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Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011


Heaven sent Published April 24 and 26, 2011

Heather A. Resz

ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

Jim Aldrich, left, sits with his son Christian, 8, as mom Amber kisses his hand. Christian was in a snowmachine accident in November 2010, and had no heart of lung function for 40 minutes.

It was a Saturday in November 2010 the first time we knew anything of the Aldrich family. I heard the call come in over the scanner that a boy on a snowmachine was pinned beneath a truck on Soapstone Road. I had a reporter and photographer in Palmer already, so I called and sent them to cover the rescue unfolding. Against the odds, the boy survived and the more I heard about his story, the more I wanted to share it with readers. In April, I was able to contact the family and tell their story in two parts. Months later I was still getting phone calls and email from people around the state who had read the story and were impacted by the Aldrich family’s experience.

8-year-old dead for 40 minutes lives to tell about it By HEATHER A. RESZ Frontiersman.com

Christian Aldrich, 8, tells his story this way. “I died and I went to heaven. That’s what I say.” And usually, that’s when the room falls silent. “I was dead for how long?” he asks his mom, Amber Aldrich. “Forty minutes,” she answers. “And they brought you back?” his hairdresser asked recently. “No, they didn’t bring me back,” Christian said. “God

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brought me back. He healed my heart, my lungs, my brain and I was out of the hospital in three weeks. This (his right leg in a cast) is all that’s left and I’m learning patience.”

‘I felt it when he died’ It had snowed several inches the night of Nov. 13, 2010, and the Aldrich family’s plow truck was broken. So that afternoon, Jim Aldrich and his only son Christian were using their snowmachines to pack the driveways. Jim and Amber Aldrich are divorced and live in houses nearly

across the road from each other off Soapstone Road. Christian was smiling ear-to-ear that day when he rode to where his mom was clearing snow from the woodpile, walked over and threw his arms around Amber. “I love you so much.” The boy asked if he could ride a bit longer before helping her clear the woodpile, his mother agreed and turned back to her task. That’s when she heard a loud crash. “I knew it was bad,” Amber said.

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

See HEAVEN, Page 3

December 30, 2011


heaven

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She ran down the driveway and saw a truck across the road with a snowmachine sticking out from under the back of the truck. The driver was standing in the road already talking with a 911 dispatcher on his cellphone. It was 2:30 p.m. when 911 dispatchers received his call. As she got closer, she could see Christian’s head sticking out from under the back left tire. She started screaming for Jim. Amber fell in the snow beside her son, held his head and kissed his face. “Mommy’s here. I’m not going to leave you.” “When I got to him he was still trying to breathe,” she said. “All I knew was that was my son and I was watching him die in my hands. I felt it when he died.”

‘If you need him today, I give him to you freely’ Across the road, Jim had just parked his snowmachine when he heard a strange noise and ran out to the road. “All I saw at the time was a truck stuck in the ditch,” he said. “Then I saw the rear left tire of the truck was sitting on my son’s chest. He had already begun to lose color.” Jim went back to the house, jumped in a modified Dodge flatbed with dual winches and a boom on the rear and headed back to the accident scene. He hooked the winch to the back of the truck and lifted it straight up and off Christian’s body. “For all the problems we’ve had with that truck, it started immediately,” Jim said. Paramedics arrived, extricated the boy from the wreckage and started to work. By then the family’s pastor, Ronald J. Herring, had arrived and was praying with

of t s e B d e Vot

Jim when paramedics loaded Christian into the ambulance to take him to the LifeMed helicopter. He had no pulse. “I threw my hands in the air, ‘God, I gave you my son years ago as a child of the church. If you need him today, I give him to you freely,’” the pastor prayed. When paramedics in the helicopter called on the radio a few seconds later to say they’d gotten Christian’s heart and lungs working and he was headed to Providence, Jim said he fell on the ground and thanked God. “To have given him freely and then to have him given back to me — I’ll never forget that,” he said.

‘That picture won’t leave my mind’ The driver that terrible day was a neighbor, a man whose kids knew Christian from the school bus. “Get this truck off him,” Amber said. “I can’t. It’s stuck,” the man said. In his eyes, Amber said she saw the same overwhelming helplessness she felt. “My heart went out to him,” she said. Amber stayed with Christian, holding his head and watching helplessly as he slipped away. On her face in the snow, she prayed. “My baby is in your hands. I know you are capable and that you will heal him, if not here on earth, then in heaven.” And then she let Christian go. “That picture won’t leave my mind. Every time I close my eyes or go near my driveway, I still see images of my son dying in my hands,” Amber said. “But every time I open my eyes I see his smiling face; I see God’s miracle.” Later, Amber saw the man and went over and hugged him and prayed with him. She said Jim came over later and prayed with him too. Christian’s parents told the driver “we don’t blame you” and that they forgave him.

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But Amber said the man was deeply traumatized, so she made a point to take Christian by his house to see him in person when he came home from the hospital.

‘Stay with him and just love him’ Paramedic Glenn W. Stevens, the Mat-Su Borough’s EMS Quality Assurance Manager, was on his way home from the state EMS conference in Anchorage after one of the first snowfalls of the year when his son called to tell him about a accident on Soapstone Road. From listening to radio traffic, he said he knew that the Palmer ambulance and Butte ambulance were already out on calls and that Mat-Su Central in Wasilla had been dispatched. Since he was already in downtown Palmer, Stevens responded directly to the scene in his borough command vehicle. “I saw Amber kneeling near the truck. I remember seeing Christian with his head and the upper part of his torso sticking out and that was it,” Stevens said. “In my mind, how blue he was stands out.” The boy had no pulse and no respiration, he said. Stevens worked with Jim Aldrich, Chris-

tian’s father, to use his truck with a boom to lift the truck straight up and off his son’s chest. But before they could move the truck, he said he, Dave Byers and first responder Rick Lucia dug the snow out from around the axel so they could free Christian’s right leg, which had become wrapped around the back axel during the collision. Freed from the truck, Stevens and Byers moved the boy’s body to the road’s flat solid surface and began CPR. They put in a breathing tube and inserted needles into his thorax to release pressure around his lungs, Stevens said. They administered epinephrine and continued CPR. His heart also needed a similar procedure to release pressure around it and allow it to function. Stevens said they were transporting Christian to the helicopter to perform the procedure when his pulse came back. “That was very surprising,” Stevens said. How surprising? “I’ve been doing this for 23 years and I’ve never had somebody recover after that kind of an accident,” Stevens said. “It’s exceedingly rare.” The drive to to meet Christian at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage See HEAVEN, Page 7

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Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

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BACON RACIN’ Published Aug. 30, 2011

Greg Johnson

This story, a feature on the pig races at the Alaska State Fair, was just plain fun. Anytime you can use phrases like “the portly little porker brought home the bacon” and say how a pig won “by a snout” is a win in my book.

