14 notable Alaska crime stories of 2018
Crime, public safety and the state's criminal justice system are topics that have been top-of-mind for Alaskans in 2018 — and a driving force in the November gubernatorial election.
Here is a collection of the most read, discussed and impactful crime stories of the year.
Not a record: Anchorage homicide count lower in 2018
The year began with violence in Anchorage with a homicide downtown, just minutes after midnight. According to the Anchorage Police Department, the murder of 39-year-old Timothy Smith at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and D Street remains unsolved.
But with more police officers than ever before in Alaska's largest city, homicides are down. APD reports 28 homicides in Anchorage to date, compared to the record of 37 set in 2017.
A spokesperson noted that Schwichtenberg's death counts as a homicide occurring in Anchorage, but the case is being investigated by Alaska State Troopers.
Anyone with information about an open homicide case in encouraged to call Anchorage police dispatch using 311, or to contact Anchorage Crime Stoppers anonymously at 907-561-STOP or through its website.
Images of violence: A bar-break brawl
Tension between members of a downtown crowd and Anchorage police officers resulted in one person being tased and four arrests in May. Images captured by business owner Russ Reno's surveillance cameras show officers forming a riot line.
"I never thought the day would come I'd see something like this in downtown Anchorage," said Reno, owner of Anchorage Downtown TourGroup.
The incident was one of several publicized as Reno and other neighbors clashed with the owners of Brown Bag Sandwich Co., over complaints fueled by the bar and sandwich shop's unruly patrons.
Brown Bag Sandwich Co. shuttered its doors for good in June.
Fairview toddler hit by stray bullet
For a Fairview father, it was a startling revelation — even the walls of his own home couldn't protect his 2-year-old daughter from violence.
The toddler was in her living room and surrounded by family when she was struck with a stray bullet intended for someone else.
Through surveillance videos, APD was able to piece together a case charging 26-year-old David M. Freeman and 26-year-old Argenis Guzman in what investigators believe was a case of road rage.
Car theft 'epidemic' target shifts to Subarus
Alaska's car theft problem, which has been referred to as an "epidemic" by lawmakers, continued to plague drivers in 2018.
APD noted trends involving repeat offenders — cases in which one defendant was charged with stealing several cars, often while out on bail for previous offenses — and waive of thefts targeting older model Subarus.
The latest data released by APD shows car thefts are up overall, but numbers dipped during the months of July, August and September. Data for the last three months of the year is expected to be released in January.
A group of Anchorage lawmakers pre-filed a bill in December that would require mandatory minimum jail time for car thieves. The measure has bipartisan support.
Senate Bill 91, Phase III: Pretrial
What happens inside courtrooms and on Alaska's streets changed on Jan. 1, 2018, with the implementation of the third and final phase of SB 91, the state's controversial crime reform law.
Alaska began using a new pretrial bail system unlike any other. Initially, the state relied heavily — and in some cases completely — on a computer-generated algorithm to make decisions about who stayed in jail and who got released back into the community before trial.
In April, KTVA's Voices of Alaska special "Catch and Release" took an in-depth look at the pretrial changes in Alaska.
In June, then Gov. Bill Walker signed House Bill 312 into law, doing away with the experimental mandatory release mechanism that drew controversy from the public and took discretion away from judges.
Since then, Alaskans have continued to question bail decisions, including the following:
Brandon Cockburn, 39, was arrested and charged in a hit and run that left 28-year-old Tyler Hughes with several broken bones. He was then released, without being required to pay any bail money up front, even though he had nine pending child pornography charges. Cockburn was later given a higher bail on the child pornography charges and taken back into custody, and has since taken a plea deal in that case.
Ryan Edwin, 22, received the highest possible score on the state's new risk assessment tool in June after an arrest for violating his conditions of release in a Seward felony case, but was released in October under an arrangement that only required him to pay $100 up front. He cut his electronic ankle monitor within 33 minutes of his release, according to the Department of Corrections, and is accused of killing a man during a drug deal a month later.
