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The legend of Genghis Muskox: How a Minneapolis adventurer ended up murdered on the Alaskan frontier

Ryan Warner

Ryan Warner

Days after Genghis Muskox died in a remote town in southern Alaska, a to-do list was found in his cabin. Among the items: “Tan horse hide,” “yoga, start,” and the ambitious “learn celestial navigation.”

The latter reflected his grand plan to build a sailboat with wood from his father’s tree farm, which he would captain through the Great Lakes, then across the globe.

The experienced sailor and fisherman spent years planning this ultimate pursuit of liberty. Now it would become just a footnote of his 27 years.

Genghis was something of a folk hero within a certain subset: a wild man with a wild name who could turn big, outlandish ideas into realities. Some saw similarities to Christopher McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Both had a propensity to leave behind their lives on a whim. Both were sometimes reckless and exhibited a thirst for high-stakes adventure. And both met tragic demises in the wilderness of Alaska.

But Genghis was flashier than McCandless, with more expertise. This was no meandering, ill-prepared novice. Still, the two men were propelled by sheer force of will without glancing back at practicality. Olivia Engel, a friend of Genghis’, puts it mildly when she says, “A sense of movement made him more content with life than any kind of place or situation.”

Genghis grew up in north Minneapolis. The home had no television, so he developed a love of more traditional hobbies. He began fishing as a toddler and spinning his own wool at six. He went on to make leather moccasins from deer hide, build bicycles from scratch, fashion knives and bows from raw materials.

Erin Cuff

Erin Cuff

One passion tended to bounce to the next, says his mother, Susan, who runs an organic cafe in Minneapolis. “He would just decide that there were certain things he wanted to do, and he would get books and learn how to do them.”

Adds father John, a carpenter: “He would accomplish something, like he made six or seven bows, then on to the next thing.”

Middle school brought restlessness. At age 14, Genghis once hitchhiked to Pipestone, Minnesota to quarry stone for a peace pipe. He spent more and more time exploring Minneapolis on his bicycle. It wasn’t long before he emancipated himself to pursue greater adventures.

Genghis’ parents were mostly supportive of his endeavors, save for the time he wanted to grow marijuana in their home, John recalls. “Then he left home at 15 and a half and lived on his own after that. He quit school.”

Susan and John understood their son’s wanderlust—that it was of no use to fight such a strong-headed boy. So they acquiesced.

Genghis saved money from odd kitchen jobs and moved to the Alaskan frontier town of Cooper Landing, reputed to be one of the best fly-fishing locales in the world. Yet the move was short-lived when he contracted shingles and was forced to return home.

At 17, he launched a solo kayaking adventure the length of the Mississippi River. Susan remembers dropping him off at the headwaters in Itasca. “We put him in the water and watched him move away and I thought, ‘How is he going to find his way?’” Three months later he was in New Orleans.

“Going down the Mississippi was fucking the most powerful and the most beautiful part of my life to this day,” Genghis would later say in a video he made. “And there’s no way I could ever reproduce the feelings of self-discovery and the kindness of the American people I saw on that river. And I fell in love with the country.”

He spent time in New Orleans, then returned to Minnesota to save for his next quest: a solo bicycle trip across Europe, pedaling from Amsterdam to Oslo, where he’d find himself working on a sheep farm off the coast of Norway.

He would later train to become a boxer, attempt to start a clothing company after honing his sewing skills while working for a tailor, then move again to Alaska, a plan aborted when he couldn’t find winter work.

After his second stint in Alaska, Genghis retreated to San Francisco. He slept on a cheap sailboat, his resourcefulness allowing him to live in America’s most expensive city while paying a dock fee of only a few hundred dollars a month.

Genghis was gregarious by nature. He had a natural ability to connect with others regardless of background or philosophy, inspiring the people he met to offer a place to stay or a bottle to share.

“Above all Genghis was a people-pleaser,” says friend Olivia Engel. “He wanted to meet everyone. He wanted to talk to everyone. He was always really curious about people who had different lives than him.”

At one point he sold his boat to fund an expedition to Colombia. But his adventures became less frequent, and they didn’t always pan out.

