Alaska Firm Convicted in Worker’s Death Pardoned by Former Governor

A company convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the death of one of its workers, killed in an avalanche in 1999, was pardoned by former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski just days before leaving office.

Gary Stone, a 46-year-old father of five, was killed in an avalanche while on a Whitewater Engineering Corp. job site outside Cordova. Whitewater is based in Bellingham, Wash.

In a Nov. 30 letter addressed to Thom Fischer, Whitewater’s president and owner, Murkowski said: “I recognize that criminal convictions against a company has serious implications for small businesses operating in Alaska.” He said the criminal charges “seem to be excessive punishment.”

The victim’s family said that the state never notified them of the pardon, which the company had requested.

“This is a huge slap on the face,” said Stone’s daughter, Jessica Ridinger, 30, who burst into tears when told about the pardon by an Anchorage Daily News reporter.

A pardon in Alaska does not wipe the crime from the record. However, it may offer the company insurance breaks and opportunities for future federal or state jobs, legal experts said.

In his letter, Murkowski said his decision was based on “my view that this was a tragic accident caused by a snow avalanche in Alaska’s harsh climate. The imposition of criminal penalties in this case seem to be excessive punishment.”

Murkowski couldn’t be reached for comment.

The attorney general at the time the pardon went through, David Marquez, said last Friday he was unaware of the pardon. Assistant Attorney General Jay Fayette heard about Fischer’s request for a pardon before it went through and argued against it.

Fischer was initially charged personally with manslaughter in Stone’s death. That charge was dropped in return for a no-contest plea to criminally negligent homicide on behalf of the company.

Stone was working on a $15 million hydroelectric project in a valley outside Cordova. He was on a backhoe when snow slid off a 2,000-foot slope and buried him.

Workers had previously complained about the danger, and an avalanche expert hired by the company had warned Fischer there was a high probability of a serious snow slide at the site, according to a report from the state’s occupational safety agency.

Basic, required safety procedures were not followed on the site and the company exhibited gross negligence, according to information submitted by the state at the company’s sentencing. A state report said Fischer didn’t want to spend the money on a comprehensive avalanche control program.

A state judge found the company guilty of negligence in Stone’s death, fined Whitewater $150,000 and ordered the company to pay approximately $17,000 to the victim’s family. Settlement of a Stone family lawsuit left his children with about $7,000 each, family members said.

The state filed a separate lawsuit alleging multiple violations, which was resolved with an additional fine against the company.


Information from: Anchorage Daily News,