Three weeks have passed since 26-year-old Jessica Lake was found dead behind a building in the Anchorage neighborhood of Fairview. Her body was returned to Hooper Bay, and her family held a funeral and buried her.
Despite that finality, questions about her death remain.
Lake grew up in Hooper Bay, a large village by Alaska Bush standards with about 1,100 residents. She spent her formative years living a generally typical Native childhood -- berry-picking and fishing, said her mother, Beverly Gusty.
But she sought life outside the isolated community, and at 18, she chose Alaska’s largest city over an off-the-road existence.
“She didn’t want to stay here,” Gusty said. Lake did not believe her job prospects were better off in Anchorage -- “she just wanted to be in Anchorage with her friends.”
Rosemary Gump, Lake’s aunt, remembered her niece working at a fish cannery in the nearby Southwest village of Emmonak the summer before she left. She returned to Hooper Bay for a short period, but when the cannery check came in the mail, she quickly shipped out, Gump said.
Lake called Anchorage home, refusing to return to Hooper Bay even as her life spiraled out of control. According to people who frequent Fairview, she was a regular in the neighborhood. She was a chronic drinker.
Police reported on July 15 they had found a woman’s body near 13th Avenue and Hyder Street in Fairview during the early morning hours. Just after 5 a.m., police dispatch got a call about the woman, who was found outside. Police say she appeared to be unconscious and was not breathing. Medics responded and pronounced Lake dead.
Police are still awaiting a toxicology report and calling the incident a death investigation, said spokesperson Jennifer Castro.
Chronic drinkers and violence mar the neighborhood where her body was found. Less than a week before Lake’s death, police say a man had pulled a gun from his sock and fired multiple rounds into a group of people. Two men were sent to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Police later reported that Lake was homeless, but it turned out she’d been living at Karluk Manor.
Lake was one of the first residents of Karluk, Anchorage’s first facility to offer permanent housing to the homeless without requiring them to quit drinking. It opened in December 2011 near downtown Anchorage, and Lake moved in the same month.
“She was a very engaged resident,” said Corrine O’Neill, director of Supportive Housing for RuralCAP, the statewide nonprofit that operates the Karluk apartments. “She was there every day.”
Lake participated in “intensive case management services,” O’Neill said.
Struggles with alcohol did not prevent Lake from frequently calling family in Hooper Bay. She would often phone her mom, aunt and nieces, Gump said. Lake’s aunt said Lake always made time to speak to her daughter, Jessica, who is actually the third Jessica Lake in the family.
Lake also shared her name with Gump’s daughter, who died in 1987. The 5-year-old’s death made headlines when residents of Hooper Bay suspected hazardous waste had seeped into a pond where the girl was playing before her sudden death.
Villagers said they saw ruptured containers near a pond that other children said Jessica was drinking from or perhaps playing in, according to an Anchorage Daily News story at that time.
An Anchorage pathologist ruled out toxic poisoning as a cause of death; Gump said her child died of natural causes.
During many of Lake's phone calls home, Gusty pleaded with her to come home. She knew Lake wasn’t in the best situation and wanted her to be closer to family. Lake declined every time.
Reports of Lake’s death circulated slowly through Hooper Bay. Gusty recalls multiple people calling and asking if she’d heard the bad news. The mother’s calls to Lake’s Karluk apartment went unanswered, so she asked a manager to inform her if Lake came home.
Unfortunately, the next call came from an Anchorage police detective who informed her of Lake’s death.
“They never told me what really happened to her. ... I was wondering but they never mentioned the details, and I was too shocked to think about asking,” Gusty said. “I had planned to but I was in shock. I couldn’t talk anymore.”