The latest Sealaska land conveyance bill had its first public showing in Congress on Thursday.
The public lands panel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard from two federal agencies about transferring 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska Corporation.
While the bill’s supporters are optimistic it will pass, there are still a couple of major hurdles.
Every regional corporation formed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is entitled to land. Sealaska is the lone corporation yet to finalize its land transfer.
The corporation is entitled to about seventy thousand more acres. Problem is, it’s been difficult finding agreement on where the remaining land should come from.
“Nearly every acre, I would venture that every acre of the 16.9 million acre Tongass, is precious to someone,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said.
She says there have been more than 175 revisions to the land transfer bill since it was first introduced more than five years ago. The bill would amendment ANCSA.
Murkowski, who spent part of her childhood in Ketchikan, calls this version the most fair to all involved.
Not everyone will be satisfied. Some environmental groups worry this legislation would set a precedent that would allow other Native corporations to choose new land.
Sealaska selected its acreage, but it wants to pick different sites with more valuable timber prospects. Officials also say they dropped some selections because they were too environmentally sensitive.
Jim Pena is the associate deputy chief of the National Forest System.
“We believe the circumstances around this bill are unique, and no such precedent would be created,” Pena said.
And as Pena said this, a satisfied Murkowski nodded in agreement.
“We went around and contacted all the Native corporation heads, gained assurance that they understood the unique situation that Sealaska faces, and that they do not consider this some kind of precedent,” Pena said.
So that issue should be cut and dry. But it’s not.
Sitting at the table next Pena was Jamie Connell, from the Bureau of Land Management. Both the BLM and Forest Service have stake in the Tongass.
“We can’t give an absolute on some of the issues that were brought up; an absolute that another corporation wouldn’t come in and ask for similar treatment,” Connell said.
Even though Connell hedges, BLM is closer to certainty than it’s been before.
There’s still one major issue though. What kind of trees Sealaska will be able to cut.
The Forest Service worries that the land conveyance will affect the transition from old-growth harvest to new growth.
Murkowski styles the transition as a lifeline to the struggling timber industry.
“These existing timber businesses need some time. They need sufficient timber. And they need economic certainty in order to survive and to have any chance of this transition succeeding,” Murkowski said.
She says she’s willing to compromise on the issue. The Forest Service says the transition is a 10-15 year process. But most new growth is far more decades away from being ready to harvest.
Some conservationists welcomed the changes to this version, such as Joe Mehrkens.
“There are improvements,” Mehrkens said. “The first versions were absolute wish lists for Sealaska.”
Mehrkens, a retired Forest Service employee, sits on the board of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community.
He says this plan saves prime land on Prince of Wales Island, but it’s still too degrading to the environment to support.
Chris McNeil is the president of Sealaska. He says the company met with every interested stakeholder.
Nine small communities on or near Prince of Wales Island oppose the transfer. McNeil dismisses them saying most of Southeast supports the transfer.
“Naturally you can’t have 100 percent of the constituency in favor of it. They’ve taken a position. But we’ve worked all the parties nonetheless,” he said.
McNeil says he’s optimistic this version can pass because it’s been tweaked to try and meet everyone’s needs.
The previous version stalled in the Senate last year. A similar measure passed the House, but went no further.
There is one indication a public lands bill could move this Congress: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid testified before the committee. He needs Senate action on a Nevada lands bill.
And Reid controls the legislative calendar of the chamber.
Next year’s election season is already heating up, with Republican Bill Walker announcing today that he will again run for Governor, as he did in 2010.
The Alaska Supreme Court has issued a ruling that could lead to a new trial for one of the Fairbanks Four. The high court turned down a state appeal of a decision allowing Eugene Vent a hearing to argue his attorney did not adequately represent him during his murder trial. Vent and three other local men are serving multi decade prison sentences for the 1997 beating death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman on a downtown street.
Despite the lingering effects of winter, spring whaling has begun in Arctic Alaska and seal hunters are also heading to the coast from Chevak in the Southwest part of the state. Grace Levettte with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in Barrow confirmed today that whaling crews on St Lawrence Island have landed a total of three bowheads so far – two for Gambell and one for Savoonga.
