It’s been more than a year since Zachary Belcher was shot five times by a stranger after leaving a Government Hill apartment building.
Belcher recovered from the gunshot wounds he suffered last March. He was lucky the bullets missed major organs, though he still experiences back pain from his injuries.
But while he’s considered the victim in an ongoing criminal case, his beloved black Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is still trapped in the Anchorage Police Department’s locked impound yard on Elmore Road after being seized as evidence.
Belcher is a soft-spoken U.S. Army veteran who left a tour of Iraq more than a decade ago with a traumatic brain injury from a rocket explosion. He’s generally a no-frills guy who doesn’t splurge on himself. The Jeep he bought several years ago is the one exception — he wanted to go off-roading and explore Alaska but also drive his two kids to school.
Now when Belcher talks about that Jeep, his forehead creases with frustration.
“I don’t like to portray as a victim, but I feel like I got victimized once and now I’m being victimized again,” he said. “It’s just really frustrating.”
Violent encounter with a stranger
The March 2022 shooting happened while Belcher was helping clear belongings from a recently deceased friend’s apartment. He said he offered to let his friend’s ex-wife drive as they left the building that evening because she liked his Jeep.
As they pulled out of the apartment complex, Belcher said, another vehicle entered and boxed them in.
A woman in the other vehicle became upset and got out and began to hit the front of the Jeep, he said. Belcher got out to confront her and she hit him, he said.
The other vehicle’s driver, 24-year-old Bruce Witt, pulled out a handgun and shot Belcher, police said. The men didn’t know each other, police said at the time.
“I turned around and he shot me the first time in the back of the leg,” Belcher said. Then Witt shot him four more times in the chest, he said.
Belcher got back into his Jeep and asked the driver to get away, he said. They met up with an ambulance that took him to the hospital.
Police said they found Witt at his home nearby and initially took him to jail, but court records show no charges were immediately filed. In June, an Anchorage grand jury indicted Witt on a felony charge of first-degree assault.
Witt’s attorney in a December motion wrote it was undisputed that Belcher was involved in an altercation with the woman and that Witt shot Belcher multiple times. What’s disputed is whether the use of force “was necessary, appropriate and lawful,” the motion said.
Witt claimed he shot Belcher in defense of himself or the woman, according to motions filed by his attorney, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Belcher contends he wasn’t doing anything to harm the woman and has not been charged with any crime related to the incident.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Law said she could not discuss specifics about a particular case.
Quick recovery, long wait
Belcher said he lost consciousness after he was shot and woke up in the hospital several hours later. Two of the bullets had pierced his chest and exited through his back, he said. Another pierced his thigh and two grazed his torso.
Belcher was released from the hospital in about four days.
“I was blessed when it came to my recovery,” he said. “I forced myself to get out of bed every day and walk around. I think I was only walking on a cane actually for about two weeks — as soon as I could, I ditched the cane because I didn’t want to be hurt.”
Belcher wanted to start working again as soon as possible after the shooting, despite his lingering back pain. He said he does odd jobs, mostly manual labor, to supplement the service disability benefits he receives from his time in the Army.
Belcher faced another obstacle in returning to work: He didn’t have a car. Police impounded the Jeep as evidence after the shooting.
Earlier this month, state prosecutors finally filed a motion to release the Jeep from impound. Witt’s attorney filed a motion Wednesday in “non-opposition” to the car’s release.
As of mid-May, Belcher still didn’t have it back.
Trapped in impound
Belcher is not the only Alaskan who has struggled to have their property returned after becoming a victim in a criminal case.
Getting property back can sometimes be a complicated and lengthy process requiring help from an outside attorney, said Katherine Hansen, the executive director for the statewide Office of Victims’ Rights, an agency of the Alaska Legislature that provides free legal services to victims of crime.
“I think there’s probably a good percentage of victims who just say, ‘Oh, my stuff is in police evidence and I have to wait for the case to be over, however long that takes’ and that’s just the way it is,” Hansen said.
Belcher’s life is much harder without the Jeep. And in the meantime, he’s saddled with about $600 in monthly loan and insurance payments that make it impossible for him to purchase another vehicle.
His wife has a car, but it’s difficult for them to coordinate work schedules and drive their two children to school.
“I’m pretty much stuck in limbo,” Belcher said. “It’s really, really frustrating. I feel like it shouldn’t be going like this.”
During an interview at the end of March, he played back a voicemail from a law department employee who apologized earlier that month for repeated delays and said officials were hoping to get the vehicle out in the next few weeks.
Patty Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the agency, in April said the delay was due to a request from Witt’s attorney to “continue the defense view of the vehicle.”
“We are actively working to get the vehicle released,” she said.
‘I try not to have any expectations’
As Belcher’s experience shows, there’s no uniform policy for victims in criminal cases to get property back once it’s been seized as evidence.
Sullivan said situations vary: Sometimes state prosecutors need the defense to agree or a judge to give permission, while at other times the state “can just release property.”
Ideally, people can request to get their belongings back from police and the items are quickly returned, said Hansen, of the Office of Victims’ Rights. But it doesn’t always work that way.
If police deny that request and if charges have been filed, Hansen said victims could ask the prosecutor to have their belongings returned, but even then, each situation varies.
The victims’ rights office routinely steps in to assist victims facing barriers in getting property returned after it’s been seized as evidence. The office has handled anywhere from 21 to 44 property return cases each year since 2018, Hansen said. That number is representative only of a “tiny little sliver of victims,” Hansen said.
But the office can’t help everyone.
Belcher, for one, has navigated the prolonged impoundment of his Jeep without help.
He said he was denied help from the Office of Victims’ Rights because Witt claimed the shooting was in defense of himself or the woman. Hansen said she cannot comment on specific cases.
Generally, she said, the agency has the discretion to accept or decline a case: The office doesn’t provide services if a police report suggests the person asking for help could be considered a suspect or charged with a crime stemming from the same incident. Hansen said the office has a limited staff to serve victims statewide.
Belcher has not been charged with a crime related to the shooting. He said it feels like a double standard that he can be considered a victim by the state in the criminal case, yet not qualify for a victim assistance program.
When someone is denied services by the office, Hansen said, they can hire a private attorney. But even with help from an attorney, Hansen said, there’s no set timeframe for when a victim might have their belongings returned. Sometimes in situations involving vehicle impounds, insurance companies will declare a car totaled so the victim can get compensation, she said. Other times, victims can apply for financial help from the Violent Crimes Compensation Board.
Belcher reached out to several attorneys last year but said he quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to afford to hire them.
He first heard about the motion filed to release his Jeep from a reporter.
It marks the first official indication that he might get the car back in the near future, but Belcher remains skeptical. His phone is still in evidence, too, but he gave up hope he’d get that back and has since bought a new one.
“I try not to have any expectations because, to be honest with you, my faith in the system is kind of waning,” he said.