Editor’s note: This story has been updated to place more emphasis on what’s known about the background of the defendant, Brian Smith. Many readers were upset about the way the victim, Kathleen Jo Henry, was portrayed in earlier versions of the article. It was not our intent to cast her in a negative light, and we apologize to readers offended by the earlier versions. -David Hulen, editor
Police aren’t answering questions about how a 48-year-old South African immigrant and a 30-year-old Anchorage woman originally from a Southwest Alaska village met in an encounter that investigators say ended with her murder. But details are beginning to emerge about the lives of Brian Steven Smith and Kathleen Jo Henry before, police say, Smith brutally beat, choked and killed her in an Anchorage hotel room in early September then dumped her body along the Seward Highway south of the city.
Smith is charged with first-degree murder.
He was arrested after someone found a small memory card on the ground Sept. 30 near the Carrs store at Gambell Street and East 13th Avenue. The card, labeled "Homicide at midtown Marriott,” contained 39 images and 12 videos taken from Sept. 4 to Sept. 6 — all documenting the horrifying scene at a local hotel, according to charging documents.
The images showed a naked woman, later identified as Henry, being beaten and strangled in a hotel room, charges say. She tried to fight back. Other footage showed a man detectives later identified as Smith yelling at her to die and laughing, according to the charges.
Images also showed a body covered in a white sheet being moved through a parking lot to a truck, the charges say. Police identified Henry on Thursday as the woman whose remains were found near the Seward Highway south of Anchorage on Oct. 2.
Smith was arrested Tuesday as he returned to Anchorage by plane from an unknown destination. He’s being held at the Anchorage jail on a total of $750,000 in appearance and performance bonds.
An Anchorage police spokeswoman said the agency is “not participating in any further interviews” and has no additional information to release on what officials call an ongoing investigation.
Detectives recognized Smith from the graphic videos because he is involved in a separate ongoing investigation, according to the Anchorage Police Department. Police have declined to say anything about that investigation.
Smith lived with his wife and their cat on a quiet, woodsy cul-de-sac in the Geneva Woods subdivision in Midtown Anchorage, according to friends of the couple. Smith has no apparent criminal history in Alaska.
His wife didn’t respond to requests for comment. She told KTUU that she was shocked by the charges against Smith. The couple married in 2014, according to Smith’s Facebook page.
Neighbor Harold Heinze said it wasn’t uncommon to see Smith’s wife out gardening, but he rarely saw Smith and knew nothing about him except he drove a black pickup.
Neighbors are still processing the allegations against Smith, said Heinze, a former state natural resources commissioner.
“The whole thing seems so horrific and bizarre,” he said. “Real brutality.”
Smith had previously worked at DOWL Engineering as a materials tester and inspector, according to a former co-worker. It’s not clear what job he held recently. He told the judge at his arraignment Wednesday that he had about $2,000 in savings. Smith on his Facebook profile describes himself as “self-employed” and said he grew up in Queenstown, Eastern Cape and went to Queens College.
He entered the military following school, according to a South African reporter who translated an Afrikaans publication’s story about the “Alaska-moord.” Smith’s father died when he was relatively young, friends told the publication. Smith was described as quiet and standoffish.
Smith left South Africa in 2013, according to a biography he posted on the Quora question-and-answer platform. He also posted hundreds of replies to questions about South Africa and apartheid, some with racist overtones, through the fall and into October.
In August, he replied to this question posted on the site: “Do white people assume all black people are thieves?”
Smith’s response: “White people do not assume this. EVERYONE assumes this when they look at police crime statistics. Everywhere in the world where blacks go there is an immediate increase in crime. It is a statistical fact that blacks are +- 600% more prone to breaking the law than whites.”
A relative confirmed that Henry grew up in Eek, a Yup’ik village of about 300 people in the Kuskokwim Delta south of Bethel. Community members said the family was grieving Henry’s death, and declined to comment.
Smith’s next scheduled court appearance is a hearing on Oct. 21.