Farther south on the mainland, seal hunters from the Cu’pik community of Chevak are hauling their boats to the coast for spring seal hunts. John Atchak lives in Chevak and is a long time hunter. He’s been watching hunters head to favorite coastal spots toward Hopper Bay and Nelson Island.
He says harbor, spotted and bearded seals are an important part of Cu’pik dinners.
“That’s our mainstay diet in our area and it provides a lot of iron for our bodies, required iron, and it’s a real healthy food,” Atchak said.
Atchak says local hunters haul their boats behind snowmachines on homemade wooden sleds, traveling from eight to 30 miles. He says crews with at least 10 boats have left over the past two days. Sometime in May, when they see the right signs, they will hunt belugas.
“When the herring arrive, that’s when the beluga arrive, along with the fish,” Atchak said.
Atchak says they will hunt until mid May.
There are more questions than answers about the problems facing fisheries in Cook Inlet. And scientists working on those problems are chronically short on time and funding. But a new fisheries program at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage has students tackling some important research questions. And it isn’t just graduate students doing the work, undergrads are getting their feet wet doing real science too.
In a cave-like basement room on the APU campus Sarah Webster is grinding dried halibut tissue. Her high tech tool for the job? A mortar and pestle:
“I’m starting to get some really nice calluses on my hand. The first couple days were really painful.”
Webster is discovering the gritty realities of graduate student lab work at APU. She’s studying why pacific halibut are getting smaller. When she’s done grinding the tissue samples, she’ll send them off to a lab for high tech analysis that will tell her what the fish ate in the months before it died:
“Something has changed so halibut aren’t growing as quickly and because growth is related to how much nutrition and how much food you intake, it makes sense that would be what the mechanism is.”
A 15 year old halibut today is half the size it was 40 years ago. Webster’s halibut study is just one of more than a dozen fisheries research projects APU Professor Brad Harris is overseeing. He arrived at the university two years ago and has quickly turned the marine biology program into a research engine for fisheries in Alaska. It’s the only applied fisheries university program in Anchorage. Harris says it just makes sense:
“If we’re going to go out and do this work, we might as well work on something that matters and produce a product that’s useful.”
So Harris partners with federal and state biologists to find appropriate research projects. And he doesn’t leave all the fun stuff to his graduate students.
Undergraduates are helping with a Fish and Game razor clam study near Kenai. They gather halibut data in Homer in the summer. And this semester, he had them working to figure out why two scallop beds in Kamishak Bay have declined sharply in the last decade.
APU Junior Angela Wilkenson leads me into a storage room where 25 seafood freezer boxes are stacked, all full of scallop shells. That’s 12 thousand shells the Homer Fish and Game office sent to APU for analysis.
The students are trying to determine if an invasive worm has gotten more prevalent in the scallop shells as the population has declined. They figured out a way to use a camera and computers to analyze how much of each shell was infected with the worm. It was tedious work. But Wilkenson says they got the answer.
“As the scallop population has seemed to decrease the worm prevalence has seemed to increase.”
Does that mean the worms are causing the population decline? That will take more study. But Homer based Fish and Game biologist Ken Goldman says the data is fantastic. The Department doesn’t have enough biologists to tackle all the research projects that would help them do a better job managing the fisheries.
“I’m just a geeky scientist, but that’s the stuff that gets me excited. To make sure we can pursue that goal of sustainable fisheries and to foster responsible management, it takes data. Without data all opinions are equal. So data is what we need to make the right decisions as we move forward.”
And Professor Harris says coming up with that data helps his students understand what a career as a fisheries biologist is all about. They quickly figure out that it’s either not for them, or it is. And if it is- Harris’ teaching philosophy gives them full rein to start digging in deep:
“As soon as undergrad students understand what they really want to do, their courses have a new context. They see that this is something they need to get somewhere, versus an impediment they have to get over to get a degree. Getting the degree ceases to be the goal. Being a proficient scientist that can really contribute starts to become what they focus on. And that’s exciting to them.”
Harris says he has had no trouble attracting interesting research questions for his students to take on. He quickly found himself dealing with the opposite problem, having to say no to worthy projects. But there is always next year, with a whole new group of students ready to learn.
