In the YK Delta, a murder acquittal gives one young man his life back, while miles away, a mother grieves her son

Kyle Wassillie at his VPO graduation in Bethel in 2015. (Eliza Wassillie)

In late January, Eliza Wassillie was driving on the frozen Kuskokwim River, heading back to her home, in Nunapitchuk, when her phone rang. A friend was on the line.

Adam Williams, the young man who shot and Wassillie’s son in 2017, had just been  acquitted on murder charges.

“I could not believe what they came up with,” Eliza said. “It was not right.”

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When Williams went to trial, no one disputed that he killed her son, Kyle Wassillie. Wassillie had been a VPO. But The jury decided that Williams was acting in self defense and his actions didn’t qualify as murder. And so no one would go to jail. 

Wassillie is taking care of her son’s two children now.

“What am I supposed to tell his, my son’s kids?” she said. “Everyday, every single day they come in and ask me to pray with them to send for their father back. Good grief and he goes scot free?” 

The story that led to her son’s death began with the gray whale that swam up the Kuskokwim River in 2017, said Andrew Dunmire, the lead public defender on the case. Locals from the village of Napaskiak harvested the whale and distributed its meat and blubber to nearby villages.

People from the communities came down to see the whale. One of them was Wassillie, 26, who was off-duty from his job as a village police officer in Nunapitchuk, roughly 30 miles away.

He brought several bottles of liquor with him and traveled with a friend, Kenyon Alexie. While in Napaskiak, according to the affidavit from the Alaska State Troopers, village police officers put him in protective custody twice to cool off because of his drinking.

After being released the second time, Wassillie made his way to a house that Adam Williams lived in. The house belonged to Williams’ grandmother. The jail guard and Alexie testified that Wassillie started drinking again when he got to Williams’ house. After that, the details were “pretty murky,” Dunmire said. 

Dunmire said Williams didn’t remember what unfolded next. But two witnesses testified during the trial that Wassillie instigated a fight with Williams. The charging document said that Williams’ little brother, who was 9 at the time, told troopers that Wassillie had started the fight at the house. 

During that scuffle, Williams shot Wassillie in the stomach. A neighbor heard the first shot, and then saw the second one. A village public safety officer responded and found Wassillie still alive with a bullet lodged in his stomach.

The charging document said health aides came to the house to administer care. Wassillie died an hour later.

Williams was taken into custody and charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.

It took nearly three years before the case came to trial. Dunmire said turnover at the Public Defenders Agency was a key reason. Dunmire took the case when the lead defender left.

He argued that Williams acted in self-defense.

“Adam never did anything wrong. He was a 19-year-old and drank, I will admit that, but beyond that he didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t put himself in a position where he or anyone can reasonably expect to have to shoot another human being,” Dunmire said.

The state argued that Williams beat Wassillie down to the ground and then fetched his gun to shoot him. But the defense argued that Williams shot him in the midst of a fight while both men were still up and had an eyewitness testify.

On January 25, nearly three years after the night of the shooting, a jury acquitted Williams on all charges.

“I knew and Adam knew that it was a possibility that he could be convicted on one of the murder counts but thankfully it didn’t happen,” Dunmire said.

The District Attorney’s office declined an interview, but said in a statement they respect the jury’s decision.

Williams returned home to Napaskiak in a caravan of vehicles and a snowmachine to a family dinner. The reunion was bittersweet; Williams has spent the past 2 and a half years in jail. Williams and his mother declined an interview.

Meanwhile, as Williams’s relatives took him home, Eliza Wassillie is left to grieve her son and comfort his children. Wassillie loved to hunt, she said. He was a good provider.

“He was everything to me. Everyday he helped me around the house, cut fish, cut birds that he caught. He gets wood. He made everyone smile and laugh whenever he’s around,” she said. 

For her, justice wasn’t served on Jan. 25. But the state cannot appeal the verdict because of a clause in the U.S. Constitution that prevents a person from being tried for the same crime twice. 

She’s not sure what to do to find justice, but she said she’s trying to figure out her next steps.