The land surrounding McCarthy and Kennicott is severe and unforgiving.
Temperatures can fluctuate 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.
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 night."
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
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 Tuesday.
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 bodies.
"There was a lot of shooting that went on inside that house," said one state trooper in 1983. "There were a lot of bullets sprayed around."
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 land."
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.
This article originally appeared in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in the Spring of 1998 --R.S.