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Trooper deaths show challenge of patrolling state

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RACHEL D'ORO | May 2, 2014 10:23 PM EST | AP

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The shooting deaths of two Alaska State Troopers devastated their colleagues, who face the same dangers and vulnerabilities as they patrol a tough terrain and remote villages dotted throughout the state.

"This will take us a long time to heal," trooper Col. James Cockrell said Friday. "The department is totally focused more on the families involved. This is a tragedy for them. It's totally unexpected."

The slayings of Trooper Gabriel "Gabe" Rich, 26, and Sgt. Patrick "Scott" Johnson, 45, on Thursday in the isolated community of Tanana underscored the challenges law enforcement faces in this huge state. Like many troopers assigned to patrol multiple villages, Rich and Johnson were not based in the interior community of 238 people. They worked out of the troopers' Fairbanks rural service unit 130 miles to the east, and they had to reach Tanana by plane.

A 19-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the killing of Rich and Johnson, both of whom had appeared on a cable TV reality show about the Alaska State Troopers. Formal charges against Nathanial Lee Kangas of Tanana were being prepared by troopers with the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals. The troopers said they believe he used a semi-automatic rifle in the shootings, which are still under investigation.

The teenager's father, Arvin Kangas, 58, of Tanana, also was arrested. He is charged with assault in connection with a confrontation Wednesday with an unarmed village public safety officer, Mark Haglin.

The elder Kangas was angry about selling a sofa he had not yet been paid for, Cockrell said. At one point, Arvin Kangas pointed a shotgun at Haglin as the public safety officer drove by the suspect's house, troopers said. Village public safety officers are unarmed, but a bill passed by lawmakers this year would allow for the arming of the officers, who serve as first responders in rural communities that can be located hours or days, depending on the weather, from the nearest state trooper.

Reached by telephone, Haglin referred questions to troopers.

Only sketchy details have been released about what transpired before the shootings in the community. No roads lead to Tanana, and travel there is mainly by aircraft. Because of the location of the village, about two miles west of the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, the community was a trading post for Koyukon and Tanana Athabascans long before European contact, according to a state website. Residents continue to live a traditional Athabascan lifestyle, including hunting and fishing for their food.

Tanana resident Ruby Cruger is related to the Kangas, but she said she did not know the details of the shooting, just that it has affected the entire community.

"They're all shocked," Cruger said of the town's reaction to the shooting.

The troopers arrived in Tanana at about 2:45 p.m. Thursday to serve an arrest warrant on the elder Kangas. Cockrell said the troopers soon encountered the elder Kangas just outside the front door of his home. They were trying to place him under arrest when a struggle erupted, and the three men went inside through the door, where the younger Kangas shot the officers at about 3 p.m., according to troopers.

Shortly after, the village officer notified troopers, saying one of the officers was dead and the other one possibly also. It's not clear what role the village officer played at the scene, although he was in the vicinity when the shootings occurred, Cockrell said.

Nathanial Kangas was arrested soon after. His father ran off to another home and surrendered late Thursday night, according to troopers. Both men are in custody in Fairbanks.

Rich and Johnson were occasionally featured on the National Geographic Channel show "Alaska State Troopers," which features multiple troopers patrolling the state's wild terrain. The troopers were not filming at the time of their deaths. Filming in the fifth season is currently being done with other troopers.

National Geographic said in a statement that it was "incredibly saddened" to learn of the deaths. Spokesman Chris Albert said the troopers are among the many who are subjected to the daily challenges of working in isolated areas of the state, such as Tanana.

Johnson was born in Fairbanks and grew up in the Alaska community of Tok. He was a veteran trooper who joined the force in 1993. He spent his career in Fairbanks and worked a variety of roles, including patrol trooper, field training officer and as a canine officer, instructor and canine unit supervisor. He also had worked as a supervisor of a Fairbanks-area narcotics team. Survivors include his wife and three daughters.

Rich was born in Sayre, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Fairbanks. He first worked as a patrolman with the North Pole Police Department southeast of Fairbanks before deciding to join the troopers in 2011. With the troopers, he spent most of his career on patrol. Survivors include his fiance, their 1-year-old son and his fiance's 8-year-old son. At the time of his death, Rich was in the process of adopting the older boy, troopers said.

Johnson and Rich joined the interior rural unit on Jan. 1. The unit covers 23 villages scattered across a sparse terrain.

Their deaths came the same day the name of Manokotak village public safety Officer Thomas Madole was added to the Indian Country Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Artesia, New Mexico. Madole was shot and killed March 19, 2013, while responding to a domestic violence call in the Alaska Native village.

Before Thursday, 64 law enforcement officers had been killed in the line of duty since 1897 in Alaska, according to information previously provided by the Alaska State Troopers.

Police memorials in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau are being planned to pay tribute to the slain troopers.

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Follow Rachel D'Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro