In Nome, few sexual assault crimes result in prosecutions

A snowy street neaer several bars
Front Street in Nome, Alaska in January 2017. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Hundreds of sexual assaults have been reported in Nome over the last 15 years, but few have brought arrests. Even fewer resulted in convictions.

There are a number of factors that make it hard to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases. But some survivors feel law enforcement doesn’t prioritize these kinds of crimes, especially when the victims are Alaska Native.

A National Native News analysis of more than 300 sexual assault cases reported in Nome between 2010 and 2017 shows only 25 of them went to court.

After 2020 saw unusually high numbers of sexual assault reports, Nome police said they’re working to address the shortfall and arrest more suspects. They’re also finishing an audit of 460 sexual assault cases going back to 2005.

Alaska Native women in Nome

Nearly 65% of Nome’s population of roughly 3,700 is Alaska Native. There were 372 sexual assaults reported to the Nome Police Department between 2008 and 2017. The majority of those sexual assault cases involved Alaska Native women, and less than ten percent of them resulted in arrests.

Darlene Trigg, an advocate for Native women and longtime resident, said statistics like that don’t surprise her.

“As an Alaska Native woman, do I feel safe in this community? No, I do not feel like I can partake in all of the things that our community has to offer, safely,” Trigg said. “I limit my interactions in this community, I make sure that I don’t put myself in a situation where something unsafe might happen.”

Trigg said she doesn’t feel safe walking alone in town after dark and limits her daily interactions in public. Trigg is a sexual assault survivor: She said her attacker was not prosecuted and still lives in Nome. Trigg said she didn’t report her assault, and she “didn’t experience any justice.”

Bertha Koweluk runs Bering Sea Women’s Group, the regional shelter for victims of domestic violence who are sometimes also victims of sexual assault. Koweluk argues historical trauma creates a different reality for Alaska Natives in Nome.

Bertha Koweluk, leader of Bering Sea Women’s group, in Nome during late fall of 2020. (KNOM)

Historical trauma is defined by Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, which emanates from massive group trauma.”

There’s a longstanding distrust of law enforcement within the Native community, rooted in unfair treatment for generations. It leads people to be less likely to report crimes.

“I know that’s why there is such a disconnect of people understanding historic trauma and domestic violence, why it plays in the way we think about who we are, where we come from,” Koweluk said. “I just remember in grade school not wanting to admit that I ate Native food because the kids who came from the village were always put aside and treated differently, so you never claimed [being Alaska Native].”

Chief Mike Heintzelman said there’s some indication the department’s recent efforts to build trust with the community might be working. Reports of sex crimes in Nome last year were particularly high. At the end of 2020, over 120 sexual assault cases had been reported. Heintzelman said almost all of those cases involved Alaska Native perpetrators and Alaska Native survivors.

“If the trend continues, we’ll be in excess of 130 cases for the year. 88 were reported [in 2019] and that was a record high,” he said. “But I am really hoping that a lot of this has to do with people who are more comfortable with coming to the Nome Police Department, knowing that the case will … be given the due diligence that it should be. We have things in play right now that make us more efficient and checks and balances that will make sure that the case doesn’t go missing.”

Heintzelman said when an officer takes on a new case, a superior monitors progress. In turn, superiors are monitored by higher level officials such as the chief and deputy chief. As a result, Heintzelman said cases don’t go cold when an officer leaves town, as they have in the past.

Officers and police leadership see frequent turnover in Nome: Many in recent years have stayed less than a year. Nome’s seven patrol officers also have the option to work on a “two-week-on, two-week-off” schedule. This enables officers to spend their off-time away from Nome.

In a high-profile case from 2017 that garnered criticism and media attention, Clarice “Bun” Hardy, a former Nome police dispatcher, reported her sexual assault to officer and co-worker Nicholas Harvey.

Hardy claimed Harvey did not follow up on her case, nor did the Police Chief at the time, John Papasadora. Two years later, Hardy joined the American Civil Liberties Union in filing suit against the City of Nome, Lt. Harvey and Chief Papasadora alleging they mishandled her rape claim. That lawsuit is currently working its way to trial.

Data shows numerous sexual assault cases went unresolved and piled up at the department until 2018. That fall, then-Police Chief Bob Estes started an audit of 460 cases dating back to 2005. Estes left the department a year later with the case-audit still in progress. It is still incomplete.

In a region where sexual assault rates are the highest in the country, District Attorney John Earthman is the city’s lone prosecutor. He has one of the highest caseloads in the state.

Two years ago, a report from Alaska’s Criminal Justice Commission to the Legislature showed the 2017 rate of sexual violence reported to law enforcement in Western Alaska was 106% greater than the statewide rate — the highest of any region, including urban areas.

That same report showed a third of Alaska women experience and report sexual violence in their lifetime. In 2015, 7,136 women — almost 3% — reported experiencing sexual violence that year alone. In the Bering Strait region, the number of women reporting sexual violence in their lifetime is similar, but the report emphasizes the actual number of incidents is much higher than what’s reported.

Some survivors in Nome said they chose not to report their own trauma for many reasons, including lack of support or little accountability from law enforcement.

John Earthman, District Attorney of Nome, during an interview with KNOM in fall of 2020. (KNOM)

Earthman said rectifying past wrongs goes deeper than finishing NPD’s audit of former cases. Sexual assault cases are complex and difficult to prove under existing statutes.

“What’s difficult, though, is when you’re dealing with a criminal statute of sexual assault, without consent has a very specific definition … without consent means with or without resisting. Basically, the victim was forced, or that this happened because they were threatened,” Earthman said.

According to state statute, the burden of proof is on Earthman to show the offender used force, implied or otherwise, to have sex with the victim, and that the accused was mentally aware they didn’t have consent from the victim.

Screenshot from a 2015 report by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. (KNOM)

Roughly 9% of all reported felony-level sex offenses in Alaska in 2015 ended in a conviction, according to the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. A total of 1,352 felony-level sex offenses were reported that year, for which law enforcement made 225 arrests. A conviction for felony sex offense resulted 159 times, 119 times including “one or more.”

For Nome, arrest rates for sex offenses since 2008 follow statewide trends, but conviction rates have been a lot lower.

No audit, no acknowledgment

When Chief Estes departed Nome, a new city manager, Glenn Steckman, assumed leadership in the fall of 2019. Concurrently, the City Council commissioned an outside management and evidence audit of the Nome Police Department to be conducted by Greg Russell Consulting.

Steckman told the public during a November City Council meeting to expect results of the audit from Russell Consulting, LLC in a couple of months. As of the publishing of this story, the audit of NPD has yet to be released by the consulting firm. Greg Russell said his workload and COVID-19 have delayed the finalization of this audit.

Regardless of the results, advocate Darlene Trigg said the lack of action on scores of cases with Alaska Native victims by NPD needs to be acknowledged so the community can move forward.

“Well, it’s necessary. That’s the truth. You know? Some level of acknowledgment that harm has been done is probably not something that an attorney would want the city to do,” Trigg said. “However, there are people who are owed that in this community, who are, you know, lost in their own trauma response because of the way that they were treated. And their families, and their livelihoods and their … ability to walk in our town in a healthy, safe way is forever changed.”

The current city administration said they’re less interested in looking in the “rearview mirror” and would rather make improvements for the future. Steckman said he, Chief Heintzelman and several of the newer Nome police officers were not part of past mistakes. That said, the city manager said a rebranding of NPD is in the works.

“You know, from potentially what our uniforms look like, to what our badges look like. And, you know, how we initiate that … we’re still working on the details,” Steckman said. “And we mean a true rebranding, it’s not just doing a facade. And that’s why we are encouraging training.”

‘We need to fix our humanity’

Nome police officers currently receive training through the Alaska State Trooper Training Academy. Training includes topics such as forensic examinations, collecting better evidence, and learning about culturally informed police response.

One of Nome’s newest officers, Scott Weaver, is undergoing training. He’s an investigator, hired to finish the department’s audit of cold cases going back to 2005. After being in Nome for two months, Weaver said he already feels the community’s pain.

“I just took a sexual assault case, it’s an old case, a couple days ago from a mom and dad reporting a child that was abused,” Weaver said. “And you know, both of them, mom and dad in tears, thankful for me just taking it and running with the case. I think it’s just, they’ve had a bad experience.”

“I can see some of it in the cases. You know, I can understand why. I have empathy for their hurt, and I want to fix any injustice.” He said. “I can stand up and say, ‘I’m not responsible; I wasn’t here.’ Sure, I could take that cop-out, but I am here now and I can do something.”

Council member Jennifer Reader, one of two women on the local city council, said increasing Nome’s law enforcement is not the way to increase the arrest and conviction rate for sexual assaults.

“I wholeheartedly believe that our community has a humanity problem,” Reader said. “We don’t have a policing problem. We do not need police to tell us what to do, the right thing to do. We don’t need that; we need to do the right thing. And that’s not what’s occurring right now. No policeman on this earth is going to be able to change that. So, we need to fix that. We need to fix our humanity.”

This story is part of the “Seeking Protection, Wanting Justice” series by Alaska Public Media and KNOM, with funding in part provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.

If you need to talk with someone while reading this or need help, here are some resources:

  • Bering Sea Women’s Group: 907-443-5444; toll-free: 1-800-570-5444
  • Behavioral Health Services at the Norton Sound Health Corporation: 907-443-3344, emergency number: 907-443-3200.
  • STAR Alaska: 907-276-7273; toll-free 1-800-478-8999
  • Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: 907-586-3650

If you are outside of the Bering Strait region, visit the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault website for a list of resources.

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Davis Hovey is a news reporter at KNOM - Nome. Hovey was born and raised in Virginia. He spent most of his childhood in Greene County 20 minutes outside of Charlottesville where University of Virginia is located. Hovis was drawn in by the opportunity to work for a radio station in a remote, unique place like Nome Alaska. Hovis went to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Broadcast Digital Journalism.

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