Tristan Grant, 33, was released without being required to pay any bail money after an alleged assault on his girlfriend, despite state and federal court records going as far back as 2011 that describe him as an 'extremely dangerous' felon with an affinity for firearms who frequently fails to follow conditions of release. Days later, Grant allegedly violated a court order to stay away from the victim and shot her. She is expected to recover.
The murder of a 10-year-old girl in Kotzebue
The disappearance of 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr and subsequent murder case against 41-year-old Peter Wilson sent shock waves through the community of Kotzebue.
Ashley went missing on Sept. 6. Searchers found her body on Sept. 14. An autopsy revealed "signs of trauma that include strangulation and sexual abuse," according to a statement released by the Department of Law.
Wilson is facing several state charges including murder, kidnapping, and sexual abuse of a minor, as well as federal charges of lying to the FBI.
Sex crimes in the Mat-Su
In a state that sets records for domestic violence and sexual assaults, multiple cases charging alleged sexual predators rocked Mat-Su communities in 2018.
A church-going babysitter
Seth Loggins, 27, was originally charged with sexually abusing four boys, but the victim count in the case doubled within a week of news of his arrest. A 17-count indictment against him now represents eight victims, ages ranging from as young as four to as old as 14.
He met at least one of his victims at church, and was described by parents as a family friend. Some of the victims and their families told troopers Loggins would frequently take children on trips to go bowling and visit kids' destinations like the Wonderland playground and the Extreme Fun Center in Wasilla.
During a bail hearing, Palmer prosecutor Brittany Dunlop said, "Mr. Loggins is hands down the most prolific sexual abuse of a minor offender I have seen."
Loggins' trial is set for February 2019.
A longtime teacher
Criminal sexual abuse charges filed against longtime Mat-Su Borough School District teacher Lukis Nighswonger, 36, uncovered an alleged pattern of abuse dating as far back as 2008.
Reports of inappropriate behavior in 2012 and January 2018 were unsuccessful at removing him from the classroom. Following a third report, Nighswonger was charged in September and the district terminated his employment.
According to a charging document, Nighswonger referred to himself as a pedophile and admitted he's been attracted to children as long as he can remember.
The district estimates he had contact with nearly 400 students during his 14 years of employment.
A sex offender from the past
At first glance, the July arrest of an alleged prowler in an Anchorage woman's backyard seemed run-of-the-mill, but further review of 60-year-old Thomas Warren's criminal history reveals why the case had the neighborhood on edge.
Officers found Warren was carrying a three-foot length of coiled rope. To prosecutors, the seemingly insignificant detail of his latest case is a chilling correlation to his more than three-decades-old criminal past.
Court records show Warren is a serial rapist who made no-contest pleas in the rapes of three different women in 1987, as well as an escape charge, for a sentence of 40 years. A court document summarizing the case says, "In exchange, the State dropped a number of charges, including kidnapping and the robbery charges, and agreed that it would not charge Warren in connection with nine other sexual assaults."
In November, an Anchorage grand jury indicted Warren on a class A felony charge of first-degree attempted sexual assault and one felony count of burglary following his latest arrest.
Track Palin's second attempt at Veterans Court
Former Gov. Sarah Palin’s son saw new hurdles in his attempt to put a history of violence behind him, as an alleged assault on a woman once more put him before a judge.
Track Palin, an Army veteran who served in the Iraq War, had been admitted to a specialized Veterans Court after being accused of striking his then-girlfriend in 2016 and his father last year. That all changed, however, after Palin was accused of repeatedly punching the same woman again on Sept. 28 outside his Wasilla home.
Prosecutors responded by removing Palin from Veterans Court due to what then-Anchorage District Attorney Rick Allen said “could arguably be described as an escalation in criminal behavior." That decision led a judge to order that he serve a year in custody – a sentence in the assault on his father which had been suspended, provided that he completed Veterans Court.
The murder of an APD confidential informant
In October, Alaskans got a rare glimpse into the secret, dangerous and largely unregulated work of confidential police informants following the murder of David Cargill.
Federal court documents identified 35-year-old Cargill as "APD Confidential Informant 18-3," whose body was found near the Eklutna Power Plant with multiple gunshot wounds.
Cargill was killed, allegedly at the hands of drug dealers he had worked to expose, after discovery materials that identified him were provided to the defense attorney of one of the suspect's who was out on bail.
