A Python on the Path: Another Anchorage Serial Killer
The boy's fit young body reminded Envy of his glory days in high school. The adulation of spectators, attention of the girls, the glory and promise of high school had led him nowhere. He snapped back to focus. He was a street predator living the life.
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Envy wandered the city. He traveled to areas where he thought he would find people living their private lives in public areas. In short, he wanted to walk amongst people he could easily look down upon. He was familiar with several areas that fit that bill. His city was banded with verdant parks, wild lands, and waterways. These green belts, crisscrossed by paved trails that provided hiking and biking access to every corner of the city, even up into the Chugach Mountain range.
Certain locations, particularly where paths, bus routes, and social services converged, were popular hangout spots for the homeless and teens alike. The general rule was the locations had to be far enough away from residences and businesses to limit constant calls to the police.
Envy would never admit it to himself, but these places attracted him for the same reason they attracted the other counter-culturists, young and old. Envy was in his forties now, which was not young, but he wanted to have a good time. Sometimes he kind of liked the people he met. Although he always looked down on them. They didn't have his gifts, his potential. He always felt sorry for the young ones. They hadn't yet learned that life was just gonna screw them over regardless of their potential. Sometimes he'd just walk up and join a group. They'd share their shit, maybe some beer. And it was a nice time. Other times he grew quickly annoyed by their stupidity. Their carefree attitudes chafed his nerves. That was the case on July 3rd, 2016, on the bike path down by Ship Creek.
There was this guy. He was the same age as Envy, maybe older. Homeless. Sometimes it's hard to tell. Homelessness is a hard life, and sometimes 30 looks 60. There was this young chick hanging out with him. She looked young, maybe 20. Envy thought, 'what the fuck is she doing with this loser?' He tried to talk to the girl thinking, 'well if she likes this homeless dude, why not?' But something's wrong with the young chick. 'She's a box of rocks,' and the homeless guy was pissed. 'Fuck him,' Envy thought. The girl must just like homeless guy for his dope. 'Fuck her too.' Envy stared at them. And he made a decision. Envy's hand was in his jacket pocket, firmly wrapped around the grip of his Colt Python.
The 357 Magnum spoke to him about power. Envy chuckled to himself, imagining what was about to happen. His thoughts were so vivid they felt like a premonition, and the premonition was prophecy. A divine message of who he could be. The two subjects before Envy. Well, they weren't smart enough to know his plan.
Envy smiled as he slowly pulled the pistol out of his pocket and into view. The girl glanced over first, blowing out a surprised breath, and then smiled in disbelief. She thought it was a joke. Or did she think Envy was a joke? Homeless dude sitting facing the chick cued on the girl's reaction and looked at Envy. Homeless didn't take the Magnum as a joke. He had long experience with the insane cruelty of the street. Death often appeared suddenly and unexpectedly. Envy saw that recognition in Homeless's eyes. Envy only paused long enough for homeless to shift as he lifted his palm and yelled, "Hey, wait!" The first blast overwhelmed the next words. Five quick but efficient shots followed. Homeless and the Chick, even as bullets tore through them, tried to flee, but bullet-shocked flesh was unable to comply with the brain's desperate orders. Both flopped to the ground; the chick ineffectually trying to crawl away while Homeless chuffed his last blood-spattered breaths.
Envy nervously glanced around. After all, they were on the side of a trail, and all the shots still ringing in his ears were much louder than he had imagined. But he sensed no one around. He took the time to watch his kills until even the tiniest shutters stopped. Even then, the hearts moved blood out in a slow trickle. Their crimson streams met. When the surface tension broke, mingled, the two sources became one and then slowly grew larger with time. Envy watched, fascinated. The two on the ground below him had each existed for years, breathing constantly, their hearts beating for decades in a seemingly endless tempo until he decided otherwise. In a life full of disappointments, Envy had finally found something that lived up to his expectations. As Clint Eastwood said in that movie, " it's a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have." envy, rolling the 357 side to side admiring its form, imagined himself as Dirty Hairy. The warm adrenal afterglow felt like power surging through his body.
In the month after his Ship Creek kill, Envy had spent his free time, which was almost unlimited, wandering along the trails and into the back eddies of his city. These were the places where garbage was deposited, just like in a river or stream. The people he met there were the homeless, the drunks, and the kids who were going nowhere fast.
He spent time reflecting on the Ship Creek kill. The man, scum, probably living in a tent, scraping together what he could for that day's high. The girl, even lower, dumb as shit and willing to debase herself to catch crumbs the dude was willing to sprinkle on her as she'd groveled dirty need in front of him.
Anyway, he was proud of himself for taking the initiative to rid his city of those two. Earlier that day, July 28, had been a good one. Envy had spent much of it with a group he'd stumbled across in the woods on the east side. They seemed happy to share with him and not demand anything in return. Some camps were like that. You could wander in quietly, observe without obligation and then wander away.
Although it had been a month, and Envy had the itch to kill, there hadn't been an opportunity. He appreciated, even cultivated random pattern in his life, having confidence. It would keep the police from identifying him. His selection of targets was based on fate, which he understood to be the final arrangement of reality from infinite variability. But sometimes, it just boiled down to whether he liked someone or if there were too many witnesses, or, more importantly, if somebody pissed him off. Envy knew that he would mow down a crowd to get to the right shithead. But today, he was magnanimous, allowing the people he passed to live another day.
