This article was produced in partnership with KYUK Public Media and ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network and is part of a continuing series, Lawless: Sexual violence in Alaska.
Before sunrise one overcast morning in 2018, a woman sat in the parking lot of a Juneau urgent care clinic, her head ringing from a ruptured eardrum. The man who hit her was an Alaska state representative, Zach Fansler, who soon resigned from office because of the drunken encounter.
Democrats in the region Fansler represented, which includes Bethel and other communities in Western Alaska, chose one of Fansler’s aides to become district party chairman and help select a replacement. That former legislative staffer and district party leader, 27-year-old Benjamin Anderson-Agimuk, is now charged with raping an 11-year-old girl.
This is a political district where the U.S. attorney general met with village leaders last year before declaring a national public safety emergency, in a region where Alaska’s sexual abuse epidemic is statistically most pronounced, and more people have died of domestic violence during the pandemic than of the coronavirus itself.
In some cases, the same self-professed agents of change are, according to police, also the abusers. Fansler once worked as a legal advocate for Bethel’s domestic violence shelter, Tundra Women’s Coalition, attended candlelight vigils and, as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, managed a “Teens Acting Against Violence” program. Anderson-Agimuk spoke in interviews about valuing Indigenous women and on Instagram posted calls for the protection of vulnerable Alaska children.
“Just because someone puts on a good face in public, that’s almost one of the hallmarks of people who use abuse. They can be very charismatic and manipulative,” said Dr. Ingrid Johnson, an assistant professor and researcher for the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“A third of Alaska women have experienced sexual assault,” she said. For a crime that is often considered an act of power and control, it might not be surprising to see people who seek power in their professional lives to also be among the offenders.
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, who replaced Fansler and who is the only Alaska Native woman serving in the state Legislature, said the accusations made her realize you don’t know people as well as you think.
“It’s really unfortunate that women continue to experience mistreatment and then are also asked to clean up after men who behave unacceptably,” said Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat who is running for reelection Nov. 3.
Zulkosky’s opponent is a man who has been named in restraining orders by four women, was temporarily banished from a village and has been placed under a tribal court domestic violence protective order until 2022.
The candidate, former Bethel City Council member Willy Keppel, says all the accusations made in the restraining orders are outright false or rooted in disputes over money and property.
“I have my rough edges, there’s no doubt about that,” Keppel said when asked about his own court records and the conviction of Fansler and the felony sexual abuse charges against Anderson-Agimuk. “But I ain’t nothing like them two friggin' idiots.”
Anderson-Agimuk, who is now awaiting trial at the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center, refused an interview request. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. Fansler did not respond to emails, phone messages and Facebook messages. His attorney said Fansler had no comment.
Fansler is one of three Alaska state lawmakers who resigned or abandoned reelection campaigns after accusations of harassment, misconduct or assault over the past three years. The former lieutenant governor quit in 2018 when a woman reported he propositioned her in a hotel. The state attorney general resigned in August, two hours after the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica published an investigation revealing he’d sent inappropriate text messages to a female state employee.
Separately, the state’s top elected Democrat, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, resigned on Oct. 13 after admitting to an “inappropriate messaging relationship” with a local television news anchor in a scandal that included a bizarre series of public accusations and a nude photo of the mayor shared across social media. (While the case resulted in yet another Alaska politician felled by his personal behavior, the anchor provided no evidence the mayor had committed a crime as she originally alleged.)
Johnson, the university researcher, has been interviewing and surveying survivors of sexual violence statewide for more than two years. Social media support networks have arisen in places from Nome to Greensboro to encourage and protect those willing to come forward, an environment that might explain more cases exploding into view.
“As women see powerful men being taken down, like Harvey Weinstein, etc., they start to see that maybe speaking out will do something,” she said.
She noted that some of the recent cases that ended the careers of men in Alaska politics were noncriminal, involving harassment or consensual but inappropriate messaging. Nowhere in recent years have the accusations been more serious than against Fansler and Anderson-Agimuk in House District 38, an Iowa-sized area home to about 18,600 people. About a third of voters live in Bethel, with the rest spread across 29 surrounding villages.
‘He was asking if I was gonna cry’
On Jan. 13, 2018, Fansler was in his first term representing the district and a few days shy of his 39th birthday when he met with friends at a Juneau bar known as the Triangle.
One of the people in the group was a woman in her late 20s who’d been on one prior date with the Bethel lawmaker. They’d texted ahead of time and agreed to hang out that night. After an hour at the bar, Fansler and the woman parted ways, but they met up later that night at the hotel where Fansler was living while in Juneau for the legislative session.
A transplant from Pennsylvania, Fansler was a Bethel attorney who had served on the City Council and as manager for a popular local sled dog race, the Kuskokwim 300, before his election to the Legislature. A friend had warned the woman that Fansler might have a drinking problem, she said in a recent phone interview. (The Juneau Empire first reported the encounter that followed. The victim is speaking here publicly for the first time since Fansler’s sentencing, though she requested anonymity.)
