Kelvin Norris, 55, will die in jail. The third-strike sexual offender who preyed on young homeless men decided this summer to forgo trial and instead agreed to take a plea deal that included a 99-year sentence. Why Norris chose to accept responsibility for his crimes and the life sentence that came with them isn't known, at least publicly. His court-appointed attorney declined to discuss his client's case.
Maybe Norris knew it wasn't worth the fight. He'd already been convicted in 1985 and 1994 for sexual assaults, and under Alaska statues revised in 2006, a third sex offense would have given the judge little room to maneuver at sentencing.
“A third strike gets them the 99-year sentence,” explained John Skidmore, criminal division director for the Alaska Department of Law. “Sex offenders are thought to be very difficult to rehabilitate.”
Sex offenders don't appear to reoffend as often as other kinds of criminals. A study on Criminal Recidivism in Alaska published in 2011 by the Alaska Judicial Council found that sex offenders are among the least likely group of offenders to end up back in jail. Yet the desire to curtail the worst of the worst, those who are highly predatory, highly psychopathic and therefore likely to keep forcing themselves on others, is often what has driven public policy decisions across the nation in favor of longer sentences.
Street names: Ice, Iceman, Classac
Under Alaska's tougher laws, sex offenders who commit a third sex offense are to receive a mandatory 99-year sentence. Faced with that prospect, Norris agreed in June to accept a life behind bars. The only promise made to him by prosecutors was that they'd keep the case quiet. They agreed to not seek media attention, and they would direct the Anchorage Police Department to do the same.
“I am going to make absolutely no attempt to draw the media's attention to this case,” prosecutor Paul Miovas told a Superior Court judge in June when Norris entered his guilty plea. Miovas explained to the judge that the promise by lawyers and cops to not advertise the case to reporters was one of the main reasons Norris was willing to avoid trial.
Norris had received media attention in 2009 when he was implicated in a series of attacks on young men. He'd been characterized as a violent rapist who chose vulnerable young men, plying them with drink, promises of a place to stay, and sometimes, women. The case soon fell apart, as the victims weren't available to testify before the grand jury.
Even before then, Norris had already developed a pattern of abuse. In 1985, he'd attacked a teen. In 1994, another inmate. Norris served jail time for both crimes. Later, in 2001, Norris' roommate at a halfway house reported to police he'd been the victim of a sexual assault by Norris.
On the streets, he'd coined nicknames for himself -- Ice, Iceman, Classac.
The victims from 2008 and 2009 had been young men ranging in age from 18 to 26, all either homeless or semi-homeless. Norris would pick them up at shelters or befriend them in his neighborhood. He'd lure them to his apartment or a motel room, get them to drink heavily, then make his move. Sometimes his victims were passed out when the attacks occurred. Other times, they were awake enough to fight back but were overpowered by the larger Norris, who had been known to punch men in the face, choke and slam them against walls to get them to comply. He would sodomize them or force them to give him oral sex.
Norris told investigators more than once that he didn't hurt people, and he didn't know why he had earned that reputation.
Knack for picking easy marks
The prospect of life in prison wasn't enough to make Norris stop. He kept abusing and raping vulnerable targets, something that came as no surprise for Anchorage police detective John Vandervalk, who specializes in investigating sex crimes.
“Ultimately, especially with guys like this, I know they are going to be back,” he said.
Guys like Norris have a knack for picking easy marks, people who may need or want something, who are overly trusting, and who may not be believed if and when they come forward.
“They pick their targets because they think they can get away with it,” Vandervalk said.
In 2011, another victim came forward, one Norris met at Beans Cafe, a place where the homeless can find shelter and a hot meal. Norris invited the 22-year-old to his room at the Mush Inn, and they started drinking whiskey and rum. When the victim rejected Norris' sexual advances, Norris forced himself on the man and refused to let him escape. Norris punched the man in the face, head and arms, kicked him in the chest, and pinned him against the wall, strangling him as his feet dangled above the floor. He punched the victim until he became unconscious. According to a police report documenting the attack, the victim came to as Norris was raping him. When the victim tried to get away, Norris knocked him out again. Over the next several hours, Norris raped the man, who was only able to escape the next day after Norris fell asleep.
