An unemployed computer programmer went on a shooting
spree in a Alaskan village, killing six of its 22 residents.
Was sentenced to 634 years in jail.
6 slain in shootings in a remote
The Boston Globe
March 3, 1983
GLENNALLEN, Alaska -
Six of a remote village's 22 residents were slain Tuesday in a shooting
rampage, authorities said yesterday. An unemployed computer programmer
has been charged in the slayings.
In custody in Anchorage, charged
with six counts of first-degree murder, was 39-year-old Louis D.
Hastings. He was being held yesterday in lieu of $300,000 bond.
Authorities said they had no clue as to what prompted the shootings.
He told me I was a dead man,
shooting survivor tells officers
One of two wounded
survivors of a shooting rampage in which six people died says the killer
suddenly opened fire on him as the two were having coffee and told him,
"Look, you're already dead ... just quit fighting."
Three bodies were found near an
airstrip and the others in a private residence in the remote Wrangell
Mountain town, which has about 20 summer residents and about half that
many in the winter.
Slayings of six stagger a proud
Each Tuesday about
two dozen people spending the winter in and around this remote eastern
Alaska community, a virtual ghost town since the Depression, come
together at the airstrip near the Kennicott Glacier to meet the mail
"Around here, there are so few of us
that we know each other by our boot tracks," Nancy Gibert, a McCarthy
resident, said. "You walk out for water, and you say, 'Hey, so and so's
been by on the path.' "
Alaskan indicted in six slayings
The Miami Herald
March 16, 1983
A grand jury has
indicted a freelance computer programmer for murder in the deaths of six
people in a shooting spree in the remote mining town of McCarthy in the
Wrangell Mountains of eastern Alaska.
Louis D. Hastings, found blood-smeared
and wounded outside the 20- person town after the March 1 shootings, was
indicted on six counts of attempted murder.
No-contest plea in six slayings
December 7, 1993
A computer programmer
has entered a plea of no contest to charges that he killed six people
and wounded two others last spring in the nearly abandoned mining town
Louis Hastings, 39, who entered the
plea Monday, could receive up to 99 years in prison on each murder count
and 20 years on each of two counts of attempted murder.
Alaskan gets 634 years; wiped out
half of village
Philadelphia Daily News
July 28, 1984
A computer programmer
who methodically hunted down six people and killed them in a remote
village last year was sentenced yesterday to 634 years in jail, one of
the longest prison terms in Alaska history.
Louis Hastings, now 40, earlier
pleaded no contest to the March 1, 1983, ambush-style slayings that
claimed the lives of roughly half the year-round population of McCarthy.
6 killed in Alaska in shooting spree
Unemployed Man Is Charged in Slayings
at a Snowbound Town With 22 Residents
March 2, 1983
McCARTHY, Alaska - An
unemployed computer programmer has been charged with six counts of first-degree
murder in the shooting deaths Tuesday of six of the 22 residents of this
snowbound back-country village.
Louis D. Hastings, 39 years old, was also charged
with one count of assault in the first degree at his arraignment today
in Anchorage. Mr. Hastings, who was being held in $300,000 bond, did not
enter a plea. The authorities said they had no clue as to what prompted
Christopher Richards, one of the injured survivors,
told the police he vividly remembered the words of the man who shot him:
"'look you're already dead. If you'll just quit fighting, I'll make it
easy for you.'"
Instead, the 29-year-old Mr. Richards said, he
grabbed a knife, slashed his assailant and fled in his stocking feet
into the snow.
Safety 100 Miles Away
He was picked up by a neighbor on a snowmobile and
taken to an airstrip in this old mining community in the Wrangell
Mountains 225 miles east of Anchorage. McCarthy is inaccessible by road
in the winter and has no telephone service.
A private pilot flew Mr. Richards 100 miles north-west
to Glennallen, where the state troopers were told of the shootings.
Officers flew to here and arrested Mr. Hastings, who was on a snowmobile
20 miles from McCarthy. They said he had offered no resistance but
declined to say whether he was armed.
Mr. Hastings was treated at Faith Hospital in
Glennallen for cuts, which Trooper Ken Lewis said appeared to be knife
Mr. Hastings told a magistrate he had been living in
a house he owns near McCarthy for eight months. State troopers said he
apparently was last employed three years ago in California.
State troopers, who declined to identify the dead,
today began preparing to remove the victims. Three bodies were alongside
a snow-covered airstrip on a bluff overlooking McCarthy.