Two of the Kenai Racing Pigs run snout-to-snout down the front straightaway during the 2011 Alaska State Fair in Palmer. ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

Swine time had by all at Alaska State Fair pig races One of the Kenai Racing Pigs sticks its snout through the bars of its pen before the start of the pig race at the 2011 Alaska State Fair in Palmer. ROBERT DeBERRY/ Frontiersman

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By GREG JOHNSON Frontiersman.com

PALMER — In the end, Kenai was left to wallow in his victory. After three grueling heats around a semi-carefully prepared track, the portly little porker brought home the bacon as the winner of the first Kenai Peninsula Racing Pigs event Monday at the Alaska State Fair. “The pigs are in the starting gate!” exclaimed event emcee Ken “Curly” McMeans of Fables of the West, urging the crowd at the Pebble Corral to back his pick, No. 10 Kenai. “Let’s hear it for Team Curly, No. 10! The flag is up … and there they go!” Out of the gate, Van, sporting No. 2 on his bib, took an early lead on the inside of the track, but lost ground going into the final turn of the 120-yard

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

race. And the pair didn’t disappoint, with Kenai making a strong surge on the backstretch to force a near photo finish. In the end, it was Kenai by a snout. The action was enough to make the crowd squeal with delight, especially the Lawton children. Palmer residents Steven and Wendy Lawton brought five of their six children to watch the porcine prodigies. “It was really funny,” said Audrey, 11, who pointed out her choice, Grizzly in the first heat, didn’t quite make it to the finals. I was going for No. 6. It looks like, they’re just, like, going in a straight line, but curving at the same time. It’s funny (how the pigs run), ’cause they’re, like, running sideways almost.” The pint-sized piggies may appear slow, but See RACIN’, Page 5

December 30, 2011


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they’re fine-tuned athletic machines, said Lara McGinnis, pig wrangler and general manager of the Kenai Peninsula State Fair. “They are professional racing pigs, make no mistake,” she said. “This is the real deal.” As proof, McMeans described why he’s so high on these hogs. “These pigs have to pass a rigorous calisthenics program,” he said. “They have to be able to do 500 jumping jacks for those pigs to be on this team. And watching pigs do jumping jacks should go viral on YouTube, I’m telling you.” At stake for those rooting for their favorite was bragging rights, and for the racers a chance to pig out on Oreo cookies.

“Well, would you run for Oreos?” asked McGinnis. “I would. It’s a hoot. We run two heats and a grudge match with the winners of each heat. And I don’t know if people come to watch the pigs race or watch us get all mucky handling them.” But never, ever — under any circumstances — try to ply the pigs with anything but original Oreos, McMeans cautioned. “They like the double-stuffed ones, but we’re too cheap to buy them,” McGinnis said. “They have to be real Oreos, not imitations,” added McMeans. “Pigs have a better sense of smell than dogs, and they can tell the difference between the real thing and an off-brand. They’ll quit running if you try to pass them something else.” Along with Van, winner of the first heat, and Kenai, winner of the second, the crowd cheered and jeered all the competitors: Horizon, Silver, Shinook and Grizzly.

‘These pigs have to pass a rigorous calisthenics program. They have to be able to do 500 jumping jacks for those pigs to be on this team. And watching pigs do jumping jacks should go viral on YouTube, I’m telling you.’ —Ken ‘Curly’ mcmeans

They also had some good-natured boos for a couple who admitted to be visiting from Washington, D.C. Asked what breed makes the best racing pig, McMeans is quick to quip: “They’re a Point MacKenzie thoroughbred pig.” As Steven Lawton watched the pigs make impressive sprints and hairpin turns (not including the first heat, where the pork decided to park in the final turn to do a little grazing) he opined that keeping

track of six kids is probably less challenging than racing pigs. “What’s easier?” he said. “It looks like handling the children is easier. Those pigs are all over the place.” When the curtain falls on their racing careers, what happens to the pigs? “Well, we don’t like to talk about that,” McMeans said. “Let’s put it this way: They get adopted by some nice family in Connecticut.”

IMaGes oF 2011 Visit Frontiersman.com for a special photo gallery featuring the newspaper’s best photography of 2011.

Mat-Su Family Restaurant Wishing the Valley A Happy New Year!

401 W. Parks Highway • Wasilla, in the Shoprite Mall Open 6am - 10pm Every Day December 30, 2011

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

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REVERSAL Published Dec. 6, 2011

PHOTO BY ROBERT DeBERRY/FRONTIERSMAN

Senior looks to regain championship form on the mat By Jeremiah Bartz Frontiersman.com

WASILLA — Caleb Pempek first walked through the hallways of Wasilla High School as a promising young athlete, a freshman on the wrestling squad prime for prep greatness. He was the Northern Lights Conference runner-up at 145 pounds as a ninth-grader in 2008, and wrestling faithful predicted four years of competing for conference championships for Pempek. But Pempek, now a senior, is still in search of that championship as he tries to rebound from an unlucky weigh-in that ended his sophomore season and a horrific car accident that nearly ended his career. Pempek is still battling injuries sustained in that 2010 accident and is trying to return to his old form after nearly two years away from the mat. But the Wasilla High senior is more focused than ever, determined to erase two seasons of hardships and replace it with region and state hardware. “I just decided to come back and come back strong,” Pempek said Saturday evening as he watched the match he just wrestled — a 42-second pin of Thunder Mountain’s Jackson Pavitt during the finals of the North/South Invitational at WHS — through the small LCD screen on his fam-