Rep. Dean Westlake, another Democrat representing a rural district that includes the North Slope and several northwest Arctic villages, had resigned a month earlier. Seven women accused him of unwanted sexual advances, and comments and court records revealed he fathered a child with a then-16-year-old girl when he was 28. Westlake has apologized to the women but did not respond to questions about the sexual relationship with the teenage girl. He declined to comment when reached by phone for this story.
The 2016 election victories of Westlake and Fansler had helped deliver Democrats leadership positions in a majority coalition in the 40-member Alaska House. The victories were portrayed at the time as a potential sea change in the world of Alaska politics, where more than 57% of registered voters have declined to publicly choose a party but Republicans win most statewide races.
When Westlake stepped down under pressure from party leaders, Fansler even applauded the resignation as a necessary signal to survivors.
“Hopefully it’s sending the message that this won’t be tolerated,” he told KYUK at the time.
His date with the Juneau woman came three weeks later. After the night out with friends, the two went to Fansler’s hotel room but did not have sex, the woman said. Fansler was drunk.
“I thought, ‘We’ll fall asleep and we’ll just fool around in the morning,’” she said.
The pair kissed but remained clothed, the woman said. Fansler struck the woman on both sides of the head late that night in his hotel room.
According to the charges, the woman told police that it felt as if the legislator hit her as hard as he could with both his right and left hands. Her face burned. She heard a ringing in her ears.
“He was saying things after he hit me that, like, he wanted to beat me. He was asking if I was gonna cry, but it wasn’t in a concerned way, it was like in an excited way,” she said. “So I could tell this was part of sex for him.”
In a charging document later filed against Fansler, prosecutors wrote that, “Throughout the course of the evening, there had been no discussions about the nature of the type of sexual activity Fansler liked, and Fansler had not requested any permission to engage in any sort of aggressive sexual activity.”
Later, in a text, Fansler indicated his interest in BDSM, as if to explain the violence. But the woman said she never consented to any form of violent encounter. She said it has been hard to see the event described in public as “a romantic encounter” that somehow went wrong.
“A ‘romantic encounter’ is quite the euphemism for someone trying to beat the shit out of me,” she said. “Those phrases don’t really describe how scary it was.”
She received treatment for her ruptured eardrum a day later, according to a list of medical expenses the victim provided to prosecutors. (All told, treatment included at least seven visits to urgent care and audiologists for exams and hearing tests.) After police investigated and the case was referred for prosecution, she said she didn’t hear anything for months. “I had no idea what was happening.”
Paul Miovas, director of the state Department of Law’s Criminal Division, said he personally contacted the victim in May 2018. One matter that complicated the investigation, he said, was that prosecutors needed to seize the lawmaker’s phone to obtain any messages he had exchanged with the woman.
“Care had to be taken to not seize legislative communications that were privileged by law while searching for evidence of this crime, so it was a slightly more cumbersome and time consuming process,” Miovas said.
In a plea deal, Fansler agreed to pay the woman’s medical bills as restitution, including visits to an audiologist. He admitted to a misdemeanor count of harassment.
“I do not think it was harassment,” the victim said. “I think it was assault.”
But she said she did not fight the prosecution’s plan to allow Fansler to plead to the lesser charge because what she wanted most was for him to admit he’d done something wrong.
“He left Alaska, he said he was guilty, he paid restitution. That’s what I wanted,” she said.
Miovas, the head of the state criminal division, declined to say why Fansler wasn’t charged with assault, citing “work-product privilege” held by prosecutors.
“I will note that the case was thoroughly vetted with many very experienced prosecutors and we did speak and correspond with the victim multiple times prior to making any final charging decision,” he said.
‘The colonized world teaches us to become aggressive’
Upon Fansler’s resignation in early 2018, Alaska Democrats in the Bethel region selected Anderson-Agimuk to become the district party chairman and to begin looking over applications for a replacement.
Not only was Anderson-Agimuk a rising star within the state party, he’d helped Fansler get elected by introducing him to voters and campaigning in villages, said Olivia Garrett, a former legislative aide for a House Democrat who first publicly raised concerns about Westlake.
“The Young Democrats were very involved in the Fansler and Westlake races that year,” Garrett said.
Western Alaska Democrats, led by Anderson-Agimuk, recommended Zulkosky for appointment by the governor. Like Fansler and Keppel, she had served on the Bethel City Council and in 2008 became Bethel’s youngest mayor at just 24. Zulkosky worked as rural director for former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and is now communications director for the Bethel-based Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.
Anderson-Agimuk, nine years younger than Zulkosky, was also raised in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and was gaining momentum in state and party politics. He’d studied political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and, according to his LinkedIn profile, “organized Alaska Native outreach for Begich’s 2014 Senate campaign.”
While remaining district party chairman, Anderson-Agimuk worked for Zulkosky as an aide from March 12 to Dec. 14, 2018. He served as her campaign manager when, as an appointed candidate, she had to run for election as Fansler’s two-year term came to an end.
