Nome, Alaska's fight against sexual violence reveals nationwide problem
Many law enforcement agencies in small communities across the United States are facing questions about how aggressively they pursue reports of sexual violence
By Victoria McKenzie and Wong Maye-E
NOME, Alaska — The two cops — the cold case detective from Virginia and the evidence technician from Alaska — had a mission. Sift through more than a decade of grim stories from this small city set between the Bering Strait and Alaska's western tundra.
Nome's new police chief, another Virginia transplant, asked the two to untangle whether the city's police department had failed hundreds of people — most of them Alaska Native women — who had reported they'd been sexually assaulted.
So they spent weeks inside the police station on the edge of town, squinting at computer screens and stacks of paper. What they found horrified them.
Again and again, the files showed, officers had failed to investigate rapes and other sexual crimes. In some cases, the two cops say, officers had never questioned the suspect.
In other cases, they say, dispatchers had taken distraught calls from women saying they'd been sexually assaulted, and no one from the department had bothered to go to talk to them.
I've never seen anything like that in my career," said the cold case investigator, Jerry Kennon.
The two cops had uncovered evidence confirming a pattern of inaction that a local group of sexual assault survivors had been protesting for years — a law enforcement failure that the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently described as "a systemic, decades-long indifference to the safety of Alaska Native women."
Not Just a Nome Problem
What has been happening in Nome isn't an isolated episode in the struggle over sexual assault and institutional accountability. Many law enforcement agencies in small communities across the United States are facing questions about how aggressively they pursue reports of sexual violence.
In Nome, there was hope that the police department was starting on a new path after growing public outcry led to a turnover in leadership. Earlier this year, the city's new police chief, Robert Estes, announced his staff would review 460 sexual assault cases going back almost a decade and a half. Separately, advocates succeeded in getting the city to create a commission to increase public oversight of the police department.
But as 2019 unfolded, the effort to review these cold cases and remake the police department was frustrated by bureaucratic snags and the agency's short-handed staffing, Estes told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
At a city council meeting in September, Estes publicly questioned local officials' willingness to do what it takes to protect public safety. He said his small agency was struggling to protect the city on a day-to-day basis — and it couldn't continue the audit of older sexual assault cases.
"They are cold cases for now," he said.
He told council members that something needed to be done to reverse his department's "unsustainable" path.
I'm not going to accept the risk," he said. "I want to be here. I really do. If change doesn't come quickly, I won't be here."
Two weeks later, he turned in his resignation.
New Chief in Town
When Estes, a retired police officer and longtime Army Reservist, packed up his life in Virginia 15 months ago and moved to Nome, he took over a police department with a troubled reputation.
In 2003, a Nome police officer murdered a 19-year-old Alaska Native woman, Sonya Ivanoff, after picking her up in a police vehicle. A lawsuit claimed he'd sexually assaulted other women and that the police department knew he was a danger.
Throughout much of 2018, residents packed city council meetings to criticize the department's inaction on sexual violence and other issues.
Less than two weeks before Estes' arrival in September 2018, a former police dispatcher accused the department of failing to investigate her report that she'd been drugged and raped.
Soon after Estes arrived, a high school basketball coach from St. Michael, an Alaska Native village on the other side of the Norton Sound, went public with her complaint that police had failed to investigate her report she'd been raped during a visit to Nome in August.
Their complaints were open expressions of a problem that had been quietly playing out for years. Nome police data reviewed by the AP show that from 2008 through 2017, just 8% of calls about sexual assaults against adults led to arrests with charges filed."
As far back as 2015, a group of Alaska Native survivors of sexual and domestic violence circulated an email among community groups, tribal leaders and others, saying that many survivors' cases had been mishandled or not investigated at all. Some believed their complaints were dismissed due to racial bias.
For years, group members say, they tried one approach after another with police and city officials, but couldn't get answers to basic questions about police policy and training requirements.
