'Unthinkable': Community reacts to recent murders of Alaska Native women
They were missing, before their loved ones learned they were murdered. Now, Alaskans across the state and those who knew Veronica Abouchuk, 53, and Kathleen Henry, 30, are still trying to process the violent nature of their deaths.
Brian Steven Smith, 48, is facing a total of 13 felony charges, as well as one misdemeanor count, in the two separate killings. The charges include murder, sexual assault, evidence tampering and misconduct involving a corpse. According to court documents, he's confessed to both murders.
Both women were Alaska Native, and part of a vulnerable population in Anchorage. They were both known to use services provided at Bean's Cafe, Anchorage's homeless shelter.
Anchorage police have not commented publicly on Smith's possible motives, but prosecutors consider him a significant public safety threat to Alaska Native and homeless women in Anchorage.
'We know our clients are preyed upon'
After shaking her head through a long pause, Bean's Cafe Executive Director Lisa Sauder found the word.
She didn't know Henry or Abouchuk personally, but knows they were once among the community Bean's Cafe serves.
"It’s appalling, it’s disturbing," she said. "It’s certainly something that we know exists in Alaska and throughout the country. If you look at recent statistics that have come out about Alaska Native and American Indian women, and the rates at which they disappear and are murdered, it’s substantially higher than their percentage of the population, so we know that those populations are being preyed upon. When it’s kind of one of your own, it’s even more painful."
Sauder said staff members at Bean's Cafe are trained to look for signs something might be off. In the past, they've alerted police about people they believed might be predators looking to prey on clients, but Smith was not known to them. She said they do all they can to help family members keep track of loved ones, including providing a message board, but it can be very difficult to know whether someone is in danger when they stop showing up.
"It’s hard for us to know if we haven’t seen somebody in a while," she explained. "We’re hopeful that, 'OK, maybe they went home, maybe they’re in treatment,' but many times we just simply don’t know."
A woman who didn't wish to be identified said she knew Veronica. She described her as, "as pleasant a person you'll ever meet."
While Gayle, a woman who said she was close with Henry, said she's heartbroken over the news and to learn Henry wasn't the only victim.
"How in the world [did] this man do this? Native women — doing this, assaulting women," she wondered in disbelief.
She described Henry as a loving girl who just wanted to go home to her village of Eek, Alaska and visit family. She also remembers Henry looking out for her and urging her to be safe. Now, she says she hopes others will heed her friend's warning.
"All the Native women around here, they need to be safe just like me," said Gayle.
As for the man police believe killed the women, she hopes he never goes free.
"I hope he’ll be in jail for the rest of his life till he dies," she said.
Shockwaves sent through AFN
Not long after word arrived that Smith had been connected to a second killing of an Alaska Native woman, the Carlson Center went silent.
Those moments were for Abouchuk as emotions over murdered and missing Indigenous women continued rising at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
State Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, said she does not want news of Abouchuk and Henry to simply become numbers added to annual crime reports.
She wants people to remember their published photos that she says add a dimension to discussing the numbers associated with their killings.
“These incidences are not just statistics,” she said. “These are real Alaskan women. These are real Alaskan women who have families who have connections to people in our state. These tragedies are really trickling down and impacting more than just these individuals, and so it’s really important for the state of Alaska to do what it needs to do to help address this issue.”
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, said, being a father of two girls, news of Henry and Abouchuk's deaths resonated with him.
“I think what it shows to me is the imbalance of protection for the vulnerable people in rural Alaska as well as when they go to Anchorage,” Olson said. “When you start seeing people that are not just traumatized but they are also victimized to the point of winding up in the morgue.”
Police in Anchorage say there are 132 unsolved homicide investigations dating back to 1966. Fourteen of those victims are Alaska Native women. APD data since 2009 shows there are 22 unsolved missing persons reports where the victim is an Alaska Native woman out of the 149 investigations.
According to an Urban Indian Health Institute report, released late last year, more than 5,700 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women were reported in 2016. Of those, 116 got entered into a Justice Department database.
Zulkosky chairs the House Committee on Tribal Affairs, a newly formed seven-person panel assembled in February.
During the recent regular legislative session, Zulkosky devoted two hearings to discuss missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“On the drive to the Carlson Center this morning,” she said. “I felt a sense of heaviness and real heartbreak for these women who have done through such horrific experiences. It’s hard to explain, but I feel a sense of burden and a sense of responsibility in making sure we provide whatever resources we can to help address this issue.”
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, resources are available on the Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) website or by calling the statewide crisis hotline at (800) 478-8999.
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