Three of the dead lay under a bright orange tarpaulin
about 50 yards outside a house where they were found.
"There was a lot of shooting that went on inside that
house," said Capt. Jim Landsberry. "There were a lot of bullets sprayed
Woman Was Also Injured
Donna Byram, 32 years old, was injured along with Mr.
Richards, but the authorities would not allow her to be interviewed.
From his hospital bed, Mr. Richards said that the
gunman had shot him "completely out of the blue." He described how the
attack occurred after he invited the gunman into his cabin for a cup of
As he reached for a cup, Mr. Richards said, he felt
something hit him near the right eye and realized he had been shot.
Another bullet hit him in the neck, he said, and then he heard the man
tell him not to fight.
At one time, McCarthy was home to 1,00 people. Gold
was the discovered in the area at the turn of the century, and until
1938 the Kennecott Copper Company operated a mine about six miles from
The End of the Road
By Kevin Coughlin
The dogs of McCarthy, Alaska,
roam the dirt and gravel streets untethered. There are no leash laws
here and no police within a hundred miles to enforce them even if there
A loose affiliation of about a dozen mutts, they respect each others’
territories and dispositions, often frolic when they gather, and rarely
When the dogs stray, they stray north, toward
Kennicott, or up the hill east, toward the dozen or so cabins
scattered through the woods between McCarthy and its gravel airstrip.
Only McCarthy’s natural boundaries limit their movement. McCarthy
Creek borders town to the south and flows into the Kennicott River,
the town’s western margin. To the east and north lie thousands of
square miles of mountains, glaciers, and river valleys. Before the
summer of 1997, the Kennicott was traversable only by hand trams and
afterward only by footbridges.
Tourists sometimes bring city dogs not used to this
freedom. And, occasionally, one of these well-groomed pets will loudly
tangle with one or more of McCarthy’s pack, which usually rallies to
repel the Outsider. The tourist dogs don’t stay long anyway.
On March 1, 1983, Louis
Hastings attempted to murder McCarthy, Alaska. By 2 P.M.
that day, six of McCarthy’s dozen or so year-round residents lied dead
while two more were wounded--one cowered outside a greenhouse, tightly
clutching her upper right arm to stem the flow of blood, while
stifling the sound of her panicked breathing; the other had been flown
by a neighbor to Glennallen, a town one hundred miles northwest and
home of the nearest hospital, to receive treatment for gunshot wounds
to his face and head.
The thirty-nine-year-old Hastings was headed west
on the lone road connecting McCarthy to the outside world. He rode a
snowmobile taken from one of his victims. Each of the dead had
received multiple gunshot wounds, including at least one single
wound to the head.
After killing McCarthy’s residents, Hastings planned
to sabotage the Alaska pipeline. The plot began to unravel, however,
after Hastings’s nearest neighbor survived two shots to his head and
escaped to warn others.
The previous night, Hastings had played a board
game with Chris Richards in Kennicott, a town of four about five
miles north of McCarthy. Hastings won. During the course of
conversation, Richards mentioned that a couple of McCarthy’s
residents were away on a skiing trip. Hastings seemed disappointed.
Richards also warned Hastings about cutting firewood from dead trees
on land that had been subdivided recently and thus might be off-limits
to such activity.
"He seemed to appreciate the fact that I was
concerned about him," Richards said in a 1983 newspaper interview.
The next morning, at about 8:30, he saw Hastings
approach the front of his home from the south side. Richards thought
Hastings--large, soft-spoken, balding, and bespectacled with an unkempt
red beard--was stopping by on his way to pick up the mail. Richards
pushed the outside door ajar and invited Hastings in for coffee.
Hastings set down a heavy backpack and, before entering, took a deep
breath. Richards turned his back to the door and faced the stove to
continue preparing breakfast. Then he began to turn his head to greet
The land surrounding
McCarthy and Kennicott is severe and unforgiving. Temperatures can
from 50 degrees below zero in winter to 90 degrees in the summer.
Annual snowfall averages 52 inches. Almost 230 miles east of Anchorage,
McCarthy and Kennicott are located in the middle of the Wrangell-St.
Elias National Park and Preserve. Established in December of 1980,
Wrangell-St. Elias encompasses an area roughly the size of West
Virginia and six times the size of Yellowstone. Four major mountain
ranges converge in the park and nine of the sixteen tallest peaks in
the U.S. rising from within the park’s boundaries. Unlike most
national parks, the land along the McCarthy Road and along the road
from McCarthy to Kennicott is a checkerboard of private and public
lands. More than a million acres within the park’s boundaries are
still privately owned.
