Kotzebue man pleads guilty to 2018 murder, sexual abuse of 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr

A zoom box with five people
Peter Wilson’s (top center) change of plea hearing was held virtually through a Zoom meeting on Monday. (Screenshot of State of Alaska YouTube stream)

A Kotzebue man pleaded guilty on Monday to the 2018 murder and sexual abuse of 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr.

Peter Wilson faces a prison sentence of up to 99 years. 

Johnson-Barr disappeared on Sept. 6, 2018 after playing at a Kotzebue playground. Investigators say she was found dead outside of Kotzebue days later after being kidnapped from a local playground and sexually assaulted outside of her hometown.

Wilson was arrested and charged later that month with five counts including murder and sexual abuse of a minor. 

Wilson’s trial date was scheduled for July, but attorneys negotiated a plea deal this month. Wilson pleaded guilty to two charges, one for murder and one for sexual abuse of a minor. If accepted by the court, the plea comes with a sentence of 198 years in prison, with 99 years suspended. 

During the change of plea hearing Monday, Judge Nelson Traverso informed Wilson, now 44 years old, that taking this plea would mean not going to trial. 

“You understand that you’re giving up a very important constitutional right, which is to have 12 people decide, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether or not you should be convicted of these charges? Do you understand that?” Traverso asked Wilson. 

Wilson said he did.

Ashley Johnson-Barr. (Photo courtesy of Kotzebue Police Department)

Johnson-Barr’s death rippled across the state, generating outrage over the high rates of violence against Alaska Native women and children. Last year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed a law commemorating March 12 as Ashley Johnson-Barr Day in the state. The governor said the day, which coincides with Johnson-Barr’s birthday, serves as a reminder to keep Alaska children safe from violence. 

Through the almost three-year process, Johnson-Barr’s parents have waited for a resolution to the killing of their daughter. Speaking on behalf of them, prosecuting attorney Jenna Gruenstein said that the parents were satisfied with the plea. 

“I think just from our conversations, hopefully I’m not speaking out of line, having the certainty of this being done more quickly, and having a resolution in place, means a lot to them,” Gruenstein said.

Wilson’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Though some charges have been dropped as part of the plea, Gruenstein said Wilson would still have to admit wrongdoing. 

“Mr. Wilson is agreeing to admit all of the conduct that was alleged in the information in that grand jury underlying indictment, including conduct that pertained to any counts that were dismissed,” Gruenstein said.

Wilson’s sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 21.

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.

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