The Native Youth Olympics got underway Thursday in Anchorage. More than 600 student athletes are gathered at the city’s Dena’ina Convention Center for three days of competition in games that showcase Alaska Native traditions, skills and teamwork.
The borough assemblies from Haines, Skagway and Juneau will meet Friday afternoon in the Skagway Assembly Chambers for what’s being billed as “The Northern Lynn Canal Neighbors Summit.”
Whitehorse, Yukon officials are expected to attend as well, giving the gathering an international flavor.
First-term Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford has made reaching out to neighboring communities a priority for his first year in office. The rest of the CBJ Assembly backs his efforts. But the mayor credits City Clerk Laurie Sica with organizing the summit.
“This happened to come about because our City Clerk Laurie Sica is from Skagway and knows a lot of people up there,” Sanford says. “So, I kind of said something to her one day and she said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea.’ And then she got on and started us moving in that direction, and here we are.”
The broad topics to be discussed at the summit include energy, transportation, harbors, and tourism. Specific items include shore power for cruise ships, an electrical intertie from Whitehorse to Juneau, the state ferry system, and a road north of the Capital City.
Sanford says he hopes the dialog leads to more dialog.
“My whole thing about doing this was just getting to know each other better,” he says. “You know, it’s not necessarily coming to some resolution on any topic, or coming to any decision on any topic.”
With as many as 30 elected officials from the four communities attending the summit, Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer jokes, “Probably the longest item on the agenda is going to be the introduction of members.”
Joking aside, Selmer agrees with Sanford that the meeting should focus on a continuing conversation.
“We’ve done these meetings before, we just haven’t had any ‘stick-to-it-iveness,’” says Selmer. “But I think Mayor Sanford wants to move in that direction and there’s certainly no reason not to proceed that way.”
Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is unable to attend the summit due to other commitments. The Canadian city will send Deputy Mayor Kirk Cameron and two other council members in his place. Curtis says he hopes to attend future gatherings of the neighboring communities.
“Juneau and Whitehorse have a lot in common, being capital cities of course. And Skagway, of course, being a port and being so close, we have a real kinship there as well, and Haines as well,” Curtis says. “There’s a lot of things that we think that we can work together on, and learn from each other, and kind of share ideas and suggestions, and solutions to some of our concerns.”
Haines, Skagway and Juneau are members of Southeast Conference and Alaska Municipal League, organizations that regularly facilitate conversations about regional issues. Sanford says what makes the neighbors summit unique is that it’s a one-to-one discussion, without constraints imposed by an outside group.
“We’re full grown adults and can make our own decisions,” Selmer says.
For his part, Sanford looks forward to holding similar meetings with Juneau’s neighbors throughout Southeast. He says that’s more important than ever since the region lost representation in the legislature through the recent state redistricting process.
“When you get to know somebody and talk with somebody, you know they’re not very much different than you are,” says Sanford. “And we need to make sure that we’re all in the same boat most of the time, and that we’re battling in the same direction.”
Juneau’s legislative delegation will take part in the meeting. Representative Beth Kerttula and Senator Dennis Egan, whose districts now include Skagway, will be on teleconference. Representative Cathy Munoz will be there in person. Sanford hopes Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who represents Haines, will be able to participate as well.
The agenda also includes an opportunity for public comment.
Kettleson Library in Sitka has been planning an expansion project for the past decade, using a combination of public and private funding. On Saturday, the library staff announced a big boost to that cause.
About two weeks ago, a man walked into the Sitka Public Library. It was Gus Adams, a Sitkan who uses the library everyday.
“He is Tlingit. He is a mature gentleman. He has a great smile.”
That’s the lead librarian, Sarah Bell.
“He likes the facility,” said Bell. “He uses what’s there. He’s very precise, so when he needs help, we offer help, and if we can’t do it at the moment, we work really hard to make certain that we can answer his needs and his questions.”
But that day was different.
“So, we were well-acquainted with him, but I had not anticipated anything like that,” said Bell.
Adams knew that the library was raising money for an expansion, and he wanted to make a donation.
“And I said, ‘Oh, great!’ And as time progressed, he decided on the figure of donating $20,000. That was a pretty great way to start off a capital campaign.”
