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Anchorage

How a TV interview spiraled into a scandal that led to the resignation of Anchorage’s mayor

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. (Marc Lester / ADN archive, July 2019)

Molly Blakeley watched in shock on Friday morning, she said, as the local news anchor she’d just met for an interview dialed Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and launched into an obscenity-filled tirade.

In 58 seconds, Maureen “Maria” Athens accused the mayor of pedophilia, promised to win an Emmy for “exposing” him and threatened to kill him and his wife.

“You have met your match, motherf--ker,” Athens said.

She ended the call. Moments later the phone rang. He was calling back.

Athens put him on speakerphone.

“He just kept saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ to her,” said Blakeley. “He finally hung up.”

It began to dawn on Blakeley, who began the day thinking she would be making a pleasant TV appearance about her entrepreneurship book, that things were spinning out of control.

Hours later, Athens posted a nude photo of the mayor to Facebook. By Monday, the mayor admitted to an “inappropriate messaging relationship” with the reporter. On Tuesday evening, Ethan Berkowitz resigned from his second term as the mayor of Alaska’s largest city.

In interviews with the Daily News this week, Blakeley filled in the blanks of the bizarre story of how and why an Anchorage news anchor launched an online attack that began a dizzying chain of events that ultimately did take down the mayor of Alaska’s biggest city, just as Athens had promised — but not for the reasons she’d said.

Friday morning

Blakeley said she was flattered when KTBY news anchor Maria Athens messaged her on Facebook asking to do an in-studio interview about Blakeley’s self-published book. Blakeley describes herself as a “serial entrepreneur” who has run various Alaska small businesses.

News anchor and interview subject made a plan to meet at 11 a.m. on Friday at the East Tudor Road studio of KYUR/KTBY, the FOX and ABC news affiliate station. The two had never met before and had no prior history, according to Blakeley.

Things seemed off from the start, she said: Athens arrived 10-15 minutes late, and struck Blakeley as intoxicated when she did show up. Through her attorney, Michelle Nesbett, Athens said she’d been in the building the whole time but happened to be in the restroom when Blakeley arrived. She denies that she was intoxicated.

Blakeley says when Athens learned that Blakeley’s stepbrother owns Kriner’s Diner, Athens began disparaging the mayor. Kriner’s was involved in a dispute with the municipality earlier this summer over COVID-19 restrictions.

The interview was uneventful, Blakeley said, except for when Athens stopped to address the camera about how the mayor of Anchorage had ruined businesses. When the conversation ended, they learned they had to do a second take because the camera wasn’t working, Blakeley said.

After the cameras stopped, the two were chatting in the studio, with Athens talking again about her dislike for the mayor.

Blakeley chimed in with an anecdote of her own.

“I said something like: ‘I’m not his biggest fan either, I believe my daughter was trafficked a few years ago and he was one of her customers.’ ”

At the time, Blakeley believed what she was saying was true, she said.

Two years ago, she learned her daughter, then 18, had been posting on websites such as “SeekingArrangement,” which primarily connects men with younger women for “sugar daddy” relationships. Worried, she asked about her daughter’s clients.

The way Blakeley says she remembers it, her daughter told her a favorite client was a “short man” in Anchorage who worked in government.

Blakeley says she assumed — but did not confirm — it was Ethan Berkowitz, because of his high profile as mayor and short stature.

Wrong, says the daughter, who is now 20 and goes by her middle name of Rae in her work as an adult content producer. The Daily News is not using Rae’s full name because she is concerned about clients being able to locate her.

Rae says she was simply trying to get her mom off her back, and made up a fictional short government worker.

“To kind of shut her up, I told her it was a man who worked for the state,” she said in a phone interview from Oregon, where she now lives. “She kept asking what he looked like. I told her he was short.”

Rae says she has never met Berkowitz. She also says she was never trafficked and willingly pursued the line of work after she turned 18.

Blakeley says she made what she thought was a “casual comment” to Athens. The idea that her daughter had been involved with Berkowitz had been “hanging around in my head for the last two years,” she said.

‘I am so f--king exposing you’

As soon as the comment came out, the mood in the TV studio changed, Blakeley said.

Athens began to yell about pedophilia and a website with photos, according to Blakeley.

Athens' version of the exchange is different: She maintains that Blakeley told her Berkowitz had “gone after” Blakeley’s young daughter when the daughter was under 18.

Blakeley says she corrected Athens, saying she’d never said anything about her daughter being underage, or about photos posted to any website. Athens denies that Blakeley corrected her.

(Blakeley insisted Wednesday she’s telling the truth. “And I remember everything perfectly, because it was intense,” she said.)

Either way, it seemed like it was too late: According to Blakeley, Athens was talking about how she had a three-year relationship and “thousands” of nude pictures of Berkowitz and could “make her own website” if she wanted to.

“Maria completely fabricated that,” Blakeley said. “The website, the pictures. She took my story and decided to make her own out of it, you know?”

The next thing Blakeley knew, Athens was dialing Berkowitz to leave a voice mail, laced with anti-Semitic language, threatening to kill him and his wife.

