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War hero's 99-year sex assault sentence is fair, judges rule

Jill Burke

A 63-year-old man from the remote Alaska island village of Saint Michael may not know how his troubled life will end, but one thing is certain: death will come in prison for the decorated Vietnam veteran and father of five.

"This is a death sentence," Alaska Superior Court Judge Ben Esch told Lawrence Kobuk on Tuesday at his sentencing for raping a woman. "You will be in jail until you die."

The sentence concluded a case that had raised questions about the fairness of Alaska's "third strike" law and its mandatory sentences. Kobuk, a man from a village with a painful history of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, was himself facing his third felony sexual assault conviction. The crime will forever end freedom for a man who has been both hero and villain, a man who for decades has struggled with mental illness and alcoholism.

A long history of sex abuse

Months earlier, Judge Esch, thinking the sentence might be too severe, invoked a safety mechanism. He referred the case to a three-judge panel to decide whether the mandatory 99-year sentence would be "manifestly unjust." After meeting in Nome at the end of August, the panel found no grounds on which to ease Kobuk's punishment.

Kobuk could have had a chance at relief had he argued he had "extraordinary prospects for rehabilitation." But Kobuk did not do this, the panel noted in its order returning the case to Esch.

Kobuk's defense attorney argued that for an aging war hero, a sentence of 10 years would do, especially since there's no way to know if Kobuk -- who has for decades succumbed to the lure and addiction of alcohol -- will live to be 73, an age when he would "not likely pose a danger to anyone."

"A ten year sentence allows for the possibility that Mr. Kobuk can return home before he dies, as recognition of service to his country. A veteran who served his country honorably and heroically deserves some minimal consideration of that fact. It does no violence to the victim, sentencing principles, or society at large, to acknowledge honorable service in a time of war and its effects on soldiers who take that burden," wrote Angela Greene, Kobuk's attorney, in her sentencing memorandum to the court.

Last October, a jury found Kobuk guilty of raping a woman who had passed out at his home after a night spent drinking home brew he had made. It wasn't the first time Kobuk had waited until a woman was heavily asleep in a drunken haze to strike. One day nearly 25 years earlier, he had done the same thing to two women.

Kobuk's latest offense ran into the state's "third strike" law: commit three first-degree sexual assaults and the court must impose a 99-year sentence. Unless there are unusually special circumstances, the court has no choice but to hand down the sentence.

The 99-year mandatory punishment Kobuk received is the result of an effort in 2006 by the state of Alaska to adopt a zero tolerance approach to sexual assault, which ultimately led to passage of a bill that came to be known as the toughest sex assault law in the United States.

In late spring 2006, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski signed into law substantially steeper punishments for sexual offenders. What before landed offenders behind bars for eight years now put them in jail for a quarter century. Repeat crimes only upped the length of incarceration.

Earlier that year, defense attorneys testifying before the Alaska Legislature urged lawmakers to rethink aspects of the ultra tough approach for dealing with rapists and abusers. It would, they argued, disproportionately target people struggling with alcohol addiction, rural Alaskans and Alaska Natives. Just as with any crimes of assault, sexual assault occurs under a wide spectrum of circumstances and intent, and courts should have the leeway to take individual situations into consideration, they argued. Subjecting all offenders to the same punishment meant to deal with the worst of the worst -- abusers who make up a fraction of the majority of defendants -- wouldn't be fair, they said.

Victims' advocates and women's shelter employees lobbied for the stricter sentencing. Women were being repeatedly abused, sometimes by the same man, they said. Known sex offenders had gone on to attack someone else, they said. Something had to be done. The state had to act. Women and children deserved to be safe.

The bill passed without a single "no" vote from either the House or the Senate, ushering Alaska into a new era of sentencing schemes.

A war hero's demons

Alcohol isn't the only demon wrecking Kobuk. He also suffers from a severe, untreated mental illness, according to court records, a condition that surfaced after his return from the Vietnam War, a conflict from which he emerged with two Bronze Stars and multiple other medals.

In May 1971, Kobuk, a helicopter crew chief, was sent into enemy territory to rescue injured troops trapped by enemy fire. The mission was a success, and for his actions Kobuk was awarded the Air Medal, according to an account offered by Greene. He returned home, married, had children and served in the National Guard until 1981. Soon after, his mental health began to breakdown. He became violent, and suffered religious ideations, causing him to burn Bibles and break into a church. He was committed and diagnosed with schizophrenia.  

By the time Kobuk was facing sentencing for his third sexual assault conviction, Judge Esch felt that the events of Kobuk's life -- his military service, childhood events, mental health, and the length of time between the rapes (nearly 25 years) -- would make a 99-year sentence an injustice.

Prosecutors thought the sentence was fair. Not only had Kobuk repeated past behavior. He had, just like last time, likely had attacked two women, they said. A second woman in Kobuk's home didn't recall an assault, but had injuries that could have been caused by his assaulting her while she was incapacitated, having passed out from the night of drinking. Now, as back in 1986, Kobuk's lack of remorse remains a concern, Nome District Attorney John Earthman wrote in the state's sentencing memorandum. He quoted the judge in the old case who called Kobuk "a most dangerous offender," someone whose "attitude toward women is absolutely shocking" and an "absolute danger to the public."

Kobuk's home village of Saint Michael has a painful, collective legacy of sexual abuse. Over the course of 25 years, an entire generation of children -- nearly 80 percent of the village's young people, by some estimates -- suffered at the hands of a predator priest and his assistant. The pain inflicted there from 1968 to 1983 by Father George Endal and Deacon Joseph Lundowski was recently chronicled in a Frontline PBS documentary, "The Silence."

Kobuk left for the Army shortly after the religious leaders first arrived.

Asked if he wanted to say something before receiving his sentence, Kobuk declined. It was last opportunity to apologize to his victim and show the judge he was truly sorry. His silence didn't help his cause.

Observing Kobuk's lack of appreciation for the wrongfulness of his crime, and his lack of remorse, Judge Esch said he had no choice but to impose the 99-year sentence. And for Kobuk there would be no chance to accumulate good time, no chance for early parole.

When it came time for Judge Esch to speak directly after imposing the sentence -- often judges will lecture defendants about their bad behavior and impress upon them the need to change their lives -- he, too, seemed to be at a loss for words.

"Mr. Kobuk, I really don't know what to say," Esch said, ending the hearing.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com