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Candice Berner Killed: Wolves Suspected In Death Of Alaska Teacher

Candice Berner

First Posted: 05/11/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:50 PM ET

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Wolves likely killed a teacher jogging alone along a rural Alaska village road, public safety officials said Thursday.

The Alaska State Medical Examiner listed "multiple injuries due to animal mauling" as the cause of death for Candice Berner, 32, a special education teacher from Pennsylvania who began working in Alaska in August. Her body was found off the road a mile outside the village of Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula, which is about 474 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The autopsy could not say which animals, said Col. Audie Holloway, head of the Alaska State Troopers, but wolves are the chief suspect.

"There's no other carnivores in that area that are out and active," he said.

Wolves, bears, foxes and other wildlife have disturbed bodies in the Alaska wilderness, but Holloway said the autopsy ruled out other causes that may have killed Berner. Additional tests could tie the death to wolves, Holloway said.

"If we're able to actually prove which animal, it will be through some kind of DNA analysis or through some expert that can maybe testify or explain how they know that it's a wolf," he said.

Troopers have plenty of circumstantial evidence leading them to point the finger at wolves.

"There were wolf tracks all around the body, and drag marks associated with those wolf tracks," Holloway said.

Tracks indicated more than one wolf was involved.

"From the number of prints at the scene, we're thinking there probably were, possibly, two, three, maybe four," Holloway said.

Villagers in the community of 105 residents already were on alert because of wolves running boldly near the community, said Johnny Lind, president of the village council.

Choosing his words carefully Thursday before the autopsy results were announced, Lind said wolf involvement was apparent.

"It's obvious. Goodness. It's obvious," he said, adding that he did not want to elaborate.

Since Tuesday, people were not traveling alone, school children were accompanied to school and armed patrols on snowmobiles were looking for wolves, he said.

"Everybody's kind of staying close to the village," he said.

Berner was based in Perryville and employed by the Lake and Peninsula School District, which oversees schools in 14 villages covering an area the size of West Virginia in southwest Alaska.

As an itinerant special education teacher, Berner would rotate among the district's five southern villages and had flown to Chignik Lake multiple times, said Rick Luthi, the district's chief operating officer.

She was originally from Slippery Rock, Pa.

Luthi said Berner during her short time in Alaska tried to take in as many experiences as she could. The district distributed a photo of her on a district outing catching crab.

"She wasn't going to miss anything about living in that area," he said.

Under 5 feet tall, Berner had boxed and lately had been training for long-distance running.

"She was a gymnast by early training and was in very good physical condition," Luthi said.

Most adult male wolves in Alaska weigh 85 to 115 pounds but they occasionally reach 145 pounds, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Females average 5 to 10 pounds lighter than males and rarely weigh more than 110 pounds. Wolves reach adult size by about 1 year of age, and the largest wolves occur where prey is abundant year round.

Attacks by wolves on humans are rare. If Berner's death is confirmed to be by wolves, it would be the first in Alaska.

Multiple calls left for the spokeswoman of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Jennifer Yuhas, were not returned Thursday.

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Filed by T.J. Ortenzi  |