Alaska’s Deadly Dozen
By Tom Brennan. Epicenter Press, 210 pages, 2020. $15.95
Alaska is no stranger to violent crime. Studies show the state ranking at or near the top in the nation for the highest rates of murder and aggravated violence. It’s nothing to take pride in, but it’s part of our story.
Veteran journalist Tom Brennan has been telling that part of our story for many years now, both in books and newsprint. In his latest, “Alaska’s Deadly Dozen,” he picks 12 widely publicized murder cases and offers summary sketches of what took place and what befell the perpetrators. And as is the case with these sorts of books, it’s hard to put down. We humans are hardwired for voyeurism, after all.
Brennan opens the book in 1969 with a distinctively Alaskan triple homicide. That year Norman “Butch” Johnson, a troubled young man from California, followed his itinerant carpenter father to Alaska. The elder Johnson arranged for him to accompany three Alaska Native men from the village of Kiana on a winter caribou trip. It didn’t go well. Johnson encountered 50 below zero temperatures and had communication difficulties with the the trio, who sometimes spoke in their native language, leaving the young man convinced they were mocking him. He killed all three and tried pinning it on another man who had earlier passed through the hunting camp.
The remote location and extreme weather hampered the investigation, but after failing to keep his story straight, Johnson confessed. He claimed a “psychic lapse” led to his actions. The jury didn’t buy it, but he was only sentenced to four years, which Kiana residents justifiably offered as proof that Native lives are devalued in Alaska’s criminal justice system, a problem that persists.
During the ’70s and ’80s, Alaska was plagued by the same problems that the country at large suffered from: organized crime, serial killers and mass shootings, compounded here by the state’s appeal to end-of-the-road types.
The picture of Anchorage that emerges from the 1970s isn’t enticing. As the pipeline boom flooded the state with money, crime figures swarmed in to grab some of it. That’s when Gary Ziegler decided that hitman was a promising career option and launched his brief and bloody criminal endeavor. Readers will almost need a scorecard to keep track of all the underworld figures wandering through this one.
Serial killers also hit the state during the ‘70s. Robert Hansen is the most well known. He began killing women early in the decade, continuing into the ’80s before finally getting caught. Lesser known, but also found in this book, is Thomas Richard Bunday, who began killing women in and around Fairbanks in 1979 while stationed at Eielson Air Force Base. He terrorized the town before being reassigned to Texas. It was computer databases that picked up a similar killing there to those in Fairbanks and led investigators to his doorstep.
Computers are part of a recurring theme running through this book: technological advancements that have offered tremendous aide to detectives puzzling over troublesome crimes where no clear suspects emerge. From rudimentary mainframes and fingerprints, police have expanded their toolkits to include the internet and DNA samples.
These two options were of little use when Sophie Sergei was murdered in Bartlett Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in 1993. One of the most notorious cold cases in recent state history, it took a quarter century before the convergence of precise DNA sequencing, home sample kits, online databases, and a persistent investigator brought an arrest.
Bonnie Craig was murdered in 1994, and her case also went cold until a DNA match with a jailed felon led to a conviction years later. Her mother Karen Foster, meanwhile, became a nationwide advocate for taking DNA samples of all suspects upon their arrest and entering them into a national database. It’s a handy system for authorities, and has undoubtedly sped the capture and trial of perpetrators. But Brennan, who sticks to straight reporting in these accounts, doesn’t delve into the legitimate privacy concerns raised by the practice. People who are falsely arrested get swept into the files as well. Finding the balance between two important values — arresting the guilty and protecting the innocent — is not easy in this.
On the mass shooting side, Brennan goes to tiny McCarthy, where Louis Hastings killed six residents on a late winter’s mail day in 1983. It’s an event that still haunts the community and the state.
Curiously, Brennan bypasses the similar and even more deadly Manley Hot Springs murders that took place the following year, when Michael Silka killed six residents and a state trooper. He also skips past the more recent case of serial killer Joshua Wade, who operated out of Anchorage during the aughts, primarily preying on Alaska Native women. Only when he killed a white woman was he captured. And the Fairbanks Four case, which is still making headlines as recently as this week, is also overlooked. Clearly this book could have easily expanded beyond a dozen cases.
Brennan does, however, include others that border on incredulous but absolutely happened. The disappearance of Alaska secessionism advocate Joe Vogler in 1993 prompted widespread rumors that he had been assassinated for political purposes, although in the end the motive proved to be more mundane: a botched robbery. The trial, conviction and subsequently vacated sentence of Mechele Linehan for the death of Kent Leppink is a story with so many lurid elements and implausible details that it would never get believed as a novel. But as true crime it’s a doozy. And the horror wrought by serial killer Israel Keyes still evokes chills, both for murders he committed and his ability to escape detection for so long.
Brennan offers these and other tales in a book that delves into the events that have made Alaska so violent. Some of the victims ran in bad circles, some had unintended conflicts with murderous individuals, some were chosen at random. The perpetrators were all as harsh and fatal as the Alaskan climate.
Lock your doors.