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ily’s camcorder. As Pempek rehabilitated As a sophomore, on the from his injuries, he couldn’t morning of the first day of keep the loss of his favorite the Northern Lights Confersport out of his mind. ence Championships, Pempek “I cried about it,” Pempek missed weight by less than a admitted. “I didn’t think I half-pound, ending the season was going to be able to wrestle of the state’s top-ranked grapagain. I sat there and watched pler at 152. old film, wishing I could go That day, Pempek thought back.” things couldn’t get any worse. The September accident That day only marked the end left Pempek with a number of Jeremiah Bartz of his sophomore year, but a injuries, including a broken horrible car accident early in I’ve always preached ankle and head trauma. Pemhis junior year nearly ended his that some of life’s pek needed nose surgery more wrestling career. greatest lessons can be than once and had to see a Sept. 13, 2010, started just as learned through sports nuerologist for the head injuany other Monday. Pempek ries every 10 days. — battling adversity, left home early in the morning, “They were pretty severe. facing defeat. Wasilla ready to work out at Wasilla They were checking up on High School senior High before his classes that Caleb Pempek has met me constantly,” Pempek said. day. As Pempek was heading to his fair share of chal“I was out of school for the school, his vehicle was struck by lenges in the last two whole first semester last year a mass-transit bus. Pempek suf- years, but he continues because of it. They didn’t want fered serious injuries in the acci- to strive for his goals. me going to school. Any stress dent, injuries that would require You can’t help but root on my head could cause my several surgeries. Head injuries for this kid. brain to bleed.” kept him out of school for the Even though he was limited first semester of his junior year — Pempek was walking in a and, of course, football and wrestling were boot because of the broken ankle and meetout of the question for the WHS multisport ing the neurologist regularly — and unable athlete. to wrestle, he still wanted to be a part of his

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

team. “Even though I was in the boot, I went to every practice and helped out at every tournament,” Pempek said. Even throughout the summer before his senior year, Pempek believed his wrestling season was in doubt. A month before the season was set to start, doctors recommended another surgery for Pempek, this time on his hip and ankle. “My ankle has still been bothering me. They have been thinking about doing surgery,” Pempek said. “My hip, from walking on my ankle differently, started bothering me, grinding on the bone. They wanted to do surgery on that.” But surgery would have meant no senior season for Pempek and no chance to realize his ultimate goal, the chance to earn a college wrestling scholarship. “I decided to hold off, wrestle through it and see what kind of scholarship I can get,” Pempek said. “Put forth the effort and see what I can get.” Pempek said he’s willing to battle through the pain for the sport he loves. It’s a sport he’s competed in since kindergarten, and one he hopes to be a continued part of his life. “I think it’s great for our team. I think it’s See REVERSAL, Page 7

December 30, 2011


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was the longest of her life, Amber said. At the hospital, hours passed before doctors came to tell them what they knew about Christian’s injuries; two broken ribs, a bruised heart, crushed lungs, his liver and bowels swollen and bruised and he had a severe compound fracture to his right leg. The leg was hanging by a thread, the doctor said. The neurologist said brain damage was likely. The pediatrician was the least hopeful of all. She told them there was too much damage and that Christian wasn’t expected to live through the night. “We were encouraged to stay with him and just love him,” Amber said. Christian did live through the night and spent the next four days in a coma. And after several more hours in the ICU waiting room, his parents were finally taken to Christian’s room where they saw their son attached to a ventilator, seven IVs, a heart monitor and seemingly every other piece of equipment in the hospital, Amber said.

‘Hey, Mom, you want to see something cool?’ Amber never believed the doctors who told her Christian would likely have lifelong impacts from the 40 minutes his heart and lungs were stopped. “His body would twitch when he heard familiar voices,” Amber said. “I saw this broken body laying there, but I could see his fighting spirit.” People streamed in and out of the boy’s room the whole time he was hospitalized. All three of his teachers from Swanson Elementary visited. The paramedic who was first on the scene, the helicopter pilot, several other paramedics, church friends,

family members — they came, they prayed and they offered the family their love and support. Amber said Christian seemed to respond when he heard his teachers’ voices. His heart rate increased and his breathing sped up — she said she thinks because he was worried they would send him to the office, again. “He loved his teachers and they loved him,” she said. “I’m thankful they came.” Three days after the accident, Christian grabbed at a nurse’s arm and tried to remove his breathing tube. “It was undeniable, there was intentional movement,” Amber said. “But we were still cautioned that it was not a sign that his brain was functioning completely.” Amber said she didn’t eat much while Christian was in the hospital, but she was about to take a bite when the doctor came around the corner, “Hey, Mom, you want to see something cool?” She dropped her food tray and ran after the doctor. Christian had opened his eyes. One of the first things Christian saw when he woke up was his right leg wrapped in gauze and Ace bandages to cover the stabilizers holding the two pieces of his tibia together where two inches of bone was missing. He still had a breathing tube and couldn’t speak, but his eyes got big and he was pointing. One week after the accident he was able to breathe on his own and the next day doctors removed Christian’s breathing tube. His first words were, “I want my mom.” “Honey, I’m right here,” Amber said. He could also move appropriate body parts when the doctor asked, which made even the doctors begin to smile and look hopeful, Amber said.

tions about what happened during that transition period. “I remember the stairs were just super beautiful,” Christian said Friday in an interview at the Palmer Pentecostal Church where the family attends. Christian told his father about sitting in Jesus’ lap and about telling Jesus he was going to go downstairs now. “He woke up once and was angry. ‘Why did you bring me back?’” Jim said. Christian said he’s still upset he’s not in heaven. Another time he woke up yelling, “I’m dead. I’m dead. Please pull me out,” Amber said. He also has described watching a man smack his chest, flashing lights and people standing in the road. “I saw Daddy and his big truck and he was pulling the other truck,” Christian said. A few weeks later he told his mother that he remembers coming downstairs. “What’s upstairs?” she asked. “God,” Christian answered. He described glowing white stairs with rubies and diamonds, and says he had a strong impression of his brother Jason holding his hand, helping him down the stairs. Jason was 18 when he died of an unexplained heart attack seven weeks before Christian was born. “Did he talk to you?” Amber asked. “He said he’d see me again someday.” Jim said the whole experience has profoundly affected the family. As an innocent 8-year-old child, his father says he has no doubt the boy’s stories are true and that he is just relating what happened to him. “It confirmed for us that there is something after death for believers,” Jim said.