In a recent letter to the ACLU, lawyers representing the city of Nome said city officials "reject the assertion that the Police Department disregarded and failed to investigate claims of sexual assault because of deliberate indifference to the civil rights of Alaska Native women. The Nome Police Department administers police services in a nondiscriminatory manner."
But nearly all of the roughly 100 sexual assault cold cases that Kennon and the department's evidence technician reviewed involved Alaska Native victims. Just over half of Nome's population is Alaska Native.
To help him lead Nome's embattled police force, Estes brought in three other police officers who'd also retired from his former employer — the Chesterfield County Police Department, which serves a swath of the Richmond, Virginia, suburbs.
Many Nome residents dubbed the four of them "the Virginia Boys." Some residents had their doubts, partly because Estes had been hired quickly without community input amid outrage over the public department's lack of transparency.
Estes said he understood coming in that building trust was crucial.
Jeanette Koelsch, a member of the Nome Eskimo Community's tribal council, was pleased that soon after Estes arrived, he appeared at the organization's annual meeting.
Koelsch told the AP she was concerned, though, when he suggested forming a group of women to address the problem of women getting assaulted downtown. His remarks also focused on things women could do to protect themselves from sexual violence — such as going out in groups and avoiding alcohol.
It's about teaching consent," Koelsch said. "Maybe instead of creating a group of women to deal with a problem that men do, you should create a group of men to discuss" how they can prevent rape.
Estes said he wasn't bothered by the pointed questions he got at times at community gatherings.
Many people felt their voices had been ignored, he said, and it was clear there was "a lot of pain going on among a lot of people."
Small Towns, Big Issues
When civil rights activist Tarana Burke founded #MeToo in 2006, she wanted to center the movement on women of color. But the voices of minorities, who often experience higher rates of sexual assault, were pushed to the margins as #MeToo became a larger social phenomenon in 2016.
Media reports and public debate have largely spotlighted high-profile cases involving politicians and celebrities, such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is scheduled to go to trial on criminal charges in New York in January.
Advocates against sexual violence say police and prosecutors in many small towns and rural counties still don't show enough commitment to investigating sexual assaults — and in some cases meet reports of rape with intense disbelief.
From our perspective, #MeToo has definitely empowered survivors of sexual assault to come forward," Kelly Miller, the executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, said. "But it's had little to no effect on the way the system responds."
In 2016, a sheriff in Idaho told a TV reporter that in his rural county "the majority of our rapes that are called in are actually consensual sex."
After an uproar, Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland apologized, saying he'd "misspoke." He said every sexual assault complaint that comes into his department gets thoroughly investigated.
Levette Kelly Johnson, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said law enforcement attitudes about rape vary from place to place. In some small communities, she said, sheriffs and police chiefs understand the issue and devote significant attention to combating sexual violence. But "what happens," she said, "when he retires or loses an election and someone else comes in and it's not a priority?"
In Nome, Alaska Native women leading efforts to improve police response understood this. They delivered a formal document to the city that pushed for lasting change, not just a personnel turnover. "We need policy," said Lisa Ellanna, a member of the survivor advocacy group. "Policy doesn't cost anything. . . . It'll stay there, regardless of who comes in next, right?"
Experts on sexual violence say victims in rural areas often have limited access to medical, legal and psychological help. And living in places where "everybody knows everybody" can mean that survivors are less likely to come forward because they know it will be harder to keep their anonymity than in an urban area.
It can also mean police may know sexual violence suspects through family, school or other ties, complicating investigations and sometimes raising questions about objectivity.
Gretchen Small, a police officer in Nome from 2004 to 2006, said she was ordered to stop a sexual assault investigation involving a white suspect and a 14-year-old Alaska Native victim because a sergeant knew the man and said he didn't believe he would do such a thing.
He doesn't do girls," the sergeant said, according to Small. "He only gets women at the bar drunk and takes them out in the tundra for sex. . . . He's a good guy."
Small reached out to tell her story after the AP published an investigation of the police department in September. She was hired in 2004 to replace Matthew Clay Owens, the Nome police officer who was sentenced to 101 years in prison for murdering Sonya Ivanoff.