Near the turn of the twentieth century, in the ridges
above Kennicott, prospectors discovered the richest concentration of
copper ore ever unearthed. This prompted the creation of Kennicott, a
blue-collar, company town, and then McCarthy, its red-light sister. But
by the 1930s, most of the ore had been depleted and copper prices had
plummeted. The mines closed, as did their company town. The abandonment
of McCarthy soon followed that of Kennicott and the two wilderness
centers of industry became ghost towns. The railroad that transported
the ore to a port nearly two hundred miles away fell into disrepair, and
the rail bed eventually became McCarthy Road.
McCarthy Road begins where the pavement ends, just
outside of Chitina, sixty-one miles to the west. In 1983, the road was
covered with gravel and often scarred by washouts and washboard ruts.
Railroad ties and spikes occasionally resurfaced and shredded the tires
of unsuspecting motorists.
Ten years earlier, floodwaters had washed out the
bridge at the east end of the road where it crossed the Kennicott River
into McCarthy. The local inhabitants resisted state department of
transportation efforts to build even a footbridge to span the Kennicott.
As a result, the only land route into McCarthy in 1983 was to cross by
means of a hand-powered tram.
Hastings had worked as a
computer programmer at Stanford University in the late 1970s. He and
his wife left California for Alaska in 1980, initially
moving into a duplex in east Anchorage, where he operated a computer
services company out of their home. In the summer of 1982, about eight
months before the murders, Hastings and his wife bought a vacation
home in Kennicott. By the winter of 1982, both Hastings’s business and
his marriage were failing. He began to spend more and more time alone
at the Kennicott cabin, while his wife remained in Anchorage. In
Kennicott, Hastings began refining an attack he had been planning for
nearly a year.
Hastings had fled the overdevelopment of
California for the wilderness of Alaska. Instead he found the state
in the throes of development, largely due to the opening of the
trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which winds from Prudhoe Bay south to the
port of Valdez on Prince William Sound. The eight hundred mile
pipeline cost $8 billion to build, renewed the natural resource
economy in Alaska, and now is responsible for transporting 25
percent of the total U.S. oil production.
When he lived in California, Hastings had once
volunteered to clean oil-soaked birds following an offshore oil
spill. Shortly after he arrived in Alaska, he began to target the
pipeline. According to one psychiatric report, Hastings "was
disturbed by the population growth and influx of money into the
state and determined that the best way to interrupt this was to
destroy the pipeline and thus cut off Alaska’s wealth and consequent
growth." Destruction of the pipeline would be the end to his
It would begin when the weekly mail plane arrived.
Hastings would kill anyone who showed up at the Heglands’ place--and
most of McCarthy’s residents usually did. With most of the residents
eliminated, Hastings would hijack the mail plane and kill the pilot. He
then planned to land the plane near the pipeline at a pump station about
eighty miles west of McCarthy and rig the plane to take off again with
no one at the controls. At that point, Hastings would commandeer a fuel
truck and ram the pipeline while shooting at it. He theorized that the
cold winter weather would congeal the oil in the broken pipeline, thus
minimizing environmentally damaging spillage while disrupting the oil
flow. The fuel truck would burst into flames, charring his body beyond
Hastings thought that because the entire town would
be dead and his body would be unrecognizable, he could destroy the
pipeline and commit suicide without revealing to his family that he had
been a murderer and a suicide. Officials would believe he had died,
along with the rest of Kennicott and McCarthy, at the hands of an
In a 1997 interview, the prosecutor in the Hastings
case described Hastings as "a very bright guy, a nerdy academic whose
wig is on probably a little too tight...There are a lot of parallels to
this guy [admitted Unabomber Theodore] Kaczynski."
"If you really distill it down...Mr. Hastings thought
he was going to be the savior of the Alaska wilderness," Hastings’s
public defender said at Hastings’s psychiatric hearings.
Although Kennicott’s 1983
population was in single figures, about two dozen people lived year-round
within a 50-mile radius of
neighboring McCarthy. Maxine Edwards, fifty-two, and her husband Jim,
also fifty-two, homesteaded in a house they built on the west side of
the Kennicott River in 1953. Called "Maxine the Diligent" by a friend,
Edwards was described in 1983 as "a hard-working woman who could operate
a bulldozer by afternoon and serve dinner on linen and crystal at
On March 1, 1983, Maxine Edwards crossed the frozen
Kennicott River to visit the Heglands, pulling a small plastic sled
behind her. They lived less than one hundred yards from the west end of
the McCarthy airstrip amid a spruce forest on a bluff overlooking
McCarthy. The Edwards were going to celebrate their twenty-fifth
anniversary in two weeks.
