About 50 people marched to Anchorage Police Department headquarters Friday to demand police reopen the case of a 41-year-old man from Buckland who was found dead on Kincaid Beach in June, naked and with visible injuries.
Police maintain that the June death of Fred Lee, a father of four and heavy equipment operator, was not a criminal act.
Under public pressure from a growing campaign by friends and family of Lee, APD this week even took the unusual step of releasing the cause of death as determined by the medical examiner: “Per Medical Examiner’s Report, the cause of death is ‘Acute ketoacidosis and bronchopneumonia due to acute toxic effects of methamphetamine,’ ” wrote APD spokeswoman Sunny Guerin in an email. “Because this is a non-criminal death, we have no further information to share.”
But family members say police botched the investigation and there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the circumstances Lee died in — made more urgent by a witness, an Anchorage man named Stephen Fisher who says he heard a loud conversation or scuffle in the woods just minutes before Lee’s body was found on the beach below.
The man said he has tried repeatedly to tell police what he observed, to no avail.
“It bothers me that they weren’t curious enough,” Fisher said.
The police department says it took audio-recorded statements from all witnesses, including Fisher.
Lee’s family is pushing police to reopen the case, saying evidence suggests Lee’s body was placed at the site where he was found. A “Justice for Fred Lee” petition had garnered more than 1,600 signatures as of Friday evening.
At Friday’s march, some carried signs saying “Witness Statement Matters,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Reopen This Case.”
Missing in Anchorage
Lee, a heavy equipment operator, father of four and basketball coach from the Northwest Alaska village of Buckland, was found on a remote stretch of the Kincaid Park beach on July 15. He’d gone missing a day earlier at the end of a trip to Anchorage to visit family. His family said he barely knew his way around Anchorage, and puzzled over how he had ended up more than 6 miles away from where he was last seen without his clothes or belongings, on a lonely stretch of beach.
Police quickly determined that Lee’s death was “non-criminal in nature” but family members, troubled by unanswered questions, have pushed for further investigation.
The medical examiner ruled Lee’s death to be accidental, which is a medical determination. The medical examiner’s office doesn’t determine whether a death is criminal in nature or not, said Alaska medical examiner Gary Zientek.
Methamphetamine toxicity, ketoacidosis, a metabolic problem and pneumonia can arise in combination among people with already weakened bodies due to drug use, all contributing to death, Zientek said. Zientek was speaking generally and not about the Lee case specifically.
Lee’s daughter, Shaylin Thomas, still has questions about what that cause of death means, and how Lee got to the beach naked and with injuries that included scratches all over his back and a broken nose.
She said she’s heard from a witness who was among the first people to discover Lee’s body on the beach. He reported observations that she thinks police should have investigated further.
A voice in the woods
Stephen Fisher, a retired engineer, was on his regular walk down the Kincaid Beach starting at about 3 p.m. June 15 when he heard a loud voice coming from the dense brush and forest above the beach, he said in a phone interview this week. The spot is about a 10-minute walk south of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail access to the beach. Directly above it is a popular bluff trail, but the voice wasn’t coming from all the way up there, he said.
A few hundred feet up from the beach, on a sloped embankment trail, he heard an aggressive voice – maybe two. He couldn’t quite discern what was being said, but the voice was agitated.
“My initial thought was ‘Oh no, someone is getting attacked by a moose.’ So I stopped there for a minute. It would start up and stop again.” He said he also heard crashing through the brush.
“The voice sounded angry at times, agitated and aggressive,” he said. “I thought there were maybe two voices.”
He said he continued to listen for about 20 minutes, hearing what he thought was a man lapse into long passages of what sounded to him like an Alaska Native language, though he said he wasn’t sure which one.
Finally, Fisher said, he continued on to his usual turnaround point. No more than 45 minutes later, he had turned around walking back by the same spot when he encountered a woman who told him she’d just found a body and had called police, Fisher said. He walked over — the body was directly below where he had stopped to listen to the voice or voices up the embankment, he said.
The man was naked and face down in the sand. He touched his arm to see if he should try CPR and found it warm, but rigid. To Fisher, it seemed clear that the man was dead and rigor mortis had already set in.
Fisher said he saw the body. “Every square inch” of Lee’s back was scratched, with evenly-sized three to four inch scratches, he said. But his legs and feet showed no signs of injury at all, he said.
“Not like somebody who even walked through the brush,” Fisher said.
Fisher doesn’t know whose voice or voices he heard coming from the dense woods of the hillside. But it didn’t sound like someone who was minutes away from dying.
“I wasn’t listening to a dying man,” Fisher said. “And I thought I was listening to a struggle, at first.”
Fisher, the woman and another man all waited for police to arrive. When police did arrive, they asked for the witnesses to share their names and phone numbers, but beyond that only cursory statements were taken, Fisher said.
Later, he waited for a police investigator to call. It seemed to him like “they’d want to get right on this.” When no one called, Fisher tried reaching out to police himself. He thought the information about the voices he heard on the hillside would be worth investigators knowing.
“I called over the next couple of days,” Fisher said. “Several times, you know. And nobody ever called me back.”
After the Daily News published an article in late July calling attention to the mysterious circumstances of the death, Fisher called police again.
The officer he spoke to was not interested in hearing what he had to say, he said.
”I said ‘Don’t you want any of my information?’ She said no,” he said. “And I said, ‘You don’t want to know any of my story?’ And she said no.”
The conversation “didn’t end friendly,” he said. “I said, I’ll just talk to the family then.”
Fisher got in touch with members of Lee’s family, and took them to the spot on the beach where the body was. Shaylin Thomas, Lee’s daughter, says she still doesn’t have clarity on exactly what the cause of death determined by the medical examiner means. But she believes that Fisher’s testimony suggests someone else was involved.
“His body was definitely placed there,” said Thomas. “He was already dead.’”
Fisher says he doesn’t know what happened to Lee. But based on what he heard and saw, he also doesn’t believe Lee ended up at the Kincaid Beach alone.
“That didn’t seem plausible to me.”
Fisher still walks the Kincaid Beach regularly, passing the spot where Fred Lee’s body was found.
“I stop,” he said. “Every time.”