Genghis had been living hard for years. Matching his thirst for adventure was a sense that life was a party, and he drank almost every day. He’d done so since his teens. While he was self-aware enough to realize he had a problem, he was reluctant to change.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Paul Vermillion, 32, is led out of the courtroom to be remanded to jail during a hearing on Thursday, April 7, 2016 at the Kenai Courthouse in Kenai, Alaska. During a hearing on Monday, April 4, Vermillion pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter for the 2013 death of Genghis Muskox in Cooper Landing.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Paul Vermillion, 32, is led out of the courtroom to be remanded to jail during a hearing on Thursday, April 7, 2016 at the Kenai Courthouse in Kenai, Alaska. During a hearing on Monday, April 4, Vermillion pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter for the 2013 death of Genghis Muskox in Cooper Landing.

“He cried to me on multiple occasions that he didn’t like being an alcoholic and he wanted to change,” says on-again, off-again girlfriend Jenna Miller. “But he was very proud, and he didn’t want to ask for help.”

Feeling stuck in a San Franciscan rut and unwilling to make the life changes needed to build the boat of his dreams, he once again returned to Cooper Landing in the spring of 2013. The town, located at the center of Alaska’s Kenia Peninsula, is an outdoorsman’s paradise, where tourists come to fish, hike, and raft the Kenia River. Genghis rented a small cabin close to the shore and found work in landscaping and kitchens.

It was a promising new beginning, but an arrest for a DUI stole his mobility, making the tiny town feel even more remote. Sixty miles removed from the next nearest town in both directions, Genghis was limited to walking a stretch of highway that straddles Cooper Landing.

Still, he was determined to stick it out. He invited his father and Tommy Dixon, his best friend from Minneapolis, to visit during Alaska’s summer season, when the sun virtually never sets. Here, Genghis was his old, adventurous self. He and Tommy set out on a canoe trip through the northern wilds.

“The most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life was on that canoe trip,” says Dixon. “It was close to midnight and the sun had just set and the full moon was rising in between the mountains. Coming around a river bank there were three grizzly bears each eating their own salmon. We were floating by silent and it was like totally going back in time to before humans kind of fucked up the world.”

It was around this time that Genghis encountered Paul Vermillion, an unemployed Iraq war vet living in his parents’ half-million-dollar vacation home a stone’s throw from Genghis’ cabin.

Paul was a military brat who spent his formative years moving from base to base following his father, an Army surgeon who would go on to make millions in private practice.

During his deployment, Paul’s 101st Airborne Division fought to secure a dangerous strip of land known as the Triangle of Death. By the end of the tour his platoon would become a notorious black eye for the military after four members left the base one night outside the town of Yusufiyah and committed horrific crimes. They were later convicted for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and the deaths of her family.

Paul had no role in these crimes, yet they reflected the conditions orbiting the platoon. Fellow soldier Justin Watt, a whistleblower in the murder case, describes the darkest aspects of that tour: “I’ve seen women die. I’ve seen dead kids. You name it, I saw it. Nothing was shocking to me anymore. And that goes for all of us.”

Watt claims that Paul stood up for him during the murder investigation after some in the platoon turned hostile, believing his testimony brought unwanted attention. He says Paul was a brave soldier, if reckless at times, recalling the time he manned a machine gun without protective armor.

John Diem, Paul’s team lead in Iraq, claims Paul could also be a bit trigger-happy. “There’s a point where risk aversion becomes cowardice. Then there’s a point where risk acceptance becomes stupidity, and for him it was almost pathological. He didn’t see the downside of using violence to solve problems. Even if it was outside of common sense.”

With or without this defect still lurking in him, Paul would struggle to find purpose once he returned to Alaska. (He did not respond to interview requests.)

Genghis and Paul appeared to have little in common, but Genghis often befriended people far different than him. And there were connections. Both were outdoorsmen. Both were alcoholics with recent DUIs. Both were more or less alone in the largest state in America, stubbornly stuck in their stations.

Without transport, they spent long nights together joking and arguing. Genghis would occasionally sleep at Paul’s when he was too drunk to walk home.

Yet Paul Vermillion had deeper problems he couldn’t dodge. Two IED attacks left him with a traumatic brain injury, and he likely had PTSD. On the surface, he could be kind and polite, but he could also become combative. The nearest VA facility was hours away in Anchorage, and Paul wasn’t motivated enough to seek treatment.

He developed a reputation for being a loose cannon. One night he obliviously dropped a loaded handgun on the floor of a Cooper Landing restaurant, never bothering to pick it up. Gossip spread.

Sean Parsons, a town resident who knew both men, remembers Paul’s frequent texts, asking him to hunt and fish. But Parsons was wary: “Didn’t seem like something I wanted to do, spend a whole lot of time with him. He had a strange relationship with violence, I would say. Just a different way of looking at things.”

He believed Paul was unraveling, sinking into mental “crisis.”

That fall, Paul was drinking at all hours, and was accused of beating up his brother. Then came the night when he pulled a gun on Genghis.

Genghis “told me that they had been hanging out at the Vermillion house and they had drank quite a bit,” Jenna Miller would later say in court.

“They had been sitting in the hot tub, looking up at the stars, enjoying themselves and having a pleasant evening. Paul went to go inside, and Genghis stayed in the hot tub. And when Genghis went in to dry off and get dressed, Paul was standing there with a gun in his hand. Genghis said he had this look on his face like he was snarling, like he was just full of animosity. He said it was just like a switch had flipped, that Paul had gone from being a very jovial person and fun to be around to holding a gun, pointing it at Genghis and snarling, ‘Get out of my house.’”

Parsons thought Genghis surely had “sense enough not to ever go back to that house. When someone pulls a gun on me, I consider it a divorce. I’m done. I guess maybe you get isolated up here.”

But the two men patched up their friendship. Genghis would spend Thanksgiving of 2013 with Vermillion—only to see their relationship abruptly veer again.

On December 4, they started drinking early, according to a liquor store clerk who sold alcohol to both men. They spent the night at Paul’s. Around 10:30 p.m., Genghis received a call from Jenna Miller.

“He answered the phone and before he said anything he was chuckling.... He says, ‘I just poured beer into Paul’s mouth.’ They’re already intoxicated—that’s clear enough. And then he said, ‘I love you’ and I said ‘bye’ and hung up.”

The alcohol pouring likely incited an argument. Furniture was knocked around. There may have been a fist fight or wrestling.

Then things took a serious turn. Paul grabbed an ice ax and began to hit Genghis.

Genghis’ cries were loud enough for neighbor Cheryl James to hear. “I heard a yell for help,” she says. But she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation and failed to call police.

Crime scene photos showed bloody knee prints on the carpet, as if tracks left from a cross-country skier, as Genghis crawled to a bedroom.

Paul followed holding a 12-gauge shotgun. He shot his friend point-blank in the head.

Genghis was killed instantly. But Paul retrieved another gun, this one a 30-aught-6, and shot Genghis in the head at least once more.

It’s impossible to know how many bullets hit because Genghis was so badly disfigured, Austin McDonald, an investigator with the Alaska state troopers, would later testify in court. Yet it was likely more than two. “There were more expended shell casings than that.”
After the murder, Paul made himself a drink. He called his mother and offered a vague description of the incident, saying he reacted in self-defense. It would take two hours for him to call police.

“I killed somebody,” he told the dispatcher.

“What do you mean you killed somebody? What happened?”

“I was being beat up and I didn’t know what to do. The next thing I know I’m calling you guys.”

“Where is the person now?”

“They’re dead on the floor.”

When police arrived, Paul invoked military language to describe the death. “I executed the threat…,” he told an officer. “I eliminated the target… I survived and I was ready to move on to the next mission.”

As the dust settled in Cooper Landing, Paul was booked at a police station 45 minutes away, placed in a cell with fellow inmate Beau Reed.

Reed would later say that Paul confessed to the murder. “It was basically an argument. He felt threatened. He grabbed his gun. He came out and killed him. Someone like that, they’re not going fight hands up and shit. He’s just going to kill your ass.”

Reed offered to testify, but later refused when a deal to lessen the time in own case—involving burglary and possession of a stolen gun—was taken off the table.

Still, Paul appeared to be looking at a case of intentional murder.