Bell says the library’s wish list for the expansion includes: A humidity-controlled local history room, a conference room, a space with a 3D printer and high-end computer software, a couple of study rooms, and an area for computer instruction.
“We call it 60 percent expansion, 100 percent better,” said Bell.
So, last Saturday morning, when the library was celebrating National Library Week with a free community pancake feed, everything stopped at 10:30 a.m. for Adams to announce his donation.
“I think that people were pretty amazed,” said Bell.
Bell had gotten a huge $20,000 check printed out to hold up as part of the presentation.
“And I am not at all good with dimensions and so I said, ‘well, it seems to me maybe three feet by six or something like that.’ It kind of looks like a four by eight, a big piece of, but they printed it out and it came out beautifully. And when Gus came in, he said, oh, that’s really big, and I said, why yes, but you’re writing a really big check.”
And to top it off, Adams announced at the presentation that he would donate another $1,000 if the audience matched it. Community members tripled that number with $3,000.
Bell says the library staff has been working at the expansion for more than a decade. So far, money has come from the Friends of Kettleson Library, the state, a sizeable bequest, and most recently, Adams’ surprise donation.
“Every organization I’ve ever belonged to, I’ve tried to leave it better than I found it,” said Adams. “This may sound like a real lofty goal, but the thought, why not leave the community better than when you found it? So, I’m kind of drifting in that direction.”
The total budget for the expansion is 6.2 million dollars, and 5.7 million of that is from a state grant. Bell says that they’ve got just a little more than $175,000 left to go.
On May 20-22, 54 students across the US will assemble and compete in the 25th Annual National Geographic Bee in Washington D.C. Each year thousands students across the nation compete to win an opportunity to represent their state in the national championship.
Alaska hosted the 25th National Geographic Bee State Finals on April 5th. One hundred students in 3rd through 8th grade from across the state assembled at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage to compete. Five groups of twenty students competed during the preliminary round to move forward to the State finals. A Central Middle School 8th grader won this year’s contest.
“My name is Kenny Petrini. You know I grew up here for a while; but I am originally from Thailand. So, I consider myself an Anchorage person,” he said.
Kenny has competed in the State Geography Bee for several years and described his studying strategy for each competition.
“I study probably at least…at least an hour a night. I do online quizzes and I look at atlases. I work with my dad…he…he asks me questions…he gets me materials to study with and my mom does too,” Kenny said.
When studying geography, Kenny enjoys learning about Alaska. And he believes geography is an important subject for all students to learn.
“Cause in today’s world everything is changing a lot…you know new countries um…revolutions you know like Africa North Africa that stuff. So, geography is pretty important,” he said.
Besides geography, Kenny plays the trombone, runs for the school’s track and field team and is a news anchor for Central’s News Broadcasting Channel
As the State winner, Kenny received: $100. He’ll represent Alaska in the National Championship in Washington, D.C. on May 20-22.
Work on the Susitna Watana dam will go forward this summer, according to a spokesperson for the state agency tasked with the project.
Emily Ford, public outreach liaison for the Alaska Energy Authority, says the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has give the okay to a dozen
study plans that have been waiting for approval since February of this year.
”And then this month, on April 1, they [FERC] approved the remaining studies. So a very significant milestone was achieved for Susitna – Watana hydro, because now FERC has approved all 58 studies for our environmental field effort ” she says.
Ford says the environmental field effort covers one hundred and eighty six thousand acres in the dam area.
“Actually, in the coming months, as we are approaching spring, early summer, some of the chinook studies and the early season studies will start beginning. We have multi – year studies dedicated to fish resources. And then, we also have some wildlife studies and even botanical resources and cultural resources that will begin this year as well, ” she says.
According to Ford, there are 385 individuals outside of AEA who are contracted to work on the Susitna-Watana project. She says the majorty of those people are Alaskans. 180 workers will be in the field this year.
But he dam plan has raised some concerns in the Talkeetna area, which is down river from the project. Richard Leo heads the board of the Coalition For Susitana Dam Alternatives, a group that opposes the dam.
