It’s amazing how quickly time flies. You blink and things change. We move on and push forward. But there are many things in our lives that we should not forget . . . many people that shouldn’t get lost as we move on with our lives. Scott Johnson and Gabe Rich are two of those people.
These two Alaska State Troopers were murdered in Tanana in the line of duty May 1, 2014. I published a blog post shortly after. I decided that reposting it now was appropriate. Unfortunately since then the Fairbanks Police Department lost Sergeant Allen Brandt in the line of duty. Please remember these men and their families in your prayers.
Broken Hearts in the Golden Heart City
Originally Posted May 8, 2014
I am going to traffic court on Monday and I feel petty and small. I feel that way because I am going to argue that the Alaska State Trooper who issued me the ticket didn’t take into account that the roads were icy and some other details that seem unimportant now. The details don’t seem as important because on Saturday I will attend a memorial service for two of his fellow Troopers who were shot and killed in the line of duty last week.
Somehow, I am not feeling as zealous about exercising my rights and disputing the ticket so much now. It doesn’t really seem important. What is important is that on May 1, 2014 Sergeant Patrick “Scott” Johnson and Trooper Gabriel “Gabe” Rich responded to a call in the village of Tanana, about 130 miles from Fairbanks. While apprehending a suspect in an assault case, the suspects 19-year-old son allegedly shot them a total of seven times in the back. In a moment two men were dead and a community was devastated.
We live in Fairbanks, Alaska. It is a small town. The kind of small where you know or know of almost everybody. I knew of Trooper Rich and Sergeant Johnson. I knew of Trooper Rich because my oldest son, Parker, played football against him in high school. That particular chronological fact is sobering to me in and of itself. We also knew him as a standout hockey player. Parker’s mother worked at the local Alaska State Trooper Detachment for more than 20 years. As a result, Parker is well known among the troopers. Parker remembers Sergeant Johnson as friendly, smiling man who let him play with his working dog. Like I said, Fairbanks is small.
Community feelings about law enforcement are complicated. We hate seeing the lights in our rearview mirrors but when we are hurt or scared or lost they are about a pair of wings away from being angels. In Fairbanks, we tend to be individualists who cherish our rights and mind our own business. We also take care of our own. These troopers were ours. Sergeant Johnson was born in Tok, Alaska just up the highway, and spent his entire 20-year career with the troopers in Fairbanks. Trooper Rich moved here when he was young and was basically raised here. They were part of our community before they were police officers. They were friends and neighbors. They were raising families here. Sergeant Johnson leaves a wife and three children. Trooper Rich leaves a fiancé and an infant son. He was in the legal process of adopting his fiancé’s 8-year-old son.
Communities come together in times of tragedy. Fairbanks has come together in a big way. When the troopers’ bodies arrived back in Fairbanks this weekend, there was a long slow processional from the airport to the funeral home. Literally thousands of Fairbanks residents lined the route along Airport Way and stood in silent tribute to these men. They were our troopers. Thousands will likely attend their memorial.
There are lessons here. Evil exists. That is one lesson. It exists and in the time it takes an angry finger to pull a trigger, evil can take away a friend, a colleague and a loved one. Another lesson is one I learned long ago. When somebody you love steps out the door, tell them you love them. You don’t know when you will see them again. So we take these lessons and we talk to each other and we talk to our children. We tell them that yes, there is evil. Then we tell them that as long as there is evil there will be men like Trooper Rich and Sergeant Johnson who will put themselves between us and danger.
We are taking it day by day up here. We hold each other close and pray. We pray for two brave men. We pray for our community. Mostly we pray for the families that no longer have fathers, husbands and sons, for they are the true victims here. We look for answers where answers are few. We look inside our community and try to answer the many whys. We will get through this, but it will never be the same.
I will go to court on Monday. I considered changing my plea to guilty and simply paying my fine and walking away. I considered it. Then I reconsidered. In light of recent events, my court date is laughably unimportant, but it is a small part of our greater justice and legal system. Here we get to plead our case in court, in front of our accuser and a judge. We get due process. It is our system and I will take part in it. I feel obligated. Two good men died to ensure that I have that right.