“I am so f--king exposing you,” she said on the voicemail, a recording of which was later released by Berkowitz’s office. “You Jewish piece of living f--king s--t. You have met your match...”

After he called back, saying he didn’t know what she was talking about, Athens called and left a second voicemail.

“Ummmm, I’m not sure why you called me back to record me, because you’re the one going to prison. Bye,” she said, according to a recording of the voicemail, provided by the city. (It’s unclear if anyone recorded the call Berkowitz made to Athens.)

To Blakeley’s astonishment, she said, Athens then started talking about going to lunch at Kriner’s Diner.

“I was like, that’s still happening?” Blakeley said.

[Above: A tweet from Maria Athens on Aug. 10, 2017, includes photos of her on the set of Your Alaska Link with Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.]

They took separate cars. Blakeley says she prayed in the car, feeling like something bad and out of control was happening but she wasn’t sure what to do. Athens showed up at Kriner’s Diner with the station manager, Scott Centers, and another station employee, who Athens identified as Kyle Kosinski. In a booth, over a BLT without bacon but with mushrooms, Athens commented loudly about Berkowitz, Blakeley said.

She said she’d posted a video and that people were commenting on it already, Blakeley said.

Blakeley said her feeling of unease grew. She reminded the group that she’d never said anything about an underage girl or photos. Athens denies this happened. Kosinski could not immediately be reached for comment and Centers has repeatedly refused to comment on what happened.

“I said, ‘I want no part of this,’ ” Blakeley said.

By the time they parted ways, Athens had asked Blakeley to attend her wedding.

On the drive home, Blakeley called her daughter, shaken, and told her what happened. Rae told her the mystery client had not been Berkowitz and told her mom she needed to fix the damage — fast.

“I was extremely upset,” said Rae. “Like, why would you just put those two things together?”

Blakeley says she tried to get a hold of Athens on Facebook to tell her Berkowitz was not the client.

By then, the video Athens had posted accusing the mayor was already beginning to spread across social media, with many commenters appearing to believe and then amplify the allegations.

Later in the afternoon, Berkowitz’s office issued a statement: “The slanderous allegations from Your Alaska Link reporter Maria Athens are categorically false and appear to be the product of someone who is hostile and unwell.” Athens then posted a photo on Facebook showing the backside of a naked man. She said it was the mayor. “PROOF,” she wrote.

By 4:30 p.m., Athens had been arrested after a physical fight with Centers, the TV station manager who she later described in court as her fiance.

Blakely watched the allegations pinball around the internet, based in part on assumptions and misunderstandings.

Late Friday night, Anchorage police showed up at Blakeley’s Eagle River home to ask whether her children were OK. They didn’t say why.

“I just told them the story I told you,” Blakeley told a Daily News reporter.

‘I didn’t think it would be OK for me to just keep quiet’

Rae was disturbed to see that the narrative posted by Athens had gone viral.

“I went on Twitter and looked up Anchorage mayor and saw all these people calling him a pedophile,” she said. “I was like, oh my God.”

Feeling that she’d unwittingly played a key role in misinformation, she decided to set the record straight. She took to Twitter, posting a thread describing how she’d been what she described as a “non-sexual” escort and how her mother had made an inaccurate assumption about one of her clients.

“I didn’t think it would be OK for me to just keep quiet for the sake of my privacy and for the mayor to have his reputation completely ruined,” she said.

Meanwhile, bloggers made the connection between Blakeley and Andy Kriner, the owner of Kriner’s Diner — implying he may have been involved. He was in no way involved, Blakeley said. People have harassed her online, targeting her business and calling her “the world’s worst mom.”

On Monday, Berkowitz admitted he had an “inappropriate messaging relationship” with Athens. On Tuesday, as questions mounted, he resigned. His staff said he concluded it was “untenable” to remain as mayor.

Shortly before the mayor announced his resignation, Blakeley decided it was time to say what actually happened. She spoke in a phone interview with the Daily News, with her friend, Palmer attorney Sarah Heath (no relation to Sarah Palin, née Heath), on the line.

Blakeley says she didn’t come forward earlier because Berkowitz hadn’t confirmed he actually had a relationship of any kind with Athens.

“I didn’t feel like it was my position to say anything,” she said.

Blakeley also said she wants to say sorry to her children, especially Rae.

“I want to publicly apologize to my daughter for anything that may have affected her in a negative way,” she said. “And tell her that I love her very much.”

Rae says she has doubts about her mother’s assertion that she was horrified by the situation and tried to stop misinformation from being disseminated.

“None of this would have happened if my mom didn’t say this,” she said. “Maria would not have posted that video.”

As of Wednesday, the Anchorage Assembly was scrambling over who would take over as mayor on Oct. 23, Berkowitz’s resignation date. The Anchorage Police Department and FBI have said they found no evidence that the allegations about Berkowitz were true. Athens was out on bail on her criminal charges, and had gone quiet on social media. Athens spoke to a Daily News reporter on Monday night and responded to follow-up questions by text. On Wednesday she could not be reached directly but, through her attorney, responded to questions about her interaction with Blakeley.

The video about Berkowitz and the photo were still up, immortalized on the internet.


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