The Alaska State Troopers have released the names of the four officers who drew their guns in the first Trooper-involved shooting of 2018. The shootout happened last week in the small village of Pilot Station, when a domestic assault devolved into a tense standoff with law enforcement and ended with the suspect’s death.
Trooper Daron Cooper, Trooper Charles Withers, Investigator Shayne Calt and Investigator Curtis Vik were sent to Pilot Station as backup. The trouble started in the village last Wednesday afternoon, when Dwight Heckman, age 27, allegedly attacked his girlfriend. The Troopers’ report on the incident said that Heckman struck and strangled her, then dragged her into the street. He took out a handgun and shot multiple rounds in the ground near her body, then he swung himself onto a snowmachine and drove away.
Multiple witnesses heard the shots and reported them to the Troopers, but the closest Trooper Post is a village over in St. Mary's, and a dense fog in Pilot Station delayed air travel. The first responding Trooper arrived in the village by snowmachine on Thursday afternoon. He found Heckman four-wheeling through town and tried to stop him. Heckman allegedly put his handgun to his own head and ran into the woods. He fired several shots at the Trooper a few hours later, and at this point the Troopers were already arranging to send backup.
"We didn’t know what was really going on," said Abraham Kelly, Pilot Station's mayor. "We heard some shots every now and then, but we weren’t sure who was shooting."
Kelly said he didn’t know something was happening until the village school was put on lockdown Thursday afternoon. The experience was both nerve-wracking and confusing; the Village Police Officers and Troopers never took the time to tell him what was going on. Kelly said that some people in the town didn’t know there was a lockdown and went on about their shopping.
Around 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night, Pilot Station's Village Police Officers got on the VHF and told residents to get inside and lock their doors. They had secured a perimeter near the stretch of woods that Heckman had escaped into, behind the village post office. Backup arrived in Pilot Station by plane and snowmachine, including a SWAT-style special emergency reaction team from the Anchorage area.
Law enforcement tried to contact Heckman. Community members heard a volley of gunfire. Troopers Cooper, Withers, Calt, and Vik fired their service weapons; they found Heckman dead in the woods an hour later.
The shooting left Abraham Kelly with unanswered questions. He’s known Heckman since he was young.
"Everybody was in kind of shock because he was a young man," he said. "He lived with his grandparents and he’d taken care of them for a long time, so we respected the boy."
But Heckman had his demons. This wasn’t the first time that he had threatened his girlfriend’s life. He was convicted of assaulting her in 2016. In 2017, she said he kicked and strangled her. Troopers report that she's home with her family now, and safe. Heckman’s family kept trying to call him as he hid in the woods from law enforcement, but he wouldn’t answer his phone.
"There’s nothing we can really know," said Kelly. "No real answers for what had happened, and everybody’s still wondering why."
For now, Kelly's looking ahead to his village's recovery. He hopes that the Lower Kuskokwim School District sends a counselor. He said that the kids went ahead with a village carnival as planned, and on Friday night they competed in foot races and won prizes. The Troopers were delayed leaving Pilot Station due to weather and spent at least some of their time on Friday securing their crime scene, keeping watch over Heckman's body in the woods near the post office.
Now the Alaska Bureau of Investigation is involved in the incident. Representatives arrived in Pilot Station on Friday to conduct the on scene investigation, and Heckman's body was flown to Anchorage for an official autopsy.