Alaska Digest

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2005

Bullet doesn't match handgun, expert says

NOME - The bullet that killed Sonya Ivanoff cannot be matched to a .22-caliber handgun that had been stored at the Nome Police Department, a firearms expert testified.

Robert Shem spoke at the trial of Matthew Clay Owens, 29, a former Nome police officer charged with murder and evidence tampering in the death of Ivanoff, 19, in August 2003.

Ivanoff's body was found next to a dead-end trail near a gravel pit.

Witnesses told the jury they saw Ivanoff get into a patrol car early Aug. 11. Her body was found two days later. Owens told investigators that he did not pick Ivanoff up in his patrol car or kill her.

State medical examiner Dr. Franc Fallico testified Thursday that he retrieved a .22 caliber bullet from Ivanoff's body.

In testimony Friday, forensic firearm and tool marks examiner Shem prepared a list with guns, pistols and rifle brands that could have the same rifling as that found on the bullet. Manufacturer Jennings Firearms was on the list.

However, he could not positively match the bullet with a Jennings .22 pistol found in the Nome Police Department, to which Owens had access.

Shem also could not say with certainty that the shell found at the crime scene match the .22 bullet.

The trial will resume Monday.

Valdez man, 32, is convicted of murder

VALDEZ - A Valdez man was convicted of first-degree murder in the strangling death of his mother.

Daniel Lee Nichols, 32, was found guilty Friday afternoon of killing Dixie Lee Nichols, 58, the Valdez Star reported.

The elder Nichols was found dead Oct. 15, 2003, in a secluded park just beyond a campground.

Daniel Nichols was arrested early the next day at a friend's home. A 1990 graduate of Valdez High School, Nichols was a bass player in bands and drove a truck for Lodi Trucking, owned by his family.

Dixie Nichols was reported missing by her husband, Lloyd, after she failed to come home.

Prosecutors showed Nichols' taped confession, recorded by Valdez police.

Under questioning by investigator Dan Mott the day of his arrest, Nichols accused his parents of starving him, unfairly withholding their money from him, and controlling his life. He said he strangled Dixie Nichols after she refused to give him $100 for food.

"I couldn't believe a mother could be so cruel," he said on the tape. He also claimed he did not know he had killed her.

As his mother was hugging him, he twisted her around and grabbed her in a headlock, he said.

"I couldn't let go," he said.

They fell to the ground while he continued to hold her neck for 10 to 15 minutes, he said in his confession. He then drove to Mike's Pizza Palace and had a cheeseburger.

Bank records and utility receipts indicated Dixie Nichols had for the previous six months paid all of her son's utilities and other living expenses.

Renkes report may hit gov's desk Monday

ANCHORAGE - The man investigating conflict of interest allegations against state Attorney General Gregg Renkes has finished his report.

Former U.S. Attorney Robert Bundy, who is investigating whether Renkes violated the executive branch ethics act, said his report should arrive on the governor's desk Monday.

Bundy told the Anchorage Daily News on Friday he had just completed his nearly four-month investigation.

Bundy, hired as outside counsel by Murkowski in October, offered few specifics about the report's contents.

Until he briefs his client about the report, Bundy said, it would be inappropriate to offer any details. He said it focuses on the executive branch ethics act, a law that bars public officials from using their positions for personal enrichment.

Renkes fell under ethics scrutiny Oct. 1, when the Anchorage Daily News reported his stock ownership in KFx Inc., a Denver company that is trying to commercialize a coal-drying process. Renkes promoted KFx last year in state negotiations with Taiwan aimed at development of a $1 billion coal mine at Beluga, west of Anchorage. KFx technology would process the coal.

Renkes had disclosed his KFx holdings of more than $100,000, his largest financial asset, to the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., where he is a trustee. He did not tell the governor.

Renkes on Oct. 4 said he had not broken any laws. Two days later, Renkes sold his KFx stock, he said.

The governor and Renkes are confidants whose relationship dates back more than a decade.

Bundy's $260-per-hour fee was paid for out of the governor's budget.

The state personnel board has hired an outside counsel to investigate an ethics complaint against Renkes. The Alaska Bar Association is also reviewing a complaint against the attorney general.

Constitutionality dispute anticipated

JUNEAU - State negotiators are trying to cut a financial deal for a North Slope gas pipeline without running afoul of Alaska's constitution.

But if a contract is signed creating a new long-term tax structure, a legal challenge will be the likely course to test the deal's constitutionality, the state's tax division director said Friday.

Two groups are negotiating with the state for terms to build a pipeline from the North Slope - TransCanada and the state's three major oil producers: BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil.

A contract negotiated under the state's Stranded Gas Act would set tax, royalty and other terms for up to 35 years. The producers say those terms are important for providing financial certainty before they undertake a project estimated to cost as much as $20 billion.

But Article IX of the Alaska Constitution says: "The power of taxation shall never be surrendered. This power shall not be suspended or contracted away, except as provided in this article."

Negotiators are weighing whether a long-term stranded gas contract would break that article by taking away the state's ability to adjust tax rates for such a long period. A legal ruling may ultimately be the only way to settle the question, administration officials say.

No contract proposal has been presented to the Legislature. Murkowski has said he would like to have a proposal for legislative approval this session. Robson told the legislative committee that the earliest lawmakers can expect a proposal is March.

The North Slope producers would route a pipeline through Canada and to markets in the Midwest. Other proposals outside the Stranded Gas Act include a gas pipeline running from the North Slope to Valdez.

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