Eight months later, village still seeks answers in fatal snowmachine crash
The snow beginning to fall along the Kobuk River signals the start of a long winter in the Northwest Arctic.
The white powder covering the landscape around the village of Ambler is no comfort to Cherissa Johnson, 22.
"I'm afraid to see what this winter's going to bring," she says with hesitation in her voice.
Cherissa was the passenger on the back of her cousin's snowmachine when it crashed on the winter trail between Ambler and Shungnak on Feb. 11. Her cousin, Isabel Griest, 24, died.
That evening, the two young women, both from Ambler, had been heading to Shungnak to play basketball and raise money for funeral costs for two elders from that village.
"Can I tell you about the day?" Isa's aunt, Ila Griepentrog, asks. "I talked to her before she left. She came bouncing into the post office, I can just remember. She was so happy and so bubbly that day because she was going to go up to Shungnak to play basketball. She walks in and she goes, 'Hi Auntie!' On her way out the door, real happy, 'Bye Auntie, I love you!' That was our last interaction."
Ila, who is the village's postmaster, finished up work and went home, cooked dinner for her family, cleaned up, and went to bed. Just as she was falling asleep, she got a call from her daughter.
"It's Isa," her daughter said.
A former health aide, Ila hopped onto the family snowmachine and made a beeline for the clinic.
"When I got to the clinic, I went all the way back to the trauma room. When I saw Isa, she was all bloody. There was blood coming out of her ears, her nose, her mouth. Gladys said there was tissue coming out of her ear and then I realized that meant human tissue," she remembers. "That's when I knew it would take a miracle for her to come out of this one."
Ila has vivid memories of squeezing the ventilation bag while the emergency medical crew that responded spread her ribs and inserted a chest tube. She especially remembers the sound.
The accident happened near the local landmark of Plane Crash. The night of the accident, Cherissa described how another snowmachine coming in the opposite direction, driven by Ambler resident Frank Downey, collided with theirs.
"Our snowmachine skis locked and they must have gone head to head. When it all happened, I flew over both of them," she said. "It happened so fast. I was hurt. It was my neck because we hit so hard, but I didn't really care at that point because I was still alive. I was up."
Cherissa says she and Isa were sober at the time of the crash but maintains that Downey was not. He was mumbling and smelled like alcohol, she described the night of the accident.
"After Frank woke up, he was trying to leave us there. He said, 'Give me my snogo key, I need to go home,'" she said. "It was really bad."
After getting help from a passing snowmachine, Cherissa stayed with her cousin, holding her head in her lap, trying to keep her alive.
Whether or not Downey was intoxicated at the time of the accident has not been confirmed. When contacted by the Sounder, Downey said he'd rather not talk about what happened. He said it had been incredibly hard to remain in town and that he sometimes had suicidal thoughts in the months since the accident.
Ambler, at fewer than 300 people, is the kind of village where you can't avoid seeing people everywhere, at the store, the post office, out on the roads.
For Downey, he's faced the court of public opinion since the accident and has found it hard to stay in town for fear of being ostracized. For Sandra Griest, time passing doesn't make it easier to share the village with the person she believes is responsible for her sister's death.
"It just gets harder, especially for the kids," Sandra says. "At first, it's like you don't even want to go out yourself. You know they're there all the time. It's a small village."
Isa was the mother of two children, now ages five and six. Her mother now has custody of both after the sudden death of her boyfriend, Byron Lee.
"After Isa passed, Byron was so hurt that Isa was taken away. He was so hurt and so angry. He made threats to Frank Downey. He went on a drinking spree after Isa died," explains Ila. "It finally got to him and he couldn't take it anymore so he shot himself two months to the day from Isa's passing. That's how the children ended up with my sister."
Everyone in the family shares in taking care of them.
"I sent the kids out for pizza [earlier today] because [the girl] said she missed her mom. So, I put my cleaning and my cooking aside and just sat and held her for a couple hours. Poor kids. They don't have their mom when they're sick or when they have to go see the doctor," Ila says. "They don't have their mom or their dad."
As the months pass, the sorrow of the family and the entire community grows, she says. That's why Isa's family is calling for answers.
Alaska State Troopers are in charge of conducting the investigation into what happened that February night. The Sounder contacted troopers by email the weekend of the crash and received the dispatch on the incident.