‘Why did you bring me back?’

Every day is Thanksgiving

When he regained consciousness, Christian began describing a series of recollec-

The Aldrich family said they have two reasons for sharing their story: to express

reversal

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great for him to be involved in a sport he loves so much,” Wasilla head coach Shawn Hayes said. “Until a couple months ago we never thought we were going to have him back.” Hayes said it’s Pempek’s work ethic and good attitude that stands out. “He’s got a great work ethic. This is a sport, just by nature, just having desire and having a work ethic is a big deal. It’s helping him come back,” Hayes said. “He doesn’t complain one bit.” Training has been harder for Pempek. He still can’t run. “I’ve been swimming mostly. It’s not the same, but it’s

December 30, 2011

better than nothing,” Pempek said. He’s still working to return to his old form. The 160-pounder won his first official match of the season, pinning Lathrop’s Jacob Wharton in the first round of the Bob Bailey Invitational at Chugiak High School. He suffered a tough 2-1 loss to Service’s Daniel Murakami in the Bob Bailey quarterfinals, but rebounded to beat Murakami 5-3 in the bracket’s third-place match the next day. The following weekend, Pempek wrestled his way into the Lancer Smith Memorial semifinals, but was pinned in the semis by the top seed. He placed fourth at 160 after losing another tight match to Murakami. On Saturday, Pempek pinned his first tourney title since his sophomore year, needed only 42 seconds to beat Pavitt. Pempek pinned all three of his opponents during the tournament.

their feelings of thanks and because they say they believe telling the story is part of what God intended when he healed Christian. “I’d like very much to tell everyone thank you,” Amber said. “The love was felt and the prayers were answered. Thank you to the doctors, nurses and emergency services crews. In my heart they are all heroes.” His neurologist and cardiologist both say he’s made a full recovery, Amber said. “The doctors themselves have all told me that they are absolutely amazed at his recovery,” she said. The Aldrich family also credits God and the thousands of people across the nation who were praying for Christian. On Thanksgiving, Christian was still in the hospital, so the family brought the meal to him. It’s also memorable as the day Christian was moved out of ICU. And the day Coal, a companion dog, came to visit. “When they brought the dog in, that little boy lit up like a Christmas tree,” Amber said. “That was the happiest Thanksgiving. What more could we have asked for on Thanksgiving Day? Of course, every day is Thanksgiving now.” Christian left the hospital Thursday, Dec. 2, and Sunday, Dec. 5 he was in the front row at church in his wheelchair with his tambourine.

The last piece of the puzzle The severe injuries to his leg are the last pieces of the puzzle, Amber said. Christian has had five surgeries, so far, to complete a skin graft, bone graft and it may be he will need another surgery for a second bone graft. For now, he uses a walker to get around and can put a little weight on the leg. His mother is teaching him at home while he recovers. “There is no doubt at all in my heart, my baby was in Jesus’ arms and Jesus gave him back to us,” Amber said.

“We’re just being patient,” Hayes said. “He hasn’t really wrestled in two years, but he’s getting better every day.” Pempek is simply happy to be back on the mat. “It feels great,” he said. “Everything’s coming back together. The first two tournaments I was feeling like I was nowhere near where I was. I watched some old films, watching what I was doing before, and I came back this week and did it.” In addition to the prep schedule, Pempek plans on wrestling in a pair of national tournaments as a senior. He’s slated to compete in the Reno Tournament of Champions later this month and the Virginia Beach Nationals in March. This is a special year for Pempek. He’s making up for lost times, and after facing a premature end to a season and fearing a premature end to his career, Pempek is battling, regardless of how much the hip or ankle may bother him.

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

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Brother, our savior Published Nov. 22, 2011

