Family looks for answers as Juneau stabbing case grows cold

A suspect has been identified and charged in a recent stabbing death in the capital city. But another stabbing death remains unsolved. It’s been more than a year since Juneau man Christopher Kenney died from a knife wound. The 50-year-old was found in his home two days after Thanksgiving last year and police still aren’t sure if it was a murder or suicide.

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Chris Kenney’s ashes sit next to one of his wood carvings on a table stand in his brother Rob Kenney’s house. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Chris Kenney’s ashes sit next to one of his wood carvings on a table stand in his brother Rob Kenney’s house. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

When Christopher Kenney died, his brother Rob Kenney and a few friends made a video slideshow of his life. It’s filled with old family photos of when they’re kids, their home in Pelican, and newspaper cutouts of Kenney’s high school wrestling days. There are pictures of giant halibut and king salmon towering over the brothers as kids. Their dad was a commercial fisherman and the brothers spent a lot of their childhood on a boat.

“He was such a hard worker. He worked so hard. Even when we were little kids, he was a really hard worker,” Rob Kenney said of his brother as he started to cry.

In the pictures of Kenney as an adult, he’s always with one or more of his kids. He had three – a daughter in her 20s and two school-age children. Rob Kenney said his older brother devoted himself to raising his two young kids.

“Sometimes I forget he’s gone and want to call him and ask him, ‘Hey, can you go help mom? She just called me and I can’t go over there,’ and then it’s like, ‘Oh shoot,’ you know? That makes it hard,” Rob Kenney said.

Kenney was born May 18, 1964, in Juneau and raised in Pelican and Washington state. After high school, he worked on commercial fishing boats. He was a wood and ivory carver and won ribbons for his art at Alaska state fairs.

Lt. David Campbell said Juneau police are investigating Kenney’s death as a homicide, but they don’t know enough to call it a murder, which requires intent.

Around 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 29, 2014, Juneau police received a 911 call that a man had been injured with a knife in a Gruening Park apartment. As an emergency crew took Kenney to Bartlett Regional Hospital, officers were dispatched to check out reports of explosions around town. When Kenney was pronounced dead at the hospital, police returned to the apartment. They had left it unattended for about 30 minutes.

Kenney’s 911 call came from a 26-year-old woman, who Rob Kenney said was his brother’s live-in girlfriend. Three children were also in the apartment: Kenney’s two younger kids and the girlfriend’s toddler. Campbell said the knife they believe was used in the stabbing was found in the apartment and police have it.

More than a year later, police are still trying to piece together what happened.

Rob Kenney still has a lot of his brother’s ivory carvings. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Rob Kenney still has a lot of his brother’s ivory carvings. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“What we know is he had been stabbed, but what exactly led up to the stabbing or why he was stabbed or who he was stabbed by or whether he stabbed himself are still yet to be determined,” Campbell said.

The state medical examiner’s report said the cause of death was a “stab wound,” but it leaves the manner of death as “undetermined.” The medical examiner bases cause and manner of death on scientific information from the autopsy, as well as on evidence collected by law enforcement.

The report did say Kenney had no known previous suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Only about 1 percent of all suicides per year in Alaska are by a knife or other sharp object, according to the Alaska Violent Death Reporting System.

Kenney’s brother Rob Kenney writes off the suicide theory.

“He was such a positive person, there was no way he was going to stab himself. There was just no way that he thought that way on account of his kids for the biggest reason,” he said.

Besides the Kenney homicide, Campbell said JPD’s four detectives are working on three other homicide cases – a shooting in October, a double shooting in November and a stabbing earlier this month. Arrests have been made in two of these cases.

No charges have been made in the Kenney case, and Campbell said police might never get to that point. He said the department continues to chase leads concerning one “person of interest.” He anticipates things coming to a head within two months.

“There’s certain things that the detective is hoping to do, very specific things they’re hoping to do and if it turns out that those things wrap up relatively soon, then it’ll probably either get charges or move into the cold case depending on which way those last couple of things break. The lion’s share of the work has been done but some of the really key questions are still floating out there that we’re hoping that the last little bit of follow-up will reveal to us,” Campbell said.

Campbell noted local police have three cold case homicides: Cindy Elrod in 1983, John Jack in 1988 and Daniel Brux in 2000.

Rob Kenney holds a childhood picture of him and his brother next to a king salmon. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Rob Kenney holds a childhood picture of him and his brother next to a king salmon. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Rob Kenney said he and his mom are tired of calling Juneau police and hearing no new developments. They’ve considered putting out their own reward for information to generate more interest.

“Patience is a hard thing to do when you’re reminded of it with small children that miss their dad,” Rob Kenney said.

He feels constantly unsettled not knowing how his brother died.

“I would like to gather my family and his children and at least put closure to it and spread his ashes. The ashes sit over there.”

Rob Kenney points to a small table stand near the kitchen. He doesn’t want to spread the ashes until he knows who killed his brother. He said his parents are getting older and before they’re gone, he hopes to be able to tell them that justice has been served.

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Lisa Phu is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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