, using his experience from working on the North Slope during the pipeline years as a service oiler and running the sawmill set up in front of his house. Last week he and his wife were handing out fish they caught in the Yukon River.

"He always greeted you with a smile," Josie Ambridge said. She traveled with her family from Anchorage to Kaltag for her uncle's funeral. "There's a lot of pain right now. We've just got to work it all out and everybody's got to heal."

Madros did have an occasional bad day.

"When he was drinking, people stayed clear of him," Burnham said. "People knew he had a temper and stayed clear."

Madros said many of the villagers don't like the way events leading up to the shooting were handled and wonder if Madros would be alive if events had gone differently.

The 35 people who attended the meeting Thursday questioned trooper Detachment Commander Captain Greg Taner after he explained what the investigation had revealed so far. It was Tanner's first trip to Kaltag, and there were some questions he couldn't answer.

"Everything is what if, what if," John Madros said. "The worst thing about it is his (Kenny Madros') grandson was there."

The event has spurred some discord among the villagers and distrust of troopers.

"When I see state trooper I'll be leery, unless it's Santora," John Madros said. "She's very easy to approach. People can talk to her."

Santora is Trooper Jeannine Santora, who normally visits the village from nearby Galena where she, Gilmore and a Fish and Wildlife Protection trooper are stationed. Between the three of them, they oversee five small villages along the Yukon River in addition to Galena.

Santora is the primary trooper assigned to Kaltag, Tanner explained to those at the community meeting. She makes regular visits, is well-known and well-liked among the villagers.

But she was in Fairbanks that day and Gilmore, the only trooper available, chartered a flight from Galena to Kaltag after receiving a phone call at 10:40 a.m. Monday from Kenny Madros' wife reporting he had hit and shot at her. Troopers have not confirmed that Madros fired a weapon that day.

Once there, Gilmore interviewed Madros' wife and determined Madros should be arrested on a charge of domestic assault.

Gilmore found Madros at a friend's house that day and, at first, Madros seemed willing to go with Gilmore, Tanner said at the meeting. But at some point, Madros, who had been drinking earlier that day, decided he didn't want to go. Until then Madros wasn't handcuffed, but when Gilmore realized Madros had changed his mind, Gilmore tried to restrain him. The much-larger Madros got away from Gilmore, turned around and made his way about 80 yards to his shed with Gilmore following him.

Troopers said that's when Madros retrieved a shotgun, chambered a round and pointed it at Gilmore, who then shot him four times, Tanner said. Tanner said troopers are trained to shoot more than once to ensure there will no longer be a threat.

"At that point, Trooper Gilmore thought he was going to die," Tanner said.

Troopers will forward their findings to the state Department of Law, which will determine if Gilmore was justified in shooting Madros.

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, some villagers have made it clear Gilmore will not be welcome in Kaltag.

"It would be very uncomfortable seeing him around. He's not going to be welcome here," John Madros said. "We're such close-knit community-wise. Feelings aren't going to go away like that."

Tanner said it's up to the trooper's director to determine if Gilmore will return to Galena where he lives with his family.

Meanwhile, a family has to bury a son, brother, father and grandfather and a village will try to heal. It will take a while before life in Kaltag returns to normal.

I was in Alaska last month visiting my mother when this story's headline caught my eye. It caught my eye because I spent nine of the worst months of my life in Kaltag as a first-year teacher. I wanted to see if the article mentioned anyone I knew. After reading it, I've been stewing ever since. In fact, I've felt a strong need to unleash a George Carlin-like, expletive-laden rant about this article. Instead, I'm going to do my best to keep the expletives to a minimum and the rant more at a Dennis Miller level.

What, I want to know, was Beth Ipsen thinking when she wrote this article?

First of all, saying Kaltag is a "normal village on the Yukon River" is like saying AIDS is a normal venereal disease. A normal village on the Yukon River is plagued by alcoholism, poverty, domestic abuse, incest, packs of semi-wild dogs, and a death rate from suicide, murder, drowning in the river, and alcohol-related accidents that makes one wonder how there can still be anybody left. Kaltag just happens to be the village on the Yukon River most afflicted by these ills. Ms. Ipsen paints a bucolic picture of kids on bicycles and people nodding at passersby, but she knows very well, or at least she should know very well, that an equally common scene is one of local citizens—maybe Kenny or John Madros, for example—walking off a three-day drunk by stumbling through the streets with his head thrown back, bellowing in an effort to expel the alcohol poisoning from his system.

In the nine months I lived in that community, two young men took their own lives, one by shooting himself in the chest with a handgun, repeatedly. One of my favorite students killed himself a year later. I witnessed another man drink over $6,000 worth of alcohol rather than have the state take the money for back child support he owed. I had one of my students, at the age of 16, get drunk and roll his snow machine going over 100 miles per hour. The 13-year-old daughter of the tribal chief, himself a known bootlegger, ran away from home, necessitating a helicopter "man-hunt" to track her down. My life was threatened on two occasions, and on two others someone took a swing at me. And that was back in the peaceful old days. Things have reportedly gotten much worse in the years since I was there.

