ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The horrific shooting of an Anchorage police officer has led to an unexpected break in a series of outdoor deaths that have gone unsolved for months and left people uneasy to use the city's extensive trail system.
Ballistics tests matched the gun to two double homicides and a single killing last summer that helped set off fears a serial killer was roaming the Anchorage trails, picking off one or two people at a time.
But the chance discovery — linking the weapon used in the wounding of an officer with five unsolved murders — doesn't mean the suspect killed in the police shooting committed the earlier murders or even had possession of the gun in July and August when five people were shot down in public places.
"What I'd be looking at is to see what the evidence is and which way that points us," Anchorage District Attorney Clint Campion said. "I think the firearm is a significant lead in that direction, and there's other investigation that need to be done."
The gun wasn't registered to James Dale Ritchie, Anchorage police spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said.
"We still have to determine who the suspect actually was in these cases. We've connected the weapon in these cases but still have work to do on the suspect(s)," Castro wrote in an email.
Alaska's largest city had 28 homicides this year, one short of the 1995 total, which was the deadliest in recent years. But it was the rash of nine unsolved homicides of people killed while in public places that set the city on edge, especially last summer when the weather was nice. It didn't help that police didn't release much information about the killings.
The link to five of those murders started unlikely enough when a man skipped out on a cab fare about 4:40 a.m. Saturday in downtown Anchorage, according to police accounts released Tuesday.
The cabbie called police, and Officer Arn Salao, a five-year patrol veteran with the Anchorage police department, responded. He saw Ritchie walking on a downtown street, and asked him to stop. Ritchie ignored him, so Salao pulled his cruiser over.
Ritchie turned toward the officer, pulled a Colt Python .357 revolver and started shooting repeatedly. Salao either jumped or fell from his cruiser, but he drew his weapon and started firing. Another officer, Sgt. Marc Patzke, a nine-year department veteran, arrived at the same time and both shot at Ritchie, who was killed.
In the three days since, police uncovered the unsettling news: the revolver used by Ritchie to strike Salao at least four times in the lower body was already known to Anchorage police.
Ballistics matched it to the July 3 deaths of Jason Netter and Brianna Foisy on a bike path near downtown Anchorage, the July 29 murder of Treyveonkindell Thompson on an isolated street and the Aug. 28 deaths of Bryant De Husson and Kevin Turner at Valley of the Moon Park in downtown Anchorage.
Police don't have a motive or much information about Ritchie.
Police Lt. John McKinnon has asked members of the public to provide any information they can about him.
"He hadn't been on our radar for a while in Anchorage, so that's part of what they're trying to determine is, where he's been, who he'd lived with, what other contacts he had," Campion said. "He hasn't had any real police contact in the last decade in Alaska."
Campion said the five homicide cases remain open because the link to the gun provides investigative leads that need to be pursued. He said Anchorage police would be working with various agencies in the state in the investigation.
McKinnon said the gun didn't match the deaths of two other people at Point Woronzof, a popular coastal park.
Police Chief Chris Tolley said at the Tuesday news conference that the actions of Salao and Patzke in returning fire at Ritchie were heroic and "made sure that this individual will not hurt any one of you or any one of the citizens of Anchorage. I'm so very, very proud of them."
Salao was hit at struck at least four times, with bullets fracturing bones, ripping apart muscles and going through the intestine and lodging in his liver, Tolley said.
He underwent seven hours of surgery on Saturday. Tolley said the officer is recuperating at an Anchorage hospital, and he has been moved out of the intensive care unit.
"The officer is a fighter," Tolley said.
Associated Press writers Rachel D'Oro in Anchorage and Becky Bohrer in Juneau contributed to this report.