Shot, killed by police for lighter fluid? The family of Eric Hash speaks to ICT
In the early morning hours of July 6, Alaska State Trooper Kamau Leigh exited his vehicle, drew his service weapon, and killed Eric Hash, a 38-year-old Ahtna Athabascan man living in the tiny Alaska Native village of Copper Center. A statement from the Alaska Department of Public Safety said Eric had "advanced toward" Trooper Leigh carrying a container of "incapacitating, flammable liquid."
"It was lighter fluid," Eric's mother Evelyn told Indian Country Today.
She described the container as a small can, one-fourth full, of charcoal lighter fluid. Presumably, Trooper Leigh could have easily fended off an attack simply by staying in his car. Instead, he drew his service weapon and fired four shots at Eric, two of which hit and eventually killed him.
The story hit the news in July with various reports stating that Hash had assaulted a 72-year-old family member, and was acting belligerent. The family called 911 for help resulting in the ultimate shooting death of Hash. As one member told KTUU News in Anchorage, “As a family we are not excusing Eric’s behavior last night, but none of his behavior justified being shot to death.”
Indian Country Today spoke with members of the family to get the story not told by Alaska State Troopers.
One hour before...
Eric Hash was staying temporarily with his mother and had arrived at her apartment intoxicated sometime after 2 a.m. and began acting belligerently. Evelyn states Eric pushed her onto the couch but never hit her. However she and the other family members present were frightened. Eric was yelling and damaging property. Evelyn says she called the local Alaska State Troopers office in the nearby town of Glennallen thinking they would take Eric to jail for the night to sleep it off.
Eric left but then returned before Trooper Leigh got there. Family members barricaded themselves inside the apartment while they waited. When Trooper Leigh arrived at approximately 3:15 a.m., Eric was outside the small apartment complex apparently holding the can of lighter fluid. According to Evelyn, the trooper immediately opened fire on Eric without any warning.
10 hours before...
Earlier that evening, Shanna Pete, Eric's longtime partner, spoke with Eric on the phone. She was in Anchorage visiting their two grown daughters. She says Eric always called several times each day, checking in on Shanna and their girls. July 5th was no different.
"He seemed fine," Shanna said. "He asked, ‘how we were all doing.’"
As she spoke, Shanna gave a different view of Eric than the one appearing in police reports.
"Eric is a very caring man. He's very thoughtful," she said. Her voice frequently broke as she described that night and used the present "is" instead of "was," as though Eric were still alive.
"He's almost intuitive with his family," she said. "He feels their pain. If somebody is going through a hard time, he immediately knows and calls and he goes and sits with them and helps them in any way he can."
Several months before...
Shanna was surprised when she heard Eric had been drinking, but she thinks she knows why. They had both been going through a long period of hardship. Eric was mourning the recent loss of his brother and niece. Also, Shanna had been seriously ill for months. Then, in January, she was in a car accident that left her bedridden.
Eric did his best to take care of Shanna. For months he stayed by her side and cared for her the best he could. Shanna lost her job, her car and her apartment. Eric also lost his job. They struggled to survive without income in the remote Ahtna village.
A few weeks prior to the shooting, Shanna went to visit their daughters in Anchorage and Eric stayed with his mother in Copper Center. She thinks this long period of loss, illness and hardship may be why he began drinking.
The village demands answers
Nearly three weeks after Trooper Leigh shot Eric, a community meeting was held in Copper Center. Villagers grilled representatives from the Alaska State Troopers and the state Attorney General's office about why Trooper Leigh wouldn't allow anyone to approach Eric after he'd been shot.
"Why wouldn't they let anyone give him medical assistance?" an unnamed man at the meeting demanded to know.
Eric's mother Evelyn told Indian Country Today Eric lay on the ground writhing in pain and bleeding for a long time before medics arrived. She thinks it was about 45 minutes. He died of his injuries about two hours later after being medevaced to a hospital.
Several people who lived at the apartment complex attempted to approach Eric after Leigh shot him. One was a trained Emergency Medical Technician who announced herself to the Trooper. But Leigh would not let anyone near him.
Officials from the state Attorney General's office at the meeting refused to explain what happened that night, saying the incident is under investigation and they are unable to comment on it.
Two Alaskas - one Native, one white
Many villagers at the meeting spoke of a growing rift between Alaska State Troopers and Native people. Most said they are afraid to call Troopers for help because of the risk to them or their family members of being shot.
Many said they remember a time when Troopers were friendly and got to know Native villagers. But in recent years new troopers are aloof and seem to favor serving predominantly white communities such as the nearby town of Glennallen, where Trooper Leigh is based.
Gary Harrison, traditional chief of the nearby Native village of Chickaloon, spoke of the need to train new Troopers about Native people and cultures. His village instituted a Tribal Peace Officer program in which a Native resident is trained as a Village Public Safety Officer to assist state law enforcement.
"It's not easy working with Troopers," he admitted.
Rose Tyone, president of the Native village of Chitina, also spoke about the apparent racism of some Troopers.
"We as a council sent a letter to the commissioner stating our feelings that this Trooper not return," she said.
One week before...
A week before he was shot dead by Trooper Leigh, Eric had a vision of his own death.
"He wouldn't tell me what it was," his mother Evelyn told Indian Country Today. "He just said he had a vision of something that disturbed him. I found out later he told other people about it, too. He told them he'd seen he was going to die."
Eric's partner Shanna confirmed Evelyn's story.
"He told me of it, too," she said. "I didn't want to believe it at first."
A few days after having the vision, Eric lay in a pool of his own blood, writhing in pain, shot twice by a state trooper who some say had a chip on his shoulder against Alaska Native men. Within two hours, Eric was dead.
26 years before...
At the meeting, Eric's sister Carlene told the state officials present about how Eric nearly lost his left arm when he was just 12. She described how he worked diligently with a physical therapist to get its use back. She said he earned his Commercial Driver's License at age 18 and also helped many other villagers get their CDL too because he wanted them to succeed.
"This was Eric Hash," she said. "He was someone's partner, someone's brother, someone's father, and he mattered... He mattered."
An investigation by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation is currently ongoing. A request to the ABI for comment was not replied to as of publication.