Rural Alaska

Banished man sentenced for deaths of 3 in village fire

BETHEL – In court for sentencing on Monday, with families of victims listening in by phone, Derek Adams apologized through his lawyer for causing three deaths in a house fire back in the summer of 2013.

Residual fear from the tragedy spread from the small Southwestern Alaska village of Nunam Iqua to two other nearby Yukon River communities, the mini-hub of Emmonak and the village of Alakanuk. Tribal governments in all three villages banished him this summer, to keep residents safe, Bethel Superior Court Judge Charles Ray was told by tribal members.

Adams has taken responsibility for his role in the fire, but didn't want to speak himself for worry of saying the wrong thing, his lawyer, Jane Imholte, said.

"But what he would like people to know is that he is sorry," she said in court. "I think what he means is he doesn't want to hurt anyone any further by doing or saying the wrong thing here today."

Adams, now 22, clenched and unclenched his fist during the hearing, which lasted about 80 minutes. His legs shook. He wore street clothes, jeans and a green fleece jacket.

He mainly has been out of jail since pleading guilty in April to three counts of criminally negligent homicide and two misdemeanor assaults, for pulling a knife that same June 2013 night.

Ray, the judge, ordered Adams to serve four years for the deaths and he's already done that, once time off for good behavior is factored in.

Adams is almost unemployable, his lawyer said, working day labor in Bethel when he can.

"He is essentially homeless, often hungry," Imholte said. She was arguing against Adams being charged minimal attorney fees.

"We don't want the money. And he doesn't have it," said Imholte, an assistant public defender.

But Ray said the case involved a lot of legal work and ordered Adams to pay $500 in attorney costs.

Defense lawyers succeeded in getting most of what Adams told troopers thrown out of court on the grounds that troopers violated his right to remain silent. He was interrogated for hours over days.

Adams repeatedly told troopers that he never meant to catch the house in his home village of Nunam Iqua on fire. Maybe the fire started because of a burning cigarette. Or maybe it spread from a dog he lit up in anger that night, Adams said. The latter statement was among the evidence suppressed.

Eight people escaped out a back window. Killed were Joey Ignatius, 43; Edward Murphy, 25; and Cyprian Ignatius, 8.

One who escaped testified earlier that he was surprised Adams was getting such little time. Residents thought he would get life, Michael Tinker said at a previous hearing.

Bethel District Attorney Michael Gray said he did not have evidence to prove that the house fire was set intentionally, and he hopes residents eventually understand that. Time may ease the bad blood between residents and Adams or maybe relationships will never heal.

"I certainly understand that villages are within their rights to say, 'We don't want to take that chance and he's banned from here,' " Gray said.

Dorothy Murphy spoke by phone from Nunam Iqua. Two of her sons and her brother all were killed in the fire, she said. It was hard to hear her. Her voice faded away.

"No doubt quite difficult to have words to express anything, Mrs. Murphy," Ray said. "My heart goes out to you for what happened up there."

The community has to rebuild emotionally, spiritually, physically, he said. "It's a lot of hard work for everybody up there."

Darlene Pete, tribal administrator in Nunam Iqua, said residents got tribal protective orders against Adams but with no law enforcement in the village, they still felt he was a threat. So the tribal government banished him, she said.

Mike James from Alakanuk told the judge he had a recent run-in with Adams in Bethel that started at the Alaska Commercial Co. store and continued on into the street and another store.

"He was making a scene, cussing, swearing," James said by phone. At one point, he said, Adams pushed him and also threw a lit cigarette at his face. James said he wasn't afraid but also didn't want to get into a fistfight.

He urged Ray to seriously consider the actions of three tribal councils.

"One of the issues here," the judge responded, "is the extent to which a court like this one, which administers state law, really has the authority to prohibit Mr. Adams's travel and residence."

While the three tribal councils imposed lengthy banishments, his authority is much more limited, the judge said.

"You folks are entitled in your villages to make decisions about your own lives, as far as I understand the law at this point," Ray said.

Still, the state can keep a person like Adams in check, he said. That will come through intensive monitoring during five years of probation that Adams must serve, the judge said. Adams also has 10 years of suspended time hanging over him and could be sent back to jail if he violates probation, the judge said.

Adams must also get an evaluation and follow through with recommendations, including up to a year of residential treatment, the judge ordered. At the time of the fire, Adams was drinking stolen homebrew.

"I really, really think that you owe it to the people up in Nunam Iqua and to yourself to get well, to do everything you can to get yourself on a good track, to get yourself so you can stand in front of a mirror," Ray said.

The fire was terrible but it's on him to get past it, to live life, the judge told him.

"So your call."

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.

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