The rape and murder of Bonnie Craig is among the most well-known violent crimes to shock Anchorage and its surrounding communities. Unlike other murders in Alaska's largest city, a place where any given year may see more than a dozen killings, the victim, in this case 18-year-old Bonnie, is remembered more than the man convicted of her murder. That's thanks to Bonnie's mother, Karen Foster, who upon being told by Alaska State Troopers that her daughter died as the result of a hiking accident refused to take the easy answer.
In her book, "Justice for Bonnie: An Alaskan Teenager's Murder and Her Mother's Tireless Crusade for the Truth," Foster offers readers a grieving mother's perspective into the emotional turmoil of the years immediately following Bonnie's brutal death and her subsequent hounding of investigators. The book is also a glimpse at how the tragedy shaped Foster's life as the 1990s gave way to the 21st century -- when catching the killer seemed less and less likely -- as well as a recounting of the trial of Kenneth Dion, the murderer who evaded blame for more than a decade thanks to substandard DNA collection among felons.
I.J. Schecter co-authored the book, and Foster credits Schecter with shaping her "stories, rantings, news reports and trial scripts" into a cohesive account.
That account is told from Foster's perspective. The single-source first-person narrative works best as the author recalls heated discussions with troopers, anonymous phone calls from concerned citizens and family matters. She snaps at law enforcement officials and others for repeatedly suggesting the death of Bonnie was an accident; she tells them it had to be murder.
Taking matters into her own hands
Bonnie was murdered Sept. 28, 1994. Dion is believed to have abducted Bonnie, who had just started a full course load at the University of Alaska Anchorage, during her early morning walk to her south-side bus stop. He raped her and dumped her body at McHugh Creek, a popular hiking destination off a scenic byway that snakes its way toward other, smaller Southcentral communities. No one ever came forward to police and provided evidence of having seen the career criminal near the park with a teenager. He was convicted in large part due to DNA evidence showing that he'd raped Bonnie. Dion's trial, which lasted a month, didn't make its way to court until May 2011.
In the weeks immediately following Bonnie's murder, as Karen tells it, she powered through overwhelming emotions and took matters into her own hands. She used her know-how as a volunteer undercover Anchorage police officer to investigate the best she could, something she thought the troopers were failing to do.
"I want to climb through the phone and throttle him until he stops saying Bonnie is dead," she remembers of one conversation with a troopers sergeant. "It sounds asinine. I want to talk to someone who knows what they're doing."
Karen later comes to find, during Dion's trial, that troopers made several mistakes but were in fact conducting a thorough investigation. She did not know this back in 1994, when she retraced her daughter's steps to the bus stop, asking the troopers to do the same, and offered up leads she thought they ought to check out.
Foster's recollections of her emotional baggage throughout the years help move the story forward when it reverts to a presentation of investigative tidbits. Local news readers often get answers to questions that reporters ask of people in their weakest moments. Sometimes the hurt flows out honestly and coherently while, more often than not, the collateral victims -- family and friends -- share terse comments of heartbreak and then want to be left the hell alone. Foster has had 17 years to think about how she handled Bonnie's death emotionally. Her candid confessions give the narrative more emotion than a straightforward retelling. "Justice for Bonnie" is a work of journalism, however.
Earlier in her life, Karen was a reporter, and it shows. Her largely chronological narrative feels much like a news story.
Finding the good
Another positive quality about Foster's book is that despite the sinister, violent impetus for its existence, the people who reached out to the mother confirm some people's better qualities. Janice Lienhart, who founded the nonprofit Victims for Justice to help victims and their families navigate the criminal justice process, pushed for Foster to see Bonnie's autopsy report. Lienhart also accompanied Foster to look at the report and offered support when Foster learned that the medical examiner had ruled Bonnie's manner of death a homicide. And there was also Sandy Cassidy, who called Karen out of the blue to help keep Bonnie's death a topic of discussion in the community. Cassidy was responsible for the banners draped around Anchorage for years, some of which included a picture of the teenager and the words "Who killed Bonnie Craig?"
The final act of the book covers Dion's trial. Foster introduces the major players, two state prosecutors and the court-appointed public defender, before breaking into a plain narration of her time in court. She intersperses pages of quotes with an occasional paragraph about what she'd thought of certain testimony or her worries over evidence that appeared to sway the jury back and forth between handing down a conviction or an acquittal.
While criminal trials can be interesting, readers familiar with Bonnie's story and the media blitz that followed the fingering of a potential assailant probably aren't going to learn much. The trial section lacks the introspection of the book's former parts. This is most apparent in pages of dialogue between defense attorney Andrew Lambert and trial witnesses. His job was to cast doubt on the state's theory of Bonnie's murder. He asks repeatedly if witnesses saw Dion or Dion's car on the day of murder -- witness after witness, page after page.
In one of Foster's moments of candor, she writes, "I'm getting sick of Lambert's repeated line of questioning, the endless repeating of what wasn't seen or found. I want to scream, 'Enough! Stop asking questions about things nobody saw! Stop!'" Foster did well to cut down other sections of the trial to help move the story along at a brisker pace.
"Justice for Bonnie" doesn't have many "aha!" moments. The exact circumstances of Bonnie's death may never be known, as Dion has refused to accept responsibility, despite the prospect of dying behind bars.
Rather, it's a personal examination of losing a beloved child. Since the trial, Foster has made a career out of keeping her daughter's memory alive and helping others find closure by pushing for DNA collection reform. As of the book's publication, 28 states have passed laws to collect DNA upon arrest for felonies. Alaska was the seventh state to do so, thanks in part to the author's efforts.
Jerzy Shedlock covers cops and courts for Alaska Dispatch News. He remembers a "Who Killed Bonnie Craig?" banner hanging from a fence near the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Abbott Road for the majority of his childhood.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing