In Alaska’s first Zoom trial of the pandemic, a Kenai jury on Wednesday found former Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Carmen Perzechino guilty of kidnapping and rape.
U.S. Marshals extradited Perzechino from the Philippines last year to face the charges, which stem from a Jan. 20, 2001, attack along the Sterling Highway. Anna Sattler, then 30 years old, said she met Perzechino in a Kenai Peninsula bar and that he raped her in his parked van in a secluded area just off the roadway. Sattler said he tackled her when she tried to escape and threatened to kill her, prompting her to leap from his moving vehicle.
Moments after learning the verdict, Sattler said she wanted to thank the jury, prosecutor and investigator and called for more cold cases to be investigated statewide. “We need to continue to do more,” she said. “There are more all across Alaska.”
The case had gone unsolved for nearly two decades, with troopers initially closing the investigation in 2002 without making an arrest or identifying a suspect. But in 2018, as the state processed DNA evidence from hundreds of previously untested rape kits, a laboratory matched evidence collected from Sattler’s body with a DNA swab Perzechino had provided to police in 2012.
The trial lasted more than two weeks and marks the first felony jury trial held in Alaska since March.
Superior Court Judge Jennifer Wells adapted her courtroom to allow jurors to sit six feet apart, in a gallery area normally occupied by the public, while the defense attorney, prosecutor and Perzechino wore clear face masks throughout the hearings. Plexiglass surrounded the witness stand.
Defense attorney Andy Pevehouse attacked the victim’s testimony, questioning how much she had to drink that night before the rape. He said Sattler must have consented to the sexual encounter.
“I don’t have any idea whether Anna Sattler was up here lying or misremembering or what,” Pevehouse said during closing arguments on Monday.
Pevehouse said, “Whatever gender disparities there are, you know, the woman has a tremendous amount of power over a man when she can say, ‘He sexually assaulted me and, by the way, there’s no witnesses, just take my word for it.’”
“And we call it the #MeToo movement now, right?” the defense attorney asked the jury.
Prosecutor Jenna Gruenstein said the case was no he-said, she-said question of consent because Sattler twice tried to escape Perzechino and, fearing for her life, jumped from Perzechino’s car when she saw a Department of Transportation worker on the side of the road.
“Someone is running away from you in the middle of a dark, icy (roadside) pullout, it’s pretty clear what they want and what they don’t want,” Gruenstein said.
“Mr. Pevehouse said women have a lot of power and they can just make accusations,” the prosecutor told jurors in closing statements. “I submit that it’s not actually all that much power. Because we know just how often that women are believed when they come forward, or how often they’re attacked and vilified when they come forward, which is frankly all the more common.”
The jury listened to a recording of the first time a cold case investigator asked Perzechino directly about the night of the rape. Perzechino lied and said he’d never had someone jump out of his vehicle -- he’d remember that if it had happened, he said -- and that he did not have sex with anyone other than his wife around the time of the assault.
The prosecutor noted that days after learning that troopers had connected his DNA to the 2001 sexual assault, Perzechino bought a plane ticket to the Philippines and skipped his return flight.
Another key moment in the trial came when jurors heard from a second Alaska Native woman who said Perzechino sexually assaulted her too, in a nearly identical manner along the Sterling Highway, in 2016. In both cases, the victim was a young Alaska Native woman from rural Alaska and unfamiliar with the road system, the prosecutor said.
That woman said she had agreed to travel from Anchorage to Sterling to spend a few days helping Perzechino and his girlfriend around the house. She said the assault occurred when Perzechino was giving her a ride in his vehicle. The woman is not being named here because she is a potential victim of sexual assault. She reported the encounter to police but Perzechino was not charged with a crime at the time.
A jury of seven men and five women decided the case Wednesday.
Perzechino, now 59, submitted a sample of his DNA to authorities as early as 2012, when he was taken into custody for attempting to solicit a prostitute in Anchorage and pleaded no contest to the charge, according to log notes of trial testimony.
Sattler testified for a day and a half, with the jury also hearing from Perzechino’s ex-wife, who said he came home the night of the 2001 sexual assault and said a woman had jumped out of his car but did not admit at the time to sexually assaulting her.
The couple never reported the incident to police and later divorced. The rape was never made public.
Perzechino ran the Iditarod three years later, in 2004, but did not finish the race and did not enter again. Pevehouse, the defense attorney, asked the jury to consider why someone who was guilty of rape would ever subject himself to the statewide and even global spotlight of the Iditarod.
Gruenstein argued that Perzechino displayed a pattern of preying on two Alaska Native women by offering them rides and then attacking them in his parked vehicle. The defense sought to discredit both women and brought in a forensic nurse who criticized the findings of the initial sexual assault exam of Sattler.
Sattler said it was hard to endure the defense’s arguments but that she is grateful for the outcome of the trial. “This has haunted me for almost 20 years,” she said. “Finally justice has caught up with him. I hope I can now put this behind me and move on with my life.”
Perzechino did not testify. As he sat listening to the verdict at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, he gave a series of sharp looks as the judge read the guilty verdict for each of two counts of sexual assault and a count of kidnapping.