Gordon E. Samel, 52, whose discovery of Chris McCandless’ corpse 20 years ago led to the book and movie Into the Wild, has been shot and killed by Alaska State Troopers following a weekend pursuit through the Alaska city of Wasilla. Samel was part of a group of moose hunters that found McCandless’ corpse in an abandoned bus in 1992.
On Sunday, police approached Samel’s vehicle after a report about a possible drunken driver. Troopers said Samel drove off when troopers knocked on the side of his pickup and fled down the city’s main street, sometimes against traffic, and at times into residential areas. He was eventually blocked at an intersection.
When state troopers and city police approached on foot Samel backed the truck toward the officers. Both fired their handguns. Samel was declared dead at the scene.
A passenger in the truck sustained an injury to one arm, but it was not life threatening. He was released without being charged.
The Anchorage Daily News says that according to Samel’s family he was a talented mechanic and auto body repairmen, but that he struggled with bipolar disorder. Samel had two grown children, and his brother says when he was taking his bipolar medication was a “real asset to the family.”
Samel’s criminal history goes back to 1983. He had been arrested 19 times since 1983, and was still under court-ordered restrictions not to drink following a DUI arrest in September.
Samel’s mother told the newspaper that she did not understand why Samel, who played a small but important role in Into the Wild, was shot and killed by Alaska State Troopers rather than them using a Taser or shooting the car’s tires. She said she was sure he was just trying to get away, and that he would never have run over anybody.
Samel’s brother said Samel was proud of his involvement in Krakauer’s story. Krakauer received some insights from Samel when writing the book. Samel played a minor part in the story. McCandless’ journal reported that he had killed a moose, and he taken a photo of himself with the carcass. However, Samel advised Krakauer that it was not a moose at all, but a caribou.
Samel was on a moose hunt with three friends on September 6, 1992, when they came across the old Fairbanks city bus later made famous by Krakauer’s book. Samel reached through a bus window and shook the sleeping bag he could see inside, which he said definitely had something in it. When he looked in a window on the other side of the bus he saw a head sticking out of the bag. 24-year-old McCandless had died of starvation about three weeks earlier.
The bus from Into the Wild has become something of a destination for visitors, but its remoteness has caused problems for the nearby town of Healy, as unprepared hikers get into trouble and require rescue.
The Alaska State Troopers shooting of the Into the Wild hunter is under investigation to determine whether the use of deadly force was justified. The inquiry will be based on a reported from the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.
By Beth A. Balen