So it was that Envy wandered away from that group early in the morning of July 29th. That time of year, middle of the night, meant it was only dusky for a few hours. Envy was restless. If he wasn't gonna make his next kill here, he decided to move back to the west side.
He had a couple of places in mind and headed out of the woods into the adjacent neighborhood. Envy surveyed the houses for a car or a bicycle to steal. It was 3:00 AM. Aside from the television lights flickering against the curtains here and there, he saw no activity.
Then he sensed movement down the street, way off to the west. There was somebody on a bicycle peddling toward him. Envy thought, "what kind of low-life fucker is out here, riding a bike at this time of night?" He stepped off the road into concealment, behind a clump of unkept landscaping.
As the bicycle progressed, Envy saw that the rider was a skinny black man or maybe a kid. As the bike proceeded, Envy decided he must be about high school age. "What could he be doing out here at this hour? Couldn't be anything good." He thought, "dope delivery?" As the rider approached, Envy stepped confidently from cover and walked along the street.
The boy didn't sense the intercept course until it was too late. Envy raised his pistol at the last moment, fired, and continued firing, tracking the boy as he tried to veer away. The rider fell and skidded, crashed down hard against the pavement. It looked like a mass of arms and legs tangled with the bicycle in a heap at the edge of the street. Envy didn't miss a step striding up to the graceless heap; he took a moment to survey and savor the new kill. The boy's fit young body reminded Envy of his glory days in high school. The adulation of spectators, attention of the girls, the glory and promise of high school had led him nowhere.
He snapped back to focus. He was a street predator living the life. There was no apparent dope stash, but the bike was nice. He wondered whom the kid had stolen it from. Envy reasoned, you can't re-steal a stolen bike, so he yanked it away from the dying boy, mounted it, and rode away.
Envy had a choice to make after last month's kill. He'd been surprised by the publicity on the kid in Muldoon. Something about the boy made him think about his high school days. A week later, he found out why. He read in the paper that the boy was the son of his high school friend, Bobby Thompson. Envy's best friend in high school was Bobby's brother Quincy, who had been murdered the summer after graduation. Envy killed the nephew of his best friend. He rolled that around in his mind for a few days before deciding it was all just part of the game. There was nothing he could do about it now. Besides, it wasn't like Bobby, a well-known player, had ever reached out and offered him any of his action. A few days later, he began to feel good that it had been Bobby's son. The cops probably just assumed the kid was blowback on the family. Retribution from something Bobby had done. With this in his mind, Envy's judgment was that no course correction was necessary.
As his self-imposed month, long waiting period ended. He felt that heat and fear on the trails were going down. It was a big year for murder in his city, and Envy was doing his part. But he didn't wanna make a mistake. Didn't wanna find himself behind bars. Fuck that. He'd die before he ever went back to prison. Envy used the intervening month the same way he had before and after the prior kills, finding his next spot. He had some selected, but everything depended on fate.
On August 28th, Envy's timer clicked, and it was hunting season again. At night he began walking, finding himself along Chester Creek trail. He passed the Anchorage Sports Complex and, finding no one there; he proceeded west. As Envy walked the tunnels under A and then C streets, he was almost giddy with excitement. Who would fate present as the next sacrifice? But neither tunnel nor block between was occupied at this late hour. Nor did he see anybody along the creek at the edge of the woods as he moved toward the wooded parkland.
Valley of the Moon Park was sandwiched in a steep-sided valley through which one of the city salmon streams, Chester Creek, ran. The valley separated downtown to the north from Midtown to the south. There were houses along the sides of the valley, but dense woods gave the area a feeling of isolation, an island of wilderness in the middle of urban sprawl. The Eastern half of the park along C street was also densely wooded. While the west side was well used, nicely manicured city park. Envy knew that during the day, the park, with its massive spaceship, jungle gym, and gazebos, was popular with families and children. Many Anchorage kids had celebrated summer birthdays there.
Valley the Moon Park at night was another story. Neighborhood teenagers and the homeless emerged from their homes and hovels and engaged the park facilities for their own more adult recreation. Envy knew this mix of inhabitants sometimes precipitated violence.
He'd noted over the years that fights, stabbings, and even gang rapes had gone down in this beloved yet tarnished heart of the city. As a setting for a kill, it was perfect. It wasn't until he came to the cleared parkland that he saw someone, a man sitting alone under the gazebo closest to the creek. Envy was disappointed that the man was alone, but his eagerness overcame indecision. Envy watched the man who seemed to be talking to himself, almost arguing with himself.
Envy walked closer, his hand gripping the 357 Magnum tightly. Senses, fully alert, and scanning for anyone else in the open area. Sensing no one, Envy closed the distance. The target heard and sensed movement coming from behind and to the right. The man remained seated but turned on the bench and leaned towards Envy, who imagined the target was squinting, trying to resolve this figure through the darkness. The target said something angry and incoherent. Envy thought, "not just drunk. He's crazy too."
Crazy or not, the target's tone was not acceptable. Envy wasn't gonna let anyone, especially this crazy drunk piece of shit, talk to him like that. Envy pulled the pistol, extended it, and gave the target the answer to the question, 'who was standing in the darkness of the Valley of the Moon Park?' It was death. Death has come for you.
After firing several shots into the man under the gazebo, Envy got up close to admire his skill with the pistol. When the first bullet hit, the man had stood bolt upright as if preparing a flee, but the successive barrage brought him crashing forward across the picnic table.
