Key to Snowmachine Death Case: Murder or Accident?

By KYLE HOPKINS khopkins@adn.com Published: January 19th, 2011 10:06 PM Last Modified: January 19th, 2011 11:20 PM TESTIMONY STARTS: Trial lawyers debate significance of details. In November 2008, Diane Abrahams-Gollub lost her husband, Anchorage physician Roger Gollub, when a snowmachine slammed into him as he was mushing in Kotzebue. On Wednesday, Abrahams-Gollub was the first witness in the murder trial of the 22-year-old man charged with being intoxicated and causing the crash. She carried a memento with her to the Kotzebue courthouse, Abrahams-Gollub said in a short phone interview after the hearing: one of her husband’s short-sleeved, plaid shirts. The kind he wore to work as a pediatrician at the Alaska Native Medical Center before his death. “I’m looking forward to some justice,” Abrahams-Gollub said. But a defense attorney for Patrick Tickett, of Ambler, says his client isn’t at fault and was thinking clearly that night. The death was a tragic accident that the snowmachiner could not avoid, attorney Eric Derleth argued, in no small part because the first-time musher wore white camouflage snow gear that hid him from view along the sea ice. Tickett said the same when he called 911 the night of the accident and reported the musher was wearing all white on the snowy trail. “I didn’t see him until he was right in front of me,” the snowmachiner said according to a tape of the call played in court Wednesday. The crash severed Gollub’s leg and broke his spine, according to prosecutors. Tickett, who was 20 at the time of the crash, is charged with second-degree murder, drunken driving and first-degree felony assault. As the long-awaited trial takes shape this week, the big question of whether Gollub’s death was murder or an accident hinges on the details. The snowmachiner admitted to smoking marijuana and drinking before the trip, but was he legally drunk? What could he really see on the trail? How effective was the headlamp that Kotzebue musher Tracey Schaeffer tried to use to alert the approaching snowmachine as she rode in the dogsled? As the trial opened in Kotzebue, lawyers for both sides retold the events surrounding the collision. Then, as they trial got under way with the first testimony, they asked Kotzebue residents who helped with a rescue attempt and other witnesses to fill in the gaps. Gollub, a primary-care pediatrician, sometimes visited Kotzebue to see patients, his wife said. He’d been looking forward to trying his hand at mushing, thanks to Schaeffer, an occupational therapist with a dog team, according to news reports at the time. On Nov. 19, 2008, the doctor had finished work and met Schaeffer, who lives outside of town and was staying at a friend’s house, said assistant attorney general Gregg Olson with the state’s rural prosecutions unit. Gollub borrowed a pair of bunny boots and white Northern Outfitters parka and pants, the prosecutor said. They left to go mushing about 6:45 p.m. The pair traveled at a leisurely pace, with Schaeffer eventually giving Gollub a chance to drive the team as she rode in the sled, Olson said. That same night, Tickett was with his friend Clarissa Cleveland, the prosecutor said. At some point in the evening the pair smoked marijuana, Olson said. Tickett later would tell authorities he took two to four swigs or drinks from a bottle of R&R whiskey, lawyers told the jury. Later, Tickett left Kotzebue to give Cleveland a snowmachine ride out of town. The collision occurred about four miles from Kotzebue. Schaeffer and her dog team could hear the snowmachine coming, Olson said. Schaeffer took off her head lamp and, reaching around Gollub, waved the light horizontally to signal that someone else was on the dark trail. Schaeffer heard the snowmachine slow down, then start up again, Olson said. Then came the crash. But Derleth, Tickett’s lawyer, said the snowmachiner never saw the light nor should have been expected to. “(Gollub) had no reflector on. He had no lights on. There was no strobe lights,” said the lawyer, who plans to call an expert on human perception and response to testify later in the trial. The defense lawyer also questioned why Schaeffer didn’t move the sled team out of the trail. Troopers estimated at the time that Tickett had been traveling at about 60 miles an hour. Tickett’s blood alcohol content, tested hours later, just before midnight, was 0.069 percent, Olson said in court. Derleth challenged that figure, saying a Colorado alcohol expert found Tickett’s blood alcohol content to be about 0.05. Tickett was convicted of minor consuming alcohol in 2007 and of violating conditions of release in 2009. In an unrelated case, Tickett also was charged with second-degree sexual abuse of a minor and second-degree sexual assault in 2009. No disposition for that case is listed in online state court records, and lawyers for both sides declined to discuss it. The second-degree murder trial is scheduled to continue today before Superior Court Judge Ben Esch.

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