The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Trooper in cat-rescue arrest speaks out

Beck says pair arrested in avalanche zone endangered other people


Valdez Star photo

Ninja the cat is depicted climbing the damalache in late January in this diorama made of Lego. The piece is on display at the Valdez Civic Center as an entry in the Lego building contest sponsored by the Dept. of Parks and Rec.

Tony Beck, the wildlife officer stationed in Valdez by Alaska State Troopers, says he has all the empathy for people and their pets. What he doesn't condone is people breaking the law and putting other people in danger. That is exactly why he says he arrested two hikers that were ordered to leave the avalanche-blocked Richardson Highway two weeks ago.

The pair gained both admiration and scorn in the court of public opinion when it was learned they had been attempting to walk through the closed highway and over avalanches in an attempt to deliver a direly ill cat to the Valdez Veterinary Clinic.

"I have all the empathy in the world for people's pets," Beck said shortly after news reports revealed why the two were willing to take on the perilous journey. "The info we got from DOT said we've got to get these two off the road."

The pair Donney Olson, age 20, and Kristina Carlson, age 22, had traveled by car down the Richardson Highway from Copper Center with the intent to park their vehicle and climb over the avalanches that had closed the highway. And incredibly, that is what they did. That is until charging documents in the case say the two were told by DOT that they were issuing orders for them to leave the area by the authority of Alaska State Troopers. The message was apparently relayed from Beck to the DOT foreman and then to DOT employees operating heavy equipment behind the road closure. Beck said he made it clear that if the pair did not turn back and leave the area they'd be arrested.

"We didn't ask them to go back to Glennallen" Beck said, we told them. He also says he consulted with the office of the District Attorney before making the arrest.

"We conferred with the DA on this thing," he said.

Clark and Carlson claimed in an interview with the Valdez Star that they were told to leave the area by a DOT worker or were given the option of boarding a DOT-contracted helicopter that would take them to Valdez where they would have to talk to the troopers.

Beck was off-duty when the Valdez Star contacted the local trooper office the Monday after the arrests to seek additional information. Megan Peters, spokeswoman for Alaska State Troopers, said there was no additional information available about the arrests during a telephonic press conference with state and local authorities held that same day.

"These are the two reasons these two were arrested," Beck said after the story of the cat Ninja and his remarkable journey to Valdez gained widespread media attention.

First, they were endangering themselves by not obeying official orders, and second, the safety of DOT personnel was at risk because attention that should have been directed at the avalanche mitigation efforts was instead directed at keeping the two safe instead. Beck's arrest report claims DOT mitigation efforts shut down early Saturday due to the actions of Clark and Carlson.

"It completely shut down DOTs avalanche work," Beck said.

Then there are the explosives involved, "which is a whole other level of concern," he added.

The situation was called unprecedented by emergency responders on the scene.

A series of avalanches had blocked the Richardson Highway from about milepost 40 to the granddaddy of them all - at Snowslide Gulch near milepost 16. That avalanche not only blocked the highway but dammed the Lowe River creating what Beck said were "some of the most dangerous conditions we've seen in Valdez."

DOT efforts to unblock the dam with explosives resulted in a second, larger avalanche that measured 1000 to 1500 feet according to DOT estimates and a large lake of water - that if not properly managed - threatened to flood the homes in the 10 Mile subdivisions.

Media interest in the unprecedented avalanche situation was intense and grew as press releases from the City of Valdez reported little new information on the crisis, and DOT shed little light on events occurring in Keystone Canyon.

news outlets across the country had reported that the two, Donney Olson and Kristina Clark, were arrested for refusing to leave the avalanche area but there was no information why they were there and how come they'd refused to turn back from the dangerous highway.

Clark and Carlson felt a large part of the story had not been reported.

Sheri Pierce, public information officer for the City of Valdez, disputed the claim by Clark and Carlson published by the Valdez that they were told by emergency dispatch in Valdez that said "They said if you want to go climbing, we can't stop you."

The arrests proved to be controversial in social media outlets in the days after the initial news reports surfaced on Ninja the cat and his remarkable journey to Valdez.

Photo courtesy ADOT

An aerial view of the lake formed behind the first avalanche on the Richardson Highway Friday, January 24 – before a second man-made avalanche measuring over 1000 feet long came down Saturday. Experts say it would have been impassable on foot.

The pair did not have the $800 minimum deposit required by veterinary clinics contacted in Anchorage and MatSu to treat Ninja, who was suffering from a urinary tract blockage. Dr. Kelly Hawkins of the Valdez Veterinary Clinic said the condition is usually fatal if not treated. The Valdez Veterinary Clinic originally asked for a $500 deposit on the $800-$1,000 procedure needed to cure Ninja. The clinic maintains a small fund to help cash-strapped pet owners pay for emergency pet care on a case-by-case basis and told them it might help pay for Ninja's care, if they could get the cat to Valdez.

Hawkins, who retrieved Ninja from the Valdez Animal Shelter after Clark and Carlson were arrested, said he never dreamed the pair would attempt to cross avalanches on foot to get the cat to Valdez.

At last report, Ninja, a five-year old male Tabby, was recovering well and resting at home in Copper Center. Clark and Carlson were released on an unsecured bond the day after their arrest and have a March court date set on the misdemeanor charges.


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