Les, sixty-four, and Flo Hegland, fifty-eight, had
lived in Alaska for twenty-seven years. In 1967, they moved to McCarthy,
where they built an addition on their front porch and always left it
unlocked so that groceries delivered by the weekly mail plane would not
freeze and their neighbors could come by any time to pick them up.
Locals considered the Heglands to be McCarthy’s unofficial postmasters.
The Heglands also made daily
weather observations using a small meteorological site at their home.
They radioed this information to the
Federal Aviation Administration’s flight service station in Cordova,
Alaska. The Heglands’ two-way radio was the only one in McCarthy
powerful enough to contact the world outside of Wrangell-St. Elias.
Without it, McCarthy was totally cut off from the outside world.
Tim, thirty-eight, and Amy Nash, twenty-five, had
been married Outside, the Alaskan term for anywhere outside of
Alaska, during Christmas of 1982 and returned to Tim’s nearly
completed log cabin in McCarthy on Valentine’s Day of 1983--only two
weeks before March 1. A friend in McCarthy gave them a quarter of a
moose and a mincemeat pie with a heart carved in it to celebrate the
occasion. Tim, who had lived in McCarthy for seven years, worked
construction in Glennallen and, following a divorce, had been living
alone in the cabin he had been building with hand tools. He met Amy
in the summer of 1982 when Amy ventured to McCarthy as a tourist.
Since 1966, Harley King, sixty-one, and his wife Jo
had lived on a homestead fifteen miles west of McCarthy off McCarthy
Road. Prior to his retirement, Harley King served as a commercial
fisherman out of Cordova, and as a hunting guide. In the 1950s he hunted
wolves in a predator-control program alongside another guide, Jay
Hammond, who later became governor of Alaska.
On the morning of March 1, 1983, Harley King gave
Donna Byram, thirty-two, a ride on his snowmobile, known as a "snowmachine"
in Alaska, to the McCarthy airstrip. Byram, who lived off McCarthy Road
between the Kings and McCarthy, was planning to fly out on the mail
plane. Chris Richards, twenty-nine, who worked summer construction and
collected unemployment insurance and food stamps during the winter, was
preparing his breakfast using no modern appliances. In 1983, McCarthy
had no running water, no telephones, and no electricity except for that
produced by individual generators.
McCarthy is not a place where someone stumbles into
residency. These pioneers made conscious decisions to live in isolation
and under spartan conditions. Yet, despite their fierce independence and
self-reliance, the citizens of McCarthy formed close bonds.
And on Tuesdays, these far-flung neighbors would
gather at the Heglands’ home to socialize and wait for the weekly plane
that delivered their mail. Tuesdays were weekly events, and often the
only chance neighbors got to see each other. March 1, 1983, fell on a
As Chris Richards turned away from
preparing his breakfast to greet Louis Hastings on the morning
of March 1, 1983, he felt something strike his right cheek, something
that shattered his glasses. He ducked his head instinctively and then
felt something hit the top of his head. He spun around to see Hastings
approaching with a rifle. Richards and Hastings began to struggle.
Richards screamed for Hastings to stop. Hastings
replied, "Look, you’re already dead. If you’ll just quit fighting
I’ll make it easy for you." Richards grabbed a knife from the drain
board of his sink and stabbed Hastings once in the upper left chest,
slightly wounding him, and once in the right leg. Richards then
escaped into waist-deep snow wearing only socks and one slipper, a
T-shirt, and light corduroy pants.