He wasn't quite dead, but it was clear he was headed there. Envy was quiet, respectful, listening for the man's valediction, but all he heard was a whimper and a wheeze. And then nothing.
Envy stood and surfed the now familiar adrenaline surge, savoring that same invincibility that came with the prior kills. Then he sensed movement. Still a good distance away, but definitely coming towards him. Envy prepared his weapon in anticipation of fate's new gift.
There were sporadic lights along the trail. When movement flashed beneath one of the distant lights, Envy saw a single man in dark clothing, riding a 10-speed. The path he was following would bring him close. It was only 30 feet between the Creek and the gazebo, and the path ran between the two.
Envy, in dark clothing of his own, moved to weight in the dim periphery of one of the light cones. As the man pedaled close, Envy could see that he was a young white guy. At least the media will see he was an equal opportunity executioner. This time, the sacrifice never saw fate coming. The shots were on point, and the sacrifice skidded to the ground, piling up an Envy's feet as if it was fate's offering to him. The thrill of the kill, the new supplicant in the throws of death beneath his feet, all of Envy's feelings of inadequacy were washed away. The world had screwed Envy over, but he had found the courage to fight back. As Envy walked out of the Valley of the Moon Park, he knew that fate owed him more payback.
It was mid-November no kills since Valley of the Moon Park. The problem was the damn cops. They brought intense heat onto his hunting grounds, and he had a couple of close calls. In the media, there was a lot of focus on the number of shootings in the parks, and he couldn't get credit for them all. It was a record-killing year in his city. Apparently, it wasn't just Envy who was tired of the bullshit.
So being smart, he'd been disciplined and played the long game. He finally found his calling like that Def leopard song, Hey! He had something to say! But he wasn't gonna burn out or fade away! This shitty world and the fucking people in it were gonna fear him for a long time to come.
Such was Envy's outlook as he roamed the city through the months of September and October. He'd been cautious. But mid-November, it was green light time again, so carrying his Magnum, he ventured out to pay society back for fucking his life over.
He went downtown, arriving in time for bar break chaos. It was Saturday morning, and the debris and detritus that stumbled out of the bars and staggered through the streets would make perfect targets and horrible witnesses. Envy walked alone, face covered, everything cinched up for the cold and for anonymity. He heard a car slow rolling behind him, its tire studs clicking on black ice. He didn't turn to look. If it was a cop, he'd let him pass by, like they had countless times in recent months. But this car wasn't passing. Envy picked up the pace slightly, gripping the Magnum in his coat pocket. He had time to consider. If it's a cop, should he run? No death is stoic. Death doesn't run. If it's a cop, they represented society that had fucked him over. He wasn't going to be doing the running. He was gonna be doing the killing. He damn sure wasn't gonna go back to prison. Fate would roll in his favor. Right about then, Envy heard the squad car's public address speaker crackle to life, " sir, please stop."
Envy felt the beloved jolt of adrenaline, but it was soured this time with fear. He thought, "the fucking cops have ruined my life. Now I'm gonna ruin theirs." The PA system barked again with the same request. Envy hadn't broken stride or looked back as he traversed two city blocks with the cop in tow. The only thing that changed was the pace of his respirations, vying to keep up with the beat of his heart. Envy had once read that the Army taught its infantry troops that the only thing to do when ambushed was to ferociously attack the threat. That was his plan as he spun suddenly 180 degrees to confront the officer. To Envy's surprise, there was not one set of headlights behind him but two. It was the moment of truth, and Envy put his trust in fate.
Ship Creek Investigation
Two people shot dead, laying near each other on the ground, positioned like maybe they tried to get away. Homeless party spot off the bike trail, along a salmon stream, running through the middle of an industrial area. No known witnesses. A few hours old. Reported by a lady out for her Sunday morning bike ride.
The crime was brutal both from the standpoint of what had been done to the victims and from the perspective of the case detective's assessment of solvability. The victims, a 41-year-old man, and a 20-year-old woman, each sustained several gunshots. They were laid out at what looked like a party spot, a little off ship Creek bike trail. The area was strewn with debris common to this type of area, making it difficult to figure out what was trash and what, if anything, was related to the shooting. The detectives had seen this before. These scenes never made the case. There were no fingerprints, no footprints, and no weapons. There weren’t even any shell casings, which meant one of two things, a revolver or a shooter who kept his head after killing two people. Not good. The detective knew it would come down to the interviews. Maybe the scuttlebutt around Brother Francis shelter, which was only a couple blocks to the south. If they were lucky, they could track down a gun, and the ballistics would match. In any event, this case wasn't starting off well.
Most homicides have a context, a frame of reference from which to start. This one was way too ambiguous for investigators to be optimistic. Later, after the detailed processing, members of the police search team would use metal detectors to comb a patch of woods between the trail and the Creek. Then the Anchorage Fire Department would come and do what they referred to as a washdown of the scene, erasing the biological fact of what had happened the morning before.
Over the following days, a canvas came back without result. There were rumors, as there always were, but those were so far-fetched and without a source to be immediately dismissed. Some of the businesses produced grainy surveillance videos of figures in the surrounding blocks that were suspicious only because the timing coincided with the best guests on the shooting. The problem was there were always people wandering around the blocks around the shelter.
The victimology wasn't much help either. Jason Netter, 41, was a long-term homeless man. He hustled low-end drugs and stolen property to pay for a meager habit. He'd been in and out of jail for minor offenses for years. In fact, he'd just been released from a two-month stretch, two days before his murder. 20-year-old Brianna Foisy was a sad case. She had an intellectual disability from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. She had been homeless, staying where she could, and based on interviews; it seemed like Brianna was hanging out with Jason Netter because he took care of her in some fashion, whether it be his shelter or the drugs.
