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Crime & Courts

Who killed Carlos Medina?

  • Author: Tom Kizzia
  • Updated: April 25
  • Published May 1, 1994

Carlos Medina of Kodiak was bludgeoned to death in 1993. (Photo courtesy Medina family)

Editor's note: This story was originally published May 1, 1994.

Everybody said Carlos Medina was on a fast-track toward the Filipino-American dream. He grew up in the Philippines in a poor family with a dozen children.

When he came to Kodiak in 1983, he was only 26. Like so many new immigrants, he got his first job in a cannery killing crab.

In less than a decade, Medina had left the crab line far behind. He'd bought a restaurant in town, added Filipino food to the menu, changed the name from China House to Asia House, and opened Kodiak's first karaoke club.

He had a good job with the Kodiak Electric Association to pay the bills. His restaurant was popular and he was talking of expansion. He had gotten married and was raising three small children. He was buying a big house in a neighborhood sometimes known as Little Manila.

In the polyglot town of Kodiak, where Filipinos today outnumber Alaska Natives, Medina had become a talked-about symbol of immigrant success.

"It's the American dream. You start out making lousy wages and you get ahead," said Kodiak city manager Gary Blomquist. "What you see here is a dream that really isn't being accomplished many other places."

In his success, Medina did not forget other Filipinos. He sent money home to the islands and brought his father and a brother and sister to Alaska. He sponsored a Filipino basketball team and helped elderly ladies with medical bills. When new arrivals had financial trouble, they often got help from the Barangay Lions Club, the Filipino-American service group in which Medina served as president.

Last April, when the city threatened to crack down on immigrant boarding houses where seafood workers crowded together to save money, Medina appeared before the city council to appeal for understanding. Flush with success in a school board election, Filipino leaders were looking for a new city council candidate; they chose Carlos Medina.

"People had their hopes on him for higher things," said former Kodiak Mayor Bob Brodie.

Then, on a rainy Friday night three days after his appearance before the city council, Medina failed to show up at the Asia House.

His routine was well-established. After work at KEA he would go home, eat with his family and nap a few hours. Then he would drop by the restaurant, greeting patrons and looking after the books. Sometimes he would go out with friends, coming back before the 2 a.m. closing.

Medina's younger brother Rolando, who had come from the Philippines two years earlier and was helping run the restaurant, figured Carlos had business appointments and didn't worry. Business for Carlos sometimes meant socializing in bars. He had a lot on his mind that week he'd been meeting with other Kodiak bar owners to discuss complaints that his late-night karaoke was drawing customers for liquor, not food, in violation of his beer and wine license.

Carlos never made it home that night.

By midafternoon Saturday, May 1, Bernie Ballao was at the Asia House. Ballao, Kodiak's only Filipino city councilman, consulted with the family and then called the police to report Medina missing.

Just before dark, police found Medina's silver Nissan pickup truck at a gravel pit on a deserted road behind town. Police closed the road, which leads to the summit of Pillar Mountain. A detective was left to sit up through the rainy night near the truck. The inside of the truck's cab was streaked with blood.

The next morning, Vic Algoso was on his way to the Catholic church when he heard the helicopter. Algoso, a friend of Medina's who works at the Coast Guard base, had stopped by the Asia House Friday night, his birthday. He knew Medina was missing. Now, as he looked up and saw a Coast Guard helicopter hovering near the summit of Pillar Mountain, he sensed the worst.

Searchers found Medina's ring and his watch alongside the road that climbs out of the spruce on Pillar Mountain. Near the radio towers on the grassy summit, a mile from the truck, they found his body. He had been viciously beaten on the head, his skull caved in by a blunt weapon.

The murder shocked the Filipino community. Medina was a shining example of the Filipino rise into Kodiak's middle class. With an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 residents in a town of 8,300, Filipinos have become Kodiak's largest minority group. Filipinos today hold down jobs at the post office and the banks even as their old cannery jobs are being claimed by newer immigrants from places like El Salvador and Vietnam.

But the surprise was felt well beyond the minority community, because Medina was widely known. No one, it seemed, had any idea what lay behind the murder.

Today is exactly one year since Carlos Medina was killed. Kodiak police say they still don't know who killed him.

Police have issued statements and appeared before the city council to declare the investigation is still very active. Police say they have followed up hundreds of leads and obtained possible motives and suspects. But they have released almost no information about the murder, even to Medina's family. They say most details surrounding his death must remain secret for now.