He scrambled three-quarters of a mile up a steep hill
to a neighbor’s unoccupied cabin. Hastings fired several shots at the
fleeing Richards, nicking his right arm. At the cabin, Richards got
boots, a parka, and snowshoes. From there he stumbled about one-tenth of
a mile southwest to the newlywed Nashes’ cabin, which was situated on
the trail connecting Kennicott to McCarthy. At the cabin, as the Nashes
attended to his wounds, Richards told them what had happened. The Nashes
said that they had seen Hastings heading towards McCarthy twenty minutes
earlier. Richards then insisted that they arm themselves and go to the
runway to warn the others who were sure to be congregating there for the
The Nashes rode a snowmachine, pulling Richards
behind in a sled, to the airstrip. At the north end of the airstrip,
they met Gary Green, a local pilot and guide who was cleaning snow off
one of his planes. Green said that he too had seen Hastings about twenty
minutes earlier, heading toward the Heglands’. The Nashes and Green
decided that Tim Nash would go check on the Heglands while Green warmed
up his plane to fly Richards to Glennallen, about a forty-minute flight
After warming up his engine, Green taxied to the end
of the runway to load Richards into his plane. Amy Nash then noticed her
husband running down the strip approaching them. Green got out of the
plane and met Tim Nash on the runway. Tim told Green he had just been to
There, Tim had smelled a heavy concentration of
gunsmoke and saw blood all over the inside of the house. Tim thought
that the Heglands were dead and noticed that someone had attempted
to clean up the blood in the Heglands’ kitchen. While Tim was
standing in the kitchen, he saw Hastings on the back porch. Nash
fired a shotgun blast at Hastings that struck a doorjamb and
Hastings returned fire, striking Tim in the right leg.
Green and the Nashes decided that the Nashes
would remain to warn others away from the airstrip while Green took
off with Richards to get help. As Green lifted off, he saw Tim and
Amy Nash walking toward each other on the east side of the runway.
On his way to Glennallen, with Richards bleeding in his back seat,
Green contacted the incoming mail plane that was scheduled to land
at 11 a.m. and told the pilot not to land in McCarthy. He then
radioed the state police in Glennallen.
In the meantime, Hastings had backtracked toward
the airstrip along a dog-sled trail. The trail snaked through dense
brush behind a large mound of plowed snow across the runway from the
Nashes. Hastings crawled atop the mound and, after Green took off,
fired at least ten rounds at the Nashes two hundred fifty yards away.
The Nashes fell. Hastings walked to within fifty feet of their prone
bodies and fired another two shots. He continued to approach the
Nashes and fired two more shots from close range into their heads.
Hastings then dragged the Nashes to the top of the
snow bank opposite his sniping location to hide them in deeper snow. At
about that time, Harley King and Donna Byram arrived at the north end of
the airstrip on King’s snowmachine. Byram saw Hastings walking over the
snow bank on the west side of the airstrip and then saw blood in the
snow on the east side. She wondered who would be butchering animals on
the runway. As they drew abreast of the Nashes’ bodies, Hastings started
firing at them. Byram, who was standing on a sled that trailed the
snowmachine, saw bullets hit King and the snowmachine. One bullet hit
Byram in her upper right arm. King accelerated the snowmachine as more
bullets hit it. Traveling south, away from Hastings, King lost control
of the snowmachine. His leg had been broken by one of Hastings’s shots.
The snowmachine threw King and Byram to the runway near the path that
led from the airstrip to the Heglands.
As Byram attempted to load King back on the
snowmachine, Hastings approached from one hundred yards away. Byram
froze. King told Byram that he couldn’t move and that she should save
herself. Byram hurried toward the Heglands. As she entered the spruce
woods, she heard Hastings shoot King twice.When Byram got to the
Heglands, she noticed that the door had been kicked in. She was afraid
to enter, so she hid outside the Heglands’ greenhouse. After killing
King, Hastings began to look for Byram. He approached the Heglands’
house, calling out, "One not dead. One not dead." Byram cowered outside
the nearby greenhouse, tightly gripping her injured arm. All she heard
was Hastings’s bootsteps on the Heglands’ porch and the wind whipping
the Visqueen sides of the greenhouse.
Hastings abruptly ended his search for Byram and
sped off on the Nashes’ snowmachine. His plan was starting to
unravel. Hastings thought the police would respond in a fixed-wing
aircraft and that, if he got away from the airstrip, he would be
safe. However, the first state troopers to respond left Glennallen
in an unmarked helicopter. They saw Hastings heading west on snow-covered
McCarthy Road. When the troopers landed, Hastings waved and offered
no resistance. He said that he was Chris Richards and that Lou
Hastings had "gone berserk" and was "shooting up McCarthy." The
troopers knew Richards was already in Glenallen receiving treatment
for his wounds. They also had a description of Hastings. Based on
the fact that Richards was already in Glennallen receiving treatment
for his wounds and based on the description of Hastings that
Richards and Green had given them, the troopers arrested Hastings.
They then flew on to McCarthy to search for survivors.
