This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.
Note to readers: This story details allegations of violence against women and girls.
KOTZEBUE — The hum of a clothes dryer, zippers clinking, filled Saima Chase’s house one afternoon in September as she set down a steaming dish of moose stir-fry. “Egg roll in a bowl,” she said of the quick after-work recipe. The conversation turned to the reason for my visit: unsolved killings, unexplained deaths and suicides that might not really be suicides.
A 41-year-old Inupiaq woman raised in Kotzebue, Chase recently became the city’s mayor. Before that she worked for the Alaska State Medical Examiner Office, preparing autopsy tables, and at a local nonprofit that offers legal help to domestic violence survivors.
When Chase’s friend Sarah Stallsworth was found dead at her home in 2010, Kotzebue police labeled the case suicide. Chase has always suspected otherwise.
“I know she didn’t kill herself,” said Chase, who learned about the condition of the body from Stallsworth’s mother and sister. “She was beat up really bad. She had missing teeth.”
The death came years before Chase won city office, but she offered to help the family obtain police records in the case.
“I really want to bring Sarah peace,” she messaged Stallsworth’s family at the time, a text she shared with a reporter years later. “I know something bad happened to your family and nobody did anything about it and it needs to be brought back to the surface.”
The family never did get the police records. Their questions remain unanswered. (In a Nov. 16 email, Kotzebue Police Chief Roger Rouse said that Stallsworth’s death is officially considered a suicide. He said he couldn’t comment on the department’s communications with the family prior to his becoming police chief in 2020.)
And so it goes in dining rooms and office lobbies across Kotzebue. Rouse said earlier this year that he knew of only one unsolved killing in this Arctic Circle city, that of Susanna “Sue Sue” Norton in 2020, whose case we wrote about this month.
Many people we spoke with, the new mayor included, aren’t so sure.
When Anchorage Daily News photographer Emily Mesner and I stopped by the local high school to research Norton’s yearbook photos, a front desk clerk said her own sister-in-law died in a case police stopped short of labeling homicide. (The police department said the cause of death in that case, involving a gunshot wound to the chest, is considered “undetermined.” Though the death was not labeled a homicide, it remains an “open cold case,” Rouse replied in an email.)
When Norton’s childhood friend posted a note to Facebook asking about unexplained deaths in the Northwest Arctic, her phone bubbled with names and cases.
I’d first started asking for information about Norton in 2020, and this June, after years of receiving little to no information, I decided it was finally time to visit and take a closer look. What I didn’t expect was to come home with a notebook full of additional names.
When I visited Norton’s burial site on a bluff overlooking the Chukchi Sea, her family pointed out two adjacent graves. One belonged to a woman who, Norton’s niece said, “was hit on the head by her boyfriend and died” in 2022. According to the police department, bruises found on the woman’s body did not contribute to her death, which resulted from a brain injury due to lack of oxygen after a heart attack related to ethanol withdrawal. Buried beside her was the woman we had heard about at the high school, who died by gunshot in 2016.
Alaska has the third-highest suicide rate in the nation, and the numbers are especially high in the Northwest Arctic. Over the years, police have told me that families might have trouble accepting that a loved one committed suicide or died by accident and may be looking for alternate explanations.
But in such cases as the death of Jennifer Kirk, which we learned about while looking into Norton’s homicide, major questions remain unanswered. Police said she shot herself, but her body also showed signs of strangulation, according to the department’s death investigation report. Kirk’s body was found at a home on the property of former city mayor Clement Richards Sr., the same property where Norton was found strangled two years later. No charges have been filed in either case.
Though Kirk’s death has been labeled a suicide, her boyfriend, the mayor’s son, admitted to causing injuries found on her body the day she died. The boyfriend told police he did not kill Kirk, and he has not been charged in her death. He had previously been convicted of domestic violence assault involving Kirk, including two cases of nonfatal strangulation. (He did not respond to interview requests.)
The Kotzebue Police Department does not have a designated homicide detective or investigator, according to the current chief. The FBI and state troopers will assist in a murder investigation if they are asked, or, Chase said, if the case is considered one that might make the news or draw political pressure.
Asked how the department decides when to request outside help in a homicide case, Rouse replied: “If a case has reached a point that additional resources beyond KPD’s capabilities or manpower beyond what KPD is capable of handling are needed to bring the case to a conclusion.”
Otherwise, years pass and cases grow colder. Across Western Alaska and the Arctic, from St. Michael to Utqiagvik, I’ve met families who wonder about cases labeled as accidents or suicide. Some, like the 2016 gunshot death, are suspended in limbo with the cause of death classified as “undetermined.”