Detectives arrived at the scene of a shooting in the Muldoon area of Anchorage in the early morning hours of Friday, July 29th, 2016. A young man lying dead in the street. The area is an older residential neighborhood, tightly packed with duplexes and single-family buildings on small lots. The victim was identified by family members as 21-year-old Treavyonkindle Bobby Dwayne Thompson, known widely simply as Trey.
The investigation confirmed what the witnesses were saying. Trey had just finished a shift at work and was at the end of the ride home when he was killed. The man who shot him stole his bike and rode it away. The victim background on Trey Thompson, was unremarkable to police. He was largely unknown to the investigators, but his father's name caught their attention. The victim's father, Bobby Thompson, was widely acknowledged even by himself to be a violent career gangster criminal. Bobby started his first decade in the federal prison, just as his son Trey was born. And it would turn out to be his second decade in the federal pen had started just before Trey had died. With Trey's pedigree in mind, detectives had to examine the possibility that Bobby's son was either following on dad's path or that his dad's life had taken its karma out on the boy.
When investigators started their victimology, they were saddened to learn that Trey was not living the life patterned after his father. Quite the opposite. Trey appeared to be a hardworking, smart, responsible guy. As far as the other theory that Trey had been the victim of payback against his father, the detectives could find no evidence.
Witnesses near the shooting scene told police they saw a man walking around in the woods east of the houses earlier that night. After hearing gunshots around 3:00 AM, they said the same man was pulling Trey's bike from where he lay dying on the street and then using it to flee the scene. The witnesses were able to contribute to a composite sketch of the shooter, but no one in Thompson's family or in the neighborhood recognized the man in the picture.
Investigators knew the end of Dubin street, west of Bolan, was a trailhead for unauthorized paths through the woods that led to illegal camping areas on the edge of military land. In the days following Trey Thompson's murder, the Alaska State Crime Lab matched bullets from the Ship Creek double homicide to Trey Thompson's murder. It was the same cult Python, 357. The investigators decided to withhold this information from the public.
Another insight from the Muldoon canvas was that the shooter had been captured on a neighbor's video surveillance system. The images were not clear. It was a wide shot from the eaves of the house, but using comparison with other known items in the frame, the suspect's height could be accurately estimated. Investigators still didn't know who he was, but they could say with confidence it was a white guy around six foot four.
Valley of the Moon
Valley of the Moon.
On Sunday, August 28th, 2016, just before 2:00 AM, Anchorage police were called to Valley of the Moon Park for a man who was found dead on the bike trail that runs parallel to Chester Creek. When the officers arrived, they saw a young white male lying dead on the trail with a blue bicycle nearby. From obvious injuries and body position, it appeared that the man had been shot while riding and collapsed. Almost immediately, officers realized that there was a man in the nearby gazebo who had also been shot and killed. Ever since the Ship Creek and Muldoon murders were linked, investigators were watching, waiting for exactly what they were seeing in this case. Persons shot to death without context. For example, no precipitating fight and no witnesses. And despite multiple shots being fired, no shell casings were evident. As with the Ship Creek case, the APD search team combed the area with metal detectors and found no spent brass or anything else of interest.
Part of any good murder investigation is victimology. This study is particularly important in unknown suspect crimes because who the victim was, and who they associated with is often the path to finding who was most likely to have killed them.
The victim under the gazebo was identified as Kevin Turner, 34. At the time he was murdered, Kevin was living on the street. Like many homeless people, he suffered from mental illness, specifically schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although Kevin had documented conflict with people due to his mental illness, detectives were unable to link him with any viable suspects.
Investigators were unable to find a link between Kevin Turner and the second victim, Brie de Husson, 25. De Husson was a community social and environmental activist. According to relatives, he regularly traveled around the city on his bicycle via the trail system. Their best guess was that Bree was riding to see one of his several friends in the area. Investigators looking at the scene and the circumstances agreed that De Husson was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That also meant, apart from the scan crime scene evidence, De Husson would not be providing a workable link to the shooter.
The bullets recovered from the scene and from the bodies at autopsy were submitted to the Alaska State Crime Lab for ballistics comparison. And as the investigators suspected, the markings matched those fired in the Ship Creek and Muldoon murders. That made a total of five known dead in three incidents. It was confirmation that Anchorage had a new serial killer.
In police detective parlance, 2016 was the year the Anchorage homicide unit got slammed. The Valley of the Moon double homicides were the 24th and 25th murders of the year. The all-time annual high for the city was 29 killings, and there was still a lot of year left in 2016. 8 of the murders so far that year had been double homicides. With an arrest in only one of those cases to date. APD homicide detectives generally average a solve rate greater than 80%, which is significantly higher than the rate for the rest of the state. In 2016, at the time of the Valley of the Moon shootings, their clearance rate for the year was well below their average.
And with each successive killing, public outcry grew louder. The investigators were releasing limited information on many of the cases. With the string of shootings that were linked to the Colt Python, the police had not disclosed any relationship. The closest they came was a general warning to the public to be cautious using the city's trail system and avoid using them at night due to recent violence.
Privately, the police department cobbled together units and law enforcement partners to form a shooter task force. This began a massive effort to sort and investigate the flood of incoming tips while simultaneously combing the city's homeless camps and party spots in an effort to identify a suspect or witnesses.
