Rural Alaska

From 2003: Nome police must work to regain trust after officer charged with murder

This story was originally published Oct. 29, 2003.

How does a small town police department regain the public's trust when one of its own stands accused of murder?

Nome police have been struggling to answer that since 28-year-old Matthew Clay Owens was charged over the weekend with first-degree murder in the slaying of Sonya Ivanoff, 19.

Owens, who was fired from the Nome Police Department on Friday and arrested Saturday, is accused of shooting Ivanoff in the back of the head in August. He has been employed by the department since 1996 and has been a sworn officer since 2000.

Ralph Taylor, Nome's police chief for the last five years, said during a drive Tuesday morning to the gravel pit where Ivanoff's body was found that Owens' arrest has badly shaken the small department, from the chief down to the dispatchers.

"We take an oath to protect and serve," said Taylor, who became a cop 25 years ago, fulfilling a childhood dream. "We take an oath to be truthful in all that we do. When one of us is accused of doing something like this -- it's like a part of us has been killed.

"This isn't something that was done by the entire department, but we're going to suffer for a long time to come," Taylor said. "There's a lot of work ahead of us. To start off, we need to continue to do a fair and consistent job. There's a lot of anger probably directed at us. But those are things we have to overcome."


As if speaking directly to the chief's point, Florence Habros, a key witness in the case and who says police failed for weeks to follow up on information she gave them, isn't sure when, or if, she'll be able to trust police again.

On Aug. 11, Habros and her sister Dannite were standing on the porch at their mother's house on Seppala Drive when they saw a young woman walk toward them on the sidewalk. It was dark, around 1:30 a.m., and drizzling.

"That's Sonya Ivanoff," Dannite said to her sister as the woman approached.

Dannite, a sophomore and athlete at Nome High School, knew who Ivanoff was because she had recently watched her play in a city league basketball game, after hearing that she was talented on the court.

After greeting Ivanoff, who passed within 20 feet of them, Habros and Dannite, watched Ivanoff walk down the street. Less than a block away, a marked police vehicle pulled in front of her on West D Street, they said. The passenger side window lowered, the sisters said, and Ivanoff leaned into the vehicle.

A few moments later, Ivanoff climbed in and shut the door and the patrol car drove away in a direction that was not toward Ivanoff's home, the sisters said.

The next day, Aug. 12, Ivanoff was reported missing by her roommate, and on Aug. 13, she was found dead.

Habros was at the Bering Sea Women's Group, where she works as an advocate, when she first heard about the missing person report. Her sister called her. Habros huddled around a radio with her co-workers to listen to the news report. She couldn't believe what she was hearing, she said.

Habros, 32, knew she needed to tell police what she had seen, but she was scared, she said. What if the officer who picked up Ivanoff was involved in the disappearance? Wouldn't that make her and her sister targets? She hesitated.

On Aug. 14, police confirmed publicly that the body they had found at the gravel pit outside of town was Ivanoff's. Habros made a decision to call the authorities. She went to work so she wouldn't have to do it alone. Her boss dialed the number for her, she said. "I was shaking."

Habros spoke to Taylor about what she had seen. Habros said she described to the chief what Ivanoff was wearing the night she got into the patrol car. The chief asked her for her name and number, she said, and thanked her for the information.

"I thought they would investigate it right away," Habros said in an interview at her mother's house on Monday. "But then one week passed. And another week passed. And another week passed."

Habros, who often works nights, said she was nervous to be out alone. She kept seeing over and over in her mind the picture of Ivanoff getting into the patrol car.

"The memory was just hitting me, hitting me," she said.

In early September, about three weeks after Habros had made her report to police, Taylor and officer Brian Weyauvanna came by her home to interview her. By now, Habros said she was feeling very wary of the police.

Habros said many of the questions the police asked her revolved around the police vehicle she had seen that night. The car was clearly marked with lights on top, but Habros said police wanted to know all sorts of other details too, such as whether the vehicle had an antenna. Habros said she left the interview even more doubtful that police were taking her account seriously.

Taylor has declined to comment on why it took so long for police to follow up on Habros' initial report.


But troopers Sgt. Randy McPherron, who has been in Nome investigating the slaying, said Tuesday that from what he understood, police took down Habros' last name wrong when she called.

"As often happens in a case like this, you get deluged with calls and it's hard to keep up with everything," he said. "They thought it was a different Florence. ... There was no malicious intent."

Habros did not know that at the time, and she worried that her information would never be investigated. With her husband's encouragement, she and a friend made a video of Habros saying what the two sisters saw and sent the tape to troopers.

McPherron said troopers got the tape about the same time that Taylor told them Owens was a potential suspect and asked for help. The tape reinforced the troopers' notion that Habros' sighting was a significant development in the case, he said, and "boosted our confidence that she was a very credible witness."

A short time later, troopers took over the investigation at the request of the Nome police department. Habros said troopers immediately interviewed her and her sister separately about what they saw. Habros said she was asked to go out to Seppala Drive and explain exactly where she had seen Ivanoff and the patrol car, which Nome police had not done.

Habros and her sister both said Ivanoff did not appear to be intoxicated the night they saw her.

"She was so peaceful, nice," Habros said. Neither of the sisters got a look at who was in the patrol vehicle, but only two officers were on duty that night, and Owens was one, according to police documents.

Owens has denied picking up Ivanoff and also told investigators he did not kill her, McPherron said.


The district attorney's office said this week that investigators had talked to "more than four" young women who were either followed by, picked up by or had sex with Owens while he was on duty.

McPherron said troopers had leads on three more women -- two in Anchorage and one in a village -- whom they were trying to track down. He urged anyone who might have been in a similar situation with Owens to call troopers at 443-2835 in Nome.

The case against Owens is expected to go to grand jury Tuesday, McPherron said.

Habros said she is frightened to testify in court, should it come to that, but said her husband and family have supported her. She said she cannot forget how peaceful Ivanoff seemed on the night she passed by the porch.

“I want her to be free,” she said.