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Man charged with murder in Southwest Alaska told police he 'panicked', tried to hide body

Jerzy Shedlock
Alaska State Troopers reported Tuesday that they had arrested a man and charged him with first-degree murder in the death of a woman in Quinhagak earlier this month. YouTube screengrab

According to the charges filed against 26-year-old Harold Smith, the Quinhagak resident pushed a female acquaintance out of his doorway, causing her to hit her head on outside stairs and die. Smith told police he panicked and decided to hide the body, but a state medical examiner reported Lisa Johnson was likely strangled to death.

Smith faces charges of first-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence, both felonies. The charges come after more than two weeks of few details about a death investigation in Southwest Alaska. On Tuesday, Alaska State Troopers reported Smith had been interviewed and arrested.

Johnson, 25, was reported missing on Feb. 2, though she’d not been seen since the night of Jan. 31, when her mother Annie Johnson told investigators she heard a call come into their landline, according to the charging document. Lisa answered, then left the house.

The Quinhagak Police Department and community volunteers conducted a large-scale search for Lisa the day after she was reported missing, and her remains were found that day, Feb. 3, about three miles from town off an all-terrain vehicle trail, the charging document says.

Troopers reported Tuesday that the body had been covered with brush.  

A set of snowmachine tracks “possibly pulling a sled” was about 30 feet from where Johnson’s remains were discovered. The tracks allegedly left the main trail, turned around and returned to the trail and headed back toward the village.

Johnson’s body was sent to the State Medical Examiner Office for an autopsy.

A trooper requested phone records from the Johnsons’ landline, and a number belonging to Smith was found, the charging document says. Smith told local officers he was trying to reach Lisa’s brother.

Meanwhile, the medical examiner’s preliminary findings indicated “asphyxiation due to strangulation as the cause of death.”

About two weeks passed, then Smith called troopers in Bethel. He allegedly said Johnson came to his place the night of Jan. 31. She wanted to buy a gram of marijuana, Smith told troopers, but he didn’t have any to sell. He said Johnson got mad, and he pushed her out of his home.

During a follow-up interview three days later, on Feb. 24, Smith said Johnson had fallen and struck her head when he pushed her out of an arctic entryway. He said he tried to revive the woman but she was unresponsive.

The two had reportedly known each other since elementary school. They had sex once but never dated, Smith allegedly said.

The majority of the alleged murderer’s story stayed the same during the second interview, according to the charging document: Lisa came over around 1 o'clock in the morning on a Saturday night. She called Smith earlier and asked to buy some marijuana. Smith told her he didn’t have any and she became mad, but she showed up on Smith’s doorstep sometime after the phone call.

Johnson allegedly entered Smith’s entryway and asked for pot again. Smith told investigators Johnson smelled like alcohol. But toxicology results from the autopsy haven’t been returned, said troopers’ spokesperson Megan Peters.

Quinhagak -- a community 71 miles southwest of Bethel with about 700 residents who live off commercial fishing and subsistence -- voted to ban the sale and possession of alcohol in 1987.

When Smith reiterated that he didn’t have any pot for sale, he said Johnson became angry and bit him. He allegedly showed a bite mark to investigators. An account of the investigation written by state investigator Scott Bartlett says, “It appeared to be an old bite mark on the left side of his chest.”

Having been bitten, Smith said he opened his door and shoved Johnson outside. “She fell off the stairs and hit her head on a 2x4 (board) that was connected to my stairs,” the defendant allegedly told officers. “I checked to see if she was OK and she didn’t respond.” He also said he checked to see if she was breathing and for a pulse. Neither sign of life was apparent.

Having checked Johnson’s vitals, Smith allegedly panicked and decided to hide the body near his home until that afternoon, when he put Johnson on a sled and drove to the location where the remains were eventually found.

“(Smith) took all of Lisa’s clothes and all of his own clothes as well as some of the snowmachine parts to the dump, where he burned them,” the charging document says. “During the ensuing week he burned the sled that he had moved her body in.”

Smith was arrested and taken to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Correctional Center in Bethel, where he is being held without bail. He should be arraigned later Tuesday.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jerzyms.