Crime & Courts

After a stray bullet wounded their toddler, an Anchorage couple copes with fear

When they heard gunshots outside of their apartment in Anchorage's Fairview neighborhood, Sammy Murphy and Kuulei Steele had a routine.

Murphy would get out of bed and look out the living room window. Maybe he would see something that would help police. Steele would check on their three young children.

The gunfire always happened at night and it was always outside, Murphy said.

Until last Monday. That's when the violence made its way in. A stray bullet pierced the family's apartment wall and wounded the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Kapua.

"I thought she was going to pass away in my arms," Murphy said.

Police hadn't made any arrests in the shooting by Tuesday evening.

'Not a second was wasted.'


It was shortly before 4 p.m. last Monday and Murphy had just put a pizza in the oven.

He sat down on the couch with 3-year-old Sammy Jr. They had the television turned to PBS Kids. Kapua was toddling around the carpeted living room floor.

And that's when they heard tires screeching. Then came the bullets. The gunfire was fast. At least six shots. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Police say the gunfire erupted between two moving vehicles outside the apartment, off East 11th Avenue, between Hyder and Gambell streets.

Inside, a wail came out of Kapua, Murphy said. Kind of like a cry. Kind of like a shriek. He looked over and blood oozed from the child's shirt.

"Right away I saw the hole in her arm. I just grabbed her," he said. "Not a second was wasted."

Murphy ran to the family's landline, his daughter in his arms and his son crying. He dialed 911.

Hurry, he told the operator. Please hurry.

"I was trying to hold it together," he said.

Murphy said the operator told him to get a clean cloth and cover his daughter's wound, but he was too afraid to leave the phone to find one. So he grabbed an unused diaper and held it tight to Kapua. There was a lot of blood.

In the apartment building next door, Destinee Kangas said she had heard the gunshots too. It's not an uncommon sound, she said.

"There is a lot of violence in this part of the area," she said last week.

She didn't worry about the latest gunfire until she saw officers running to her neighbor's apartment.

Soon after, the paramedics arrived, Murphy said. They rushed Kapua outside. Sammy Jr. stayed with a neighbor. Murphy got into the ambulance. The sirens blared.

On the way to the hospital, he called Steele, who was in Utah with their 5-year-old daughter, Leilani. Leilani was having surgery the next day to correct a heart murmur, Murphy said.

To pass time before the procedure, Steele and her daughter had gone to a local recreation center. Steele had bad cell phone reception there. All she heard from her boyfriend, she said, was: Kapua. Shot. The call cut off.

She ran outside. She called Murphy again, but he didn't answer. She cried. She tried calling her sister. As she did, more than two dozen people outside asked her what was wrong and formed a circle around her, she said. They prayed.


The lingering impacts

On Tuesday, the family was back together at their Fairview apartment.

Kapua smiled as she sat on her mother's lap on the couch. Her mom fixed her tiny pigtails. Leilani, who had a successful surgery in Salt Lake City, played with a kitten. Her brother Sammy Jr. bounced a ball.

Kapua left the hospital Friday. She still had a bandage on her left arm, where the bullet entered, and one on her back, where the bullet exited. It shattered her shoulder blade. Kapua calls the gunshot wound her "owie."

She still can't lift her arm up much without pain. She will start physical therapy soon, Murphy said.

"She's doing a lot better," he said. "She's tough."

In the wall opposite the couch, a perfectly round, small hole remained. The bullet punctured the apartment wall there, traveled through Kapua, went down the hallway, through the parent's bedroom door, hit a large plastic tub and landed on the bed, Murphy said.

He said a police detective visited the apartment Tuesday morning and told him and Steele that the bullet holes had been documented and they could patch them now if they wanted.


Anchorage police hadn't released many details about the shooting by Tuesday evening, including any suspect descriptions. Thim said police hadn't ruled out that someone involved in the gunfire had shot in self-defense.

He reiterated that anyone who knows anything about what happened should come forward. People can submit anonymous tips through Anchorage Crime Stoppers at 907-561-STOP or online at

"Those who are involved and those who know these people need to do the right thing and come forward so we can bring justice for this little girl," Thim said.

Kapua's parents made the same plea.

"We just want to know who did it and why," Murphy said.

[Police plead for info about the shootout that left an Anchorage toddler wounded]

As the police investigation continues, Murphy and Steele said they remain focused on moving forward and repairing their family.

Steele will return to her job as a housekeeper at a local hotel this week. Murphy will continue to stay home with the children.

They said they want everyone in the family to get therapy. They also want to move out of the apartment where they've lived for four years.

"I'm scared for my family's safety," Murphy said.

Since the shooting, Murphy said his body becomes rigid in response to loud sounds. He thinks Kapua understands a little about what happened, but doesn't yet have the words to talk about it.

Sammy Jr. has become especially anxious, he said. When he hears an unexpected noise, like a motorcycle driving down the street, he cups his hands over his ears and runs to his parents.


"It really changed Sammy psychologically," Murphy said.

It's changed everyone. Since returning from the hospital, Murphy and Steele have dragged their mattress into their children's room, making one large bed. The family of five sleeps together now.

"It's really, really sad when you don't feel safe in your home anymore," Murphy said.

Note: This story previously misspelled the name of the toddler wounded by the stray bullet. Her name is Kapua.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.