Rural Alaska

An Alaska man revealed a secret in his suicide message, sparking a town’s ‘me too’ moment

Rick Martin used his last words to share a painful secret.

The 60-year-old Haines man was suffering from an incurable liver disease. But before he took his own life last March, Martin recorded videos on his cellphone. In one clip, he claimed he had been sexually abused decades earlier by local luminary Karl Ward.

For 22-years, Ward worked in the town's school system, rising from teacher to superintendent until his retirement in 1976. Although he has been dead since the 1990s, his presence still clung to the small fishing town 80 miles northwest of Juneau. The high school where Martin's wife worked had a plaque celebrating the former superintendent's career.

"For the record, this goes back a long ways and probably a lot of the boys remember this," Martin said in his message, the Chilkat Valley News reported. "I had to keep my mouth shut about that."

After Martin's final message, four other former students came forward with their own stories about alleged misconduct by Ward, according to the Chilkat Valley News, pushing a town with fewer than 2,000 residents to confront a possible pattern of sexual exploitation by an eminent authority figure.

"I love my town," Martin's widow Rene told public radio station KHNS. "I love the people who live here. We will not keep secrets. We will not live in the dark."

Local law enforcement say they have no reason to doubt the allegations but no further investigation is planned, according to the Associated Press. The alleged incidents fit into a larger pattern across the state. Alaska's rate of sex crimes is three times the national average, the Anchorage Daily News has reported, with the child sexual assault rate six times the national figures.


Ward spent his career around children.

Originally from Philadelphia, according to the Chilkat Valley News, Ward landed in Haines in 1947 working for the National Missions of the Presbyterian Church, an outreach group of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He also worked at the Haines House, a facility for orphaned Native American children.

In 1954, Ward began teaching at Haines High School, rising to principal in 1957 and superintendent in 1967. He also served as Boy Scout leader, fostered four boys, and worked as a scorekeeper with the local youth basketball team. He died in 1997.

"He brings in kids that are already torn out of their home that really have no voice," Haines Borough Police Chief Heath Scott told the paper. "He was probably given a certain level of trust when he came in with the Presbyterian Mission and the Haines House and he goes into the public school system, and that level of trust just continued. He operated in the shadows based on that level of trust."

Rick Martin grew up in Haines and graduated from the high school in 1975. Years later, when both he and his wife, Rene, worked at the school, Martin told her about his run-in with Ward.

"He told me that it really bothered him to go by the Karl Ward plaque, because he knew that Karl Ward was just a real creepy guy," Rene, now the high school's principal, told KHNS. "I said 'Well, what do you mean by that?' And at that time he told me that Karl Ward had tried to grab his penis. And he ran away and went and told his dad, who was Native. And his dad was like 'OK you're not really hurt.' We're Native and he's the white superintendent. So you know, we just have to move on."

After his suicide, Rene Martin disclosed that her husband's allegations were on the video. The Chilkat Valley News began tracking down former students to corroborate the abuse. Four former students – Craig Loomis, Robert Brouillette, Nick Kokotovich and Roger Schnabel – eventually agreed to talk publicly about Ward's advances. They told stories that were remarkably similar – Ward would invite students over to his house, give them alcohol and touch them.

"I don't want to mention any other names, but I'm sure there's probably more than a couple," Loomis told the Chilkat Valley News. "I should have said something 30 or 40 years ago. Whoever's been suffering, we don't know what their life would have been if we would have said something."

Haines has responded positively to the painful story, Borough Manager Debra Schnabel explained to KHNS.

"That's one of the things that's so right about Rene Martin being willing to come forward," says Schnabel. "It's not to make a sensational story. But it's to tell people, this is one person's story. And if it's happened to you, then it's our story."

Ward's widow Doris is still alive, living in an assisted living facility in the town. She declined to speak to the Associated Press. According to the facility's nurse administrator, she is "in shock and she's in mourning for the life she thought she had."

The gym sign honoring Ward at the high school – the same sign that reminded Rick Martin about his alleged abuse decades ago – has been taken down.

"We had to take it down for me to be able to go back to school, quite honestly," his widow told KHNS.