Sibling pulls twins from lives of poverty, drugs and abuse By JEREMIAH BARTZ

His mother and stepfather were going through a divorce when Flanagan made that trip to the Reno trailer for Thanksgiving to meet his father, Jason and James, and the WASILLA — A singlewide trailer in Reno. twins’ mother, Kathy. Flanagan stayed in the No windows. No doors on the rooms. Very Moriarty home for a few months, so he could little food in the kitchen. It was Thanksgiving. start school on time, before his mom reloThat’s what Craig Flanagan saw the first cated to the area. time he met his younger brothers, twins “It opened my eyes. I was definitely shelJason and James Moriarty. tered from that lifestyle my entire life,” FlaFlanagan, now 25, was 14. He had a differnagan said. “I couldn’t believe it. My mom ent mother than Jason and James, but shared did a fantastic job keeping me from that. My Jeremiah Bartz the same father with the twins. Flanagan brothers, they kind of got shafted on that There are some stobounced around as a youth, but put himself deal. ries a writer will never in military school at 16 and enlisted in the “Stolen cars, drug deals, the police,” Flaforget. This is one of U.S. Army at 17. But Jason and James spent nagan continued. “The cursing, the smoking them. It’s not often a their first 17 years living a life of poverty, pot. You could just smell it pouring out of a exposed to drugs and crime, violence, verbal sportswriter has the room.” chance to tackle these and physical abuse. That’s part of what made that phone call in issues. I feel privileged April so alarming. Things are different now. to have had the opporOne random phone call in April turned “A week before they moved to Alaska, I Flanagan’s world upside down, and may have tunity to tell this story. got a call from Kathy asking for money,” Flachanged the lives of Jason and James Morinagan said. “They just spent their last $8 on arty forever. hamburger meat and a gallon of milk. I knew Thanksgiving will be different this year. my dad’s track record. I know what druggies do with Jason and James have adjusted to life in Wasilla since money.” moving from Reno to live with their brother and his famSo, Flanagan talked to his wife, Angie, and gave the ily in April. They’re both good students. They each work twins a call. at a local restaurant. And they’re talented athletes who “I made the boys a deal. I will pay for you to live up helped the Wasilla football team win its first conference here. I will pay for you to fly up here, on two conditions title since 1999 and advance to the playoffs for the first — no drugs and you focus on school and school alone,” time since 2007. Flanagan said. “They agreed to it. Within a week I maxed Both are being scouted by college football programs, out my credit card and got them up here.” and the linebackers have an excellent chance to get a colFlanagan’s mother was able to shelter him from his lege education and play at the next level. father until he was a teenager, but Jason and James saw But just a few months ago, the futures of Jason and firsthand what most teens only see in movies. James were very much in doubt. “There was no hiding it,” James said. “He never hid it Jason and James have stories far different than average from us.” teenagers. Fond memories of happy holidays and famJason and James said it was mainly verbal abuse toward ily gatherings have been replaced by images of a drugthem, but both said they knew their father physically addicted father and abused mother. abused their mother. Just 14, it didn’t take long for Flanagan to realize who “It was more abusive with her, but the verbal abuse was his father was and what his half-brothers were exposed everyone,” Jason said. “Him with his drug abuse had an to. Flanagan had lived with his mother, who left his father (effect) on everyone.” as soon as she found out she was pregnant. Drugs helped fuel the abuse, they said. “She left him because of the way him and his family were,” Flanagan said. See SAVIOR, Page 11 Frontiersman.com

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Jason and James Moriarty have adjusted to life in Wasilla sinc and physical abuse.

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

December 30, 2011


ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

ce moving from Reno to live with their brother and his family in April. The twins spent their first 17 years living lives of poverty and exposed to drugs and crime, violence, verbal

December 30, 2011

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

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FALLEN, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN Published MAY 10, 2011

Tiny road a big tribute to fallen police officer BY ANDREW WELLNER Frontiersman.com

PALMER — Wanda Rowland still gets choked up at times talking about her son, but lately it’s mostly gratitude that gives her pause. “I was so humbled by all of that. I cried because I thought everybody forgot,” she said of a memorial service Palmer officials held last year at her son’s grave. James Rowland Jr. was shot and killed in the line of duty as a Palmer police officer on May 15, 1999. This spring, almost by surprise, she received yet more proof that Palmer has not forgotten Rowland, the only officer to die serving the city. The road that connects the parking lot of the new Carrs store to the parking lot of the old one, crossing the Palmer-Wasilla Highway in the process, now bears her son’s name. It’s been dubbed Rowland Memorial Way. It might not seem like much, but Rowland and city officials agree it couldn’t be more appropriate. Officer Rowland died on that road responding to a report of a man who was slumped behind the wheel of a pickup. That man, Kim Cook, struggled with Officer Rowland and fired the shot that killed him. He is currently residing at a prison in Colorado and will remain behind bars until he is at least in his 80s. Rowland said her son always wanted to be a police officer, but started his professional life as a firefighter and a medic. He was a disc jockey for a while in North Pole, then worked at Carrs in Palmer, where he provided police with a detailed report when a man stole from the store and threatened to kill the manager. “One of the officers said to him, ‘boy you write a good report. … You ever think about becoming a cop?’” Rowland recalled. After a stint as a military policeman with the Navy stationed in Hawaii he came back to Alaska and signed on with the Palmer Police Department. Rowland said city staff worked on get-

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Andrew Wellner

ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

James and Wanda Rowland stand near Rowland Memorial Way in Palmer holding a photograph of their son, James Rowland Jr. with his son. James Rowland Jr. was shot and killed in the line of duty as a Palmer police officer on May 15, 1999.

ting the road named for her son but was cautious about getting her hopes up. She’d tried to have things named after her son before, most notably the youth detention facility in Palmer. “He loved working with youth and actually wanted to be a youth minister,” she said. Cmdr. Tom Remaley with the Palmer Police Department said he’d tried to get the Palmer-Wasilla Highway designated as a memorial to Rowland. He didn’t want to change the name since he knew that would disrupt business along the road, which would all need to change their addresses. “I just want a blue sign on each end of it,” he recalls telling city officials at the time. But the plan didn’t work out. Rowland said that for a few years after the shooting there was a small memorial next to the road that now bears her son’s name as it descends into the Carrs parking lot, but it was taken down. She still has it at her house. She was upset when she was told it had to be moved, but eventually came to terms with it. “I do not need anything to remind me that right there was where my son’s blood

was spilled,” she said. Sandra Garley, director of community development for the city of Palmer, said that everyone who had to sign off on the deal — Carrs, the state, the city’s platting board — did so right away. “This was a project that once everybody really understood the history they were all for it,” Garley said. When the idea came up, Garley said, she was one of those who got behind it without hesitation. She remembers the memorial that’s now at Rowland’s house. “I didn’t work for the city of Palmer then, but I live in the Palmer area and I thought that it was so sad that they took that down,” Garley said. Remaley has described the week of Rowland’s death as the worst in his career at the Palmer Police Department. There were long hours and sleepless nights, but also a tremendous sense of loss. It’s almost like losing a family member, an assessment Rowland would back up. “The police departments out here are all so close. It’s like a family. When he was killed, our house was filled with everybody that worked with him, that graduated with

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

I smiled the first time I drove into Palmer and noticed that the tiny road connecting the new Carrs store to the old one was named after James Rowland. “That’s great they decided to do that,” I thought. After spending a fair amount of time covering the Palmer Police Department, I’d heard officer Rowland’s story a couple of times and even pulled out the dusty, yellowed volumes in our archives to read about him. I smiled five or six more times that day whenever I’d think about Rowland Memorial Way. It finally dawned on me that maybe my readers might like to learn why that road bears his name. If they already knew, maybe they’d like to know who deserves the credit for giving the road that name. I was humbled that Wanda Rowland would take the time to talk to me and even pose for a photo with her husband. It’s obviously not an easy topic for her to discuss. For me, at least, this story is about recognizing those who put themselves in danger on our behalf and it’s also about a community making sure to recognize its heroes. him from the academy, or worked with him on the ambulance,” Rowland said. That those family members haven’t forgotten her son makes her proud. With the road named for him, she said, she hopes more people will learn about him. She said she’s already talked to people about it, some of whom didn’t know the story. It’s given her a chance to share why that road is significant. “That’s the most appropriate memorial that they could have made, I think. And I’m just so proud,” Rowland said.

