Smith ‘targeted the most vulnerable’ in Anchorage killings, prosecutor says. The defense says the evidence is flawed.

The trial of Brian Steven Smith got underway Tuesday afternoon in Anchorage with the prosecution offering an apology to jurors: By the end of the four-week trial, they will see things they won’t be able to unsee.

Smith is accused of sexually assaulting and killing two Anchorage women. In viewing graphic evidence videos and photos of the crimes, the jury will “carry the burden of knowing,” prosecutor Brittany Dunlop told jurors.

Smith’s trial began with opening statements by the prosecution and defense, more than four years after Smith was arrested in 2019.

Smith, 52, faces 14 charges including homicide, sexual assault, misconduct involving a corpse and tampering with evidence, related to the deaths of Kathleen Jo Henry, 30, and Veronica Abouchuk, 52. Both women were Alaska Native. Each had been struggling with homelessness and addiction at the time of their deaths.

During Tuesday’s opening statements, family members of the victims sat in the front two rows of the courtroom. Several wore red, a color signifying the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.

Smith, prosecutors contend, sought women who existed on the margins of Anchorage life and plied them with alcohol, money or even the simple promise of a warm place to stay or a meal before wreaking brutal violence on them, acts he documented in photos and videos. Meanwhile, the South Africa-born Smith lived a middle-class life, working in maintenance for Marriott hotels and married to a federal employee. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen just weeks after he allegedly filmed himself asphyxiating Henry in an Anchorage hotel room.

Smith “lived, worked, walked among us,” Dunlop told the jury. “Targeting the most vulnerable among us.”


But Smith’s attorney, Timothy Ayer, told the jury that all was not as it seemed. The state, Ayer said, “presents this as an open-and-shut case” with evidence including a taped confession and videos. That evidence is far from clear-cut, Ayer said. There are a “lot of issues” and a “lot of holes” related to the evidence, especially the hotel room video at the center of the case, he said.

In Tuesday’s opening arguments, Dunlop laid out the backbone of the state’s case: That police received a digital card containing dozens of violent videos of Henry being tortured and killed in a hotel room, authorities allege, as well as photos of her body being taken out of a hotel on a luggage rack and loaded into the back of a pickup truck.

A police investigation, Dunlop said, led them to Smith — whose distinct South African accent could be heard on the video.

“Sadly, in my movies everyone dies,” Smith is recorded saying in the video, prosecutors contend.

When police initially detained and interviewed Smith, they said, he confessed to a second murder: That of Veronica Abouchuk.

Abouchuk was homeless in Anchorage and Smith lured her in with promises of shelter and food, Dunlop told the jury.

“I picked her up and said ‘Do you want some warm food and a warm place to sleep tonight?’” Smith said, according to an interview transcript with detectives projected on a screen to the jury. “And she was like, yes, sure.”

Smith took her to his home in the College Village neighborhood but grew angry when she wouldn’t take a shower and shot her in the head, Dunlop told the jury. Berry pickers later found a skull near the Old Glenn Highway, and forensic analysts identified the remains as those of Abouchuk, the jury was told.

Dunlop said Smith wanted recognition for his crimes, at one point saying to police during his interrogation “I’m going to make you guys famous.” Jurors will hear portions of an interview with police that went on for more than eight hours, Dunlop said.

Smith’s attorney, Ayer, said the video and confessions prosecutors have pointed to are flawed.

That central video itself was of “questionable and largely unknown origin,” Ayer said. The woman who turned in the card changed her story four years into the case, admitting that she’d actually stolen Smith’s phone — not an SD card — from his truck, and then transferred the images and videos, the defense attorney told the jury. The woman is expected to testify. Her evolving story came to light when she was subpoenaed to testify at trial, Ayer said.

And when Smith had supposedly confessed, Ayer said, he was exhausted from travel and had been subjected to hours of coercive interrogation techniques and “pressure tactics” by police.

Smith, Ayer said, was not on trial for aspects of himself that the jury might not like — that he had sexual fetishes, that he viewed pornography, that he patronized sex workers, that he committed adultery.

He’s on trial for the murder of two women, he told the jury.

Testimony by more than 30 witnesses is expected to start Wednesday.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.