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Crime & Courts

22-year-old village public safety officer in Southwest Alaska arrested on sexual assault charges

A village public safety officer in Western Alaska was arrested Sunday on three charges of sexual assault of a woman he had contacted during an investigation, according to Alaska State Troopers.

In early June, James Heakin, 22, was called to investigate a domestic violence assault in Eek as part of his work as a village public safety officer, troopers wrote in an online statement.

He returned to the victim’s home several days after the initial assault to take updated photos of the woman’s injuries, according to charging documents filed Monday in the Bethel Courthouse. He took photos of the woman’s injuries and then began to sexually assault her, the charges said.

Investigators said Heakin asked the woman not to say anything about the assault afterward. He later sent her text messages and “he continued to plead with her not to say anything,” according to the charges.

Troopers in Bethel were notified of the accusation Thursday by an Eek village police officer. A village police officer is hired by the community, whereas village public safety officers are hired by nonprofit organizations, said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters.

Heakin was arrested Sunday in Eek and brought to the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Complex in Bethel. He’s facing a charge of first-degree sexual assault, first-degree human trafficking and two counts of second-degree sexual assault. The count of human trafficking alleges he compelled the victim to “engage in sexual conduct by deception,” according to the charges.

The VPSO program in Alaska is state-funded but requires a non-profit to apply for the funds annually and recruit public safety officers from their communities. Public safety officers in Eek are employed through the Association of Village Council Presidents, although the entire VPSO program is overseen by the Department of Public Safety.

Azara Mohammadi, communications director for the Association of Village Council Presidents, said the organization has respect for the legal process and is declining to comment on the charges against Heakin.

The list of problems with the VPSO program is long — not only are there too few officers, but operational funding is tight and recruiting in rural communities is a challenge.

Heakin has no prior criminal history, said defense attorney Dunnington Babb during the first court appearance Monday. Babb said Heakin does not present a threat to public safety. Heakin denied the allegations and was cooperative during the investigation, Babb said.

“This is a very public and controversial issue and it’s quite simply not the type of charges for someone with no criminal history, who is working as a village public safety officer with prior experience as a VPO,” he said during the hearing.

A state prosecutor argued that Heakin abused his power as a VPSO to abuse the woman, making the crime much more severe.

Heakin is being held on a $100,000 bond and is scheduled to enter a plea Aug. 13.

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