Editor’s note: The following story contains accounts of domestic violence that may be disturbing or upsetting to some readers.
WASILLA — A veteran Iditarod musher accused of multiple domestic violence incidents against another musher in 2015 was allowed by race officials to participate in the 2016 event.
Race marshal Mark Nordman said he investigated the allegations against 24-year-old Travis Beals but felt no sanction was warranted against the Seward musher, who was on probation for a May, 2015 domestic violence conviction during the 2016 Iditarod.
Nordman said he was alerted to allegations against Beals before the race and investigated the charges himself.
“Turning to the Travis Beals questions, the short answer is yes, Iditarod was aware of allegations of domestic violence involving him and another musher signed up to run the 2016 race,” Nordman wrote in an email sent through the race’s public relations firm.
In a follow-up interview at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, Nordman and Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley said they were only aware of the pending assault case against Beals, and didn’t know the 24-year-old was on probation for a May conviction. They said the other allegations of abuse against Beals were not uncovered during the investigation and that they were advised that Beals should be allowed to participate until the case was settled.
According to publicly available court documents, in May of 2015, Travis Beals’ father, Mark, called Alaska State Troopers to report an argument between his son and a 28-year-old woman after the woman called asking for help with Travis. When the trooper investigating the case contacted her, the woman said the incident started when Travis Beals woke up angry and couldn’t be consoled. The woman told trooper Eric Jeffords that Beals punched a hole in the wall, turned over a dresser and put her in fear he might do even worse.
She also told the trooper he’d hurt her before, including an incident in which he hit her and broke her arm. That assault was not reported to troopers at the time.
When Jeffords contacted Beals, he admitted he’d had “a mental breakdown” and said he and the woman had physical altercations in the past.
When Jeffords spoke with the woman, she told the trooper the abuse had been ongoing.
“(The woman) stated Travis is like two different people,” Jeffords wrote in the criminal complaint. “(She) stated she just doesn’t want to live in fear anymore.”
Beals was charged with fourth-degree assault pleaded guilty to lesser charge of the fifth-degree domestic violence criminal mischief. He was sentenced in July 2015 to 90 days in jail with 90 days suspended and placed on a year’s probation.
In December 2015, Beals was again in trouble with the law after the same woman called troopers following an incident at a cabin in Willow. According to charging documents in the case, the woman said she locked herself inside the cabin after the couple argued about their dog team. Beals allegedly climbed through a window, put her in a headlock and led her to the door. The woman told trooper Wallace Kirksey she was scared Beals would hurt her again and that Beals had shoved her out the door and smashed her Samsung Galaxy on the ground.
Both Beals and the woman — whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy — completed the 2016 Iditarod. Beals finished 18th and won nearly $17,000.
When asked why Beals was allowed to compete in the race despite multiple accusations and a conviction for domestic violence against a fellow musher, Nordman said the December incident in Willow was still going through the court system, and at the time of this year’s race had not yet been decided.
“There is no doubt the allegations against Travis are serious, but as one colleague pointed out, his case remains pending and he is presumed innocent, unless and until judge or jury decides otherwise,” Nordman wrote. “Until the case reaches that point, Iditarod believes it best to leave it to the police, the district attorney and court to resolve the matter.”
Several Iditarod mushers — including race veterans, rookies and at least two former champions — either declined to comment for this story or failed to return numerous phone and online messages seeking comment. Beals could not be reached for comment and the woman who accused him of domestic violence said she did not want a newspaper story written about the situation.
The allegations are the latest in a cascade of negative publicity surrounding the race, which took criticism even before the event began after introducing a new personal conduct policy designed to keep racers from saying anything negative about the Iditarod or its sponsors. During a pre-race press conference, a female reporter asked race executive director Stan Hooley why the race needed to institute what she called a “gag order.”
“Obviously we don’t call it a gag order, we call it a personal conduct policy and my experience is that a lot of other sport organizations have similar policies,” Hooley replied.
“Why do it?” the reported called out.
“I think we have an interest in maintaining a positive public image for people that are engaged and involved in this race,” he said.
Hooley said the policy is necessary from “a support standpoint,” and to protect “the image of this event.”
During the briefing, Nordman said the mushers themselves “demanded” that the policy be put in place.
“This wasn’t just spun out of the board of directors or the rules committee, this was spun out of the mushers themselves. Any other sporting event — and they all want this to be a major sporting event — has some kind of personal conduct code,” he said. “When we talk about getting information from mushers and everything else, what I’m saying, my word for this race is respect.”