December 30, 2011


savIor

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“If he wasn’t happy, nobody else could be happy,” James said. Both said this has existed their entire life. The twins remember going to his father’s friend’s house and being left outside, not knowing what was going on inside. “It was pretty much a junkyard with a little camping trailer,” Jason said. “Stolen cars stripped down. We’d go there and play for a couple hours not knowing what he’s doing in there. We were locked outside that little house.” Flanagan said most of his relatives on his father’s side of the family are tied up into this lifestyle. “Our grandpa turned him on to drugs,” Flanagan said of his father. Flanagan nearly got sucked in, himself. “The whole reason I got myself into the military is I started hanging out with him more,” Flanagan said. “I was falling under that influence, being the impressionable age of 16. I thought, ‘hey this is my dad, a guy’s supposed to follow in his dad’s footsteps.’” But Flanagan was scared straight. “One day we were driving in a stolen car, chasing somebody down the street,” Flanagan said. “(I thought), ‘I got to get out of here.’ I sent myself away and joined the Army at 17. I’ve been gone ever since.” The twins are taking their own path, paving their way in the opposite direction of what they grew up around. What they have seen in the past drives them to stay far away from drugs and abuse. “I just looked at it like we can go down that path and become a monster like my dad has with all the drugs and stuff

‘One day we were driving in a stolen car, chasing somebody down the street. (I thought), I got to get out of here. I sent myself away and joined the Army at 17. I’ve been gone ever since.’ — Craig Flanagan

or become something new,” Jason said. “That’s pretty much the way it is with our whole side of our family, or at least our last name.” Now the twins want absolutely nothing to do with it. “Seeing kids get into drugs makes me sick,” James said. “After seeing what it does to people, I can’t stand it.” Jason echoed his brother’s feelings. “I hate it. I can’t stand being around it. I can’t even stand being around smoking,” Jason said. “I’ve never done a drug in my life, but if I stayed there, I don’t know if I’d gotten an opportunity to go off to college.” The call from the older brother they barely knew was certainly unexpected. Jason and James both said they were in tears when they got the call from Flanagan. “He probably couldn’t understand us over the line,” James said. Not 72 hours after Kathy’s call, Flanagan had the plane tickets purchased and the twins were ready to make the move. “They’d only met me a handful of times. They put a lot of faith in me to make things right. It meant a lot they were willing to trust me that much,” Flanagan said. The support of Flanagan’s wife, Angie, was also important. “She is a saint,” Flanagan said. “I told her my plan and without her even hesitating, she said yes, let’s do it.” The transition to life in Alaska had its

IMaGes oF 2011 Visit Frontiersman.com for a special photo gallery featuring the newspaper’s best photography of 2011. December 30, 2011

tough moments at first, but the twins have adjusted to their new life. “At first it was kind of different. We weren’t used to no one arguing or fighting,” Jason said. “Everyone was happy.” The twins said they mainly kept to themselves during their first few weeks at Wasilla High, the final weeks of their junior year. They had planned to get all of their credits finished and graduate midway through their senior year. But Kent Rilatos, head coach of the Wasilla football team, heard the twins played football in Reno. He invited them to join the team. They found a home on the football team and steadily made new friends at school. They even changed their schedules so they could graduate with their new class in the spring. Jason and James also found a place in the Flanagan home, along with Flanagan’s young children, and quickly grew fond of their new family. The twins finally have a chance to experience the happy holiday in a more typical family atmosphere. They’re also spending an important Thanksgiving with Flanagan, his wife and children. Flanagan — an Army staff sergeant — will be deployed in less than two weeks. The twins also had a chance to share their 18th birthdays with the Flanagans. “It was our first birthday away from our parents, and it was the best birthday ever,” Jason said. Flanagan said he knew it was a big birthday. “I knew they obviously didn’t get much where they came from. With dad, nothing ever matters,” Flanagan said. “I did as much as I could to make it a good birthday, especially their 18th. I tried to go over the top for them.” Just getting a gift was a big deal. “The last one we got was like the seventh grade,” James said. Both said they’re forever grateful for the sacrifices their brother made to bring them to Alaska. “Everything he’s done is a blessing,” Jason said. It didn’t take long for Jason and James to find their spots on the Wasilla varsity football team. Both played significant roles in their team’s success, and each earned All-Railbelt Conference honorable

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

mention honors at linebacker. Before moving to Alaska, neither thought it would be possible to play college football. But both hope to make it a reality next fall. With the help of their coaches, Jason and James are in contact with college programs. Jason and James are both excelling academically at Wasilla High. James has always been a good student, but Jason admits his struggles. “When I passed the last semester, I got a 2.0 right on the dot,” Jason said. Past struggles were not necessarily related to a lack of intelligence or complete lack of effort. It was a lack of confidence, he said. “I never felt the courage to do anything when I was back there,” Jason said. Before Flanagan called, both twins said they sometimes thought there was no way out of their hard life in Reno. “Sometimes you felt like you were never going to get out of it, you’re going to be stuck in this hole,” Jason said. But, in less than a year at WHS, Jason has made dramatic improvement, with a 3.75 grade point average on his latest progress report. James had a 4.0 early in the school year and his holding a 3.23 currently. James said he’d like to study accounting in college. It’s something he’s been interested in throughout high school, he said. Jason hopes to pursue criminal justice. “It’s something cool to do and it’s completely the opposite of what I’ve been through my whole life,” Jason said. Leaving Reno was not completely easy. The twins absolutely adore their mother. “She’s always been there for us. She always sticks up for us. He’d always try to hide abusing her, in the room, but we knew about it,” Jason said. Both said they love their mother very much. She left Reno right after Jason and James moved to Alaska. Even though a mother and her children live in different states, the twins say the important part is they all escaped. “I think it was great for her,” Jason said. “She hated us leaving. I know she hates it. We’re her baby boys, but this is the best thing for her. She got out of it as much as we did.” Kathy did have a chance to visit before school started. “When she came up here she looked awesome,” James said. Jason and James left friends and family behind, but in favor of a new life. A better life. “When we turned the corner (in the airport), they were gone. But we looked at each other and smiled,” James said. “It was a big relief.”