Speaking of how things are now, I wonder what kind of normalcy Ms. Ipsen is referring to at the end of her article. Does she mean the sort of normalcy she reported in the story she wrote back in January, when another Kaltag drunk, Bill Peter, killed his "friend" Ronald Madros by shooting him point-blank in the chest with a shotgun?

Then there's the subject of Kenny Madros, "a man who had a smile as big as his stature." It's customary for a man to get a break from his critics after his death, but this article goes a little too far to paint a rosy picture of Kenny Madros. Yeah, he was big. He was big and loud and bullying. He was a drunk and a wife-beater. In the end, he attempted to kill a law enforcement officer with a shotgun. Even if he was the nicest guy in the world, the fact is he tried to kill someone. If I walk out into the street right now and pull a gun on a policeman, I expect he will shoot me, too. Kenny Madros, in spite of what Beth Ipsen would have us believe, was not even close to being one of the nicest people in Kaltag.

Worse than whitewashing Kenny Madros, Ipsen and the people she interviews sure do a number on Trooper Dane Gilmore, the terrible, bloodthirsty officer who ended poor Kenny's life. He won't be welcome in Kaltag anymore. He might have to uproot his family and leave his home in Galena. He had the heartlessness to shoot Kenny in front of Kenny's own grandson. What I don't understand is why, in these post 9-11 times, an event like this can take place, and an article like this be written, and nobody seems to give a damn about the law enforcement side of things. I thought we as a nation, even the residents of Kaltag (who watch plenty of television), had some kind of heightened sensitivity now. That we all understood what a normally thankless and dangerous job it is to work in public safety. And, I'd venture to say, it's an especially thankless and dangerous job to be a state trooper assigned to the villages on the Yukon River. What must have been going through hapless Trooper Gilmore's mind when he realized he was going to have to cover Trooper Santori's beat for her and answer a domestic abuse call in Kaltag? Knowing, as I'm sure he did, Kenny Madros was drunk and shooting at his wife. Knowing what kind of stellar citizen Kenny Madros was. Knowing it's not unusual for people to die in Kaltag at the wrong end of a shotgun blast. What must have gone through his mind when he saw Kenny in all his fat, drunken rage, pointing a shotgun at him?

Why aren't people hailing Dane Gilmore as a hero? He risked his life just as surely as the officers who rushed into the twin towers did. In fact, if it's possible to weigh such heroic acts, he may have done something even more admirable. He went to a place where people are, metaphorically speaking, bringing the building down around themselves. He went, knowing no matter what he did, he was unlikely to make anyone happy or ultimately do anyone any good. But he went, because a woman called him and asked for help, and because it was his job to do so. He was nearly killed. He had to shoot a man in self-defense, something he'll have to live with for the rest of his life. And now he is "unwelcome?" How about the village of Kaltag is unwelcome, and if they need police protection from now on, they should get it from somewhere other than the Alaska State Troopers, who are probably tired of cleaning up their bloody, drunken messes anyway.

The last thing that really upsets me about this article, and about the attitudes of the people involved with this event as they're portrayed in the article, is the total displacement of responsibility. John Madros describes his village as a "close-knit community." If that's the case, why haven't these 250 mostly related people, this extended family, pulled together before this and done something about their individual problems? Why is it normal for a man to be so drunk at ten in the morning on a Monday that he's shooting at his wife? Don't people in Kaltag give enough of a shit about their mostly related neighbors to intervene sometime before said neighbors completely destroy the fabric of their lives, their families, their community, and even their culture, which is rapidly disappearing with the passing of the elders and the near total lack of a new generation with an ounce of character to replace them?

Is it really Trooper Gilmore's fault that Kenny's grandson had to witness his demise? Or is it possibly a sad indictment of Kenny Madros that he, as a grandfather, was drunk out of his mind at 10:00 on a Monday morning, beating up Grandma and pointing a shotgun at a state trooper? Where does the responsibility really lie?

It's not just an afterthought to mention there are decent people living in Kaltag. They are descendants of generations of decent people, who survived thousands of years under some of the harshest living conditions known to man. Steven Madros, an 18-year-old senior when I taught there, was one such person. He was one of the toughest kids I've ever known, and he had a sense of humor and a sense of justice. He didn't pick on his weaker, smaller classmates, nor did he ever accept defeat. One week after his shoulder had been completely dislocated in a basketball game, I watched him take on three of his teammates with one hand—his weak hand. The other arm was in a sling. He didn't just win, he dominated those boys, and he did so with a good-natured, Madros smile, much like the one attributed to his great-uncle Kenny, but without the malice. I don't know why Steven took his own life a year later, but I've mourned him ever since. I will not mourn Kenny Madros. I think it's very possible he and others like him bear much of the responsibility for presenting Steven with the one obstacle he didn't think he could ever overcome—the life into which he was born.