On November 12th, 2016, APD officer Arn Salao was working a midnight shift in the downtown area. He was dispatched to a cab defraud, meaning that a customer of a cab had taken a ride and, once at the destination, had fled without payment. Officer Salao arrived in the general area and saw a man walking on the south sidewalk of 5th Avenue near Cordova Street. The man was the only one in sight. They were still a few blocks east of the busier bar break areas, so the man was a possible suspect or witness to the cab defraud. Officer Salao called in his observations to APD dispatch as he followed the man at a distance. The man never turned to look back, even when Officer Salao called out on his cruiser's public address system, asking the man to stop. Salao intended to press the issue, so he moved in closer to contact the man. Suddenly, the subject turned 180 degrees, simultaneously drawing a pistol and taking several strides toward the police car. The subject began firing into the car.
Despite being shot several times, Officer Salao engaged in a fight at the door of his car. Having heard Officer Salao's call and updates, Sergeant Mark Patzke was in the area and headed to back Officer Salao up. Sergeant Patsy arrived in time to see the suspect turn and approach Salao's car as he pulled a gun. Patzke exited his vehicle and immediately fired on the suspect. In the barrage of return gunfire, the suspect collapsed to the sidewalk. Dead. In the exchange, Officer Salao was shot four times in the abdomen. He was taken to the hospital, where he underwent a series of life-saving surgeries.
Almost immediately after Officer Salao left the shooting scene, one of the officers placed the gun. Recognition of the gun led to the next realization. For weeks, police officers had been on the lookout for a Colt Python and a white guy, estimated to be around six-four. The Colt Python was laying on the ground next to a guy, and he sure looked well over six feet. Bingo.
The shooting scene was treated like all over the major crime scenes and was cordoned off for meticulous processing of documenting items and their precise locations. The gun was taken to the state of Alaska Crime Lab, where the request for ballistics comparison was completed without delay. The Colt Python was determined to be a match in all five murders and the officer-involved shooting. The man that attacked Officer Salao was taken to the Alaska State Crime Lab and autopsied. He was identified as James Dale Ritchie, a 40-year-old white male. At six, four, he matched the height estimate of the Muldoon shooting suspect.
Investigators began to look at who Ritchie was for two reasons. First, they needed to be satisfied he was the one and only shooter. Second, everyone, victims families, officers, and the community as a whole needed to know why, if why, was knowable. Ritchie was born November 4th, 1976, in Anchorage, Alaska. He grew up with his parents and two sisters living in the Wonder Park area, which is a north central neighborhood in the city. Ritchie distinguished himself as an intelligent boy if was somewhat an underachiever in academics.
People who knew Ritchie in high school characterized him as a happy and super smart person. His SAT scores were well above average. One of his neighbors said he was knowledgeable about computers and willing to lend a hand. He went to East High School and excelled at sports, playing key positions in the 1994 state basketball and football championships.
He rubbed elbows with his teammates who later went onto the pros, like Mao Tosi, who did four years for the NFL, and Trajan Langdon, who played for the NBA. Ritchie himself was recruited for college football by division two schools. Ritchie eschewed the smaller school opportunity, deciding instead to try to walk on as a football player at West Virginia. He told people he'd be studying chemical engineering.
Before he left town, Ritchie's best friend Quincy Thompson was shot and killed. People who were close to Ritchie said he took Quincy's death hard. Ritchie's transition to college life did not go as planned. He did not make the football team, and he dropped out of his courses after the first semester. Instead, he returned to Anchorage and became a drug dealer.
Between 1994 and 1998, Ritchie was involved in serious criminal activity related to narcotics. He was shot. He was looped into a home invasion robbery of rival drug dealers. During that crime, Ritchie left a fingerprint on duct tape used to secure a woman who wasn't even involved. She was the mother of one of his targets. That investigation led to a raid on Ritchie's apartment, where he tried to pull a gun on police. In the search, the investigators netted saleable amounts of crack, cash, and ammunition. This first case netted Ritchie almost no jail time, but he took his first felony conviction and probation time. At sentencing, he wrote of remorse, telling the judge that he "lay in bed every night thinking about how I ruined my life. I sit up crying, wishing I could go back to when I was in high school." Ritchie also wrote that he would've "chosen a small division two school to go play football at instead of a division one college" For his future plans, he wrote, "I wanna finish college, raise a family and buy a house. Instead, as a felon, I'll never be able to get a good job." The words of contrition didn't translate into acts. Between 1998 and 2007, Ritchie entered into a cycle of arrests for new street crimes or violations of conditions of probation and parole and was in and out of state custody. The longest term was a two-year stretch where he was arrested for first-degree burglary during an east Anchorage break-in. Ominously, officers caught him carrying several sets of flex cuff restraints, and he had dumped two guns in the residence.
After the prison time, Ritchie followed his parents, who were living in Virginia. He lived in Broadway, Virginia, with them until February 2016, at which time he moved back to Anchorage.
Within a week of the downtown shootout, homicide investigators and APD brass called families of victims together for a meeting, where they laid out a complete case synopsis. Following the family meeting was a scheduled press briefing where, for the first time, it was revealed that officers had known they were looking for one suspect in the Ship Creek, Muldoon, and Valley of the Moon killings. They confirmed that the follow-up investigation led them to the conclusion that the suspect was the same man, Ritchie, that was responsible for the attack on Officer Salao.