The Department of Law and Anchorage Police insist proper protocols were followed, but refuse to answer any questions or discuss the case further, citing concerns about the safety of confidential informants.
Justice for David Grunwald: Slow and steady progress
It's been a year packed with court hearings, weeks-long jury selections, and trials for the parents of 16-year-old David Grunwald. The year produced guilty verdicts for two of the four teens charged with Grunwald's murder.
During the fourth week of Johnson's trial new, damning evidence surfaced in the form of a video showing Johnson discussing assaulting someone. The video, which investigators had known about for two years but hadn't been able to track down, had a timestamp showing it was recorded just hours before the murder.
The trial for remaining murder suspects Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro likely won't begin until late 2019.
Alaskans take matters into their own hands
Citizens are rarely encouraged or advised by law enforcement to intervene while crimes are in progress and are asked to contact police instead. However, some Alaskans took things a step further in 2018.
'You need to step out!'
In April, a group of citizens acted in concert to corral a Palmer woman who was driving recklessly on the Parks Highway.
A Facebook video appearing to depict the encounter shows a Camry swerving on the road and several drivers boxing the car in, then bringing it to a stop before they get out and urge the woman at the wheel to put the sedan in park.
"You need to step out!" drivers yell at her. "Before you kill somebody with kids – you will seriously kill somebody with kids!"
Although the stop ended safely, trooper Lt. Andrew Gorn urged people to seek help from authorities before intervening on their own.
'I bit a portion of his nose off'
When an Anchorage man caught a would-be-thief eyeing his bicycle, he confronted the suspect, who he says attacked him.
John Sponaugle says he fought back as the man stabbed him with an unidentified object. When the suspect started biting his arm, Sponaugle decided to get the man's attention with a bite to the face.
"I basically yelled out, 'Oh, you wanna bite?' and I bit a portion of his nose off. I couldn't see a piece hanging, but I do remember spitting a piece out," Sponaugle said.
Sponaugle believes the scar the bite will likely leave on the man's face is justice enough, and said he didn't care whether prosecutors pursued charges.
Murder indictments in the Royal Suite fire
One of the year’s most incendiary Anchorage cases came to light in August, when two suspects were charged with murdering three people in the horrific Royal Suite Lodge fire.
After a yearlong investigation that involved extensive federal resources, Andrew Eknaty and Carleigh Fox faced more than 60 counts in the early-morning Feb. 15, 2017 blaze that ripped through the false-alarm-prone apartments on Minnesota Drive. State prosecutors say surveillance video showed the couple parking Fox’s Chevrolet Malibu at the building’s carport, then igniting it to destroy evidence of Fox eluding Anchorage police as she drove drunk.
Three women – Vivian Hall, Teuaililo Nua and Laura Kramer – lost their lives in the resulting conflagration. Dozens of other tenants were injured or displaced, including a pregnant woman who broke her back and suffered severe burns during the fire. Both Eknaty and Fox are facing charges of first-degree assault on an unborn child; they were initially held on $500,000 bail apiece.
Justin Schneider's notorious no-jail plea deal
The now notorious no-jail time plea deal for Justin Schneider is perhaps one of Alaska's most memorable cases of 2018. While it remains to be seen, the case has the potential to effect changes to state law in 2019.
Schneider, 34, strangled a 25-year-old Alaska Native woman unconscious and masturbated on her. Through the plea agreement, prosecutors were able to require him to undergo sex offender treatment, but he will not be required to spend time incarcerated or add his name to the sex offender registry as punishment for the brutal midday assault.
The campaign 'No More Free Passes' successfully pushed for the removal of presiding Judge Michael Corey from the bench during the Nov. 6 election. In an unprecedented move, 53 percent of voters chose not to retain Judge Corey, against a recommendation for his retention from the Alaska Judicial Council.
Proposed changes to Alaska law based on Schneider's case will have bipartisan support, according to Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, who says he is pre-filing a bill that would make unwanted contact with semen a felony sex crime.
Chris Klint contributed to this report.
Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.
YOU MAY ALSO BE INTERESTED IN: