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Sunday, September 25, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Trail Grows Cold For Joe Vogler: Missing, No Body Found

Chicago Tribune

FAIRBANKS - Whether he was railing against the U.S. government or branding his enemies "posy-sniffing swine," the cantankerous Joe Vogler always captured people's attention here on the edge of the Alaskan bush.

For the last 15 months, however, nothing has enthralled Alaska more than his silence.

The 80-year-old miner and founder of the Alaskan Independence Party disappeared from his Fairbanks home on Memorial Day 1993. Ever since, Alaska has buzzed with conspiracy theories about the mysterious fate of the old man who led the campaign for the 49th state's secession from the union.

It wasn't long after Vogler, his fedora hat and his .22-caliber pistol turned up missing that the rumor mill got into full swing. Some said federal agents finally had shut him up. Others said enemies in his own party wanted him out of the way. Or maybe he was killed for his gold.

The mystery appeared solved last spring when a convict named Manfred West, under siege by police, confessed to killing Vogler, just before trying to blow himself up.

But after a miraculous survival West recanted, and now the conspiracy theorists are as busy as ever.

Police still believe West killed Vogler. But a wider plot is the hot topic at such Fairbanks hangouts as Sourdough Sam's Cafe. "Where's Joe?" posters are popping up again at county fairgrounds as searches for Vogler's body continue unabated.

"With the escapades of this West character, we thought we were

close. But now once again we've been disappointed," said Lynn Vogler, Joe's nephew. "It's still on a lot of people's minds.

Outspoken Joe Vogler was a hero to many Alaskans, especially in Fairbanks, where a last-outpost image still attracts fortune hunters and exiles from the "Lower 48" so suspicious of authority that they perceive evil plots behind his disappearance.

A jumping-off point for miners, trappers and other backwoods types, Fairbanks is a place where they call their more sophisticated neighbor to the south "Los Anchorage," and they don't mean it as a compliment.

Vogler moved to Alaska from his family's Kansas farm in 1942 and quickly made a name for himself as a defender of the individual's right to do as he pleases without government interference.

Like many Alaskan miners, he was in constant battle with U.S. officials about access to his gold claims on federally managed land.

He distrusted U.S. currency and telephones, saying he put his faith only in gold, real estate and "yellow scrap iron." That was his name for Caterpillar tractors, on which he loved to ride over federal land and mow down aspen trees. He often said he would love to shoot Alaska's last pregnant wolf right in front of the president.

Author John McPhee once described Vogler as a generous man with a permanent squint, always threatening bodily harm to federal officials.

Vogler was a "cartoon Alaskan, self-drawn: a part-time politician with strong attitudes and a stronger - not to say incendiary - way of expressing them," McPhee wrote. "Joe's violence was entirely in his rhetoric, though."

Fervent in his belief that the United States exploited Alaska like a colony, Vogler in 1973 founded his Alaskan Independence Party to demand a vote on whether Alaska should remain part of the United States. His runs for governor in 1974 and 1986 helped decide close elections, and in 1990 Vogler helped Gov. Walter Hickel win by allowing him to run on the party's ticket.

Vogler swore he would not be buried on U.S. soil. So when he disappeared, many guessed he might have committed suicide in Canada, where he buried his wife, Doris, in 1992. But friends discounted that possibility after finding his prized dogs and pet geese unattended.

Since Vogler's gold claims reportedly were worth millions, police began investigating whether someone was after his money.

As the mystery deepened, Vogler's political allies began pointing fingers at each other, and FBI officials felt compelled to deny they had had anything to do with his disappearance.

In May, a year after Vogler's disappearance, police got a break when they cornered West in his stepbrother's home up the road from Vogler's house. West recently had been released from a halfway house where he was serving time for violating probation and writing bad checks.

Surrounded and claiming to be armed, West told a state trooper over the phone that he had shot Vogler in self-defense after an argument about explosives Vogler wanted to buy. West then set the house on fire, but police pulled him from the rubble with barely a scratch.

West, 38, now insists he was lying and only seeking attention. But police believe he killed Vogler in a simple robbery attempt.

"He's the guy," said State Police Sgt. Jim McGann. "There's always the possibility that someone else was involved, but 9 times out of 10 you don't have these big conspiracies."

Without Vogler's body, however, police have failed to persuade his family and many others in Alaska that West acted alone.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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