FAIRBANKS, Alaska (CN) – A man on a snow machine struck a team on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race early Saturday, killing one dog and injuring three others.
The accident occurred as leading teams had just passed the halfway point on the 1,000-mile trail.
Arnold Demoski, 26, turned himself in later the same day and was arraigned Sunday in Fairbanks via video conference on 12 charges including suspicion of assault, reckless endangerment, reckless driving and criminal mischief.
Three-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle and four-time champion Jeff King were heading toward the Yukon River checkpoint of Nulato where Demoski, a resident, was also heading after a night of heavy drinking in a nearby village. Demoski attacked Zirkle and her team twice within about an hour of each other.
A video from Iditarod Insider shows Zirkle arriving in the checkpoint at 2:17 a.m. Saturday. She appeared shaken. When asked how she’s doing by the race judge, Zirkle says, “I’m really bad. Someone tried to kill me with a snow machine.” The incident was reported immediately to the Alaska State Troopers.
At 3:25 a.m., King arrived carrying his dead 3-year-old lead dog Nash, and two others – Crosby, also age 3, with a broken leg, and Banjo, age 2, who had been knocked unconscious by the same snow machine driver near where Zirkle had earlier been attacked.
“Demoski came speeding up, hit the side of [Zirkle’s] sled and flipped two of her dogs,” according to court documents submitted by Alaska state trooper Robert Nunley. He said Zirkle stated that she grabbed a race marker and held it in front of her as the snow-machiner came back towards her a second time.
Demoski approached Zirkle the second time as she was about 12 miles from Nulato. “He passed close by Zirkle at about 50 miles an hour and started spinning brodies and was going in circles like he was trying to figure out what to do,” Nunley said in his report. “He stopped about 200 yards away and was revving his engine causing Zirkle to be in fear he was trying to kill her, before he drove off.”
Prior to identifying Demoski or knowing the motive, King described the attack on his team in an emotional interview with Iditarod Insider as he attempted to rest and regroup at the Nulato checkpoint afterward. King sat at a table with tears in his eyes and spoke quietly of the incident.
King described a 40-foot-wide packed trail that follows the mile-wide Yukon River, and said he was wearing two lights and had reflectors on his sled bag and on every dog when a fast-moving snow machine sideswiped his team.
“It literally took as long as a snow machine takes to go 80 mph the length of a dog team,” King said. “He didn’t turn around. He didn’t slow down.”
King talked about triaging the dogs on-scene and that while he considered pushing the emergency button on the GPS tracker carried by all racers, he decided that loading the dogs and continuing to the checkpoint would be faster than waiting for help.
In addition to hauling Nash’s body and the two injured dogs in his sled’s trailer, he brought in a cowling that had come off of the snow machine when it collided with his team. King said he knew it would help identify attacker, a point also made in court records that said the part was integral to the case.
In one Iditarod Insider interview, King tried to make sense of how or why the attack occurred. He talked about the troubles of substance abuse and violence that are a sad fact of life in many Alaska Native villages.
Demoski spoke to media prior to his arrest, telling KTUU-TV Channel 2 that he was “black-out drunk” and that when he woke up in the morning and heard what had happened to the dog mushers, he checked his snow machine and knew he had done it.
“I don’t know how I can possibly make it right for Jeff and Aliy,” Demoski said on camera at the home he shares with his parents. “I embarrassed my community, I embarrassed my employer. I just want to do everything I can to make it right.”
While Demoski was extremely forthcoming to members of the media, he was silent when questioned by investigators, according to court records. Demoski was taken into custody and flown from Nulato to Fairbanks Correctional Center.
Bail was set at $50,000. But Magistrate Romano DiBenedetto said during the hearing that “If the state had asked for $500,000, I probably would have granted it, but I am not the prosecutor. I will honor the state’s request for a $50,000 cash performance bond.”
The judge noted that his decision is not based on press interest. He then added that “if these allegations are proven to a jury, it could amount to be an act of terrorism, quite frankly.”
Demoski’s attorney Bill Satterberg countered, “The court has said that it’s not pandering to the press and I’ll accept your statement, but needless to say I don’t think it’s an act of terrorism.”
Satterberg had requested $5,000 in bail and that Demoski be released into his father’s custody.
Demoski will remain in custody in Fairbanks, returning to Nulato at the end of the week when all Iditarod racers will be well past the village.
“The people who are running the Iditarod need to be confident that this man will remain in jail while this race is going on,” Prosecutor Bill Spiers told the magistrate.
“Bail needs to be very high in this case,” he said. “This is probably the most senseless thing I’ve seen since Danny Lewis shot the pipeline,” Spiers said, referring to a 2001 incident when Lewis shot a hole in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
The Nulato Tribal Council issued a statement expressing condolences and stating that the community is “disturbed” and “saddened” by the incident.
Many Iditarod racers and community members were also quick to remind people that the act of one person should not reflect on the entire community, which prior to Demoski’s actions had been enthusiastically welcoming mushers coming into the checkpoint.
Both King and Zirkle chose to continue in the race, albeit with fewer dogs, dropping those injured in addition to Nash. At press time, Zirkle was still vying for first place in a very close race with three other mushers. King was running in 14th.
The first team is expected to cross the finish line in Nome very early Tuesday morning.
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