At that point Hastings told the troopers: "I’m your man." Outside the
greenhouse, the police found Byram. She shared the forty-minute
helicopter ride to Glennallen with the police and Hastings. Inside the
Heglands’ house the police found Les and Flo Hegland and Maxine Edwards
stacked in the bedroom "like cord wood," according to one trooper. They
also found several spent cartridges in the kitchen and in the back porch
areas. A bloody, fur-covered silencer sat on the nightstand next to the
"There was a lot of shooting that went on inside that
house," said one state trooper in 1983. "There were a lot of bullets
What seemed to surprise
locals most wasn’t so much that the murders were committed, but who
committed them. Perhaps his lack of conversation
distanced Hastings most from his neighbors. Long-time residents are
practiced raconteurs, their narrative skills honed from years
gathering at the Heglands’ to get their mail and visiting isolated
neighbors in the winter, when time is marked simply by firewood cut,
books read, and stories told. Other than Hastings’ lack of narrative
skills, however, little else about him stood out.
On March 15, a resident who was out of town when
the murders occurred filled out a police report. In part it read:
"...in the winter my exposure to Hastings was limited to mail days,
when most everyone got together, and at the home of Chris Richards,
where the three of us would play cards and talk. My general
impression from these meetings was that he was quiet and reserved,
not going out of his way to socialize and seemed to want to be left
alone for the most part. Talking about science and technology, the
world situation, the future of Kennicott, I felt he was certainly
intelligent and fairly knowledgeable on these topics but
disillusioned and down on society in general. He seemed not well
prepared in skills or supplies to live out in the Kennicott area and
it seemed a bit odd to come and go as he did to and from Anchorage.
In general, people are accepted in spite of any differences, by the
others in the McCarthy-Kennicott area, and a live and let live
attitude seems to prevail, so much of what I mentioned here did not
seem unlike things that could be noticed in others living out here."
Loy Green, a McCarthy-area resident since the
1960s, considered Hastings’s clothing "strange." But in a 1997
interview, he recalls a conversation with Gary Green, the local bush
pilot unrelated to Loy. The Greens were standing on a McCarthy path
when Hastings approached. Loy said, "You know that Lou? He’s kind of
"Well, so are you," Gary answered. "We all are. So
Loy echoes that two-word refrain and amplifies it. "Everyone
here is a little strange in their way," Loy says. "So, OK, here’s just
another strange guy and he’s not doing anything. He’s anti-social, but
we’re not tremendously social anyway. And so we really don’t pay too
much attention. So Lou’s strange, so what?"
But then Hastings killed six of Loy Green’s friends
and neighbors. At that time, Loy had been up McCarthy Creek at his
remote winter cabin. He heard about the murders over his portable radio.
"It wasn’t necessarily a surprise," Green says. "However,
[Hastings] wasn’t the one that I thought it probably was." Green doesn’t
Jim Miller had left McCarthy a few weeks before the
murders. He too first heard about the murders on the radio, while he was
driving to work.
"It was a ... I kinda figured it might’ve happened,"
Miller says. "I dunno. If anybody was going to do it, I figured it
might’ve been [Hastings], bein’ a loner anyway. But, at first, it was
kind of a shock. ... I suspected three or four different people, but,
..." Miller doesn’t elaborate either.
Given the fact that Hastings wanted to stem Alaskan
development, his McCarthy target also seemed to surprise both
investigators and townspeople. But, clouded by his depression and urged
on by his suicidal tendencies, Hastings lacked clarity and patience. He
failed to truly see McCarthy and Alaska and acted on these
If Hastings had been paying attention, he would have
seen the irony in killing a town where the residents knew each other by
their boot tracks, a town that existed with no electricity, running
water, or telephones, to protest what he perceived to be an
overindustrialization of Alaska.
"In the name of Alaska, he destroyed part of Alaska
and the Alaskan life," Hastings’s prosecutor said in a 1983 newspaper
article, calling McCarthy "a place where the spirit of Alaska lives on.
The irony is that he comes up from overpopulated California, moves into
the midst of such beauty, and then in order to protect the beauty, he
singlehandedly wipes out a whole town."
"A nobody came in here and wiped out the pillars of
one of the few self-sufficient communities in Alaska," Bonnie Morris
said in 1983 as she stood near the body bags of her neighbors. "These
people lying around here were not your average people...These are the
people who inspired the rest of us when we came here to build a sane,
Now, fifteen years later, as McCarthy struggles to
control a burgeoning tourist industry, old-time residents still grapple
with the effects of the murders. "This ain’t Chicago," Chris Richards
says on an August morning in 1997. Richards sits at a picnic table on
the porch of McCarthy’s pizza place. "It’s not New York. We’re not
anonymous. Even the [neighbors] I don’t necessarily get along with all
the time, they’re precious to me. Here, it was a major, devastating
impact. If somebody killed fifty percent of New York or Chicago, Christ,
they’d declare nuclear war over that. I mean it would mean the end of
the world. And the equivalent happened here. It wiped out our elders, or
most of ’em. It wiped out half the community"--a community that now
finds itself changing despite, or perhaps because of, its remoteness.