”There were a number of problems with the studies that FERC approved, and FERC only approved them after recommending many modifications to those studies, which included greater attention to climate change and glacial runoff, to fish passage, to salmon escapement, and issues that indicated the studies continue to be flawed. What AEA is going to do to make those studies more effective is yet to be seen. “
One of the concerns posed by Leo’s group is the impact the dam is likely to have on salmon, which are a major source of Matanuska Susitna Borough sport fishing related income. Leo recently returned from a trip to Juneau, where he lobbied against the dam.
At this time, [Wednesday ] heavy equipment is being shipped North on the Alaska Railroad to be used to bulldoze an airstrip at the Stephan [ STEP han ] Lake Lodge, a remote fishing and hunting lodge closer to the dam site. The lodge will be the headquarters for the AEA personnel conducting the studies.
John Madsen, owner of the lodge, confirms the plan to build an airstrip at the lodge. Madsen says he has the DNR and Tyonek Native Corporation permits to drag the equipment overland in a cat – train to the site. He says that work will begin tomorrow.[thursday]
But Mike Woods, a resident of Chase, says [on wednesday ] the plan took him and his neighbors by surprise.
”It’s news to us. We only saw the vehicles at the Alaska Railroad yesterday [tuesday] evening, yesterday afternoon and evening, and then started to explore where they were going. “
Woods says the terrain there is not suitable for heavy equipment. He says he only recently traversed the cat trail route by snowmachine.
“There’s been no plan to create an ice road. This is just adventure travel across the tundra to establish a road in what has been roadless areas. The permit specifies that they cannot touch ground. They can only be on snow travel. But if they are, like, disturbing the ground and the waterways leading into the Susitana River in anyway, that immediately violates their permit, ” Woods says.
Woods says the equipment could leave permanent scars on the landscape, because there isn’t a protective layer of ice and snow. He says the public has not been informed of this recent development regarding the dam. “The public notice process totally failed. “ he said.
Work on the Susitna-Watana dam will go forward this summer, according to a spokesperson for the state agency tasked with the project.
The Anchorage School District has opted to dissolve its girls hockey program after 10 years, citing low participation numbers as the primary reason.
ASD’s supervisor of high school education, Derek Hagler, says even though there is certainly interest in girls hockey in Anchorage, the school program just wasn’t sustainable.
“The hope, and certainly the goal, was to grow that program so each high school could field a competitive team,” Hagler said. “As the numbers have not increased and as the interest has not grown, as shown by the activities and athletics survey ASD administers each year, it became necessary to look at discontinuing this program.”
Hagler says 83 girls participate in high school hockey. He says even without the program the district will still be in compliance with Title IX – which grants equal athletic opportunities to men and women.
This year, there are 16 girls’ sports and 15 boys’ sports in Anchorage high schools, and last year over half of the athletes competing in high school sports were female.
Brent Vandenbos has been the head coach of the Dimond-West girls’ hockey team for the past two seasons. He says he has a number of upset players who he has talked to over the last couple days – including his daughter.
“My daughter will be a senior next year, and this will be her last year, and she was really looking forward to playing it again one more year,” Vandenbos said. “She played the last couple years and really improved and enjoyed it.”
Vandenbos has talked with parents as well, some of whom won’t have a daughter in high school for the next year or two, but are still upset by the cancellation of the program.
“That’s what they were looking forward to was to go to a girls high school hockey game, and their team being on there,” Vandenbos said. “You know, high school is a pretty big thing up here.”
Derek Hagler says even though the program is gone for now, the district will continue to reevaluate the situation, and if the interest level in girls hockey rises in the future, the program could be reinstated.
Greenpeace is trying to coax would-be whistleblowers to come out against the Arctic oil companies they work for. The environmental group launches a website today called Arctic Truth.
Women make up half the U.S. population but just 20% of the Senate. So the relationships among female senators tend to be close, regardless of party.
In fact, the women of the Senate gather regularly at one another’s houses for dinner. Senator Murkowski told a gaggle of energy reporters she was slated to play host this week.
“We were planning on serving halibut. Then on Monday we got the call saying the president wanted to invite the women over to his house” she said.
And that house is the White House.
“‘I said wait a minute ‘we’ve got halibut thawing for 16 people. What are we going to do?’” she recounted to the crowd.
She offered to take the fish to the White House.
