PALMER RESIDENTS TAKE TO FACEBOOK TO FIGHT CRIME
Barter Town, Alaska.
It sounds like the latest Alaska-based reality show. It’s actually a compound not far behind a well-known mattress store on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway, and it’s behind 8-foot fences that patchwork their way down one side of Richmond Lane.
From the street it looks a bit unkempt, but not any more so than many other places in Alaska.
In the movie Mad Max, Barter Town is a remote commerce outpost situated in the midst of the wasteland of the future. The original script describes it as a crowded square where “blacksmiths and wheelwrights hammer away at their trade, merchants tout their wares and men are trading. Chickens for grain, grain for alcohol, alcohol for sex. Directly in front of Max is a signpost which directs traders to the various delights and services of Bartertown: PARADISE ALLEY, GARDEN OF PLEASURE, BLACKSMITH, SMALL ANIMALS.”
In Palmer, Alaska, Barter Town on Richmond Lane is the scene of a neighborhood uprising over crime that they say has gotten out of control. The locals have taken to Facebook to inform each other about the possible nefarious activities happening nearby.
Cars come and go late at night down Richmond Lane, it’s reported on the Facebook group Stop Valley Thieves. Trucks pulling trailers full of stuff idle up to the gate. Things get unloaded from duffle bags. Lots of duffle bags, especially between 1-3 a.m.
Drone footage accessed by Must Read Alaska shows the extent of materials strewn across the scruffy lot. Either someone has a hoarding problem or there’s a lot of miscellaneous stuff for sale. Maybe your stuff.
What was a quiet family neighborhood four years ago has spiraled into a place where nearby residents sweep their driveways for spent drug needles, keep their kids out of the front yards, and worry about the passed-out druggies who sometimes slump over the wheel of a car in front of the gated compound on the corner. There are fights on the street over merchandise and shouted demands for payments that are evidently not being honored.
If you’re hoping to go recover your stolen stuff in the Valley, you might want to head to Barter Town. On the other hand, you might not. No one really knows what is happening behind those fences. But the neighbors don’t feel safe.
Barter Town is a company known to the State of Alaska under license number 1055789. The man who appears to own and operate it is known to the Alaska Courts system for a handful of misdemeanors and is out on bail for a June arrest. He will face trial in November for intent to commit burglary, a Class A misdemeanor. More likely, he’ll cop a plea at his Oct. 16 pretrial conference.
Stop Valley Thieves members have had an eye on the Richmond Lane situation for months. The group’s administrators say that State Troopers know about what’s happening, but are under-staffed to make a case that will stick.
But they’re not ignoring it either. Someone in the Facebook group, which has over 15,600 members, posted a video of a man they know as Nicholas T. White being hauled off in handcuffs on Oct. 4 after a group of Troopers swarmed the gates. No charges have been filed yet, according to court records.
The person in handcuffs may or may not be White.
Kyle Muslin, who lives across the street, says it is White. Muslin has been documenting him for months.
Richmond Lane a place where he and his family no longer feel safe. His daughter sleeps with him and his wife in their bedroom, because at night things get pretty sketchy on that part of Richmond.
One day last summer, 30-40 lawnmowers showed up at the site, he said. Four-wheelers come and go. Chainsaws. Tools. Welding equipment. Weed-wackers.
And “dufflebags and dufflebags and dufflebags,” he said.
“The troopers told us the only way we can do anything is if someone identifies their stolen stuff,” Muslin said.
Doing so would mean going inside the fence, however. That’s private property.
Muslin keeps his security cameras rolling. When Must Read Alaska reached him this week, he was finishing up the installation of yet another camera. He has started posting photos of the comings and goings on the Stop Valley Thieves page, at times using the hashtag #ShutDownBarterTown.
At this point, he’s on a mission, and where the Troopers once thought he was just a disgruntled neighbor, they now text him notes of encouragement to keep up the pressure.
Like many others in the Stop Valley Thieves group, Muslin doesn’t hide his identity under a pseudonym. He and the others say it’s time for the community to stand up to the thieves and drug dealers. They’re taking the Crime Stoppers model to the next level: Social media.
But they also worry that at some point, some law-abiding citizen is going to get hurt. Several in the Facebook group, including himself, have been threatened. A driver tried to run him over with a truck in June. Another threatened him by saying he and his family would not “wake up in the morning.”
“I’m afraid for our safety every day,” Muslin said. “We have sort of put ourselves in the crosshairs. But there’s either going to be a gun fight right outside our doors or someone is going to shoot me, so I’m stuck with this. We couldn’t even sell our house if we tried. Who would buy it, with that going on?”
Some members of the Facebook group keep track of specific people, said Vicki Wallner, one of the group administrators. They video and photograph them, sometimes in the act of what appears to be a crime, and post the scenes on Stop Valley Thieves.
The Facebook vigilantes just share information. But even Wallner worries that someone will take the law into their own hands as the frustration with crime grows.
It’s not just Richmond Lane. Other places in the Valley draw similar concern by neighbors, she said.
There’s the house on Fairview Loop with a lot of junk cars and junkie types, and there’s a place known to locals as “The Compound,” where scary stuff goes on – people sleeping in abandoned cars on the property. Another place is described by critics as the “drug compound gravel pit crap hole.”
Others identify a sketchy house on Homebuilt Circle. The group is naming names of people they say are dealing drugs, using drugs, breaking into houses and stealing cars. When one of the suspects is arrested, they celebrate it and post the details of the arrest, along with their unfiltered opinions.
“They be going down at Barter Town!” posted one member in response to recent activity on Richmond Lane.
Other crime-stopper groups have sprung up on Facebook include a similarly named “Stop Valley Thieves Uncensored.” It has over 4,100 members. “Stolen in Alaska” has nearly 26,000 members. “Stolen Vehicles of Alaska” is a more narrowly focused self-help group. And a search found a dozen other groups dedicated to stopping theft and returning stolen items.
Where law enforcement has fallen short in Alaska, the Facebook community is stepping in, and facing personal peril as they take on criminals in a war they feel like they’ve been losing for too long.
MEETINGS IN VALLEY FOCUS ON CRIME
Meetings in the Mat-Su Valley are scheduled for coming days to discuss crime in advance of the legislative special session on Oct. 23, which will take up some criminal justice reform measures:
Oct. 10, 7:30-9:30 pm Alaska Republican Assembly Forum hosts “SB 91/ SB 54 Crime for Dummies” at the MTA Building, 480 Commercial Drive, Palmer, Alaska, downstairs. Guest speakers include Rep. Lora Reinbold, Stop Valley Thieves Administrator Vicki Wallner, Candidate for Lieutenant Governor Edie Grunwald, AKRA President Justin Giles, and Steve St. Clair.
Oct. 17, 5:30-7 pm, Talkeetna listening session with Sen. Mike Dunleavy at Upper Susitna Seniors, 16463 E. Helena Drive, Talkeetna.
Oct 18, 6-8 pm Public safety listening session with Sen. Mike Dunleavy at Teeland Middle School, cohosted by Rep. Cathy Tilton.