Marcy: Mark, the media dubbed Ritchie the midnight sun killer. Why did they choose that?
Mark: Well, they also tried on the Anchorage serial killer, but considering the number of those we had in recent years. Yeah. It didn't work. I'll put a plug in here. I've been saving some of those for later episodes. Anyway, Anchorage has had more than its fair share of serial killers. So it went to midnight sun because he killed in the early morning hours where people were presumably more active in the summer, and that's why they're out on the paths because of the extra sunlight. But lemme tell you, the killings and activity and the Anchorage bike trails had very little to do with the amount of sun or the season. The timing on these crimes has more to do with the patterns of the homeless community than the midnight sun.
Marcy:Why do you call him Envy?
Mark: If you listen to the other episodes, in some of the cases, I'm writing a narrative where I have partially dramatized the story. Obviously, there are incidents where no one knows exactly what was said because only the suspect has lived to tell the tale, and his account should be highly suspect when it isn't backed by solid evidence. So, where evidence and statements are light on details, what we have is the ability to see current motivations and past statements and actions. That's how I formed the narrative.
Marcy: How did that go with Ritchie?
Mark: In my reading of Ritchie, I see a man with great potential in high school - star athlete in a group of star athletes. Classmates called him a brain. He had very high test scores. His peers thought of him as a total package. But here's a guy like so many who are labeled the total package that has a fatal flaw. He leaves high school and thinks he doesn't have to work at it. Or he doesn't actually really have the skills people give him credit for. You know, he passes on reasonable opportunities and almost immediately fails disastrously. Most people, especially young people who suffer setbacks like that, maybe they take some time to recover, but recover they do. Well, Ritchie didn't. So after failing to get on the West Virginia football team and quitting after the first semester of college, he went home, and he lived with his parents. He worked himself into some serious street crimes. But most importantly, he became angry that all of his potential didn't pay off.
In this respect, I looked at him like the Son of Sam killer. Here's a guy with a high IQ but doesn't have anything going for him. No good jobs. Girls won't touch him with a 10-foot pole because, well, he's angry and weird, and as nothing going on. And as the years go by, it just gets sadder and sadder, and he gets madder and madder.
Does he get even with the people who control society, the pillars of our community? No. He lashes out at the poor ordinary people. He is around every day, and he does it for petty personal reasons. I call him Envy because he killed five people in an extended infantile tantrum because he didn't get what he wanted from life.
Marcy: Related to the narrative issue, we often discuss if I think that you've gone too far with that assessment of the suspect. How do you feel about it with Ritchie?
Mark: We've talked about some of the things I write. Discussed whether I've gone too far with what is available. Some things I have pulled back on. I've got a good example of how that works and the kind of thing that has allowed me to make judgments on Ritchie and other suspects. Within a week of Muldoon, Ritchie knew he had killed his high school best friend's nephew. Ritchie spent a lot of time with the Thompson family in high school, so much so that Bobby Thompson's mother used to call Ritchie her other son. When Ritchie found out about this connection, I have no doubt that he knew about the connection because there was a lot of media on it, and people like him are going to look at that media and see what the police might know and see what the coverage was like. So, when he knew, when he finds out his best friend's nephew that he killed, was he filled with regret and remorse? Did he worry about inadvertently shooting a person who might matter to him? No. The next people he killed were also unknown quantities, particularly Brei De Houston in the Valley of the Moon Park.
Marcy: Do you think that Ritchie's best friend being murdered had anything to do with his subsequent problems?
Mark: Who knows? But I tend to think not. For the majority of people, the effect of something like that would be to motivate them to escape street crime life. For Ritchie, it did the opposite. He got further in. I mentioned the home invasion where he taped up a rival dope dealer's mother. Well, that shows he was in very deep. That particular crime is reserved for some of the worst criminals operating in a city. It's one step away from kidnap-ransoms like they have regularly in Mexico. Those types of crimes can easily spiral into homicides or retribution shootings.
Marcy: What factors made this a particularly difficult set of cases to solve?
Mark: First, you lack context. In a lot of murders, you have witnesses who can tell you exactly who did it or exactly who's likely to have done it. The more tenuous the link between suspect and victim, the more difficult the crime can be to solve.
That's why the drug-related murders in cities like LA in the mid-nineties, where the people shooting and the people getting shot, had no connection to one another. Those clearances were in the mid to low teens, and that's why. You have no connections.
In some of the media accounts, Ritchie's crimes were portrayed as if he was killing hikers. This is a misconception. The two killed on Ship Creek were, at the time they were murdered, very close to where Jason Netter spent his winters living out of his shipping container. Trey Thompson's home was, unfortunately, just down the street from a homeless camp trailhead. Kevin Turner was homeless and probably hanging out in the gazebo at Valley of the Moon park because he had a tent in the woods just to the east. There's a general problem solving crimes amid the homeless population for several reasons. Some of them lack phones to call for help. There's also a traditional distrust of authority. So, witnesses may not be forthcoming with information. The other thing is on some of these scenes or people staying in the woods close to where a crime has occurred, a large number of those people are gonna be drunk or high or have mental health issues, which makes their accounts problematic.
In addition to the problems, I just talked about, in 2016, there was a huge spike in homicides across the city. In fact, early in the year, January 28th, there was a double murder of Selena Molinax, who was 19, and Ownie Morrisette, who was 20. Their bodies were found also off of a city trail, a place called Point Worenzoff, and those murders were completely unrelated to Ritchie's victims.
