12 Iditarod Mushers Who Have Skeletons in Their Closets

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5 min read

Strip away the hype, and it’s easy to see that the abuse inflicted on dogs in the Iditarod is criminally cruel: 150 dogs have died as a result of being forced to run about 100 miles a day through blinding snowstorms, treacherous terrain, and harsh winds for 10 days straight.

sled dogs running in snow

Countless others suffer and die off the trail: A PETA eyewitness investigation of kennels owned by Iditarod winners revealed that many dogs were so thin their bones were showing. One was limping from chronic arthritis. Mushers—or dogsled drivers—routinely fed them moldy meat and denied them water during training.

A study conducted by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts SPCA found that people who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against humans—so it’s no surprise that many Iditarod mushers also have a criminal history of aggression aside from what they do to dogs on these grueling trails. After all, if mushers are capable of killing dogs when they are no longer “useful” to the industry, it begs the question: What other atrocities are they capable of? Well, PETA knows that these 12 Iditarod mushers have allegedly committed criminal acts—and it’s time we called them out.

Long Records of Abusing, Neglecting, or Killing Animals

John T. Hessert

After racing in the 2005 Iditarod, John Hessert was charged with the felony of aggravated cruelty to animals and 33 counts of cruelty to animals after abandoning 33 huskies who suffered from frostbite, malnutrition, cracked feet, and infection. A veterinarian found that the dogs were “well below normal health” and underfed—one of the dogs had a collar embedded in their neck.

Frank Winkler

After musher Frank Winkler raced in the 1989 and 1990 Iditarod, he allegedly bludgeoned puppies with the blunt end of an ax. He was charged with 14 counts of cruelty to animals after an animal control officer found a crate of dead and dying puppies in his truck. According to him, he shot some of the dogs at the suggestion of other mushers—which isn’t surprising to PETA, as other whistleblowers have alleged that killing unwanted puppies is an industry standard.

Jerry Riley

After 1976 Iditarod winner Jerry Riley hit and killed a dog with a steel snow hook (a large, sharp metal claw) during the race, the musher was supposedly banned “for life.” Just ten years later, he was allowed back in the race.

Jeff King

Long-time musher Jeff King won the Iditarod’s “Humanitarian Award”—clearly a meaningless title. King was found guilty of illegally killing a moose at Denali National Park and Preserve, which did not affect him from participating in the subsequent Iditarod races. In 2016, a snowmobile crash killed one dog and injured at least two others under King’s care.

From Rape to Domestic Violence—Some Mushers Allegedly Turned Their Aggression Toward Humans

Eddie Burke Jr. and Brent Sass

Iditarod officials initially failed to act after two mushers slated to compete in the 2024 race were asked to withdraw from the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race over allegations of having abused women.

Following media reports on the accusations, the Iditarod Trail Committee announced that 2023 Rookie of the Year Eddie Burke Jr.—who had been facing charges of domestic violence–related assault—would be disqualified. Just days later, he was reinstated after the charges were dismissed because the alleged victim reportedly declined to participate in the state’s prosecution.

Iditarod officials later disqualified Brent Sass—who finished first in 2022’s race—after the state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates in Alaska told the committee that multiple women had accused him of sexual assault.

Carmen Perzechino

A Kenai jury recently found former Iditarod musher Carmen Perzechino guilty of kidnapping and rape. The attack occurred in 2001—three years before the criminal forced dogs to race in the Iditarod.

Jeffery K. Holt

A jury sentenced Jeffrey K. Holt to 20 years in jail for sexually assaulting a “friend.” The convicted rapist raced in the Iditarod three times in 2005, 2007, and 2009.

Travis Beals

Beals raced in the Iditarod almost consecutively from 2013 to 2020—save for the 2017 race, in which he was banned for his charges of domestic violence. The Iditarod Trail Committee Board allowed him to run in all subsequent years since (including in 2021), and he’s even gone on to make over $120,000 during these races.

Jerry Sousa

Sousa, who raced in the Iditarod for 11 consecutive years from 2002-2013 (and again in 2015), was charged with assault in an incident involving Alaska State Troopers. Sousa fired a gun while driving a four-wheeler on their land. The troopers met Sousa at his cabin’s front door, where he was naked and holding a revolver.

Rohn Buser

The son of one of the men on PETA’s “worst Iditarod mushers” list, Rohn Buser took police on a car chase that ended in an hour-long stand-off. Even after this, he was a musher in the 2012 and 2015 Iditarod races.

Driving Under the Influence and Racing on Meth

Lance Mackey

Police arrested Lance Mackey (winner of the Iditarod’s “Most Inspirational Musher” in 2002) for driving under the influence. The Iditarod didn’t let this—or the fact that he ran two young dogs to death in the 2015 race—stop the musher from continuing to race. In 2020, the Iditarod disqualified Mackey after he tested positive for meth while on the course.

YOU Can Help Protect Dogs From the Iditarod’s Systemic Abuse—Take Action Now!

The Iditarod could take a stand against these criminal offenses by banning convicted mushers from racing, but instead it celebrates, pays, and enables them. And it does the same thing when it winks at mushers’ systemic abuse of dogs who don’t want to run thousands of miles in subzero temperatures. It’s up to each of us to take an ethical stand by speaking out against the Iditarod, and hitting it where it hurts—by telling companies like Liberty Media to stop sponsoring the Iditarod race.

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