A ‘horrific day’ of violence at fish camp leads to 10 years in jail
By Megan Gannon
Last week, the Nome Court sentenced a Stebbins man to 10 years of incarceration related to a “parade of horrors” he committed against his family at a remote riverside fish camp near Stebbins two years ago.
Through witness testimony and harrowing audio of victims’ calls to law enforcement, the court heard what occurred on July 29, 2020, when John Aluska, 45, threatened the lives of his four children, poured gasoline over his then-pregnant wife and burned down a century-old cabin.
For Aluska’s four felony charges, he received a total sentence of 20 years with 10 years suspended, meaning he would only serve 10 years in jail with the other 10 years on probation.
On the conviction for attempted arson in the first degree, Superior Court Judge Romano DiBenedetto sentenced Aluska to 10 years, with five years suspended. Aluska received a sentence of five years, with five years suspended, for misconduct involving weapons in the second degree. He had two convictions of assault in the third degree for the acts committed against his wife and children. For both, Judge DiBenedetto sentenced him to 2.5 years each.
“I think a consecutive sentence on each count is necessary for the purposes of public safety,” Judge DiBenedetto said. In his decision, the judge cited Aluska’s previous assault convictions, the number of people put in danger by his actions and the prolonged nature of the attack.
“The full weight of my actions has been building since the time of my arrest,” Aluska, a former VPO, said in a statement he read to the court before his sentencing. “I don’t want to be the man I was when I was arrested.”
There is little clarity even today over what started the fight two years ago at Pikmitalik, a fish camp about 20 miles southwest of Stebbins, only accessible by boat or helicopter and far out of range of cell service. But a few days into the family’s camping trip, Aluska kicked his wife and children out of the cabin and told them to march back to Stebbins. They walked away with their possessions and after some time, Aluska caught up with them and told them to turn back around. He told his wife he would beat her and kill the children. At one point, after they had started walking back to camp, Aluska told his kids to stand in a line along the river and he pointed a rifle at them. He told his wife he would make her watch him shoot the children one by one.
“This is something those children will never forget,” said Ashly Crockett, assistant district attorney for Nome, during the Jun. 7 sentencing hearing, which stretched over four hours. “This is something that their father did to them that they are never going to completely move on from.”
Back at the camp, other adult family members intervened, trying to defuse the situation and calm Aluska down. But he continued yelling at his wife and hitting her. He told her to wreck their boat and break the motor. At one point, he held his youngest child, then five-years-old, over the river and threatened to throw him in the water if his wife didn’t comply with his orders to destroy the boat. Another man staying at the camp came to grab the child from Aluska. Aluska also fired a rifle near his wife and out of the door of the cabin. He later poured a gallon of gasoline on his wife and said he should just burn her. When she changed out of her gas-soaked shirt he ripped off her new shirt.
He poured gas all over the porch and set fire to the cabin, which had been used by several families for generations and at the time contained about 200 fish and 20 to 30 gallons of berries. A search and rescue crew noticed the smoke from Stebbins and responded to the scene in boats. Aluska was sober at the time of the attack, which lasted five to six hours.
When the state presented its case, Assistant DA Ashly Crockett brought to the witness stand Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Aileen Witrosky, who led the investigation. Sgt. Witrosky had interviewed victims and witnesses by phone the night of the attack before she could get to the area the next day around noon by charter. She showed the court rifles that had been admitted as evidence in the case; Aluska had broken their stocks from the barrels.
Both the defense and prosecution emphasized Aluska’s role as a VPO, or village peace officer, from July 2018 to May 2020. In the defense’s arguments, Aluska’s status as a VPO was a demonstration of his capability and his importance in the community. Some of Aluska’s family members also said in their victim impact statements that the job had put him under a lot of stress, which they suspected led to the attack, and noted that VPOs in Stebbins today don’t get any type of counseling. Meanwhile, the prosecution argued that Aluska’s position of power within his community made him more dangerous.
VPOs are hired by the city to enforce local ordinances and assist state troopers in gathering reports as well finding and interviewing people. On occasion, they can arrest people. They are different from VPSOs, or village public safety officers, who are hired by Native corporations, attend the Alaska State Trooper Academy and have the authority to conduct misdemeanor investigations.
Witrosky told the court that Aluska would not have been eligible to join other law enforcement agencies like the state troopers because of his prior convictions for domestic violence. A year before the incident at Pikmitalik, Aluska had been featured in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lawless” series by Kyle Hopkins in the Anchorage Daily News, which noted that all of Stebbins local law enforcement at the time of publication had previous domestic violence charges. In the series, Aluska is quoted as saying that he didn’t think his criminal record, or the fact that he was related to so many people in Stebbins, interfered with his work as a VPO.