The failure of Kotzebue police to solve the strangling death of Norton in the center of a town of 2,900 only deepens those suspicions. It doesn’t help that every officer on the police force lives hundreds or thousands of miles away from Kotzebue, in other Alaska cities or other states. They commute to the city for two-week shifts, then fly home. Some have been featured on a TV show.
In some instances, neighbors and even police believe they know what happened and who did it. One mother I spoke to about her daughter’s 2012 death in Utqiagvik has since died. Norton’s mother suffered a stroke a few months after we first interviewed her in 2020 and now has trouble speaking. Stallsworth’s mother, Patsy Mendenhall, is now 71.
How long must they wait?
At her dinner table, Chase texted Stallsworth’s family and arranged for us to talk. After a few wrong turns, Emily and I found the house. Stallsworth’s sister, Mary Ann Towksjhea, stood beckoning from the doorway of the qanitchaq, or arctic entry.
Inside, driftwood and stones hung from the ceiling by the dozens. Mendenhall likes to comb the beach for artifacts to add to the collection. On the wall, a finger of whale baleen hung above a wooden snowshoe and an image of Jesus.
Mendenhall said she couldn’t understand why police didn’t put up crime scene tape or prevent people from coming and going from the house immediately after her daughter’s body was found. One visitor cleaned up blood in the bathroom, she said.
From deep in the house, Mendenhall unearthed an accordion folder filled with court records and correspondence. Among the documents: a yellowed copy of a letter the family addressed to the city 10 days after Stallsworth’s death.
“On July 16, 2010 my mother & I went to speak to Chief Ward to see if a police report was done as to what happened to Sarah S. Stallsworth who passed away on July 6, 2010 & Chief Ward told us they didn’t need one,” the letter said. “My mother & I Mary Ann Towksjhea said that it wasn’t right” and that authorities were supposed to do a thorough investigation “as to what happened to Sarah.”
Former Kotzebue Police Chief John Ward said in a phone interview that he doesn’t recall the Stallsworth case and doesn’t recall seeing the letter. He said he retired at the end of July 2010.
The family never received a written police report. Chase said she tried and failed to help obtain the documents. For more than a year, Stallsworth’s mother and sister kept returning to the police station, they said. Rouse, the current police chief, said in an email that “KPD does not have any record of the request in 2016 for Stalsworth information, or if any information was provided to the requestor.”
Mendenhall said police told her to stop watching so much “CSI.” “I didn’t even have TV at the time!” she said. (Ward, who was police chief at the time of Stallsworth’s death, said he doesn’t remember making any comment about the TV show. Rouse, the current chief, said: “KPD cannot comment on why the previous police chief at that time would make CSI comments.”).
Stallsworth’s daughter, Rena Mendenhall, then 5 years old, was home when her mother died.
I asked if we could talk to Rena, who is now 18 and was living in Anchorage at the time of our visit. Moments later, Patsy Mendenhall reached her on a cellphone. Rena Mendenhall said she still remembers the night her mother died.
“It was real late. They were partying,” she said. “I woke up and heard lots of noise in the living room.”
She remembers going back to sleep. The next morning, Stallsworth was dead.
“I don’t think she would kill herself knowing I was there,” the daughter said.
In August, the Alaska Department of Public Safety released a Missing Indigenous Persons report to great fanfare. Sue Sue Norton’s name isn’t on it. Nor are such cases as Eliza Simmonds in Utqiagvik and Chynelle “Pretty” Lockwood in St. Michael. That’s because the report lists people who haven’t been found. It doesn’t include the names of those whose deaths remain unsolved.
It also includes only cases reported by Alaska State Troopers and the Anchorage Police Department, not the Kotzebue Police Department, North Slope Borough Police Department or dozens of others that serve smaller cities and towns.
Still, there are 345 names, as well as new information about certain cases that shows for the first time whether police believed these disappearances were related to criminal activity.
“This report was definitely a step in the right direction,” Charlene Aqpik Apok, executive director of Data for Indigenous Justice, said at the time.
Before leaving Kotzebue, we added Stallsworth’s name to the list of death investigations to request from the city police department. We’re awaiting the results of those public records requests.
As part of the fact-checking process for this story, I emailed Rouse to ask if he still believed Sue Sue Norton’s death was the only unsolved homicide. On Monday, he replied that the police department is now taking a fresh look at other cases.
“We are digging through our historic records to see if there are any additional investigations that may be open cold homicide cases that we are unaware of,” Rouse wrote. In fact, he wrote, Kotzebue police have now asked the state’s Murdered and Missing Indigenous Persons unit to review the 2016 gunshot death that we heard about at the high school. They are also looking at cases where the cause of death was ruled “undetermined” to see if they, too, should be re-examined.