Medina's family say they have been left in the dark. They say they may eventually leave Kodiak, but can't decide while the mystery is unsolved and their lives are on hold.

"We cannot go on with our lives without knowing more," says Rolando.

Business has slowed at the once-busy Asia House. Tita Medina, the shy Filipino woman Carlos met in the cannery and married, says she is still afraid to be photographed or appear in public. The family has written the governor and U.S. senators and put up a $10,000 reward, hoping to goad police and the community.

"They keep telling us they have suspects," Tita Medina muttered in a recent interview at the Asia House. Her 10-year-old daughter, Maria, sat obediently nearby, clutching a jump rope and staring at a bright-pink reward poster. "They keep saying that for a year."

If a prominent white restaurant owner had been found dead, Medina's family asks, would the case remain unsolved for a year? Some Filipino leaders back the police effort, but Medina's friends wonder whether the police are doing all they can.

"If they are, it sure looks very different from this angle," said Ernie Lansang, a Filipino friend at the Coast Guard base.

In fact, police might be willing to concede that a murder of a white victim could have been solved more quickly. Sgt. John Palmer, the lead investigator, says his biggest problem is that no one in the Filipino community will talk, even anonymously.

In a year he has had only three Crime Stopper tips, none of them particularly helpful. On the last complex murder case in Kodiak, a 1987 contract killing of a woman battling her ex-husband over child custody, he had 127 tips in the first week.

"Probably one of the big complications is that different ethnic groups have a hesitancy to talk with police because of their experience with police in their own communities," Palmer said.

Some Filipinos may not want to say negative things about the well-liked Medina, he said. Others may feel threatened. Palmer said he interviewed one witness, a woman, who seemed to know something about the case. That night Kodiak police received a 911 call from a phone booth.

"There was a movie about 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' " the caller said, according to Palmer. "I've rewritten the movie to 'The Woman Who Knew Too Much.' " The caller named the witness and threatened to kill her. Police whisked her safely out of town, Palmer said.

Meanwhile, rumors and speculation abound. Since Medina's death, people have asked out loud how he managed to pay for his restaurant and talk about expanding. On the last day of his life, Medina had signed the final mortgage papers for a house that police say cost more than $200,000.

Palmer says it may well turn out that Medina's Filipino-American success story was more complicated than it appeared. If that's so, the dark side may have come out of hiding that stormy night on Pillar Mountain.

The key to unlocking the Medina mystery, Palmer is convinced, lies hidden behind the silence of Kodiak's up-and-coming Filipino community.

A robust community 

Last summer, Vic Algoso was traveling through Anchorage International Airport with three middle-aged Filipino friends when they struck up a friendly conversation with another traveler. Algoso, 54, a civilian supervisor at the Coast Guard base, mentioned they'd just come from Kodiak.

"What's the matter. No work at the canneries?" the other man asked.

The four Filipino men all of them retired military, none of them cannery workers just smiled back.

"We don't want to embarrass him," Algoso recalled.

Filipinos and canneries: it's an old Alaska association. Not so long ago, Algoso said, that was the way people thought in Kodiak, too. But attitudes changed as the island's Filipino population was changing.

Before 1970, Filipinos came to Kodiak only in the summer to process salmon. Most were U.S. citizens or legal immigrants from the West Coast or Hawaii. Then in the early 1970s, crab and shrimp fisheries provided winter processing work, and Filipinos began to settle in Kodiak as year-round residents. Some came for the work, some because they had families here. Some liked the outdoor life that attracted other Alaskans. Some said they liked living on an island.

When a bar fight involving migratory Filipino workers resulted in a fatal stabbing two decades ago, the new community's elders called a meeting and laid down the law to the outsiders, recalls Louie Reyes, now a supervisor at a seafood plant.

Among those working on the cannery lines were teachers and engineers, college graduates from the Philippines looking for a foothold in a new land.

"To be fair, the town wasn't that receptive to us back in those days, so people were compelled to find work in the canneries," says Pat Tabon, a chemical engineer who started in a cannery in 1977.

Today she owns a restaurant, works as controller at Kodiak Oil Sales and serves on the Kodiak Island school board. Not everyone started at the canneries. Several of today's leading citizens, including Algoso, came to America and Kodiak courtesy of the U.S. military.