Page 11


‘HE’S MY HERO’ Published Nov. 11, 2011

Greg Johnson

A 15-year-old saving a little girl’s life is certainly newsworthy and the kind of great community story that I love to tell. As the girl’s mother choked back tears of gratitude about how Anthony Keller reacted to what could have been a fatal tragedy, I recalled other stories I’ve had to write that didn’t have such a happy ending. Writing this story was by far the highlight of 2011 for me.

Anthony Keller, 15, and Taylia Hardy, 5, will have a connection to each other for the rest of their lives. ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

Wasilla teen saves 5-year-old from hot tub mishap By GREG JOHNSON Frontiersman.com

WASILLA — Cassie Nix only briefly met Anthony Keller the morning of Oct. 2 — in fact, she doesn’t remember the meeting clearly — but that’s all it would take for Keller to become Nix’s hero. That’s the day Keller, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Wasilla, saved the life of her 5-year-old daughter, Taylia Hardy. “I couldn’t breathe, I was hyperventilating,” Nix said about what she remembered after her daughter was pulled, blue and

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‘I can’t tell you, it’s the worst thing ever, ever. I kept thinking this is how it feels to lose a baby. I started praying. I couldn’t even cry, and I remember thinking how fast this was going by.’

—Cassie Nix

unresponsive, from a hotel hot tub. “I can’t tell you, it’s the worst thing ever, ever. I kept thinking, ‘This is how it feels to lose a baby.’ I started praying. I couldn’t even cry, and I remember thinking how fast this was going by.”

It was coincidence that brought Keller and Nix to the Quality Inn Hotel in Kenai that day. Keller was visiting a friend and Nix, also from Wasilla, was on the road attending a football game for her 9-yearold son. Before checking out, little Taylia

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

went to the pool with a family friend and her son for a last swim. “My friend took her son and my daughter swimming, and just as I was standing up (from breakfast) people started yelling, ‘There’s a baby drowning!’” Nix said. “I have a handicap, so I can’t move very well, but I was trying to get there fast. By the time I got there, my friend had pulled her out of the hot tub.” Apparently, Taylia jumped into the middle of the 5-foot-deep hot tub to retrieve a ball and didn’t have a life vest on, Nix said. See HERO, Page 14

December 30, 2011


sad surPrise PublisHed OCt. 4, 2011

Man charged with murdering his neighbor By ROBERT DEBERRy and ANDREW WELLNER

Robert DeBerry

Frontiersman.com

WASILLA — A 37-year-old man was jailed Saturday after police say he shot and killed his 45-year-old neighbor. “On Oct. 1 at approximately (6:35 p.m.), Dale E. Prater, age (45), of Wasilla, died of an apparent gunshot wound in Wasilla. Phillip Bailey, age 37, of Wasilla, was arrested and charged with the death of Prater. The case is still under investigation,” reads the entirety of the police press release on the incident. Court records Monday afternoon show Bailey was charged with a single count of murder. He’d already made one court appearance and is set for another on Oct. 12. Dawn Syers lived with Prater in the white, two-story, four-plex on Fanciful Place with kids’ toys outside where he lived upstairs from Bailey. She said she and Prater planned to go to Las Vegas to be married on Halloween. “Elvis was going to walk me down the aisle. We had everything paid for. We were going to use our dividends for spending money,” she said. She said Prater worked construction. They’d been dating for three years and he was a great guy. They were friends with Bailey, she said, and had been helping him out since his wife left him. “They’ve been best of buddies for three years,” she said. On Saturday, she said, she left Wasilla for Anchorage to catch a roller derby match. She said her fiancé had planned to head out for a poker game with his family but went to run an errand for Bailey. He bought him a pack of cigarettes. Earlier that day, she said, they went out to grab Bailey a gallon of milk. It was just something they’d been doing for their neighbor to try and help him out. She said police didn’t want to share the graphic

December 30, 2011

ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

Dawn Syers sits on the steps in front of her home holding a picture of her fiancée, Dale Prater. Prater, who turned 45 in August, was gunned down at a neighbor’s home inside the 4-plex where he lived. Prater and Syers were going to be married in Las Vegas in October.

details with her, but she later talked to a friend who was in the room when Prater was shot. She said her fiancé brought the cigarettes into Bailey’s apartment and handed them to him. “He said, ‘Just put what you owe me on the tab,’ and he turned around to leave and Phil shot him in the back of the head,” Syers said. As far as what might have led him to do that, Syers said she wasn’t sure. “The only thing that I know of is he thought Dale was sleeping with his wife, which he was not,” Syers said. At any rate, she came home at 10 p.m. to find the apartment building cordoned off by police tape. A neighbor said police and emergency responders arrived in force, but information was scarce that night about where Bailey was and if he’d been arrested. Later on in the evening neighbors called 911 worried that perhaps the cops had to shoot Bailey, but were told the flashes

they saw were from cameras, not from gun muzzles. Syers said the news hit her hard. “They proceeded to inform me that he had passed away. I lost it. I broke my cellphone,” she said. “I’d just seen him. I don’t know. It’s just devastating.” She said Monday she was still in shock, not sure what to do with herself. She’s trying to get a new phone so she has a way to talk to people about it. “I keep expecting him to come home and it’s just, it’s not going to happen. I don’t know. It’s so hard,” she said. Jail records Monday afternoon showed Bailey was still residing in the Mat-Su Pre-Trial Facility. A call to the jail confirmed that as of Monday afternoon he did not have a bail amount set. A search into his criminal record shows one felony assault case in 2002 and a relatively clean record going all the way back to the early 1990s when Bailey was apparently convicted in a handful of burglary cases in the Kenai Peninsula area.