Nordman’s choice of the word respect raised a few eyebrows in the room at the time. The phrase “Real Alaska Men Choose Respect” is the centerpiece of a well-known state program started in 2008 by then-Gov. Sean Parnell to address Alaska’s rate of crimes against women. According to the 2015 Alaska Victimization Survey by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, out of every 100 women living in Alaska, 40 have experienced intimate partner violence, 33 have experienced sexual violence, and 50 have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both.
Nordman explained during the meeting that the Iditarod’s personal conduct policy was put in place to ensure mushers weren’t talking about their concerns about other mushers to anyone but him.
“If there’s a problem with something they should come to me, not anybody else,” he said. “This is a rule that’s in every other sporting event and my mushers are demanding that we boost this sport up a bit and to make sure we’re all respectful with everybody. That’s the reason for it.”
Before steering away from the topic, Nordman made it clear where the ultimate race authority lies and said he is responsible for weeding out bad influences who might lack the proper respect for the 44-year-old race. He reiterated the fact that a musher can be barred from racing for any reason.
“If people are not respectful to these events, we don’t have to accept any entry,” Nordman said.
In the past, mushers have been barred from competing in the race for infractions as minor as showing up at the starting line with an iPod Touch. The musher in that incident was not convicted or charged with any crimes for carrying the handheld device, which is capable of playing music and connecting via Wi-Fi to the internet. However, contact with the outside world via cellphone or internet during the race is against race rules.
Nordman emphasized the fact that running the Iditarod isn’t something mushers should take for granted and issued a warning to anyone who might damage the Iditarod brand on his watch.
“If you’re a negative person and not toeing the line on promoting this race, we don’t have to accept your entry. It’s not a God-given right to run this race, it’s a privilege.”
The 2016 race itself was marred by allegations of wrongdoing on the part of fans. According to troopers, mushers Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle were separately attacked by a man riding a snowmachine, which they say killed one of King’s dogs during a collision. After the race ended, independent journalist Craig Medred wrote a story disclosing a separate attack on the trail to a 28-year-old female musher. Troopers are investigating the accusation by the woman that she was inappropriately groped by two men she encountered along the trail.
Medred’s website — craigmedred.news — also broke the story of the domestic violence allegations against Beals.
Nordman said he was told by “various sources” about violence-related issues with the musher, which he investigated before the start of the race in March.
“In January I confirmed a complaint alleging domestic violence was filed in the Palmer District Court. I received a copy of the formal Complaint, and accessed the court file through the public record. Travis was arraigned in December and the case remains unresolved. Many of his court hearings are part of a court diversionary program wherein confidentiality prohibits full file access. From what is public, however, and relevant to this response, is the Palmer District Attorneys charged Travis and a Palmer judge released him on bond. As I understand the process, victims have the right to be heard when a judge sets bail, as is the District Attorney. When bail is set, in addition to victim input, the Judge considers a defendant’s criminal history, potential risk to the victim and to the community generally. Nothing in Travis’s bail conditions, no condition the court imposed, prevented Travis from running the race.
“The Iditarod (and I) have the highest level of confidence in Alaska’s law enforcement community and we defer to the integrity and expertise of the Alaska Judicial System in all respects. The allegations Travis faces were investigated by Alaska law enforcement, the case is being prosecuted by Palmer District Attorney’s Office and the Alaska District Court will adjudicate the case to its conclusion. For Iditarod to second guess the decisions made by the Palmer Court would be irresponsible and arrogant. When I looked into the matter earlier in the year and as I send you this response, Iditarod has full faith in our law enforcement and courts. We therefore defer to (the) decision made there.
“Finally, and to be thorough with my response, there is no doubt the allegations against Travis are serious, but as one colleague pointed out, his case remains pending and he is presumed innocent, unless and until judge or jury decides otherwise. Until the case reaches that point, Iditarod believes it best to leave it to the police, the district attorney and court to resolve the matter.”
After learning of the December allegations from a newspaper reporter, Nordman said the Iditarod would be looking into whether further sanctions are warranted against Beals. He said the case has caused race officials to talk about the issue of domestic violence on “a daily basis.”
Beals is scheduled to have a hearing in Palmer court on Tuesday.
Experts on domestic violence say there are numerous places for battered partners to turn for help, including 18 domestic violence and/or sexual assault programs statewide. For more information, visit andvsa.org. In Anchorage, the Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC) group can be reached at (907) 272-0100 or online at awaic.org. Also in Anchorage, Standing Together against Rape offers services for abuse victims by calling (907) 276-7273 or 1-800-478-8999 or online at staralaska.com. Anyone seeking emergency assistance from law enforcement should call 911.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been altered to reflect the fact that Beals was originally charged with assault in May and later pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of criminal mischief. A previous version stated he was initially charged with both crimes.
Contact Frontiersman editor Matt Tunseth at firstname.lastname@example.org