“At some point the ice ax was tossed aside, and the shotgun was brought into the picture and he was killed,” said Judge Charles Huguelet during one hearing. “And then Mr. Vermillion got another gun, a 30-aught-6, and went in and put another round through his head. The ice ax, the shotgun, and the 30-aught-6 used in combination suggests rage to me.”

Paul’s bail was set at a million dollars, which his family promptly paid. He remained free with an ankle monitor for the next two and a half years while the case wended its way through court.

In the end, he would plead to just one count of manslaughter.

Prosecutor Scot Leaders declined to say why he took the deal, but problems in the state’s case were visible. There were no witnesses. Descriptions of Paul’s behavior before the murder were dismissed as hearsay. Defense lawyers cast doubt on detectives’ version of evidence from the scene. Beau Reed’s testimony to a supposed confession was gone. The state, it appears, decided to take the sure thing.

For those who believed Paul was clearly guilty of murder, the deal came as a shock. Former Alaska prosecutor Taylor Winstead worked on the case on behalf of a victims’ rights group.

“The deal wasn’t on the horizon at all,” she says. “It came about last minute on the brink of trial.... As I understand it, they didn’t really follow the best protocol. While prosecutors have the discretion to charge however they wish to charge and to resolve however they wish to resolve, it seemed like a huge drop from the murder one down to manslaughter…. Somebody was killed, murdered. I was surprised, that’s all I can basically say.”

Paul was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he was released in April after two and a half years, for reasons unique to Alaska. The Legislature had reduced punishment for crimes below first- and second-degree murder. The law was in part due to slumping oil prices, which Alaska heavily relies on to fund its government. Slashing the costs of its justice system offered reprieve from the freefall. Paul was also given credit for good behavior and time served while out on bail.

Craig Medred, a former reporter for the Alaska Dispatch News, believes the outcome was also due to the Vermillion family’s wealth. Paul had money to burn on lawyers, he senses, easily overmatching the cash-strapped state.

“The case clearly got handled differently and it clearly involved the fact the family had money.”

John Diem, Paul’s team leader in Iraq, believes Paul was a time bomb all along. When asked if he was surprised to hear of the murder, he stated, “No, not at all. He’s one of those people with a character flaw that just the right amount of stress and just the right amount of bad luck was going to break it open. He’s one of those people with a big crack in their moral compass just waiting for the right things to kind of align.”

“I don’t think there was anyone here who had any doubt that Vermillion was guilty,” adds Medred. “...Vermillion is kind of really fucked up. Totally fucked up. Whether the military did that… I don’t know. Who knows what the hell happened? The fact of the matter is we know it was a pretty horrific murder. What transpired leading up to it, I have no idea. Every sign of that murder is a guy who lost it. The behavior’s just so extreme. It’s someone emotionally disconnected and operating on things you and I don’t understand. ”

The case remains divisive in Alaska. While there are a great many who believe Paul got a slap on the wrist, there are also those who believe he was protected by the state’s Stand Your Ground law, and should have received no jail time at all.

Whatever the outcome, the loss of a spirit like Genghis Muskox remains. Friends and family not only grieve for him, but for his pursuit of adventure and ambition at large. His was a legacy of hunting big dreams and creating on your own terms, powered exclusively by determination. He had his faults—few doubt he’d still be alive if he’d quit drinking—but he also had a certain magic.

“It’s hard just losing someone who had a life like that,” says friend Olivia Engel. “Someone who shaped my life in a big way. Someone who taught me a lot of things, like how to push yourself and to be the person you want to be and going after the things you want to accomplish in your life. It’s hard to accept the death of someone like that. Someone you looked up to in a certain way, who just does and accomplishes, and just gets through all the bullshit and just does.”

Cooper Landing resident Al Fleetwood, 95, offers a similar sentiment. He had a hand in founding Alaska, and also created the Alaska State Bank. Like Genghis, Fleetwood is a thrill-seeker, skydiving until age 90.

Genghis used to check in on Fleetwood’s dying wife. “I miss him more than I miss anybody,” Fleetwood says.

Though he’s lived a fascinating life in America’s last frontier, amassing an untold fortune, Fleetwood nonetheless told the Alaska Dispatch News: “If only I had the guts when I was young to live the way he did.”