The community of Chevak in Southwest Alaska has been breathing a collective sigh of relief after the arrest of a man in July for the murder of Roxanne Smart. The 19-year-old was found stabbed to death in the middle of town last August. But it was a tough year for the tight-knit Cup’ik community as they waited for law enforcement to make an arrest.
Smart’s friend Kerri Tall stands by a memorial beside the old Chevak health clinic where her friend was found.
“At night, it’s not that busy, at night it’s a different story,” said Tall.
Tall explains there’s a midnight curfew for 4-wheelers, the main form of transportation here, so there would have been fewer people around when Roxanne Smart was killed in the middle of the night.
A wooden cross bearing her name leans up against the building supports along with a black and brown stuffed animal puppy, a coffee mug covered in forget-me-nots, and personal notes weighted down with rocks.
Tall says Smart was a quiet woman who loved her new baby and had a soft spot for dogs. And Tall says she can’t think of why anyone would want to hurt her.
She was really shy, quiet. She always had a puppy to play with and she didn’t deserve any of what she received,” said Tall.
What led up to Smart’s murder isn’t clear, but court documents say she was found naked from the waist down and stabbed multiple times in the neck and chest. Alaska State Troopers reportedly arrived soon after and took DNA samples from several suspects.
“To me it was hard on me, I mean she’s my age. I felt like he was out there and I was scared,” said Tall.
Tall didn’t want to sit idle and started a facebook page to keep attention on Smart’s case before it went cold. She and two other women from Chevak kept the page updated with images of their friend, calling it ‘Justice for Roxanne Smart’.
The town had to live for nearly a year with a killer among them while they waited for the lab samples to come back.
Lieutenant Christopher Thompson, the deputy commander of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation who oversees all major crimes investigations, didn’t want to go on tape for this story, but he says investigators went to Chevak three times between August 2014 and July 2015 and identified several people of interest in the case. He says a rape kit was administered. No arrests were made during that time.
Tall walks past the bustling corporation store to her Auntie’s house which is kitty corner to the old health clinic where Smart’s body was found. Her Auntie, Etta Tall, says Roxanne was a regular at her ‘teen nights’ where she did positive activities with young people.
“She was with my youth group in the beginning. She did the fry bread power day, we had fry bread power day, and she was so happy. If I would ever do a program, she would always want to be there to help out. She was that kind of a person,” said Tall.
On July 23rd investigators returned to Chevak to interview Samuel Atchak, one of the original people of interest. Investigators say the 19-year-old admitted to placing Smart in a “choke hold” that night with his arms until she blacked out and to raping her. But he denied stabbing or killing Smart. The next day, while he was being arrested and charged for assault and sexual assault, an affidavit says Atchak admitted to stabbing and murdering Smart that night. Tall says that changed the dynamic in Chevak.
“I think it’s like a relief and a release. When I first heard about it, it was very thick here, the atmosphere was different. But now I come back I can feel like a relief here in Chevak,” said Tall.
Larry Barker is the superintendent of the Kashunamiut school district in Chevak.
“My biggest question is why it took 11 months for the DNA testing to take place,” said Barker.
He says everyone in the village wonders what took so long.
“Because it did leave the village with concerns and lots of questions. You know, no arrests were taking place and the whole village was wondering what was going on and you know, probably a little scared,” said Barker.
Troopers say it took 11 months to charge the suspect because they were waiting on DNA samples that were first sent to the state crime lab and then to another out-of-state lab, for further analysis.
Senator Berta Gardner has called for an audit of Alaska’s crime lab, citing a huge backlog, specifically of rape kits.
Lieutenant Thompson, with the Troopers, says the last lab report came back June 25th, which gave investigators enough evidence to confront the Atchak in July. Troopers say more details will come out in court.
Atchak was arraigned in Bethel Superior Court August 4th. He pleaded not guilty. His case will be back in court in October.