Alaska family loses second member to violent death

Survivors grapple with court system that can seem indifferent to their grief.

Anchorage Daily NewsJune 2, 2012 

Marie Pushruk's aunt Diane Miller (left) and mother Brenda Pushruk.

PHOTO COURTESY DONNA PUSHRUK

On Oct. 13, 2007, Patrick "Rudy" Pushruk was beaten to death near Teller, a Bering Sea village 70 miles west of Nome. Eli Dickson pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

The Pushruk family has doubts over whether justice was done. They were shocked when they heard Dickson's sentence. "Only 16 years with five suspended," said Brenda Pushruk, Rudy Pushruk's sister.

Four years later, almost to the day, another family member was slain. Once again the Pushruks are facing a series of hearings and motions that may take months or years to reach a conclusion.

This time, a new law may make the court events less of a burden for the family of the victim. But nothing can predict the outcome of a judicial proceeding. And the outcome, said Diane Miller, another sister, is what most concerns the family.

 

BLOODY VIDEO

On the morning of Oct. 7, 2011, Nome police found Marie Pushruk, 21, on the floor of her home, covered in blood. According to court documents, she appeared to have been strangled.

Lying beside her was her boyfriend, Shawn Oquilluk, also 21. He was alive.

Near them, stuck in the floor, was a bloody steak knife.

Police found a camera that contained video taken a few hours earlier. The video showed Marie drinking a beer, receiving a text message and generally looking fine. The video that followed showed Oquilluk, his face bloodied, playing a guitar near Marie's lifeless body.

Oquilluk was charged with murder in the first degree.

The news reached Brenda Pushruk, Marie's mother, at her home in Teller. She got in her Ford pickup and drove to Nome over the trail of a road that connects the towns for part of the year. She wanted to see Marie one last time.

Authorities, still investigating at the crime scene, steered her away from going into the house, where the body remained as it had been found.

When Marie's body was returned to Teller for burial, the family opted for a closed casket funeral, said her mother. "My daughter died a very violent death."

 

BALANCING RIGHTS

Rudy Pushruk's violent death came when a fight broke out between him and Eli Dickson over a woman, Miller said. It happened at the "new site" housing, about two miles from the main village. The beating took awhile. There were several witnesses.

Teller, population 229, has no law enforcement officers.

"I really think that if there was a village public safety officer or police officer in the village, someone would have called and got help," Miller said. "But everyone was afraid."

Dickson was charged with two counts of murder in the second degree and one count of manslaughter. A year later he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The two murder counts were dropped.

Families of victims have constitutional rights in Alaska. Voters added language to the Alaska Constitution in 1994 that guarantees, among other things, "the right to confer with the prosecution ... to timely disposition of the case ... to obtain information about and be allowed to be present at all criminal or juvenile proceedings where the accused has the right to be present" and "the right to be allowed to be heard, upon request, at sentencing."

The Pushruk family was informed of the plea bargain and consented to it, said Miller. But they may not have understood the full import.

"If I'd known the sentence would be so short, I would never have agreed to it," Miller said.

Victims and their families can't derail a plea bargain agreement, said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, a former prosecutor. "It's not a veto," he said. "Basically they have the right to be notified and consulted."

This year French introduced a bill to put "statutory teeth into victims' constitutional rights."

The bill, SB 135, requires judges to consider a victim's right to a speedy trial when considering defense motions to delay the proceedings. The bill passed the Legislature in April and is awaiting action by the governor.

"It's a difficult thing," French said. "How do you resolve two constitutional rights that may be at odds?"

But extensive delays in court action can create intolerable stress in a victim. French recalled a case where, after multiple postponements, the victim attempted suicide.

"It was heartbreaking," he said.

 

PLEA BARGAIN LOGIC

Whether French's bill will make any difference to Marie Pushruk's survivors remains to be seen.

John Earthman, the district attorney in Nome, handled the Dickson case and is handling the Oquilluk case. He described the rationale behind plea bargains. "You have to consider what evidence you have and what the likely result might be in a trial," he said.

He said the two Pushruk killings were "very different." Because Marie's murder is still in court, he said, he couldn't comment on it.

In Rudy's case, he said, "it was noted at the sentencing that the victim significantly provoked the attack."

Miller didn't think her brother provoked the attack. "Rudy wasn't the type to fight at all," she said. "He was much smaller and not the fighting kind. He was a nice guy."

Despite the character of the victim, certain details can influence a jury to assign some blame to him.

"You could have gone through a trial and still had the jury convict only on manslaughter," Earthman said. "A plea reduces the uncertainty."

The Pushruk family was kept informed of the proceedings, he said. "They're entitled to that as a matter of law."

Earthman understands that not everyone agrees with his decisions. He always tells them about the State Office of Victims Rights, which can advocate for the victims of crimes, he said.

In Alaska's small towns, justice or its absence are intimately woven into the fabric of society. "When I leave work today, I know I'm going to see people involved in cases and their families," Earthman said. "We're all in the same community."

 

'STARTED TO THRIVE'

Marie Pushruk liked reading "Twilight" and listening to Elvis.

"She would sing some girly songs all the time," said her sister, Donna Pushruk.

She embellished her signature with a little quarter note and had a treble clef with eighth notes tattooed below her right shoulder, a reference to her nickname, "Tweet."

Growing up in Teller, she was a popular baby sitter. "Everyone wanted her to watch their kids," Donna said. She was a substitute teacher at the local kindergarten and Head Start program. She kept photos of the kids she worked with.

Perhaps she felt more at ease among children. "She was always a shy, scared, nervous and fragile girl since she was really young," Donna said.

And, like many young people in rural Alaska, she dropped out of school.

When she was 18, she moved to Nome to take care of her grandfather and became interested in pursuing a career in medicine. She earned her GED and got a job at the hospital.

Her family noticed an increased confidence in her. "She was just starting to come out of her shell," said her aunt Diane.

"She really started to thrive," her sister Donna said.

According to court records, Shawn Oquilluk remains in jail. The next court event, described as an omnibus hearing, is scheduled for June 18.

No trial date has been set.

The Pushruk family is bracing for the succession of court actions they know, from experience, may disrupt their lives for some time.

The road between Teller and Nome was closed by snow through the winter and only opened in May. Through the winter, family tried to keep track of proceedings from their village. They worry that the final verdict won't be much different from the plea bargain in Rudy's case.

"We don't want that to happen again," Miller said.

 

 


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.