As Yaska Trial Is Delayed Again, Aniak Searches For Answers

Apr 2, 2018

The city of Aniak has erected a cross where Bruce "Gotor" Morgan was killed.
Credit Teresa Cotsirilos/KYUK

The murder trial of Aniak resident Joseph Yaska was rescheduled again on Thursday. Yaska is accused of killing Bruce “Gotor” Morgan in an attempted mass shooting last August, and the attorneys in his case are still in discovery, trying to piece together what happened.

Aniak hasn’t been the same since the shooting, and Morgan’s friends and family are still struggling to come to terms with it.

Bruce "Gotor" Morgan parked his truck in the wrong place at the wrong time. On August 27, he was shot several times by someone he knew, and Joseph Yaska may have been too intoxicated to fully remember what happened.

"The best way to describe Gotor is that whenever you saw him your day got better," said Jodi Darling, a friend of Gotor and his family who was with him at a party the night he died. Sometime after midnight, Gotor offered to give a friend and his children a ride. That’s why he was in his truck the night he was killed.

"Gotor was so happy that night," said Darling. "And in a matter of 10, 15 minutes, everything just went bad."

Witnesses say that Joseph Yaska shot his girlfriend as she tried to run away from him. Then he shot Gotor at close range and moved on to target other neighbors.

"What I think about is that moment," said Wayne Morgan. He's the coach of the Aniak Halfbreeds basketball team, and Gotor's uncle. "That moment of him thinking of what's happening to him."

The village went on lockdown, and everyone remembers where they were when they found out about Gotor. Wayne woke up to a call at 3 a.m. "You just lose all reality," he said. "Is this really happening?"

Gotor’s mother, Okalena "Okie" Morgan, also woke up to a call around three that morning. She drove through the village and tried to find her son. "We couldn't go and see him because the area was blocked off," she said. "His remains were there on scene for more than 15 hours until they finally brought him to the Trooper post."

A shooting like this would devastate any community, but Aniak isn’t just any community. The village is small and famously beautiful, a quiet place that other Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta residents talk about retiring to. And Gotor wasn’t just anyone. He was a Morgan, the biggest family in town, and people saw him as a community leader. When he was a senior in high school he became the Aniak Halfbreed boys’ captain in 2011 and led the team to its first state basketball championship.

His uncle Wayne was his coach. "He inspired other people to be good by trusting them with the ball," he said. "He would grab them if his teammates were frustrated with a play or call and say, 'Okay, it's alright, settle down; we can do this.' It wasn't about him."

Gotor was the kind of person who tried to make people feel better about themselves. And people just wanted to be him. "I was even told by some parents that when their kid got home after a city game, they go down into basketball trunks and shirt and say, 'I'm Gotor!'" said Wayne with a laugh. "'I'm gonna play like Gotor!'"

Gotor’s memory helped focus the Aniak Halfbreeds this month as they competed in the state 1A basketball championship. The Halfbreed girls were led by his sister, Alyssa Morgan, and coached by Wayne. Three minutes before the big championship game, they huddled on the court and prayed. And at the end of the prayer they shouted out Gotor’s old number before getting to work on the court. "One, two, three... proud 20!"

When they won the championship, the teammates lifted their hands to the sky, acknowledging Gotor’s spirit.

For a lot of people in Aniak, Gotor was the best person they knew and the way he died feels random and cruel. The nature of the crime itself is all too familiar in the Y-K Delta. Joseph Yaska and his girlfriend both struggled with alcohol. They have domestic violence convictions - over the years each had pled guilty to beating the other - and legally they shouldn’t have had that semiautomatic in the first place. On August 27, they fought each other again. This time, it boiled over.

Joseph Yaska’s trial is now tentatively scheduled for June 2018, but the process is expected to drag on for much longer than that. For now, Aniak is trying to find meaning in what happened. They’ve celebrated Gotor’s life with a traditional 40 day feast, memorial basketball tournaments, and candlelight vigils. The city erected a cross where he was killed. When law enforcement was done with it, they also got rid of Gotor’s truck.

"The vehicle that he was in when he was shot was burned and then smashed," said Gotor's mom, Okie. "And [then] I believe it was buried." It wasn’t too damaged, and trucks are expensive here, but after what happened, the community felt that it was the least they could do.