Soon after she started, Small said, she learned that the department frequently failed to investigate sexual assault reports from Alaska Native women.
Small said Alaska Native women whose rapes went uninvestigated were vulnerable to further assaults. "You could just see it in their eyes after a failed case." They wouldn't bother to report the next time, she said.
"That's how deep the bias goes," she said. "Native women don't count."
Small told the AP that in one sexual assault case someone in the department falsified a police record to cover up the fact that an officer had failed to take action after an Alaska Native woman reported a man with a felony sexual assault record had tried to rape her.
Preston Stotts, a former Nome police sergeant who worked with Small during his 15 years at the department, told the AP that she was targeted and discriminated against because she was female — and was "basically forced off the department and out of that position because she wanted to actually freaking do some police work."
Small said that when she left the department in 2006 she wrote a letter to city council members informing them of her concerns. A police consultant interviewed her, but nothing came of her complaint, Small and Stotts told the AP.
Stotts said the department continued brushing off sexual assault cases after Small left the department — and kept doing so at least until he left in 2017.
'Being Vulnerable Is Not a Crime'
Small was troubled by how attitudes toward sexual violence were colored by whether the alleged victim had been drinking alcohol.
In one case, Small said, an Alaska Native woman told her that she had been drinking at a bar and then had awakened to find herself naked in a hotel room with several men. The woman, who suspected she'd been drugged, reported that one of the men told her that more than five men had raped her repeatedly while she was passed out, Small said.
When she went back to the police station to research suspects' names and addresses, Small told the AP, two fellow officers asked her what she was working on, then laughed and said the incident was "not rape. She was drunk."
When she pointed out that it was a crime to have sex with someone who was unconscious, she recalled, they "laughed and pointed to a stack of case files." When a victim has a history of drinking or promiscuity, they explained, the case would "never be acted upon."
Barbara Amarok, the former director of Nome's Bering Sea Women's Group, which helps women seeking safety from violence, told AP that there continues to be "a mindset — not just within law enforcement but within community members — that when things like this happen . . . it's an individual's fault. This individual acted in certain ways to allow this to happen."
In Nome, issues of shame and blame are often tied up with stereotypes about the consumption of alcohol and how those stereotypes are applied to Alaska Native residents.
Some residents were angered two years ago when the city's tourism bureau published a photo of two women laying face down and unconscious on the bare ground, naked from the waist down — portraying them as eyesores rather than possible victims of sexual violence."
District Attorney John Earthman says the majority of sexual crimes against adults in Nome involve "voluntary intoxication," and "some sort of sexual misconduct with a passed-out or otherwise unaware person." If the accused claims it was consensual, he said "you're going to have a tough time proving in a jury trial that they knew" the victim was incapacitated.
Prosecution experts agree that these are complicated cases, but say they are prosecutable.
"You really have to be interested in searching for the truth, take the time to actually speak to people, and not just minimize the case as not important, or just some drunk sex," said Jennifer Long, co-founder of AEquitas, a national organization that trains professionals on sexual violence investigation and litigation.
"What we know about victims is that there's an incredible level of self-blame for all of the activity — and being vulnerable is not a crime, although in these cases it certainly is used against the victim."
'Everybody Is Due Justice'
Estes launched the audit of the city's sexual assault cases in early 2019. In his first weeks as police chief, he'd heard the concerns and decided his department needed to fathom the extent of the problem.
One case or a hundred — if you're unable to properly investigate and case manage, that's a travesty," he told the AP recently. "Everybody is due justice. Period."
He turned to two employees — Kennon, the former cold case investigator from Virginia, and Paul Kosto, a former Alaska state trooper Estes had hired as an evidence tech. Kennon and Kosto set out to review 460 sexual assault cases going back 14 years.
Kosto said it quickly became clear the department hadn't provided officers with adequate training on collecting and preserving evidence and writing reports.
Kennon said he didn't think all officers were to blame. Some appeared to have done acceptable investigations.