And old friendships are being tested by new developments.
Al Gagnon joins Jim Miller, owner of the pizza place,
and Richards. At sixty-one, Gagnon has spent thirty-three years in the
McCarthy area and is one of the few remaining town elders from 1983. "I’m
out here at the end of the trail because I’m an outlaw," Gagnon says.
"Al talks about everything--water, sewer, putting in
electricity," Miller says with a knowing grin. "Al’s always got forty
scams goin’ at once." Gagnon’s latest idea is to drill for "commercial
water" on his property in Kennicott. He plans to offer running water and
a septic system to Kennicott’s growing number of residents and
businesses--including Richards’s home and a site where Miller hopes to
move his pizza place.
Miller and Gagnon haggle over what Gagnon will charge
for this service. Miller half-jokingly threatens to throw an "outhouse
party." Miller’s and Gagnon’s Kennicott properties abut. One corner of
Miller’s land falls within a two-hundred-foot radius of Gagnon’s
proposed well. Legally, you can’t drill a well within two hundred feet
of an "established outhouse." If Gagnon’s price remains unreasonable,
Miller will dig an outhouse and invite people over to "establish it."
Miller and Gagnon will amicably work out their differences--they always
Gagnon points to McCarthy’s natural boundaries and
its weather as natural means of security. "The river, in the summertime,
keeps you honest," he says. "The snow, in the wintertime, keeps you
honest because you can be tracked."
"This is a country where there’s no ‘ifs’ or ‘maybes,’"
Gagnon adds. "It’s ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And there’s no 911 and mom isn’t here
and tears don’t do any good. You’re on your own."
"No, we don’t call 911," Richards says. "We call our
neighbors...Anybody starts shooting around here, we’re gonna take out
the people we don’t know first. We’ll figure out what your problem is
Richards has told his story of the murders dozens of
times. He considers it therapeutic. He says that, as the years of
telling it have slipped by, it becomes easier to tell. He no longer
grits his teeth or feels the adrenaline rush. He has regaled dozens of
voyeuristic tourists, strangers who look for the scars and ask what it’s
like getting shot in the face by your nearest neighbor in a ghost town.
But who Hastings killed, not how many, still pains
Richards, who now flies a skull and crossbones outside his cabin. As he
recounts his near-death struggle, he maintains his composure and sense
of humor. But he breaks down when he thinks of those who were murdered,
particularly the Heglands.
"I’ve got nothing but total respect for them," says
Richards, his eyes watery. "They’re old-timers. They were all here
before I even thought of coming here. They had been there, done that,
had a successful homestead, and raised healthy kids. All I could say is
good stuff about them. I mean they were the original item as far as
people living back here. They were the original pirates, even if they
didn’t consider themselves that. None of those people ever had a harsh
word to say to me. They were good people. They lived a good life. Shit,
we can’t afford to waste ‘em--too precious. [Hastings] got rid of a
whole bunch of ‘em all at once right there. And I would think a lot of
people remember them and respect them. They were the good people...
That took a major chunk out of this place. It changed
the way it will be, no doubt, forever."
Not only did Hastings kill a large portion of the
town elders, but he nearly killed the most important day in McCarthy--mail
Every Tuesday, the Heglands’ place was where distant
neighbors congregated, shared news from Outside, and exchanged gossip
over tea and coffee. "See, Tuesday is mail plane day," a trooper who
helped arrest Hastings said in a 1997 interview. "You can have Easter,
and you can have Thanksgiving, you can have Christmas, but it’s not as
important as Tuesday. Everybody meets at the Heglands’ house to visit
and get the mail. Mail plane day, I mean you live for that. It’s
correspondence. I check my mail box every day. They got [mail] once a
week...and made contact."
People in McCarthy still conversationally refer to
mail day simply as "mail," like it’s a place or an event. They still say,
"I’m going to mail. Do you have anything going out that you want me to
take?" But mail is no longer the event that it was when the Heglands
hosted it. The townspeople now gather on the gravel airstrip outside a
small mail shack. Since the shack is a simple wooden structure about ten
feet by ten feet, neighbors now quickly sort the mail, then mill about
on the airstrip. In the summer, some work their way down to McCarthy, a
mile away, to congregate at Miller’s pizza place.