Meantime, the regional Association of Village Council Presidents and the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives each bestowed Anderson-Agimuk with awards for youth leadership. He spoke to statewide audiences about his efforts to overcome childhood traumas and succeed in state politics.
“I know what poverty is. I know what hunger is. I know what addiction in the family is,” he told the crowd of the 2018 Alaska Federation of Natives convention. “But I also know what love is.”
Zulkosky won the district, defeating a Republican challenger. A month later, Anderson-Agimuk left his job as a legislative aide and began working for the state Department of Commerce as a “local government specialist” in Bethel.
He continued to serve as district party chairman for the Democrats, advocating on social media for Alaska Native children who grew up in foster care.
“Escaping the traumatic situations of my childhood doesn’t take care of anything. If anything, our demons must stare us in the face, telling us, ‘now that you’re comfortable, you have the ability to face us, and take care of us,’” he wrote in a Feb. 6 Instagram post. “This is my responsibility. This is my journey as a Native man in this colonized world. If we don’t take care of what’s inside of us, the colonized world teaches us to become aggressive and hurt our own people.”
Despite the seriousness of the charges filed in early April, the case against Anderson-Agimuk drew little statewide attention, arriving as Alaska scrambled to enact emergency measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But even before the pandemic, 2020 began as a year of heartache in Western Alaska. The FBI arrested a well-liked Bethel elementary school principal in December on suspicion of sexual abuse of a minor. (A Daily News, KYUK and ProPublica investigation found the school district had allowed the principal, who has pleaded not guilty, to remain on the job despite repeated warnings and even prior police investigations.)
In the village of Quinhagak, near Bethel, a 10-year-old girl went missing in March. Troopers say she was kidnapped, raped and killed by an 18-year-old. The defendant in that case has pleaded not guilty. Across the region, five people died from domestic violence within a 10-day span in June.
Amid the tragedies, on March 5, Bethel police received a report of a 16-year-old girl passed out at a home across from the Russian Orthodox Church.
The girl’s mother met a police investigator at the house and said Anderson-Agimuk had given her daughter alcohol and had sex with her. “When confronted, Benjamin just looked down and wouldn’t respond,” the officer wrote in an affidavit filed in superior court. “He told (the mother) that even if he did have sex with her she was 16 it was legal.”
Anderson-Agimuk was taken to the police station as the investigator applied for a warrant that would allow him to take DNA samples. Before the warrant could be obtained, Anderson-Agimuk left the police station on the advice of an attorney. When police later tried to find him to serve the warrant, the district chairman could not be found.
Anderson-Agimuk’s employment with the state Commerce Department ended a week later.
On April 2, Bethel police received another 911 call. This time police found two girls lying on the ground in front of the local library. One girl was 11, about to celebrate her 12th birthday. She told police that she and the other girl, 14, had been drinking and smoking pot with Anderson-Agimuk, and that he had raped her.
The younger girl said she’d protected the older girl from being sexually assaulted, according to felony charges filed against Anderson-Agimuk in superior court.
Zulkosky said she’d seen no indication he was capable of such behavior and had heard no prior accusations of sexual assault or harassment made against him. She felt a “deep, deep sadness,” she said. “It was just really shocking and disappointing.”
After prosecutors filed the charges of sexual abuse of a minor in April, Anderson-Agimuk’s sister wrote in a public Facebook post that her brother, like so many Alaskans, was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Anderson-Agimuk has pleaded not guilty to sexually assaulting the 11-year-old. The Bethel district attorney said police referred the earlier March 5 case, involving the 16-year-old, for prosecution and that case is still under consideration.
A candidate for office this year
Now Keppel is campaigning to represent the district in the future. While he has not been charged with a domestic violence crime or sexual assault, a tribal court in the village of Quinhagak on Aug. 17 issued a protective order barring him from interacting with a local woman for two years.
He pleaded no contest to a felony drug charge in 1997 and has been named in requests for restraining orders by an Alaska Native village corporation and four different women, including a woman who told Bethel police he sexually assaulted her. Keppel denied having non-consensual sex with the woman and was not charged after a police investigation, court and Bethel Police Department reports show. The woman who filed the report declined to comment through her attorney.
Keppel, who is certified to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot as the Veterans Party of Alaska candidate, said he’s never had sex with anyone without consent.
Asked if he has ever committed an act of domestic violence, he said, “Not that I recall.”
• • •
If you or someone you know needs help, here are a few resources:
• Contact the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at 907-586-3650 or at http://www.andvsa.org/shelters-and-services/
• Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or at http://www.rainn.org/get-help/national-sexual-assault-hotline
• Call STAR Alaska’s 24-hour crisis line at 907-276-7273 or its toll-free crisis line at 800-478-8999
• • •
The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica are continuing our work to report on sexual violence in Alaska. We’ve learned that in addition to seeking justice from law enforcement and the courts, many victims want their voices heard. If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse by school personnel in Alaska and would like to share your story, you can do so here. You can also email us at email@example.com. We understand that your privacy is important. We won’t publish any personal information you share without your explicit permission.