The Aluska case was unusual for its long list of victims and witnesses; 18 other people were present at the Pikmitalik at the time of the attack. The case was also unusual in that many of the same people listed as victims spoke in favor of the defendant during the sentencing hearing. The court had heard some victims describe how scared they were in their tearful recorded interviews with Witrosky the night of the incident. Those same people, in their victim impact statements, then said that they had forgiven “Papa” and needed him home.
Public defender Michael Schwaiger, who was representing Aluska, said that an argument about COVID may have been the inciting incident from which this “parade of horrors” occurred. Some of the witnesses blamed the stress of Aluska’s role as VPO; others seemed to blame his wife, though they said she didn’t deserve what Aluska did. “He’s a good man, as long as he stays away from that lady,” one said.
Many emphasized Aluska’s role as a subsistence provider for his community, who was especially adept at hunting reindeer, and shared his harvests with elders and those in need, asking for nothing in return. “We have rare people like him,” one said. “Today our tradition is dying.” Some said he was needed to teach the next generation their way of life.
Schwaiger spoke of the pressure put on Aluska, who learned to hunt from his grandfather and was even excused from school as a child to be able to practice subsistence. Aluska turned down a scholarship that would have taken him to a college in Kansas to stay in Stebbins instead, the court heard.
“Being 17-years-old and having everybody look to you to be the person who’s gonna keep them well fed, doesn’t mean you’re in a position of power, it means you’re in a position of being needed,” Schwaiger said. “And that’s a lot of responsibility to put on a 17-year-old…. it’s not clear how much of a choice Mr. Aluska really had.” The defense also noted that the majority of Aluska’s previous charges had been before he was 35.
Aluska’s wife gave a victim impact statement, read aloud by Crockett during the hearing. She said that there had been violence in her marriage starting around 2004 or 2005, with assaults every couple years. She claimed that three years ago, Aluska pointed a rifle at her and put his hands around her neck. “I was never allowed to say what was going on between us,” she said. “He would say it could be worse. When he would assault me, he told me that even if he goes to jail, he’ll still [get] out and come find me and kill me. Because he would say these things to me, I would not contact law enforcement.” She said she was terrified that more violence would happen again.
“I hear and appreciate that a lot of members of the family today are wanting to forgive the defendant, that they’re wanting to find it in their heart to be able to move forward from this horrific day,” Crockett said in her closing remarks. She said Aluska “has come extraordinarily close to irreparable harm for all of these people.”
The state asked for a composite sentence of 25 years with 10 suspended, meaning 15 years to serve in jail, which was the maximum Aluska could have received under his plea agreement. The defense asked for a sentence of 10 years with five suspended, meaning five years to serve in jail.
Though Aluska had a previous record that included several assaults, most were misdemeanor convictions. His one previous felony conviction was over 10 years ago and thus for the purposes of the sentencing, Aluska was considered a first-time felony offender. During the plea agreement, Aluska had admitted to two aggravating factors—that the crime involved domestic violence, and that there were children present—which allowed the state to ask for a higher sentence than the typical range on each of Aluska’s counts.
To hand down a sentence that included more than 10 years of incarceration in total, the judge would have had to find Aluska a “worst offender,” which he declined to do. “I’ve been doing this a long time and unfortunately I’ve seen backgrounds much, much worse than yours,” Judge DiBenedetto told Aluska.
In his ruling, the judge emphasized the intent needed, and the “series of decisions” Aluska made, to commit each separate act. “I don’t know what to make of the facts of this case, or what exactly happened, but had everything succeeded as you had planned it to, you would have perpetrated assaults, burned down the cabin, your wife would have messed up the motorboat,” the judge said. “If those search and rescue guys didn’t come out, you would have left your family homeless and hungry for God knows how long in that area outside of Stebbins.”
He noted that Aluska wasn’t a young man, and that at 45 he had had many chances to rehabilitate. “I hope you can rehabilitate,” Judge DiBenedetto said. “I hope I never see you here again.”
Aluska said he planned to make full use of his time in incarceration; he had already completed several programs, including one to learn coping skills from trauma and substance abuse and another to practice anger management.
The court decided to leave the matter of restitution open for 90 days. Aluska had indicated his intent to pay that restitution, and his desire to help rebuild the camp himself.