Under a unique 1947 treaty between the United States and the Philippines, the U.S. Navy was able to enlist up to 2,000 Philippine nationals a year. The treaty arrangement had its roots in the first half of the century, when the Philippines were a U.S. territory. It expired in November 1992, when the Philippine government closed the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay, according to Frank Jenista, a spokesman with the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

Some of those who joined the Navy at Subic Bay later became U.S. citizens and transferred into the Coast Guard. They came to Kodiak, which has the largest Coast Guard base in the country, and found a large Filipino community already on the island. They remained in Kodiak after they retired.

City councilman Ballao, who like Algoso came to Kodiak with the Coast Guard, said the military experience probably made some Filipinos more civic-minded.

"When you are in the service, you learn all the rights you have, I think," said Ballao, owner of a video arcade. "You are more indoctrinated in the American way of life."

Filipinos are the second largest Asian minority in the United States, after the Chinese, said the State Department's Jenista. Immigrants maintain close ties back home, repatriating $2 billion every year from the states to the Philippines. And every year the United States grants visas to 50,000

immigrants from the Philippines more than for any country except Mexico, Jenista said.

In Kodiak, the growing Filipino presence can be seen in the grocery stores, with their ready supplies of staples such as pancit wheat noodles and palmnut syrup. But nowhere is it more visible than in the 14-team Filipino basketball league, a cultural celebration that packs the local gyms with fans every April.

This year, when a group of large Samoans asked to join the Filipino league, city recreation director Ian Fulp drew up a grid of Kodiak's many ethnic groups on the basis of height and realized he had a multicultural nightmare on his hands. Fortunately, he said, the Fil-Am Association took over financial support for the league from the city and that way were able to maintain the Filipinos-only rule.

"Once you open it up and say Laotians can play but Samoans can't, how are you going to do that?" said Fulp.

Now the Filipino numbers are beginning to translate into political clout.

Former Mayor Brodie relied on an unprecedented Filipino turnout to put him in office in 1987. He was later credited with increasing minority hire by the city. Last fall, Brodie helped a group of Filipino leaders organize a successful school board campaign for Pat Tabon. Vic Algoso narrowly lost a bid for city council.

But Kodiak's Filipinos are no monolithic power bloc.

The Philippine Islands themselves are famously fractious, a stewpot of conflicting ethnic groups and interisland rivalries more than 70 languages are spoken there, in addition to Tagalog, a national dialect. Filipinos say many old rivalries and jealousies have been transported intact to Kodiak. In last year's election, feelings were hurt when Tabon's backers formed an ad hoc group rather than working through the two traditional organizations, the Fil-Am Association and the Barangay Lions Club.

"I was hoping we would bring over only the good traits and not the bad ones," said Clinton Rosales, who took over from Carlos Medina as president of the Barangay Lions two weeks before Medina was killed. "Carlos always said look at the Vietnamese and Chinese. When they are prospering, they don't put down their fellow people. When a Filipino person gets high, the others put him down."

Medina's friends say he found himself in the midst of some rivalry after he opened his restaurant in competition with Tabon's Four Seasons restaurant, which also served Chinese and Filipino food. The two-restaurant clash seems even more pronounced since Medina's death, especially after the Barangay Lions held a Valentine's Day party at Asia House this year when some people thought it was Four Seasons' turn.

Tabon calls the whole thing "childish" and says Medina was a good friend. But she acknowledges they saw little of each other after he became busy with his restaurant. Petty feuds are still a big impediment for Kodiak's Filipinos, she said.

As a leader in the Fil-Am Association and later the Barangay Lions, Medina tackled several problems of broad concern to Filipinos. One was the housing shortage for seafood workers, which promoted the spread of boarding houses "shared homes," Medina called them that could sometime be dangerously overcrowded. Another was the high level of Filipino school dropouts, especially troubling in a culture that traditionally placed a high value on education as a way to get ahead.

One reason for the school problem, says Jesse Vizcocho, a bilingual instructor with the school district, is that Filipino kids see college graduates from the Philippines working in seafood processing plants. Last April, the district brought in successful Filipinos to provide role models for the students.

"They know their mom is a teacher but she is not teaching. What good did it do to them?" said Dr. Rosario Bermisa, a Kodiak pediatrician. "We want to show them that we work at what we studied for."

High school students heard from doctors, a bank manager, the owner of an auto repair shop. And they heard from Carlos Medina, in the same busy week that Medina spoke to the city council about boarding houses, and argued over his liquor license, and closed on a new house. He told the students the story of his life, and a few days later his life was over.

