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Did conflict of interest hinder Bethel sex abuse investigation?

Eli Martin
Marilyn and Peter Tony in 1994. Peter Tony has been charged with the sexual assault of a 4-year-old in Bethel, and the Tonys spent years as foster parents in the community. Courtesy Kimberley Bruesch

BETHEL -- Police in this Western Alaska town are investigating whether a former state social worker had a relationship with a man accused of sexually abusing children, creating a conflict of interest in response to reports in the early 1980s that he'd abused his stepdaughters.

The questions revolve around Mary Atchak, who worked for the then-Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services off and on from 1977 to 2004. As it turns out, Atchak, Peter Tony -- the 69-year old man at the center of a widening sexual abuse scandal in Bethel -- and his wife Marilyn Tony were all friends over the years. According to a former friend of Atchak's, she and Peter Tony had previously dated.

Bethel’s police chief and the investigating officer in the case both confirmed Monday they are looking into a report that Atchak and Tony had some kind of relationship, and whether that presented a conflict for Atchak, a social worker whose job, in part, was to protect children.

“Based on the information we have received, there is a very strong possibility that a relationship occurred,” said Amy Davis, Bethel police’s investigating officer in the case. But, she added, “nothing is a fact.”

The police probe comes as Tony sits in a Bethel prison, charged with seven counts of abusing a 4-year-old girl between September 2011 and August 2012. Police suspect Tony abused other children over the years. 

Tony's stepdaughter, Kimberley Bruesch, 48, told Alaska Dispatch last week that he abused her and her two sisters in the 1970s. Both of her sisters later killed themselves, in large part, Bruesch says, because of unresolved trauma from the abuse. Teresa Richardson, Bruesch’s younger sister, cited her stepfather’s assaults in a note before she took her life in April 1998. 

In September 1982, Bruesch said her mother, Marilyn Tony, brought her and Richardson to the state Division of Family and Youth Service (DFYS) in Bethel to report their allegations to Atchak.  At the time, Atchak was working for DFYS. She and Marilyn had also known each other since meeting in Anchorage around 1969-1970. Bruesch claimed she never heard back from Atchak. 

“Nothing came of it, no one called. The police never got in touch,” she said. 

It is unclear whether the relationship between Atchak and the Tonys had any impact on Atchak's review of the abuse claims. But what is certain is that nothing happened to Peter Tony at the time. 

Instead, in 1984 -- two years after Bruesch came forward with her abuse allegations -- the state approved a foster care license for the Tonys. The couple would go on to serve as foster parents to children in the Bethel area for the next 14 years.

The close set of relationships that apparently existed between the victims, their mother, a social worker and the alleged abuser exemplify the tight-knit roots of many who live in Western Alaska. However, the story of how they all came to know one another began in Anchorage.

All together in Anchorage 

Mary Atchak grew up in the village of Russian Mission, while Peter Tony was from Marshall, around 25 miles away on the Yukon River. Peter went on to serve in the Navy, and when he returned to Alaska, he and Mary were friends and carried on a relationship in Anchorage, according to a friend of Mary's at the time who agreed to talk to Alaska Dispatch if the source’s name was not published. 

In the early 1970s, when Mary and Peter were friends, he began dating Marilyn, who at the time was working at the Anchorage Community Action Agency, a nonprofit set up to fight poverty in Alaska's largest city.

Jewel Jones, a former employee of the Anchorage Community Action Agency in the late 1960s and early 1970s, said she remembered Marilyn working at the agency, her meeting Peter Tony, and the two falling in love.

Despite Peter's new relationship with Marilyn, Mary didn’t seem jealous. “They all three were friends,” according to Mary's friend at the time, who also worked for the Anchorage Community Action Agency.

Marilyn and Peter were married Aug. 17, 1970, and moved to San Diego, where the Navy had transferred Peter. This is where Bruesch alleged she and her sisters were abused. In November 1977, the family moved to Bethel. In September of that same year, Mary was hired as a state social worker and assigned to Bethel. 

Some details of Mary's friend's account were confirmed by other mutual friends and family, including from Bruesch, the stepdaughter. While growing up, she recalls hearing at home that "at one time" Mary had been Peter's "girlfriend."

But the relationship could not be confirmed directly with Marilyn, Peter or Mary. Marilyn died June 3, Peter is in jail, and Mary is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Repeated attempts to speak with Peter Atchak, Mary’s longtime husband and the recently retired head of Bethel Search and Rescue, were unsuccessful. At his home in Bethel, Atchak told reporters “please never come again,” before shutting his front door. 

An objective investigator? 

It is unclear whether Mary's relationship with Marilyn and Peter influenced how she handled the allegation that he'd abused his stepdaughters. 

Based on interactions with Mary, Peter and Marilyn in Anchorage in the early 1970s, Mary’s friend from this time period said “it would have been difficult for Mary to have been an objective person" in investigating the abuse claims. 

Susan Morgan, a spokeswoman at the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (today's name for the Division of Family and Youth Services), said Tuesday that the agency is still pulling together and reviewing files related to the case. As a result, she couldn't say whether the agency had any knowledge that Mary Atchak investigated or passed on the allegations to her supervisor, or if Bethel police were contacted at the time.

The Bethel Police Department does not have records dating back to the 1980s.

Mary Atchak left her position with the Division of Family and Youth in February 1983, five months after Bruesch remembered reporting to her that she had been abused by Peter Tony.

Atchak returned to the agency in October 1984. That same year, the state issued Peter and Marilyn Tony a foster care license.

Bruesch said it's unfortunate that nothing came of her report to Atchak in 1982. It might have prevented her stepfather from allegedly abusing more children.

“He would have had access to far fewer children. He wouldn’t have been a foster parent," she said. "I also think things would have worked out very differently for me and my sisters.”

Alaska Dispatch reporters Jerzy Shedlock and Suzanna Caldwell contributed to this story. Contact Eli Martin at eli(at)alaskadispatch.com