Crime & Courts

Adoptive mother accused of abusing children in Anchorage Hillside home sentenced – six years after charges filed

A woman whose parenting of six adopted children on the Anchorage Hillside included abuse, deprivation, humiliation and torment finally faced judgment  Thursday.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Wolverton ordered Anya James to serve eight years, with another two years suspended, plus five years of probation.

James, now 57, earlier this year pleaded guilty to two felonies for endangering children through a secret and bizarre world she created in her large home. She originally faced 16 more serious charges of first-degree assault and kidnapping. They've been dismissed.

Whether she will end up in prison isn't yet clear. She gets credit for the time she served on house arrest with an ankle monitor — a more than six-year stretch that allowed her freedoms not granted to prisoners, such as four hours a week for personal needs. She still owns the same Hillside home where she kept the children in isolation.

That time on the ankle monitor is subtracted from the sentence handed down Thursday.

Five of six now-grown children, their blood relatives and advocates crowded into the courtroom on the Nesbett Courthouse's fifth floor to hear the resolution. Most of the victims already had testified about their hellacious childhood.

What James did is the worst type of behavior classified as child endangerment, Assistant District Attorney Laura Dulic told Wolverton.


[In emotional hearing, former adopted children confront Hillside mother accused of abuse]

James subdued the children with psychiatric drugs and cut their hair as punishment, the prosecutor said. She starved them, feeding them a concoction made with beans and rice — but never enough. She took them out of school and isolated them from others. She kept them mainly in a converted garage with a bare concrete floor. They had only buckets for toilets. She locked away their childhood mementos.

"The conduct … represents a decade of abuse, control and power over multiple victims," Dulic said.

At the time of James' arrest, police said she had collected over $750,000 in adoption payments sometimes granted to parents.

The criminal case is one of the longest-running in Anchorage. The sentencing came six years, five months and 22 days after charges were filed on May 11, 2011. All along there has been a betrayal of trust, Dulic said.

The children and the state agency that was supposed to protect them trusted that she would provide good care, Dulic said. The public trusted that the government would do its job and protect children in state custody.

"And the victims back in 2011 put their trust in the justice system," hoping for quick resolution, Dulic said. "For many parties this case represents the failings and betrayals of six long years."

One young man who hadn't testified before got his chance Thursday.

"She treated us like we were mental patients or animals," Brandon James told the judge. His long bangs shielded his glasses. He wore a black hoodie with a belt around his waist. "Whenever she would get mad, she would take her anger out on us. It was oftentimes very brutal and extremely bloody."

The hurts are deep and always there, he said. He doesn't have a lot of friends and was behind in school after his years with James.

"She deserves nothing more than the death penalty, in my opinion, but that is not fair either," Brandon said.

As the hearing went on, a box of tissues made its way through the crowd.

"This is some of the most deeply disturbing, Machiavellian behavior I have ever seen," said Wolverton, who spoke with emotion in his voice.

Before the sentencing, he read a report about James that laid it all out. Then he corrected himself.

"Well, not all," he said. "That would be a pretty big book."

In 40 years as a lawyer and judge, he said, he's never seen anything like this.

"These were mean, vicious, carefully plotted, cruel crimes," the judge said.


Yet, the young people are working through the past to lead full, productive lives, Wolverton said.

"Clearly the most stunning thing for me has been for each and every one of you how articulate and thoughtful and gracious you've been in this process," he said. "Just remarkable, given what you've been through."

One of the adopted boys, Solomon "Tommy" James, is a sturdy man now, age 26, and working as a car salesman. After the hearing, with the courtroom crowd now gathered in the hallway, he said he was shocked when James showed up at his work about a month ago. She isn't supposed to have contact with any of her victims, he said.

He isn't satisfied with the case's resolution.

"There is no justice. Something like this, it's not justice," said Tommy, wearing a black vest and bow tie.

"There can never be justice," said sister Ahava, now 25.

"Collectively we've had over 50 years taken from us. Fifty years of pain collectively, between all the time each one of us spent," Tommy said.

A civil lawsuit against the state Office of Children's Services, which brought in Anya James as a defendant, was on hold during the criminal case. Tommy said he didn't want to say too much until that case was resolved, too.


The law firm Kramer and Associates, which is suing on behalf of one of the children, said: "The years of horrific abuse that our client suffered in the Anya James home could not have happened without Ms. James but it also could not have happened without OCS."

Ahava, who still uses the name she picked with Anya James, said she is glad this chapter is over. She has forgiven her adoptive mother, at last.

"Ahava in Hebrew means beloved, or one who is loved," she said. "And that's what I wanted."

It was unclear on Thursday whether James will return to jail. With the sentencing just completed, the Department of Corrections still must process her time sheet and come up with a release date, said spokeswoman Megan Edge.

Lance Wells, the most recent of James' five defense lawyers, noted that she had no prior record and that she had already served more than six years on an ankle monitor plus 12 days locked up. Under an eight-year sentence, with time off for good behavior, she'd serve less than that, he said. She should be released from custody, he said.

The prosecutor disagreed with the defense's math.

There is no time off for good behavior while on an ankle monitor, though it does count toward prison time, Dulic said. James was allowed to leave for work. (Tommy said James had an animal care business.) She could drive her car. She could use a phone.

That was far less restrictive than the rules she put on the children, Dulic said.

The prosecutor recommended the sentence, which includes probation plus restitution that has not yet been calculated. Someone without a record normally wouldn't get so many years for child endangerment, but the circumstances with multiple victims support that, she said.

Given a chance to speak in court Thursday, James declined. The biological grandmother of three of the children, in court in her wheelchair, started to cry.

"I just couldn't believe she didn't say she was sorry, not just to my children," Melody McPherson said. "To all the children."

Wolverton ordered James to turn herself in Dec. 4.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.