The department sent an initial group of 76 case files to the district attorney's office to see whether there were grounds for prosecution. The DA's office rejected 57 of them, but sent 19 back with a request for more investigation.
Estes told the AP that he was "cautiously optimistic" over the spring and summer that things were moving in the right direction with the department.
But he was frustrated by his inability to do something about the department's staffing. The department has just over 20 employees, including dispatchers and support staff. That makes it hard to pursue in-depth investigations. And that often means there's only one officer on the street per shift — a dangerous situation, he said, for both officers and citizens.
Without enough staff to cover day-to-day demands, Estes said, he was forced to pull Kennon off the cold case review for several months.
Estes, Kennon and Kosto planned to resume the case audit in early September. The three of them say that before Kennon and Kosto could get started, the city's interim city manager at the time, John Handeland, began pushing to end the cold case audit for good.
City leaders wanted to treat the cold cases as "water under the bridge," Estes said.
In an email, Handeland declined comment.
'A Public Emergency'
Estes went public with his concerns about his department's staffing and direction at a city council meeting on Sept. 23. At one point, he paused, overcome with emotion, and left the meeting room.
He returned with an apology for "losing it." He said the issue wasn't about him — the entire community was being hurt.
Estes submitted his resignation in early October. He told the AP recently that after the council meeting it became clear the city wasn't willing to act on his concerns.
Maybe I didn't explain it the best way I could have," Estes said. But "it wasn't just me explaining the problems. There were other people within the city who knew — and know — that change is needed."
He's now back in Virginia, but he said he and his wife remain fond of Nome. "We've made lifelong friends," he said.
The city is conducting a search to hire Estes' replacement and now has a new city manager, Glenn Steckman, who has a track record as a local government administrator in the Lower 48 states. He told the AP that he is working with the police department to bring on additional investigative help, which would allow it to restart the cold case review in early 2020.
Meanwhile, the Alaska chapter of the ACLU has sent a letter informing the city that it is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of Clarice "Bun" Hardy, the former Nome police dispatcher who says she couldn't get her own department to investigate her rape report.
In a letter replying to the ACLU, lawyers for Nome's insurance agency asserted that Hardy has no case, because deciding whether to investigate a criminal complaint is a "discretionary" matter. "The City of Nome is sensitive to Ms. Hardy's situation, but disputes legal liability for the emotional distress and trauma that you describe in your letter," the lawyers wrote.
Sexual assault survivors and their advocates say the lawyers' letter felt like a gut punch to women who made the difficult decision to go public in 2018.
Now what we're seeing is the people who did come forward, that laid themselves on the line, made themselves vulnerable — they are now being disrespected by the city," said Ellanna, a member of the survivors advocacy group who was recently appointed to the city's new public safety commission.
Koelsch, the Nome Eskimo Community tribal council member, said things are worse now than they were a year ago. Staffing woes and other turmoil at the police department, she said, have left many people fearful for their safety.
"Basically we have a public emergency on our hands," she said. When Estes came in as police chief, "I felt hopeful. I did. Because he did seem to be on the up-and-up."
"Now," she said, "I don't have any hope."
For the women who have been fighting for change, the departure of Nome's police chief is another in a long line of setbacks. For them, so many of their days and nights are spent grappling with crises — sometimes in private, sometimes in public.
They get calls in the middle of the night because another woman has been raped, and go out to "support yet another person who may or may not even get their case brought to a DA," according to Darlene Trigg, a member of the survivors advocacy group. They take turns, too, going to public meetings and speaking out to keep issues of public safety and private pain on the community's agenda.
The burden of doing all this is exhausting, Trigg said, but it's the only way to make sure victims of sexual violence are supported and that the issue doesn't get pushed back onto the margins of public debate.
"It takes diligence and a constant eye," Trigg said. "If we're silent, all this will go to the wayside."
To hear voices of some of the people involved in Nome's struggles over sexual assault, listen to the podcast series that the AP's partner in this project, National Native News, has launched at https://www.nativenews.net/waiting-for-justice-in-nome-alaska/.
This story was produced through a partnership with National Native News with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.