Last August, Aniak resident Joseph Yaska allegedly armed himself with an AK-47 and started to shoot at his neighbors. They ran for cover or hid in their homes. The shooting spree wounded several residents and killed Bruce “Gotor” Morgan II, age 24.
Today, Aniak is still struggling to make sense of what happened. Last Thursday, the village celebrated the life of "Gotor" Morgan with a crowded Forty Day Feast, a traditional memorial service that’s common in both Russian Orthodox and some Catholic communities.
Half the town filed into the community center to eat moose, turkey, and akutaq in his honor. Friends flew in from other villages to attend. Everyone knows everyone in a village like Aniak, and they all loved Morgan.
He was charismatic and athletic, an avid outdoorsman who loved talking to people. When he was the captain of Aniak’s high school basketball team, they won the state championship for the first time. In the early morning of August 27, Morgan planned to give a close friend and his children a ride. It was after midnight when Morgan set out to pick them up in his white truck. According to his uncle, Wayne Morgan, Gotor was just that kind of friend.
"That horrific night is not something you would ever suspect would happen in a small community," he said.
According to an affidavit filed by State Trooper Nicholas Hayes on the night that Morgan died, Aniak resident Joseph Yaska came home intoxicated and started to hit and kick his girlfriend. He then allegedly grabbed his AK-47 rifle and told her to run. Hayes wrote that Yaska, age 29, shot his girlfriend twice as she tried to get away from him, then directed his fire at Morgan’s truck. Witnesses observed Yaska firing on the truck twice: once from his porch at a distance, and once at closer range. He reportedly aimed for the seat where Morgan was sitting.
The shooting spree shocked and baffled many Aniak residents. People here know Joseph Yaska, and they didn’t see this coming. While Yaska and Gotor weren’t close, Wayne Morgan says that they were mutual acquaintances and friendly. Several people in Aniak were friends with both of them.
"You don’t expect anything like this to happen," said Wayne Morgan. "There was some drinking and domestic violence going on that got out that night, out of the house and into the community."
This isn’t the first time that Yaska’s been accused of violence. In 2011, he pled guilty to punching his girlfriend several times. In 2016 she filed a restraining order against him and claimed that he’d hurt her repeatedly; she dissolved the order about a week later. But in a message exchange yesterday, his sister, Patty Yaska, described him as a kind and funny family man. She insisted that he is not a violent person.
“Only God knows the circumstances that my brother endured, but he is the most loving father,” she wrote. “I’m very sorry and saddened by what happened that night, and what happened to Gotor. It breaks my heart.”
For the time being, Aniak residents are supporting each other; they’ve held candlelight vigils and prayed for the families involved. Wayne Morgan says that he takes some solace in Gotor's young son, an active and happy three-year-old who looks exactly like his father. He encourages Gotor's friends to speak up about what happened.
"It’s best to talk to someone and don’t hold it in," he said. "It’s no one’s fault, what happened to Gotor. His best friends might feel that they could have done something, should have done something. Please don’t feel like it was anyone’s fault."
Joseph Yaska is charged with murder in the first degree and attempted murder in the first degree, among other charges. His next hearing is scheduled for October 19.