Angela Harris was scanning library books at Loussac Library’s self-checkout kiosk in mid-February when she saw a reflection of a man standing behind her.
Then all she felt was pain. Her first thought as she fell to the floor was that the man had punched her and broken her back.
“You can’t move her, someone stabbed her and the knife is still in her back,” she remembers hearing.
Harris spent the next month in a hospital. She can no longer walk. The attack left her with constant fear and anxiety.
Harris’ once-busy schedule as a mother of four and active-duty U.S. Coast Guard member with a beloved job at a chiropractic office has shifted to being shuttled between daily physical and occupational therapy, doctor’s appointments and counseling. It’s unclear if she’ll ever walk again, be able to work or even return to her home, which is not accessible while she’s in a wheelchair.
The man who attacked Harris, 33-year-old Corey Ahkivgak, slipped through the cracks of Alaska’s justice system just a month before she was stabbed. A judge found him incompetent to stand trial on charges linked to random attacks on two other women in Midtown Anchorage in December.
Ahkivgak this month was again found unfit to stand trial for stabbing Harris. The charges against him were dismissed. The state will petition to have Ahkivgak involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, but confidentiality laws surrounding such proceedings will leave Harris in the dark about his status. She will not be notified when he’s released.
Victims rights advocates say gaps in the justice system are putting known offenders back on the streets with few options for lasting mental health treatment.
Though the state doesn’t have data that tracks them, cases involving the dismissal of criminal charges because an offender is found incompetent to undergo court proceedings appear to be on the increase, said Victoria Shanklin, executive director of the Anchorage-based advocacy organization Victims for Justice.
That leaves people like Harris in an emotionally grueling limbo, Shanklin said.
“When you have no resolution, when you can’t feel secure and when you feel like there isn’t any accountability being held, it makes it difficult to move forward,” she said.
Life was good in the days leading up to the attack, Harris told the Daily News in an interview at her home this month. Seated on her back deck, Harris kept a box of tissues nearby as she described the nightmare that has become her new normal.
She’d spent the days before the stabbing watching a friend’s dogs and housesitting with her boyfriend, Aaron Brown, while she read for hours, drank fresh-pressed juice and even got a facial. Valentine’s Day was just around the corner and so was Brown’s birthday.
Harris and Brown headed to library to return books and pick up several that she had placed on hold.
Ahkivgak approached from out of nowhere and drove a 3- to 4-inch blade from a Leatherman multitool into her spine, then ran from the building, according to charges filed against him.
Despite the pain, Harris felt a strange sense of calm as she realized she could be facing death.
“I was just thinking, well, maybe this is the low that that guy needed in his life to get the help that he needs,” she said. “I told Aaron I just needed to call the kids. I just needed to tell them that I was all right and that I love them. … I knew that God had it, either which way that it went.”
As Harris lay in Brown’s arms, people filtered in and out of the library, he said. Medics arrived and began to cut off Harris’ clothes — slicing through her favorite jacket, a thick, knee-length, fleece-lined “hippie chic” coat.
In the ambulance, she answered questions by giving a thumbs up or down and by scratching at the medic’s leg to signal she was responsive, although it was too hard to answer loudly.
When she got to the hospital, Harris said, she peppered an anesthesiologist with questions about her condition while she waited for a surgeon.
“We would do the pros and the cons of each worst-case scenario, best-case scenario, and we went through a few of those,” she said.
A police officer arrived to photograph her wound.
And then Harris said she remembers kissing Brown before she was wheeled away for surgery. She didn’t know at the time that it would be their last kiss for more than a month.
Recovering in isolation
When Harris woke up, roughly 35 stitches pulled together a 7-inch gash that stretched down the middle of her back.
Her arms were tingling and she couldn’t feel her legs. The stabbing caused a slow leak in her spinal fluid, leading to random flashes of violent, unbearable pain and nausea during the next few weeks. As the days went on, damage to her nerves weakened her arms to the point that she wasn’t able to hold up a glass to drink from.
Night terrors routinely woke her from sleep as she continued “trying to make sense of a senseless act.”
The knife had gouged into Harris’ spinal cord, right between two vertebrae. During surgery, doctors removed the knife and blood clots, which had damaged nerves in her spine. She’s now paralyzed from the waist down and has decreased strength and sensation in her arms.
But the worst part, Harris said, was the isolation.
Pandemic protocols at Providence Alaska Medical Center banned visitors. Even when she was transferred to St. Elias Specialty Hospital for recovery, Harris could only visit with her family through a window.
“I needed to hug my children, I needed to hug my parents,” she said. “My baby sister had already come in from Texas and left before I could even spend any time with her. My oldest daughter came in from Texas at (U.S. Navy) corpsman school, and I couldn’t hug my son.
“I just can’t go through such a traumatic experience and not have my people — that’s my healing journey.”
It was mid-March by the time Harris left St. Elias.
But still she couldn’t go home. She is in a wheelchair. Her bedrooms and showers are on the upper level of the family’s house. Instead, Harris is staying — at least temporarily — at a friend’s more accessible home about 6 miles from her house. Her parents traveled from Georgia to stay at her home with her two high-school-aged children.
Harris’ days are now filled with appointments as she tries to regain her strength in hopes of walking again, though she said her doctors aren’t sure that will ever happen.
