Shooting suspect appears in court, new details emerge about AST K9 death

Published: Sep. 26, 2016 at 6:45 PM AKDT
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What started as a traffic stop in Palmer for tail lights not working ended in the death of an Alaska State Troopers K9 and an alleged gunman with a gunshot injury on Sunday.

AST said it's the first line of duty death for one of its dogs in the K9 program.

The last time any incident injuring an AST K9 happened in 1998 in Fairbanks, AST said.

According to court documents, an officer with Palmer Police Department attempted to pull over a green Geo sedan with four people inside.

The vehicle didn't stop and traveled through Palmer at high speeds and failed to comply with stop signs, documents said.

A pursuit quickly ensued south bound on the Glenn Highway at speeds of 90 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone.

That's when Alaska State Troopers joined in along a driveway near the Parks-Glenn Highway inter-change, according to documents.

AST said the sedan later crashed into a tree at slow speeds and the driver later identified as Almando Abarca exited the car with a pistol in hand.

As Abarca fled into a wooded area, AST and PPD followed on foot with the K9.

Documents said while officers attempted to apprehend Abarca, he opened fire at officers.

"K-9 Helo was shot several times eventually killing him," documents said.

Troopers said both officers fired back, hitting Abarca once in the shoulder with a non life-threatening injury.

Abarca was charged with four felonies including: two counts of Assault in the third degree, harming a police dog in the first degree, and failing to stop at direction of peace officer involving reckless driving.

Abarca's mother, Alberna, told Channel 2 she believes drugs led her son down the wrong path, contributing to the incident.

According to the District Attorney's office in Anchorage, Abarca had been out on bail for a 2014 case involving burglary, theft, criminal mischief, tampering physical evidence, and false information.

Entering jail court in a sling, Abarca faced the judge on Monday.

The judge told him the maximum penalty for each new felony charge is 5 years and a $50,000 fine.

While AST has not officially identified the K9 or officers involved, multiple law enforcement agencies including the Anchorage and Fairbanks Police departments expressed condolences on Facebook to AST for the loss of the K9 named "Helo."

AST would not comment on the case due to the ongoing investigation, but its statewide K9 coordinator, Captain Randy Hahn said all patrol dogs are assigned protective vests.

"They don't wear them all the time, it's situational. It depends on the circumstances whether or not it's something of an obviously higher level of risk that the handler feels is necessary to put it on," Hahn said. "There are some circumstances where we don't want the dog to wear a vest."

Hahn said sometimes handlers opt not to have the dog wear the vests because it creates handholds someone could potentially grab on to.

AST currently has 6 dogs in its K9 program.

Hahn said the average training time for dogs in the K9 program is between 12 and 16 weeks.

"During that time we teach them a lot about what the dogs are capable of, what the decision making factors are that go into how to deploy and utilize a dog," Hahn said.

Hahn said he's been in contact with the handler associated with the incident in Palmer.

"Like any animal that is a service dog, it is a service dog, they become a member of your household even though they're a working animal and that's difficult, that's difficult on the handler," Hahn said.

The average life span for a K9 member's career is anywhere from five to seven years up to nine to ten years.

Hahn said AST is discussing the possibility of replacing the K9 that worked primarily in the Mat-Su Valley.

"The average purchase price is somewhere in the neighborhood of about $10,000 and that's just for the dog," Hahn said.

Including training, equipment, and travel involved in obtaining a new K9, that total can be anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000 Hahn said.

Buying a new dog for the K9 program would come from state funding.

"Like everybody else, our budget is pretty tight. There are some potential avenues and alternatives we think are available to us and we're discussing right now what the best source might be," Hahn said.

Hahn said in the mean time, AST has received an outpouring of support from community members looking to offer some comfort.

Sandy Marcal, president and founder of Vested Interest in K9s Inc., said the group works to provide bullet and stab protective vests for agencies in need.

Marcal said the group located in Massachusetts has provided vests to AST and is receiving requests to offer even more.

"We have had requests all over the country asking if they could donate vests for the Alaska troopers, so there's been a huge outpouring of support all day long," Marcal said.

AST said the names of the officers involved in the Palmer shootout will likely be released on Wednesday per a 72 hour department policy.