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

Andrew Wellner

Photo editor Robert DeBerry was sent to shoot a scene-setter photo to go with a murder story Andrew Wellner was working on in October. But while on scene, DeBerry struck up a conversation with a woman who turned out to be the victim’s fiancée. She shared a photo of the deceased and let DeBerry take a photo of her holding the image of her dead partner. She also gave in an interview, which he recorded on his iPhone and brought back for Wellner to use in his reporting. Since DeBerry’s interview ended up providing the backbone for this story, his byline led with Wellner’s as secondary. This is the first time DeBerry’s byline has been on the front page for writing and photographing the same story. —Heather A. Resz, managing editor

IMaGes oF 2011 Visit Frontiersman.com for a special photo gallery featuring the newspaper’s best photography of 2011.

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hero

Continued from Page 12

Her friend noticed the girl at the bottom of the hot tub and pulled her out. Keller was in the lobby at the time and heard the commotion and went into the pool area to see what was happening. At first, he said he was trying to calm Nix and her friend down. Then he heard the question that changed his and Taylia’s lives. “Does anyone know CPR?” Turns out, Keller does. In fact, he was certified in child CPR this summer during a Knik Tribal Council class. “I was at the hotel and some guy came running out to the office and said there’s a drowning,” Keller recalled. “I ran back to the pool and I guess she was drowning in the hot tub. Some lady pulled her out and pretty much everybody was just freaking out. I was the only one there who knew CPR. After I gave her 30 chest compressions, then I gave her some breaths, and she started breathing again.” Hearing Taylia cry after Keller’s actions was “the most beautiful sound ever,” Nix said. In the month since the accident, Nix said she thinks daily about Keller’s actions and

how close her daughter came to death. “Every day I look at her, and the shock’s worn off a little bit, but not a lot,” she said. “Several times a day I look at her and go, ‘Wow.’ Like, when she’s annoying and I think, ‘I’m so glad she’s annoying me right now.’” But Keller’s actions have drawn notice from more than this grateful mother. On Monday, Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright will present the teen with a proclamation from the city honoring him for his lifesaving efforts. In the proclamation, the mayor and city “acknowledge and thank Anthony Keller for his heroic actions in stepping forward and taking charge in a life-threatening emergency that saved the life of a young girl. … Anthony is a fine example for other youth in our community.” In addition to Nix and her daughter, Kenai Fire Chief Michael Tilley also will be on hand for the proclamation presentation. The chief said he’s impressed with Keller’s actions and deserves recognition as a hero. “From what was described to me, the child was unconscious and blue in nature, which obviously makes you believe she was not breathing,” Tilley said. “Having someone like Anthony step up ultimately saved

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ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

Cassie Nix hugs Anthony Keller after meeting for the first time since Keller used CPR to revive Nix’s daughter, Taylia Hardy.

the girl’s life.” For someone in the emergency services field, not every call ends so happily, he said. “Sometimes in the fire department and police department, we have to see some pretty disturbing things and sometimes the outcomes of our efforts aren’t always on the positive side,” Tilley said. “It was very encouraging to see someone this young to have the maturity and the courage to step up. … He saved a life that day.” As for Keller, he said he learned CPR for a reason; his mother has trouble breathing

and is asthmatic. So, he took CPR classes at the Knik Tribal Council (in fact, he failed the first time, so took it again this summer). But he didn’t expect to put his knowledge to work so soon. “Someday I knew it would come in handy, but I was thinking it would happen to my mom,” he said. “But no, I didn’t think it would come so quickly.” When he heard the girl cry after she started breathing again, “I felt really relieved,” Keller said. “I felt like I did an amazing job and was happy I was there. That just went through my mind the rest of the day; that she didn’t die. It really didn’t hit me until about and hour or two after, though. When it was happening, I was calm. Then, after I started thinking about how she could’ve died, I was like, ‘whoa.’” What will Keller have to say to Taylia when they meet again on Monday? “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m probably just going to give her a great big hug.” Some people are labeled heroes whether they earn those titles or not, Nix said. In Keller’s case, she said he will always be her hero. “Saying thank you seems so stupid, there’s nothing I can say,” she said. “You can’t put it into words. Of course, of course he’s my hero. He saved my baby’s life.”

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December 30, 2011


IMAGES OF 2011 Eileen Burnley stands in front of the casket of her late husband, Dr. Kenneth Stephen Burnley, during A celebration of his life at Teeland Middle School. After a year on the job as Mat-Su Borough School District superintendent, Burnley died suddenly. ROBERT DeBERRY/ Frontiersman

Spectators, friends and family cheer on the Burchell High School graduating class of 2011 as graduates walk around the track at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla. ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

ROBERT DEBERRY/Frontiersman

A pair of ice fisherman are silhouetted against the bright orange colors of the setting sun reflecting off the ice on Finger Lake.

December 30, 2011

Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

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IMAGES OF 2011

ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

Flames fully engulf a Winnebago off N. Tanana Drive in Wasilla. A trailer and several cars in close proximity were saved due to a quick response from the Mat-Su Central Fire Department. There were no major injuries reported. To beat the heat, Sam Parkinson, 12, makes the jump into Wasilla Creek with his younger brother Kris, 10. ROBERT DeBERRY/ Frontiersman

ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

Troy Fowler does his best Spider-Man impression as he makes the jump into Finger Lake during the 2011 Valley Polar Plunge. The plunge was a benefit for Mat-Su Sertoma, Turn a Leaf thrift store and Food Pantry of Wasilla, and raised close to $30,000.

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Best of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman 2011

December 30, 2011


Best of the Frontiersman