From Miller’s porch, Richards recalls how it used to
be. "We’d sit around, have tea and cookies. It was, you know, the big
social event of the week. And everybody from miles around that could get
there would usually get there and swap bullshit and get their mail and
leave. It was a good time. I miss it. It’s not the same anymore, not the
same at all ..."
The survivors of Hastings’s
rampage continue to be nagged by hindsight.
Almost all of them can remember something that
they now feel should have clued them in to Hastings’s murderous
Loy Green, who no longer greets the mail plane,
thinks back on the times that he made what he thought were benign
comments, only to have Hastings glower at him, his lip twitching. "So
after he did his number," Green says, "I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God. I saw
something in that man. I definitely saw something.’ But I wrote it off
as just ‘So what?’
"And right then I said to myself, ‘OK, if I ever see
that in another person’s eyes, I’m not going to stand idle. Period.’ I
am not going to say, ‘Oh, well, blah, blah, blah.’ No, I am going to do
something. I don’t know what, but something."
A few years later, a couple of young
fundamentalist Christians had temporarily moved to McCarthy and were
hoping to make their stay permanent. Green engaged one in religious
debate. "I saw the same look," Green says, "the same lip curl, and
he walked away."
Green reported this to the proprietor of the McCarthy
Lodge who had been helping the two men get started. When he heard
Green’s story, he said, "OK, those guys are out of here. No support, no
Chris Richards carried a handgun around in his back
pocket for eight years after the murders. The only time he didn’t have
it on him was when he slept. "It wasn’t like I was afraid for myself,"
Richards says. "It was, more or less, I owe this to my neighbors. I
can’t lose any more of my friends and neighbors, even the ones that I
don’t like. They’re my neighbors. Excuse me, I don’t need any other
assholes comin’ around and shootin’ ‘em. They’re precious to me. I think
of ‘em more as a big tribe of people. Most of us live here because we
love this place and we have that much in common."
For weeks, McCarthy’s survivors devoted nearly every
conversation to the murders and, at least indirectly, how to redefine
their community. And for weeks, they nearly sleepwalked among daily
reminders of the murders--blood stains soaked deep into the snow.
Impromptu meetings were held. Options were considered. One person said,
"We can’t trust anybody that comes in here anymore." Another countered,
"Wait a minute. If we do that, in a larger sense, Lou’s the winner."
Loy Green said, "If we don’t trust anybody, if
everybody who comes in is a suspect, then we are putting out negative
energy and we’re creating a suspicious atmosphere and then we can’t
expect to have people here. Better if we open our arms now to everybody—aaah,
but have a little caution."
The old trams became the natural focus. Their cables
sagged dangerously close to the Kennicott River and they were difficult
to use. Locals had begun to plan for new trams prior to the murders,
because they feared the state would build an automotive bridge that
would threaten McCarthy’s isolation.
At that time Loy Green said, "If you could drive to
McCarthy, it wouldn’t be here."
After Hastings’s murders, however, the trams took on
a new meaning, and a heightened sense of urgency. The community got
together and secured $90,000 from the state. Residents cut logs for
support towers and salvaged unused cable from the mines. Because of
their lives on the Alaskan frontier, all were handy with tools. Jim
Edwards, Maxine’s widower, designed the tram cars. A state-hired foreman
quit, because no one would follow his orders. Within two summer months,
the new trams were completed.
"We felt like a community that had accomplished
something and was together," Green says. "That was a healing catharsis.
You bet it was."
But the new trams helped slowly increase tourist
traffic. Then, in 1997, the state built a pair of multi-million-dollar
footbridges in preparation for a surge in tourism. In the last decade,
several businesses have opened — Miller’s pizza place, two air services,
two guide services, a coffee shop, and an upscale lodge to name a few.
With this increased development, political and business bickering has
increased among long-time neighbors. Louis Hastings, who is currently
serving a 594-year sentence at the federal prison in Leavenworth,
Kansas, wouldn’t recognize the town he tried to kill en route to
stalling Alaskan development. While local differences seem to occur more
often than in 1983, none resonate like the murders. Old-timers simply
remind themselves of March 1, 1983, for a dose of perspective.
And while the dogs of McCarthy don’t have to contend
with tourist vehicles yet, they still consider the increasingly numerous
visitors with wary eyes.