Not only does she undergo physical and occupational therapy appointments daily, but Harris also goes to counseling to help her process the trauma from the attack and address the anxiety and depression it’s left her with.
It’s been hard to adjust to her new reality, Harris said. Being in a wheelchair makes her feel vulnerable, and because the attack happened at the library — a place where she’s always felt safe — she’s struggling to feel secure anywhere.
“I’m not weak or feeble, but when you’re in a position like that, it feels tough,” she said as she wiped away a tear underneath her sunglasses. “... I am still strong. I’m still brave. I’m still capable. But I’m not fast. I’m not tall. So those are the things that get stuck in my head when we’re in crowds.”
‘That shouldn’t have happened’
Ahkivgak has filtered in and out of the criminal justice system since he was 18. Information filed in charging documents from several cases indicated that he suffers from mental illness but provided no additional detail regarding an official diagnosis.
About a month before Ahkivgak stabbed Harris, he had been released from jail after randomly attacking two women in December.
[Previous coverage: Victims of earlier assaults say man’s release from custody before Anchorage library stabbing reflects broken legal system]
The charges were dismissed because Ahkivgak was found to be incompetent to stand trial, meaning he can’t understand the charges he’s facing. A doctor at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute also determined that it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to reach the threshold for competency, even with the help of professionals.
So, the charges against him were dismissed and Ahkivgak was released.
Three days before Harris was stabbed, Anchorage police contacted him for trespassing, but charges were never filed. A police spokeswoman refused to provide details about the encounter.
Arlene Feldt, one of the women Ahkivgak attacked in December, said she feared he would harm another woman as soon as she learned he’d been released from custody in January. She was devastated about the attack on Harris.
“When (my husband) Roger read the story to me about how she’s paralyzed — I just cried,” Feldt said. “Because that shouldn’t have happened and now she has to live life that way.”
Behind closed courtroom doors
After Harris was stabbed, Ahkivgak was charged with first-degree assault — and again was released from custody after those charges were dismissed earlier this month when he was found incompetent to stand trial for a second time.
But this time was different: During the competency hearing where the charges were dismissed, a prosecutor promised the state would petition for Ahkivgak to be civilly committed to a mental health facility.
Involuntary civil commitments, however, are constantly reevaluated. If a judge finds that Ahkivgak is no longer posing a danger to others, he could be released from the commitment.
Harris fears this gives him another chance to slip through the cracks, especially because resources for mental health are stretched thin throughout the state. And if he is released, she won’t even know.
Alaska’s criminal statutes require victims be notified about upcoming hearings or if a defendant is released from custody.
But when those criminal charges are dismissed, the notification system doesn’t transfer over to the civil commitment process.
Commitment proceedings are “confidential and cannot be discussed,” said Patty Sullivan, communications director for the state’s Department of Law. Information about how long Ahkivgak is committed for, or if he is set to be released, is not available to Harris or to the public.
“There is currently no legislation that permits disclosure,” Sullivan said.
Because of that confidentiality, victims are generally not involved at all in commitment proceedings, she said. Harris, however, said she was asked to testify at one of the upcoming hearings. She won’t know additional details but said at least she will be made aware of the court date.
Public notifications should carry into civil commitments to protect victim safety, Harris said.
“I think that a victim is a victim,” she said. “Whether the state has done their job properly or not, the victim remains. And we shouldn’t get dropped just because our charges were dropped.”
‘Not serving anyone’
Harris says that everything feels like a fight since she was stabbed. She’s pushed herself physically and mentally to heal from the attack while spending hours on the phone with her insurance company to get authorization for necessary treatments.
She’s navigated the complicated criminal justice system to seek out compensation for victims so she and Brown can use the limited funds available to help sustain them while she’s unable to work and while he takes time off to care for her.
And she’s fought to have her voice heard throughout the process even when some days, Harris said, it feels like no one is listening.
She has reached out to numerous lawmakers to share her story and push for change, but said she feels that many officials have been unresponsive. State Sen. Roger Holland, a Republican who represents South Anchorage, said he wants to help Harris, but he and his staff are just beginning to look into the situation and identify what problems exist.
Harris said she would like to see laws that clarify responsibility and procedure for handling civil commitments for violent offenders deemed incompetent to stand trial.
Harris said she also wants lawmakers to address the scarce resources and capacity at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, the troubled state-run psychiatric hospital. The hospital has just 10 beds on a unit where doctors try to restore criminal defendants to competency. The restoration treatment waitlist is more than five months long.
Ahkivgak was evaluated and declared incompetent and “unrestorable” after being at Alaska Psychiatric Institute for less than a month. Harris said she feels like there was no way for officials to make such a broad assessment in such a short time. Many mental health medications take longer than a month to go into effect.
[Report: Problems continue to plague Alaska Psychiatric Institute]
Harris said she feels a duty to push for change because she doesn’t want to see anyone else go through the same agony.
“We need to figure out how to make legislative change. … We need to figure out what the loopholes are and close them,” she said. “And we need to make our public places safer for our community.”
Advocates say her story proves how complicated competency cases can be.
Courts have a duty to protect the rights of both the offender and the victim, said Shanklin, with Victims for Justice.
There’s not necessarily one clear answer for how to fix things, she said. Perhaps it’s a different type of court, more mental health facilities or stronger commitment statutes.
But the current system clearly isn’t working, Shanklin said. “Because for that person to continuously be going back into the criminal justice system is not serving anyone.”