Murkowski noted it was wild caught in Alaskan waters, though it’s unclear whether she or her husband caught the fish.
It turns out, you can’t just bring fish into the White House, even if you’re a United States senator. Beyond normal protocol, security is especially tight these days, with a ricin-laced letter addressed to the president intercepted last week.
“My husband then gets the call from the Secret Service saying we need to come over and inspect your halibut,” she went on.
That proved too much of a hassle, so the White House bought its own Alaskan halibut. Murkowski said it turned out well.
Sure there were substantive things discussed at dinner – ice breakers, Arctic diplomacy and energy to name a few – but Murkowski clearly preferred explaining Alaskan fish – and freezing to Lower 48 reporters.
“We start September off with a lot of fish. This is the time of year you’re looking to move that halibut.”
As for those 16 fillets: It’s been confirmed they never completely thawed, and are back in the freezer safe for consumption.
An autopsy report confirms a Fairbanks man found on fire in a downtown Post Office died of burn injuries, but does not explain the origin of the flames that killed Johnny Wallis.
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Students at Sitka’s alternative high school have decided to confront the methamphetamine problem head on, and they’re encouraging the rest of the community to join them at an event in early May.
Paulette James is a junior at Pacific High School. She’s been working since the beginning of the school year to understand meth, and the particular risks of this addiction.
“When you go in to look at the stories of meth and everything, they didn’t know that their life would completely turn over, that they’d lose their job, lose their family, and everything that they had or cared about — within months, or a year.”
Pacific High is tackling the meth problem by throwing light on it — first in a science class taught by Eric Matthes, and then in a community engagement class taught by Mandy Summer.
James and another student became interested in exploring the upside of meth recovery early in the school year with an event of some kind. That student left Pacific High, and James has decided to continue her effort solo. She says talking about meth can be difficult , but the stakes are high.
“This whole class has actually been a Debbie Downer, but when it comes to the positive side, it becomes a passion for the teachers and myself because there are people that we care about who are affected directly by meth. And we want to get that message out before it affects all the people we care about, and the community.”
James and the other students in Pacific High’s Community Engagement class have organized an event in early May at Sitka’s Crescent Harbor. It’s called “Got Resiliency?” They’re planning a performance by the Gaja Heen Dancers, a film screening, and a concert by local musicians, including Silver Jackson.
Resiliency means that there is a way to resist meth, and support to find your way back.
“The biggest message that we want to get out there is that, We care, and that you have value. That things may be rough, but you can always bounce back. There’s always something you can do better for yourself and you don’t need to turn to drugs or alcohol because we have resources, and if you need them, we can help you find them.”
This entire Pacific High program — the science class, the community engagement class, and the “Got Resiliency?” event — are not a project of any government agency, nor are they the result of any grant funding. The initiative for the project came from within — from Pacific High’s students and faculty.
Hillary Seeland, another teacher at the school, says, “We’d identified that meth was becoming an issue, and decided to face it head on.”
Cruise ship season has officially kicked off in Kodiak. The Crystal Symphony called on Alaska’s emerald isle early yesterday morning, and brought with it 480 passengers and 550 crew members. Despite the rain, hundreds of tourists were able to explore the downtown area. KMXT’s Brianna Gibbs caught up with some of them and filed this report.
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Alexis Will, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, calls herself a “Ninja of the Night,” but it has nothing to do with martial arts.
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The Spanish oil company, Repsol is reporting it has found oil on state leases in the Colville Delta at three of its wells on the North Slope. In a short press release the company calls the prospects “promising” and says changes in the state’s oil tax will improve development prospects. The wells are near the existing Kuparuk field. Repsol has leases both onshore and offshore in the area. It had two spills during its exploratory drilling, which is restricted to the winter season.
The city of Hoonah has responded to a lawsuit by the widow of one of the two police officers slain by John Marvin by saying Marvin was the responsible party and the other officer’s conduct was not negligent. Haley Tokuoka, widow of Officer Matthew Tokuoka, is contending that the city should have trained Sergeant Anthony Wallace better on how to handle Marvin. Wallace was also slain. Marvin was sentenced to two consecutive 99-year prison terms for the 2010 killings, which seemed to be related to a grudge he had.