Marcy: To expand on that misconception about hikers and the types of trails. Anchorage has hundreds of miles of trails, but they're paved multi-use trails that are very popular, sort of urban setting kinds of things. There is a lot of use during the day with biking and walking and running and things, but it's not hiking trails like hiking, a dirt path up to a mountain top, or something like that. It's a pretty urban use.
Mark: Yeah. In fact, De Husson, that's what his family said he was doing, is basically moving between his house and his friend's house. A lot of people, if they live in Midtown and work downtown, they take a bike. You can get up into really rugged mountain terrain via the trail system, but you have to work to get up there
Marcy: You mentioned it earlier in this story that, during the day, they're used by families by, like you said, professionals. Kids have ridden their bikes on the trails. We use them to get to parks and to the beach and things like that.
Mark: We had our own favorite city park that's kind of in that area, but we never went to Valley of the Moon much because I worked in Spenard, and I knew some of the things that were going on there.
Marcy: Some of the things you wrote about were based on your knowledge of the locations and the homeless culture in Anchorage.
Mark: For a time, I was coordinating response to problems in homeless camps and with the homeless population and working programs in, around them. Also, just as a general police officer, you have a lot of contact in the camps. That familiarity with the locations and how people were living day to day gave me a lot of insight. I know that to kill the people he did when he did, where he did, Ritchie had to be involved with that community. That doesn't mean he was living on the street. I don't really actually know where he, I think he was flopping a lot of different places, but he was close, familiar with those hangouts. You don't get to where he got at the times he got there without scouting and spending a lot of time walking around on those trails.
Marcy: Can you talk about the composite sketch? In this case, it seems like it was amazingly close, but even the people that knew him didn't recognize him in the sketch.
Mark: I agree. Sometimes sketches are better off to check, you know, to exclude possible suspects if you have a solid lead. The problem with composites is that they can look like a lot of people. In this case, at the time of the composite Ritchie hadn't come up yet as a strong suspect. If he had, the sketch would've definitely given him added attention. What makes this composite a winner are certain features. If you look at his picture, the eyebrows are distinct, and they are right on. The lips and high hairline are also, are right.
Marcy: We'll add the video link and the composite sketch to the show notes so you can take a look. How do you get composites done?
Mark: Well, this particular one was credited to the FBI, which to me is unusual. Usually, we would do that. I don't know if they had a special source or background to work that, but at APD, the detective units have access to computer programs. The way that happens is you just sit a victim or a witness down, and you run through the program, which presents facial feature options, and they select which one's closest. You do that until the person that is your witness is satisfied that that's as close as they can get to the person they saw. Some detectives are more knowledgeable or better at this than others. So generally, in a given unit, you'd have a detective who would be the person to go to. You'd schedule with them, and they would work that program. There's several of these programs. Some of the ones that come to mind are Identi-kit, Faces, Portrait Pad, there's several others, but those are probably the most popular.
Marcy: With no shell casings, how did they know the bullets were fired from a Colt Python?
Mark: There are criminalists whose specialty is examination and comparison of firearms, bullets, casings, and everything pertaining to firearms. In this case, the pistol was a revolver, so it wasn't ejecting casings that could be matched. All they had were the fired bullets. Either those came from the scene. Sometimes you get a bullet stuck in wood or a bullet you have to dig out the ground. The experts can tell that marks on a bullet were fired from a certain type of barrel because they get what's called lands and grooves - striations on the exterior part of the bullet. Some of those with different weapons are the same. They have the same twist rate and everything. They're difficult to tell apart, but the Colt Python, luckily, had a distinct pattern; it was traced specifically. They knew right away, looking at the pattern. They have a log of what the cold Python patterns would be like, based on the twists and the measurements of those lands and grooves. And they knew right away it was a Colt Python. and for that reason, they could match the individual bullets together, as they were all fired from a Colt Python.
Marcy: So when they saw that Colt Python laying on 5th Avenue after Salao was attacked, do you think they connected that to the other shootings right away?
Mark: Yeah, the Colt Python's distinct. It's no longer production. It's considered a collector's piece; I think it's partly because the Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood guns. This would be an unusual gun to encounter on the street. It's pretty valuable now; I think they're running 1500 bucks a piece. Whereas a lot of your average pistols are five, 600 bucks and some of the ones that you run on the street are significantly less. If you ran into that as a patrol officer, you'd be thinking, Hmm. I wonder if this was stolen from a burglary, or did somebody borrow it from daddy's collection or something like that.
But to answer your question, a few months after I retired, I happened to be speaking with an officer colleague of mine, and he's telling me what I was missing at APD. And I was flipping shim hit about how the city had gone a hell in my absence. The last record homicide year happened the year I got hired. 2016, the year following my retirement, was looking like it was gonna be break that record. That's when he told me, in confidence, they were looking for a serial killer carrying this distinctive gun. I have no doubt they immediately recognized it as it lay there next to Ritchie.
Marcy: The decision to not give the public complete information about the linked murders turned out to be very controversial.
Mark: Yeah. That decision was all about not losing the ability to find that gun. The reasoning being, if they'd released the information, focusing on the Colt Python, the suspect would likely dispose of it, get rid of evidence.
One of the things about being in the detective unit, especially with a bigger case, is there's a lot of debate about decisions in the investigations. And it's healthy too because you don't work in a box, in the dark. You have a lot of opinions, and especially as a case officer, you get to make a decision what you think is best, along with the judgment of potentially very experienced investigators. The healthiest detective units have that kind of give and take where everybody's giving their opinion and not getting your feelings hurt if you don't have the best idea.
