‘There are murderers among us’: Homicide case fuels tension, anger in Seward
With tears in her eyes and a wavering voice, Brooke Andrews took the podium to deliver citizen comments inside the council chambers at Seward's City Hall Monday night.
"There are murderers among us," she told the packed room.
Alaskans in Seward want to feel safe, she told the council. Her statements were met with applause.
Earlier in the day, holding a ceramic, coffee-filled mug, Andrews sat shielded from Monday morning’s gloomy weather inside the walls of the Resurrection Lutheran Church in Seward.
“Preston grew up in this church,” she said with a smile.
She described her nephew, 21-year-old Preston Atwood, as an amazing guy who loved his family and music.
But her smile faded and her eyes started to look teary as she talked about what he would think about what’s happening in the community of Seward now — 64 days after he disappeared.
“He would be absolutely devastated at how his family is hurting,” Andrews said.
Atwood was reported missing after not being seen since Aug. 25, when he was said to have been at Fourth of July beach. According to a missing person bulletin, he was also reported to have been seen the afternoon of Aug. 27 at Two Lakes Park, near the entrance by First Lake. His body was found the following Friday, according to Andrews.
Despite being asked by police to say “no comment” to local journalists inquiring about Atwood’s death, Andrews said she has broken the family’s silence with the blessing of Atwood’s parents.
They want answers — and arrests.
"There’s a lot of fear and anxiety in our town right now as these people live their lives."
“There’s so much anger. Uneasiness. Now that I’ve spoken out, paranoia,” she admitted. “I’ve had several people reach out and tell me that I’d better be watching my back."
The warnings are out of friendly concern, she clarified, but they’re still unnerving.
Wednesday afternoon, amid mounting public pressure, swirling rumors and frustration from family members, Seward Police Chief Tom Clemons confirmed the findings of SPD’s investigation into Atwood’s death have been turned over to the Kenai District Attorney’s Office.
Clemons, who is out of town, explained his reasoning for being what some have perceived as tight-lipped regarding the investigation into Atwood’s death during a phone call last week:
"Before people make up their minds, we'd like to be able to have a jury in Seward and not someplace else. So if they don't know things because we can't tell them, that's better in the long run because then we can have a jury in Seward and not in Fairbanks like they just did for that Palmer case," he said.
Clemons was referencing the recent jury trial for now convicted murderer Bradley Renfro, a high-profile Palmer case that was moved to Fairbanks in order to seat an impartial jury.
"I just wanted to make sure that we did it right and when we gave it to the DA, which we have done, that it's as perfect as it can possibly be and that's where we're at with it," he said.
Clemons added, "And I think that people should be glad that we're doing that, because if we do this stuff too fast, we could end up losing the case and that's not worth it to me. I wanted this to be a perfect case and I wanted to do that for the family and I wanted to do that for the community of Seward, but mostly for the family."
He also said police did not feel they were dealing with serial offenders — in which case they would have moved much faster. He said there were no indications the violence was going to continue, so they took the time to do "what the right thing is for the case."
It’s a positive step in the right direction, but Andrews said, “until arrests are made, we’re still gonna keep pushing forward and continue to make things public and out there until they’re not roaming the streets."
The ‘they’ she referred to is a group of people the family is certain killed Atwood.
“It’s very stressful. Many people are on edge,” Andrews said, describing Seward’s atmosphere. “There are people that know the people involved, and that’s a whole other level of stress, and then there’s the people who don’t know, and it’s the element of, ‘Where are they? I don’t know.’ There’s a lot of fear and anxiety in our town right now as these people live their lives.”
In a small town, coming face to face with one of them while going about their daily lives is nearly unavoidable, she said.
“One of Preston’s family members, just this weekend, was introduced to a new employee at his place of work, and it’s one of them. It’s one of the people that killed my nephew,” Andrews said.
She insisted, the family is 100% sure about the identities of the suspects.
“Seward is this tourist place that everybody loves and wants to come to," Andrews said, "but there’s this unfortunate dark side that isn’t going away, and unless we change something, it’s not going to go away. And Preston’s murder and the violence and the theft that is happening in Seward is not going to go away. Inside city limits, outside city limits, the drug issues here in town are exploding. We have people that everybody knows the names of that are drug dealers here in town. Everybody knows them. And they still live their lives."
The lack of arrests might have something to do with peoples’ unwillingness to go on camera or be interviewed about crime in Seward.
One woman agreed to speak with KTVA under the condition that she not be identified.
“I see [Atwood’s case] dividing the town and I even see as that case progresses on, that it’s even going to become that much worse,” she said, “because of the number of people that are already effected. That number is going to continue to grow.”
She said it would be normal to hear chatter around town about vacation plans this time of year, but everywhere she goes people are discussing crime. At the post office a few days ago, she said she couldn’t get to her box without passing through a group of people discussing Atwood’s death.
“The vast majority of the people in Seward, I believe, are really good people. Really amazing people,” she said.
Like in many communities, including Anchorage, people in Seward share information on crime through Facebook groups. It’s heightened awareness about drugs, thefts, break-ins and violent crimes.
It’s also caused her to feel less safe. The guns she once owned to defend herself from bears are now for protecting herself against other threats.
“Now the bear and the wildlife are almost the minority piece of that. Now you don’t know who’s breaking into your home or who’s gonna kill you,” she said.
The crimes she hears about seem to far outnumber the arrests, the woman explained.
“I think it just keeps raising the tension.”
"64 days without arrests makes murderers drive around like rock stars."
Andrews attended the Seward City Council meeting Monday evening to participate in citizen comments, motivated by her memory of Atwood.
"64 days without arrests makes murderers drive around like rock stars, just living their lives every day," she said, adding tearfully, "while we, as the family of Preston, struggle to go to the grocery store."
Others stepped forward to speak in support of Atwood's family. One woman, criticized the police department's communication strategy, pointing to a recent Anchorage police news conference in which local, state and federal officials briefed Alaskans on a high-profile homicide case.
She noted how APD began the news conference by offering condolences to the family members of the victims and promptly announced the case was being investigated as a homicide.
Initially, SPD declined to describe the nature of their investigation into Atwood's death. It wasn't until Sept. 19 that the department alerted the community the case had been classified as a homicide through a post on its Facebook page.
Atwood's family deserved better than that, the woman said. Her statement was met with applause.
Clemons was notably absent from Monday night's meeting. He said he would be attending a police conference out of town.
At last check, no charges have been filed in the case and no arrests have been made.
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