On March 21, the Sounder requested follow-up information from the troopers as no charges had yet been filed in the case. At that time, spokesperson Megan Peters directed the paper to check Courtview and speak with the district attorney, where any charges filed would be forwarded along with a report from troopers.
There still have been no charges filed in the case.
The Sounder contacted the troopers again on Sept. 28, requesting a live interview, but was denied. On Oct. 5, the Sounder sent a follow-up email that included a comprehensive list of questions regarding the case. The following day, troopers responded saying they would pass the questions on to the appropriate people.
The troopers then declined to answer several questions because the case is still open and provided minimal answers to others.
According to troopers, a state aircraft carrying a trooper responded to the site on Feb. 18, citing at least two days of delay due to "poor weather." Troopers did not elaborate on what the weather conditions were that prevented them from responding.
Ila, who works in the post office, doesn't understand how weather kept the troopers from responding for a week.
"They said the weather was why they didn't come up but here in Ambler we get two flights in the morning and two flights in the afternoon. I work at the post office and during that time [in February], I was working, and I was receiving incoming mail to distribute," she says. "For them to say that the weather was why they didn't come up here [doesn't make sense]."
Ila and other villagers have worried that Downey wasn't tested for his blood alcohol level soon enough in the evening to confirm or deny a DUI.
"He should have been in the clinic so they could do an assessment on him, so they could do a blood draw," she says. "Instead they took him home and waited until after they took Isa on the medevac plane and then brought him to the clinic and that was how many hours?"
The troopers declined to provide information about the potential inebriation of one of the drivers and did not provide a response to a question about what the procedure is for troopers collecting necessary blood alcohol information from rural areas if they cannot respond immediately.
There has been concern among community members, as well, that Downey's snowmachine was moved from the accident site prematurely. Troopers declined to comment, though in an answer to another question about making sure investigations are as complete as possible, they responded:
"Response delays can have an adverse effect [sic] on the collection of evidence, especially when weather is a factor. It is not uncommon that the evidentiary value of a scene is compromised when it becomes covered with snow and/or marks on the ground are either covered in snow or washed away by rain or wind. Trooper [sic] have traveled out to Ambler for follow up investigation."
When asked about the procedure for cases moving forward, troopers noted they would typically send a report to the District Attorney.
"In general, after a report is written up it is passed on to a supervisor for review then forwarded to the DAO for review," Peters wrote. "No report has been sent to the DAO as of yet for this case. However, we have had multiple conversations regarding the case."
For locals like Ila, "conversations" ring hollow when they aren't followed by action. Community members have expressed their frustration over the last several months with not seeing forward momentum with the case and feeling left in the dark, out of the loop, and left behind.
"This is so maddening, with the troopers dragging their feet with the investigation, it seems," Ila says. "The DA not pressuring the troopers to get it going, I think. Do they pick and choose who they prosecute? I mean, look at the guy who bumped the Iditarod musher. Just because that was under the spotlight, he got his day fast. And they're keeping us hanging, wondering. What gives?"
The troopers maintain that "anytime a major injury or death occurs we investigate to determine if criminality is involved."
"We do not have estimations on how long any case will take as each case has its own merits and some cases have challenges that other cases do not have," Peters wrote.
"Are they going to just let it go?" Isa's sister, Sandra, asks.
In the months since the accident, Ila and other family members have held walks through town and awareness events on drunk driving. Ila made shirts that say, "Justice for Isa."
"I felt that justice wasn't served," Ila says.
She, and others, though, aren't necessarily calling for a "guilty" verdict. They just want to get to the courtroom. Her family members have echoed each other's wishes.
"I want to see charges. I want to see him go to court. The courts can decide if he's guilty or not," Ila says. "I just want them to do something."
In a village like Ambler, where everyone knows everyone, people pass one another in town, all day, every day, it's painful to leave cases like this unresolved, for weeks, months, or the better part of a year, she says.
Ila remembers the day Isa's body was flown back from Anchorage, where she died in the hospital, never having regained consciousness.
"In a village, when someone is coming home for the last time, everybody goes up to the airport. On the way from the airport to my sister's house, they drove past Frank's house. Outside of his house in plain view was his snowmachine," Ila says. "And it wasn't covered up before they brought Isa home. We all went past it bringing her home."
Family and friends set up a memorial with flowers at the site on the winter trail between Shungnak and Ambler where a young woman died in a snowmachine crash earlier this year.