I can see why they made the decision they did. but I can also see, the other hand, releasing information would've immediately gotten attention that the Muldoon shooting alone didn't. Remember the sketch at that point up until the very end that sketch of that man was only linked to the Muldoon shooting. I think if they had released that that sketch was responsible for potentially five, it would've gotten a lot more attention and possibly, been able to get an ID.
And then, even if the suspect had dumped the gun, you could investigate the link to ownership of 357. Incidentally, when he left for West Virginia, Ritchie left that gun with a friend of his, and that friend kept it all the way up until 2016 when he gave it back to Ritchie. So, there were investigator routes to the gun, even if the gun had been dumped. On the other hand, they put out a warning of danger on the trails and roads late at night. Part of the calculation was probably that putting out too much information would jeopardize the investigation while doing no good. The trails in Anchorage are comfort zones for people. There's a ton of denial about personal safety. I would've had no confidence that people are gonna heed that warning. I hate to say this. There are parts of Anchorage that are dangerous, particularly at night, particularly for women, particularly for women who are alone. Keep in mind that's true of lots of places in our country, both urban and rural.
Marcy: The shooting involving Officer Salao was caught on video. Let's talk about that.
Mark: Yeah. We're gonna link to it. It's both his car video and the video of Sergeant Patzke's car. The video's chilling. I'm sure it's that way for everybody watching it, but I worked a lot in the downtown area. This happened the backside of the Office Depot building, just a few blocks down from our substation, where back in the day, I processed dozens of DUIs. It's just a block east of the FBI Anchorage building.
It's also chilling to me because a lot of police contacts are just like this. If you're an officer trying to stop someone to talk to them on the street and they're walking away, you're not gonna run down there. You're gonna call on your PA system, "hey sir; please stop, police." And you gauge their response. A lot of foot pursuits start from this situation. It's better to be in your car chasing, especially if the dude turns out to be a gazelle. Believe me; it’s easier to catch a gazelle if you followed him for five or 10 blocks before you exit your car.
I've been shot at, but not from close range. I've been attacked unexpectedly, thankfully not with a gun. This incident is the nightmare you hope never happens. The first time I watched the video, I started sweating. Part of it was a familiarity of setting and the time of day and activity. Having made many, many contacts in the middle of the night from my car, you never know how it's gonna go.
In this case, there were tell tales that it wasn't gonna be easy contact. It's unusual for somebody to be walking in front of you with you slow rolling behind in a police cruiser. Like I described, they can hear you back there. You can hear a car, even from a block behind you. It's November, so it's already kind of icy. It's cold. You've got the click click click of, studs on, asphalt. You're kind of holding back. You call out to dispatch, let him know where you are, the suspect description in case something goes bad. And it's unusual for a person to not even look back, right? You're at least gonna get a glance almost all the time. A lot of people will, especially if they're alone, will kind of turn and shrug and inquisitive look like, "you want to talk to me?"
And that's how it normally goes. Ritchie was doing what I call a blinders walk, telegraphing that, at the very least, he didn't want to contact with police, which isn't uncommon. But it's one of those subtle signals. People go to ludicrous lengths with the blinders walk. The problem is if you're a police officer who has to stop them as part of your duty, you don't know what their response is gonna be when you actually run up and make contact. Thankfully a sudden attack with a pistol is very rare.
The fact that Officer Salao didn't just roll up and jump out and engage probably saved his life. Because what happened is it allowed time for the cover officer who happened to be close to hear that the subject wasn't stoppin’. That tactical delay allowed the second officer to get there in time to shoot back.
When I was working on night shift, that's part of the mid-shift culture. The expectation for officers, if you're not tied up, and an officer's gonna make contact, you start rolling that way. Particularly if that contact doesn't seem quite right and you get to know the people you're working with so well, you can hear the inflection of concern in their voice. I can't tell you how many times I was headed to cover somebody, when it blew up into a big incident. or when my shit was weak, the cavalry, having heard the inflection in my voice, was already close. There is no better feeling when you're in a fight with a suspect; maybe you're on the ground in the dark on the side of the road than hearing your cover car go 10-7, meaning help has arrived. You know, just talking about that makes me wanna go back.
Officer Salao was seriously hurt, but he eventually recovered and chose to continue his career as a police officer. He later made commercials for the blood bank. One of the things he credits for a survival is the blood transfusions he was able to receive immediately following the shooting. In the commercials, he thanked his donors and asked that people consider donation.
During my career, I had three friends that were murdered on duty. Additionally, two officers were shot and nearly killed on my shift while I was working as a supervisor. Both of those officers who nearly died battled back, just like Officer Salao, and returned to serve and protect their city. I couldn't have more respect for their courage. May God bless these men and women and keep them safe.
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Resources and Sources
Dashcam video: https://youtu.be/o46Oq08s8no
Cold Blooded Alaska Season 1, Episode 9: https://amzn.to/3CpPRWO
1998 Sentencing Hearing: https://soundcloud.com/kyle-hopkins-4/james-dale-ritchie-1998-court-appearance-and-testimony?utm_source=www.alaskasnewssource.com&utm_campaign=wtshare&utm_medium=widget&utm_content=https%253A%252F%252Fsoundcloud.com%252Fkyle-hopkins-4%252Fjames-dale-ritchie-1998-court-appearance-and-testimony
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