The bloodied victim suffered two black eyes, numerous bruises and a broken nose. Embarrassed about the sexual assault, when the victim first went to get medical help he said only that he'd been assaulted by two men – leaving out the sexual nature of the attack. He later underwent a specialized sexual assault exam at the suggestion of a detective investigating the case, as the victim was still bleeding from his anus and in pain.
Two hearings, 12 minutes
At his change of plea and sentencing, Norris was polite to the judge, answering “No, your honor” and “Yes, your honor” to the catalogue of routine questions that must be asked. Only once did he seem dissatisfied. When asked if he thought he'd received good advice from his lawyer, he said no, but that he would accept it nonetheless.
In two hearings lasting a combined 12 minutes, Norris uttered just 41 words. When it was over, he joined the ranks of a growing club of sex offenders jailed for life.
Including Norris, at least 10 men have been sentenced to 99-year prison terms in Alaska since April 2006, when the revised sentencing laws went into effect. They range in age from 37 to 65 and come from many regions of the state: Anchorage, Bethel, Kotzebue, Fairbanks, Nome. There may be more. The state's data management system is outdated, and searches for sexual assault convictions and associated sentences are not streamlined. There is no way for the public to easily track these outcomes without assistance from the Department of Law.
In 2009 and 2010, the Department of Law lauded its prosecutors who were racking up these 99-year convictions. One press release from 2009 notes that in a six-month span, eight successful prosecutions under the new sentencing scheme took place.
In September 2010, James Phillips was sentenced to 99 years in each of three separate cases involving sexual abuse of a minor. The then-55-year old from Kotzebue had abused four teenage girls on separate occasions, and he had five prior rape and rape-related convictions from Oklahoma and Kansas. After a jury convicted Phillips, Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny said Phillips should receive the mandatory 99-year sentence. “With tough new laws, and with Gov. Parnell's commitment to ending the epidemic of sexual violence in Alaska within 10 years, we've put potential offenders on notice that if they commit these crimes they might well end up in prison for the rest of their lives,” Svobodny said in a press release at the time.
Of the 10 men now in jail for life, half are there for hurting children. One of them, James Leopold III, 42, was convicted of assaulting two 8-year-old girls. Another, Xeuy Sikeo, 37, was convicted of raping an 11-year-old who then became pregnant. Arthur Augustine was sentenced to four back-to-back life sentences, or 396 years, for abusing two young children he cared for. James Phillips, 57, will serve three 99-year terms for sexually assaulting four teenagers (he was charged and convicted in three cases). And Victor Olson is behind bars for attempting to sexually assault a 3-year-old.
Olson is himself a victim of sexual abuse, according to his attorney, one of the many victims of Joseph Lundowski, a Catholic missionary who was posted to Western Alaska decades ago.
Lawrence Kobuk, another Alaska man serving a life sentence for sexual assault, is from the same region, but left for the Army shortly after Lundowski arrived. At Kobuk's sentencing, childhood events, his heroic actions during the Vietnam War, his mental health and length between assaults (25 years) were brought up as reasons why the 99-year sentence might be unjust. Still, it stood.
'In jail until you die'
"This is a death sentence," Alaska Superior Court Judge Ben Esch told Kobuk at his sentencing in September 2011 for raping a woman. "You will be in jail until you die."
Another sexual assault convict, John Leopold, 44, is someone who probation officers called a “predatory rapist” who is “sexually maladjusted and at high risk to rape again.” His criminal history includes committing rapes when he was 16 and 18 years old; sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl at a school dance when he was 21; and other sexual attacks on women.
Various appeals by the defendants have thus far failed.
The tougher laws are in place for a reason, Skidmore said. Sexual assault is a crime that can have a devastating emotional and psychological impact on victims and survivors -- often for years, if not lifetimes.
“To say that we are going to allow that to happen to another citizen ... when it comes to a third sexual felony, I think you get to the point when you have to say enough is enough,” he said. “That is someone that we need to isolate from society to protect society.”
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.