Silence guards mystery

He was the seventh child of 12 in Cavite Province outside Manila, but he was the backbone of his family, according to his brothers. When their beloved mother died in 1977, Carlos took over support for the family while working his way through college. With a degree in business administration, he went briefly to Saudi Arabia, then moved to Kodiak, where he had cousins. He worked as a liquor store clerk, ward clerk at the hospital and receptionist at the Kodiak Council on Alcoholism before landing a warehouse job at Kodiak Electric Association, the second Filipino ever to work at the utility. He paid brother Rolando's school fees in the Philippines, then sponsored his immigration to the United States. In 1992 he bought the China House, a restaurant in the heart of town upstairs above the Polaris snowmachine dealer.

"He always told his wife, 'Don't worry, sooner or later you'll be First Lady in this community,' " says a younger brother, Jerry.

Such a story is not supposed to end in the wind and rain on Pillar Mountain.

Sgt. Palmer says police have examined a variety of possible scenarios to explain what happened and why. He's not saying which he favors. Family members, too, have sorted through various possibilities.

"I spend sleepless nights thinking about him," says Jerry Medina. "There are so many maybes."

"Really, we cannot go on with our lives without knowing more about him," says Rolando.

Was it a robbery turned violent? A drifter who was gone from the island before the body was found? Medina was known to pick up hitchhikers. But he had no reason to carry cash and never handled the restaurant's nightly receipts, Rolando says. And why, his brothers ask, would a robber beat a victim to death?

Police examined the financial records of the Asia House to see if drug money was being laundered through the restaurant. "There's enough narcotics in this community to warrant businesses laundering money," Palmer said. He won't say what he found. But friends say it's hard to imagine Medina involved with drugs. He considered drugs a scourge, they say. He tore the door off the stall in the Asia House men's room after he caught two men smoking dope, says Ernie Lansang, who carried a 9mm pistol for several months after his friend's murder.

"Maybe it's a lesson from those business people who are doing business with us," said Barangay Lions president Rosales. He said he didn't mean anyone in particular. But he shivered, and held out his forearms. "My hair stands straight up just thinking about that."

In the 1970s, a strongarm gang called the Brothers had a hand in many Filipino activities on the island, Palmer said. Some Filipinos remember the Brothers as a benign self-policing organization for the community. Palmer said they were also involved in extortion, arranging cannery jobs for Filipinos and then shaking workers down for a percentage of their salaries. In any event, the Brothers dispersed long ago, and no Filipino underworld operates on Kodiak these days, police say.

Did Medina owe somebody money? What about the down payment for the new house? How was he going to pay for the bar and a liquor license he told friends he was considering? His wife and brothers say he borrowed the money from cousins and other relatives. The story checks out, according to Palmer. As for the liquor license, he was forced to consider expanding into a full- fledged bar because of complaints about his karaoke to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, says Jerry Medina.

And if the murder was planned, there are easier ways to execute someone.

"If somebody had planned on taking Carlos Medina to the top of the mountain, he would have been shot or stabbed," says Palmer. "This way takes too long."

So was it something unplanned? A sudden crime? Palmer will only say he thinks Medina had a secret, some side to his life that his friends and family didn't know about or won't discuss. A secret that may have led to his death.

"There's a public side and a private side to Mr. Medina, and they're like two different people," the police investigator said.

Medina's Filipino friends say that's hard to believe. They say he was too busy to have a secret life. His brothers say the police are pressing them for information they don't have.

"I asked everyone to tell me, whether it's bad or good, I don't care," says Jerry Medina, who lives in Canada and has been to Kodiak three times since the murder. "I told them that no matter what comes out, I don't care as long as justice is done. But the Filipino community likes him. He is a dead hero. I don't think the answer is in the Filipino community."

One year after the murder, the mystery remains. But the story of Carlos Medina's long Pacific journey didn't really end on Pillar Mountain.

One thing that set Medina's Filipino-American dream apart was that he never talked about moving back to the Philippines. Many Filipinos in Kodiak speak longingly of retiring someday to the islands, though their Americanized children often end up blocking such a move. Medina thought he might end up in California someday, but never spoke of going back to the Philippines, according to his brothers and friends.

When he died, however, Tita Medina told the family he'd wanted to be buried on the island where he grew up. So after the autopsy and the memorial service in Kodiak, Carlos Medina's body was flown home to the Philippines, where he was buried on Luzon Island, next to the grave of his mother.

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